Tuesday, 28 October 2008
"Grateful Dead" (1967) (Revised Edition 2015; Originally News, Views and Music 10)
"In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is pulled by the Grateful Dead..."
San Francisco was the in-place in 1966-67. Just as with Liverpool in 1963/64, the whole world seemed to know by osmosis that here would be the scene of the next big thing to happen and the record companies weren't slow to cash in on it. RCA Victor had already signed Jefferson Airplane in 1966, with Quicksilver Messenger Service signed to Capitol the following year. Warner Brothers, keen to have some young fresh-faced band to go alongside their ageing crooners, naturally flocked there to hire their own band. The Grateful Dead were an obvious choice in many ways - their live act which had been going since 1965 was already legendary and even more than the Airplane (who were still largely a folk-based band) or Quicksilver (who weren't quite sure what they were) they had a certain style and sound that was very of their times and area. However this is where the plan seemed to end - having walked into the lion's den, got them to sign a contract and hired a relative big-shot in Dave Hassinger to work with them (he'd successfully produced the Airplane's 'Surrealistic Pillow' with Jerry Garcia's help at the start of the year and had been a successful engineer working on the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction' amongst others) Warner Brothers thought that this was enough, that all they had to do was sit back patiently and wait for the hits to come in, but already they had reckoned without the lion's roar.
This debut album has gone down in history either as the sound of a band who weren't quite ready for the big time or as something of a compromise, the Dead's personality diluted through the eyes of men in suits. Actually what's impressive about this album is how different it is for a debut record. Yes parts of it play things very safe (there are seven cover songs, of which only four of will be around in the setlists for years to come and only two of which are likely to have given anyone in authority sleepless nights), while one of the two originals written for the album (and credited to the marvellous pseudonym 'McGannahan Skjellyfetti', the character from the risqué book 'The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer' by Kenneth Patechenwork) - 'The Golden Road' - is surprisingly catchy and easy on the air, the most overtly commercial Dead tune until as late as 'Touch Of Grey' in 1987. But what other band, established or otherwise, was breaking the sound barrier quite this hard or for this long? 'Good Morning Little School Girl' is the kind of explosive blues cover that a better publicised band like the Stones would have been locked up for releasing, 'Morning Dew' and especially 'Cream Puff War' are ragged but righteous attempts to speak out against wars (the former song was written by Bonnie Dobson after seeing the Gregory Peck film 'On The Beach', which casually depicts World War Three from the point of view of a submarine who can't see the news or know what's going on) and the closing ten minute rant of 'Viola Lee Blues' is one of the Dead's most extraordinary and full-on improvisations, even after the rest of their thirty year career.
The band were later to disown this album, claiming that it was rushed and that back then they were purely a live band with little studio experience and that is all completely true: the songs tend to gabble, as if the band are trying to outdo each other in racing to the finishing line and showing off, without having yet learnt the valuable lesson that the tortoise might come in last but enjoys much better scenery than the hare (this is also in many ways the Dead's first 'drugs album'; not acid or LSD necessarily as in the albums to come but the use of amphetamines, an artificial stimulant that creates false energy and makes everything seem really really fast). Even at the time critics thought the Dead's debut album was a pale shadow of what they could do and tended to prefer the equally weird but more disciplined Airplane approach to working. However that's to be unfair on an album that has to get a whole host of personality onto a short-running slab of vinyl, at least nod in the direction of what the record company were after without selling out to their fans and make themselves appeal enough to the public to make them return. On this scale 'Grateful Dead' is a winner: it's an intriguing album quite unlike any that had been heard before (and thanks to its lower horizons quite different to anything the Dead will ever do again), close enough to the sounds around it to be a period piece in a way that no other Dead album is (most tend to exist in a timeless universe where no outside influences break through - not until, gulp, disco in 1979 anyhow) but different enough to sound like the arrival of a whole new way of life, from the glorious cascade of it's opening notes to the final weary clunk of its last. I'd never stake a claim for this record being the greatest Dead album of them all or even of the 1960s, but it's a necessary stepping stone that had to be taken and despite the many compromises (of a sort the band won't suffer again till 1977 when they start bringing in outsider producers) it somehow manages to break all the moulds it needs to without selling out too badly.
By and large what we have here is exciting, in a way that few albums had been to date even in 1967. The album starts with an invitation to 'join the party' and it's no mere filler lyric either - every track here has some sense of something 'new' going on and the audience are already being treated as a sort of ordinary member of the band themselves. The odd part of this album is that parents listening to it would have recognised so much of it - 'Beat It On Down The Line' 'Minglewood Blues' 'Sitting On Top Of The World' 'Cold Rain and Snow', perhaps even 'Good Morning Little School Girl' if they were hip enough - although it's fair to say that none of these traditional songs had ever been heard like this before. These show tunes and blues standards were already fairly racy, but what the Dead do here is update them with a leer and menace and an electric roar that adds a very 60s stamp on top of the songs. The story goes that the band are out of their depth, that Pigpen is a mere wannabe lecherer in 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl', barely out of his teens himself and that hearing a 17-year-old Bob Weir sing about 'stealing other women from their men' on 'Minglewood' is cute rather than sinister (certainly compared to the more predatory re-make on the 1979 'Shakedown Street' LP). Compared to their later selves the Dead sound almost tame it's true - but compared to what else around in 1967 they must have sounded downright scary (especially Pig) and all the more given that they were doing so with songs parents might have known.
The other thing that would have scared the bejesus out of the parental generation isn't yet the drug reputation (which only the hip would have known about) or the band's scary hairy appearance (the front cover collage makes them hard to see, except for Weir who looks like an angelic choir boy) or even the name (weird as it is, it's not the weirdest thing around during the summer of love). Instead it's the album's theme of something new arriving, even when it's featured on old songs. Weir sings about 'beating it down the line' to some new greater destination and 'sitting on top of the world', the epitome of a cocky young so and so; Garcia vows revenge for the elder's 'Cream Puff Wars' and vows not to have the chance of another world war on 'Morning Dew' and Pig snarls his way through an invocation to a school girl to forget her studies and study him instead, the very image of an adolescence about to go 'wrong'. However it's the pair of songs that bookend this album that share this theme of embracing the new most whole-heartedly. 'The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)' is a thrilling song which sounds 'wrong' but in all the 'right' ways. had this song come out in the 1950s they'd have recognised it as a simple dance song and an invitation to a party. But heard here with 1967 technology it sounds almost threatening - the distortion effects and the opening swirl of keyboard sound like Armageddon approaching, Garcia may be asking a girl to take off her shoes and her hat but he's clearly asking her to take off more between the lines and the 'threat' (as the squares would have seen it) of 'falling out for a while' and joining a party not just at weekend s but 'every day' would have scared more than a few mums and dads. That's nothing on the scary finale, the ten minute 'Viola Lee Blues' in which a criminal is deported for crimes he claims never to have committed, passing his own sentence on the judge and jury in the process; while an old traditional standard they might even have known themselves more than a few 'over thirties' in 1967 might have taken this recording as a 'warning', that the old laws were fading and would be broken down. However unlike the Airplane, whose old oxymoron of fighting fiercely for peace could at least be understood and occasionally sympathised with, the Dead are offering up something else. There's a cheek to this record that's tremendous fun - the band still new enough not to be fully formed yet in people's minds. 'Oh, was there a cry to arms within this album?' you can hear them protesting. 'We didn't really notice! After all, your generation wrote most of them - not ours!' This is a whole new battlefield, fought with passive-aggressiveness and with the Dead winning people over to their movement not by stealth or argument but because their music and by extension their values system got under your skin, sounding like they and their audience were having the greatest party on earth (at this stage they almost certainly were).
Of course the people who've knocked this album down the years are partly right - there are mistakes, lots of them (arguably more than on any Dead LP until the late 70s). However what this album gets wrong could all have been corrected and the blame can mainly be laid with the record company rather than the band. Hassinger and the people he brought in to work on this album seem to have acted like stern professors, laying out the rules and expecting the band to follow suit - a dangerous course for an anarchic band like this one. Recording any band, including novices, in just four days (including doing the mixes!) was always going to be asking for trouble - and that was true in 1963, never mind four years later when the rules for music making had changed. The decision to cut the recordings down to size for the original release (thankfully corrected on most CD re-issues) is a terrible one, with four of the tracks losing sometimes upwards to a minute (though oddly the lengthy 'Viola Lee' seems to have escaped the chop, someone somewhere missed the point and butchered this ten minute epic to three minutes to become a 'hit single' - predictably it had no chance and died a rather noisy death). In common with Decca, Warner Brothers are not a label who've had much dealing with rock and roll musicians and think they can get away with recording them the same way as big bands and classical artists, with a large echoey cavernous sound that's the antithesis of the Dead's vibrant in-your-face style. Warner Brother told their art department to get all psychedelic but forgot to tell the band, leaving them to be appalled at some of the decisions taken (they felt the backwards mirror effect was pretentious and Garcia particularly hated the 'Captain Trips' nickname printed on the back cover, a moniker originally given to him during his army-based LSD taking days and which haunted him the rest of his life. Weirdly the band also felt the line printed at the top of the front album sleeve, that 'In the land of the night the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead' and taken from the Egyptian book of the Dead (one of the oldest tomes in existence) was too 'pretentious' and had it 'translated' into a load of Arabic style squiggles instead. Actually it's eerily prescient (the full quote before it reads '...We now return our souls to the creator, as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness, let our chant fill the void, in order that others may know...' ) and all the more so because this isn't where the band got their name from - tradition has it that Garcia found it by looking up two random words in a dictionary, although other sources have him looking for phrases in a music dictionary and coming across a Medieval form of poem whereby a man who does a good turn for a stranger will be helped by their ghost from the other side).
However the Dead must take some of the 'blame' too. Unlike some bands out there the Dead weren't complete newbies when they made this debut record - they'd already recorded a whole album's worth of material for the minor label Scorpio, mainly blues standards featuring Pigpen, and had been hired as the backing band of upcoming singer Jon Hendricks. Period live shows also reveal a far more interesting setlist than what we have here (both studio and live tracks from the 1965/66 period were later released as 'Birth Of The Dead' in 2003) including traditional folk tunes 'In The Pines' 'Rolling By' and 'Standing In The Corner' as well as several fiery Pigpen blues covers. The truth is that some of the cover songs chosen here (Weir's pair and perhaps even 'Schoolgirl', great as Pigpen's vocal is) aren't up to what the band's fans would have heard in concert and even some of the songs that do work well here ('Dew' 'Viola' and 'Rain and Snow') pale in comparison to what the band were already capable of playing - as heard on 'Birth Of The Dead' and the nearly contemporaneous 'Monterey Pop' performance. Period outtake and another original 'Alice D Millionaire' would have made a fine addition (presumably it was cut out because somebody in a suit picked up on the drug pun in the title rather than any demerits in it as a song; hint - try saying it out loud!) The Dead also had more songs available than a mere two including many future classics and strangely enough the two originals here are the least Dead-sounding on the whole album (then again it could have been worse - see 'The Lindy (Overseas Stomp)' from the bonus tracks on the CD re-issue to hear the Dead covering the American equivalent of music hall and just about the only time in their existence when they sound anything like a 'normal' band). The fact is that the Dead are still learning and are still all too audibly novices here, with their ability to play in tandem, as five-fingers-on-one-hand rather than five separate musicians, not quite the spooky telepathy of future albums. Some of the vocals are wild and frenetic (Garcia is a long way from his future frail-old-man sound sounding as if he's hyperventilating at times), while many of the backing tracks float rather than pounce despite Bill Kreutzmann's sterling attempts to wake everyone up every few bars with something new (this is in fact one of his best albums, whatever doldrums everyone else are sometimes in). The trouble with doing something new is that when you do it for the first time people think it's a 'mistake' and Warner Brothers weren't clever enough to know that the Dead were nervy and anxious on some of these hurried recordings - they probably couldn't hear any difference between this and the band's current concerts and the Dead would have been too junior to ask for a second attempt.
After all, it's not as if the Dead were a 'new' band. The name was new - up till now the band had been known as The Warlocks, The Emergency Crew and even Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions and had played everything from skiffle to jugband to folk to rock to out and out blues before finding a niche playing as sort of collective of all of these things, a mini-history of Americana to the present day. A collection of friends and associates (Garcia and Kreutzmann had been teachers at an instrument shop for a time, while Weir - the adopted son of a millionaire and a prime candidate for the 'nature against nurture' argument - was a regular customer. Meanwhile Garcia was also friends with Pigpen, their original lead singer, and Phil Lesh, who was the last to join and took up the bass, not just because it was only instrument left but because it meant it was the closest he could get to playing in a style akin to his beloved medieval composers like 'Bach'. Made up of a dyslexic school drop-out (Weir), a graduate student turned postman (Lesh), a young husband and father trying to fit gigs round his family duties (Kreutzmann), an alcoholic who'd been hooked on booze since the age of nine and eventually expelled from school (Pigpen) and an ex-army trainee (Garcia believe it or not - although he didn't turn up for duty very often and apparently only signed up to get away from home), the five founding members of the Dead had almost nothing in common until they plugged in and started playing, gradually drifting towards the improvised jams that would become their trademark and finding a natural home at the 'acid tests' being held for adventurous youngsters in San Francisco (where the bands were subervient to flashing lights and backdrops). Few watching the band in their early days could have guessed that this line-up would stay largely unchanged (with only Pigpen's death in 1973 and a few extra members added to replace him and his ailing health down the years) would have stayed together the entire thirty year life-span of the band. Few question either that had Garcia survived his heart attack in 1995 the band would still be out there now, doing what they've always done.
All five had a say in the material, although in these early days the band was clearly moulded round Pigpen, who tended to have the main say in all the changes that went on in the band's evolution (the different styles, the electric power after months as an acoustic band, the blues influences). In the end pretty much all the band's previous styles (jugband, folk, blues and psychedelia) are thrown into this first album melting pot, as if the band have been evolving so fast they've 'forgotten' to update their material and simply made what they've always played fit the new direction. What's odd in retrospect was that Pigpen didn't have a bigger say in this first album, which features just the one Pig vocal (although admittedly 'Schoolgirl' is the second longest song on the album at nearly seven minutes in untrimmed form) and with the keyboardist featured very little elsewhere on organ or on vocals (the decision to cut both 'Alice D' and Tastebud' from the album seems to have hit the role he played within the band much more than anyone let on at the time). Instead the band is already a sort of anarchic democracy, with Garcia already an uneasy leader (it helped that he was the only member of the band to have worked with Hassinger before, credited as 'spiritual advisor' on the Airplane's 'Surrealistic Pillow' album made earlier in the year on which he also seems likely to have played some un-credited guitar). In truth, though, the Dead that walked into the studio to make this first album aren't the honed finished product yet but a band still in flux, the baton of leadership in the process of passing from Pigpen's pure blues (still the dominant sound on the 'Scorpio' sessions) to free-for-all psychedelics.
This album, then, is far from the greatest debut record ever made - but already it's an item to be treasured with what the band got right outweighing what they got wrong. Already a sell-out like 'The Golden Road' with simple retro pop lyrics and an actual bonma fide chorus is irresistible. The full-on attack of a song like 'Cream Puff War' is delicious, no matter how overblown the lyric ('No no they can't take your mind and leave, it's just another trick they've got up their sleeve!') 'School Girl' sounds way younger and less slinky here than in any of the many period live recordings and yet there's a charm and a wink that just about lets the Dead get away with some rather underage antics. 'World' 'Line' and 'Snow' are all hurried through as if the band have got somewhere to be any second now and the latter especially is a pale shadow of what it will become - and yet the arrangements are good, the band are clearly having fun and the energy is contagious. And on 'Viola Lee' the Dead are already breaking boundaries and embracing the new with a vim and vigour that cannot be denied. Of course it could be better - and this album is clearly light years behind the sizzling adventure of next album 'Anthem Of The Sun', which will break not only all the rules this album left untouched but most of the rules ever made about how to make music ever. But all journeys of discovery have to start somewhere and sometimes the first step is the most important one, no matter how big or small. I have a soft spot for this often under-appreciated and under-valued record, which like the mirror on the back cover somehow manages to be like the Dead we've all come to know - and a quite different band that still has a foot firmly in the door of tradition, not quite yet the psychedelic powerhouses of the future but still the closest thing the world has come up with till now. After all, that first line is one hell of a convincing sounding invitation to join a party - even if for now band and audience alike aren't quite yet aware of what a long strange party it's going to be.
Imagine having never heard the Grateful Dead before - which would have been the case for about 99% of the people who heard opening track and lead-off single 'The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)'. This song must have sounded alien, incomprehensible, a sudden burst of colour that even in 1967 would have seemed outrageous. Unusually for the Dead the recording is based around the organ rather than guitar and has Billy's rat-a-tat drumming providing much of the 'colour', while Phil is more prominent than Bob on the backing vocals for arguably the only time in the band's history. The Dead are clearly still searching for their own template and don't seem to have enjoyed this one very much (despite encouragement from Warner Brothers to play it, the band performed this song a mere three times live before shelving it; Garcia later commented that he disliked the song and added 'you know what could we say really? We took a lot of acid and had a lot of fun?') However that's a shame because despite the unusual music this is very Dead: the lyrics are a call to arms not to a war but to a party, full of aggression and energy but a lightheaded giddy feel too that's infectious. The band's lyrics (mainly written by Garcia) are clearly a step down from what Bob Hunter will write, full of 50s cliché and teen gossip and slang ('See that girl, barefootin' along, whistlin' and singin' she's a carryin' on!') but still feature a nice dose of Dead-style anarchy about living your life your own way ('Take a vacation, fall out for a while...your mother's down in Memphis, won't be back till the Fall'). The end result is a cute little song that from the heady opening rush of adrenalin to the deliberately botched last note (perhaps symbolising an unwanted return to normality?) is contagious, enough to make you get up and join the circus right then and there. Incidentally no golden road is ever mentioned in the lyrics, although there's a nice bursting-into-colour feel about this song that may well have originated from the yellow brick road in 'The Wizard Of Oz' (only, typicallty, the Dead's path shines in an even brighter, bolder colour). The un-named 'heroine' at the heart of the song, bedraggled and shoeless, may also be the one who makes a return appearance in 'Touch Of Grey', the catchy hit single not as different from this debut as many fans think. A much under-rated song. Live Performances: 3
There's something wrong here - 'Beat It On Down The Line' shows arguably the least promise on the whole album; a teenage Weir grapples hard with a song that doesn't really suit him (he needs to sound old and broken, not young and vibrant) and the call-and-answer arrangement shows up the creaks and groans in the band's vocal department. And yet this song became the second most performed from the album down the years, with over three hundred performances. The Dead got better at performing this song, gradually moulding it to their strengths down the years and turning more towards full-on rock than the curious soul-pop hybrid we have here. Written by Jesse Fuller (better known for writing 'San Francisco Bay Blues' - the Dead also later covered his 'Monkey And The Engineer') this song would have been fairly new at the time, thanks to not being discovered until his sixties, despite Fuller's age (he turned 70 the year the Dead's cover came out). However it sounds much older and is clearly written by a bluesman much older with its tales of poverty and coal mines (not really a common sixties theme despite the success of 'House Of The Rising Sun' et al). It should be up the Dead's street, particular in their 'Workingman's Dead' era of luckless working class men, but somehow they never quite 'get' this song. Live Performances: 317
Pigpen's first 'properly' issued vocal rather sets out the way his character has been viewed ever since. The lecherous lascivious 'Good Morning Little School Girl' is as 'black' as the Dead ever sound, the band getting closer than most cover bands to the original leering spirit of this Sonny Boy Williamson number. Pig is on electric form as he admits his infatuation and how 'I just can't control myself' and you just know without them saying it that this poor school girl is in for a bumpy ride if she stays with him. Perhaps that's why the band embark on a thrilling finale - with an entire minute's worth senselessly edited out of the original release - where Pig takes to the harmonica to pour out his heart and the Dead suddenly find a new groove, crackling away behind him faster and faster until the tables seem to have turned and it's the narrator desperately trying to keep up with the object of his desires. Pig and Jerry's telepathy is spot on, each parroting each other before competing and then coming back together all over again, a neat summary of the relationship at the core of this song. Meanwhile Pig promises to be 'the tiger in your tank', quoting a contemporary advert for Esso petrol (they really did give out toy tigers back then too!) and scaring anyone old enough to realise his double entendre on 'I want to ride your machine' away. The result is one of the Dead's better early cover songs, one that somehow manages to be faithful to the original and at the same time 'Deadified' (petrified?) with an arrangement that few other bands would have come up with. Live Performances: 60
'Cold Rain and Snow' was the first track I heard the Dead perform (their Monterey performance from June 1967, which I tracked down originally to hear The Byrds in disarray, generally regarded as poor by their standards but a lot better than common fan knowledge has it) and as such is a special one to me. After all, I'd known the original - or at least the traditional arrangements of this song - for years thanks to the likes of fellow AAA band Pentangle and various folk bands, but I'd never heard it done like this. The way the guitar goes up when the bass goes down vice versa, while the organ swirls all around it and the rattled military drumming, so like the shivers, pushes the song along to a thrilling joint organ-guitar solo is one of the most memorable moments of these early Dead records and like 'Golden Road' is instantly infectious. Most versions of this English folk song play it as a tragedy: the narrator regrets the trouble of getting married, kicked out of the home and hearth he'd done so much to provide for and then has the audacity to sing to herself while he sits in the cold shivering! Some versions have the narrator breaking into the house and murdering his formerly nearest and dearest, often with an even longer and more hideous list of grievances that end in a mad tormented power struggle. The Dead's version is a nice natured comedy - you can just hear Garcia huffing and puffing out there in the snow and working out how to get indoors 'where those chilly winds don't blo-a-ow-a-woah-ah-ah-woah-ah-ah-ah-ow' with no thoughts of murder or any thought of retribution - the narrator's too busy feeling sorry for himself. It could have been that the Dead simply learnt it that way (the Pentangle cover is peaceful too; most sources have the Dead learning it from Obray Ramsey's 1963 folk arrangement, although they vary through which friend they first learnt it) or it could be that they decided it was more in keeping with the peace and love of their times (though that doesn't stop later murderers taking up space in Dead setlists - notably 'Mama Tried'). The narrator never does find release or warmth but it's still an exhilarating ride, ending with Garcia getting more and more carried away and the band sounding like they're stomping their feet trying to get warm. Live Performances: 231
'Sitting On Top Of The World' is another of the weaker album songs, a blues song best known for Charlie Patton's recording in 1930. The Dead try to jazz it up and Garcia throws in a characteristically devastating guitar solo (which - guess what - was also butchered for the original release but restored for the CD age) but once again this is a young band doing an old man's song and they haven't yet learnt how to adapt their source material and make it timeless. Perhaps it's because the Dead don't yet have the nuance to offer the 'true' vibe at the heart of this song: the narrator has lost everything and his smile is only an wry ironic one, as if challenging the world that they can take every bit of hope away but he still retains control over the smile on his face. If ever a song was sung through a gritted smile it's the original, which is important for 'breaking' the idea of a happy blues song (this song also has folk in its DNA and performed by a lot of folk bands down the years for that reason - you could get away with a lot more layers in folk material as a rule). The Dead just sound dementedly happy, not caring that their girl's 'gone gone gone'. Musically Pigpen's irritating scratch at the same notes on the Hammond organ is an unusual lapse, while only Jerry and Billy really sound awake on this one on a recording that arguably needed another couple of takes to get right. Incidentally both this and 'Cold Rain and Snow' feature a 'yellow haired' or 'blonde' girl at its heart - is this an album theme? Live Performances: 40
The album's second and final original song is the largely Garcia-written 'Cream Puff War', another track he looked back on with horror in his later sophisticated years. It's certainly unusually structured, bouncing back and forth between demented anger and a much more melodic peaceful section which hints at how lovely and tranquil peace could be if only everyone could agree to get along. However I rather admire this song, which manages to push the Dead out of their usual reserved selves into bawling madmen and the irony of what's easily their most aggressive non-Pigpen song or cover being one of their songs most overtly concerned with peace is a delicious irony whether intended or not (was Jerry modelling this song on the work of his friends in Jefferson Airplane? They built a career out of angry songs about demanding peace at any cost and - unusually for hippies - were quite prepared to fight for the opportunity. Then again more than one critic has pointed out this song's resemblance to the work of Arthur Lee and Love, though interestingly not their first covers-led r and b album but their later freakouts all made after this album - was Lee turned on by this record? 'Seven and Seven Is' especially sounds like it's trying to mine the precise-but-chaotic sound of this album and this track in particular) Lyrically Jerry knows what he wants to say but not how to express it: effectively putting Lady Liberty in the dock he explodes: 'No! No! She can't take your mind and leave! ...I can't believe she wants you to die! After all it's more than enough to pay with your lie!' You wonder what his ex-Army buddies from merely three years earlier would have made of this song, which seems designed to be as messy and unregimented as possible, the very sound of daring youth breaking every rule they can find. Garcia may have written a better chorus line than 'All the endless ruins of the past must stay behind, yeah!' and few of his elders would have felt scared by the message to 'go somewhere else and continue your cream-puff war'. However Jerry's melody, his committed vocal and especially his stinging quicksilver guitar runs all point to how great he's suddenly become at this rock and roll lark. Even a slight guitar fluff at 2:30 doesn't slow him down (a sequence that - you guessed it - was cut from the original album version) and his snarling chop at the strings like a rhythm guitar player during an earthquake is about as un-coordinated as we'll ever him (yet all the more thrilling for it). It's a shame that the rest of the band either don't have the same passion for the song or simply don't yet know it as well, as having everyone all over the place is in danger of turning the whole sound into a sonic mess. Still even if the band aren't as much of a team elsewhere it's fascinating to hear them so unlike their normal selves (a short adrenalin-fuelled burst, this song is as different to the next year's epic unfolding 'Dark Star' as it's possible to get) Another much under-rated song that I wish had stayed in the band's setlist longer as it would have been fascinating to have seen how it would have evolved over time. Live Performances: 5
However the album's classiest moment is their heartfelt cover of 'Morning Dew'. Composed by folk singer Bonie Dobson in a shaken state after seeing anti-nuclear film 'On The Beach' at the cinema, it features the last man and the last woman on earth waiting to die. The irony is that the morning dew - the most natural of elements - is most probably man made radio-active waste. Freddy Neil recorded the first known version of the song as late as 1964 and Garcia learnt the song from his arrangement after being 'tipped off' by friend and roadie Laird Grant. It's the perfect vehicle for the Dead's signature laidback-but-emotional stance and Garcia sings and plays his heart out on this song. It's a clever work that manages to say much whilst saying so little, leaving the listener to dill in most of the 'gaps'. No deaths are mentioned, there's no sign of war and the closest this song gets to being direct is asking 'where have the people gone today?' Throughout the song everything the couple sees turns out to be a mirage - the crowd of people, the baby calling, the young man in mourning - and by the end of the song the narrator has become sarcastic, realising that the human race is over and they soon till will die, with none of mankind's achievements counting for anything at all. A song right on the cusp of the fifties/sixties wave (yes it's 1964 but arguably the sixties only started in 1963) this song has the stark clarity and dramatics of the old era but also the hippieness of the new and thus is perfect for the Dead, a band who embraced the current era whilst having more respect and covering more songs from the 'old' days than most. However once again the song sounds rather different to what the Dead will go on to play; Garcia's parts are answered by Pigpen on the organ, a cheeky call that sounds as if he's mocking the narrator, while there's far more wide open spaces than the many live versions the band will go on to play. Like a lot of this record, the arrangement is also shorter, ending with the first panicked grasp of the fact that the human race 'didn't matter anyway' rather than the anguished drill of Garcia's pleas falling on death ears. Once again the album didn't even have the shortened studio recording, cutting about thirty seconds from about two-thirds in, thankfully restored back to health on the CD. Even in compacted form, however, this song's golden glow still shines out true, deservedly acclaimed as the first truly classic addition to the Dead's canon. Live Performances: Surprisingly lower than some other songs on this album at 251.
'New Minglewood Blues' is a band adaptation of blues standard 'Minglewood Blues' with the word 'new' added in honour of just how many changes the Dead had made (the band revive the song in 1979 and call it 'New New Minglewood Blues', seemingly mainly so they could use the joke!) A compact Weir sung cover (although once again the original album ran a fraction shorter), it's another example of the band trying hard with a song that just wasn't built for them. While the Dead when they get going could cover just about anything, even the 1979 model sounded shaky on this tale of misogyny and deprivation in a small town in Memphis - here a 17-year-old Weir has no chance to convince us that he's led a hard live 'stealing women from their men'. You sense that the band already know this so they attack the song with gusto, as if believing that the harder and fiercer they play the more believable they are and anyone whose come to this song backwards from the later mellow Weir songs will be very much surprised. Once again the highlight is a blistering Garcia solo which like much of the album is played far too fast but has a real bite and fervour, the 'real' sound of a man 'born in a desert, raised in a lion's den'. Hard as they try though the rest of the band sound like they're doing a lot of shouting about nothing. Live Performances: 431
The Dead may only have played the song a total of 32 times in concert (nothing by their standards) but 'Viola Lee Blues' already sounds like the song they've spent most time on and are clearly grooming as their 'signature song'. An old tale of outlaws getting sentenced to 'six months, some got one solid year' 'Viola' was written by Noah Lewis and first performed by Gus Cannon as a stark no-nonsense ditty in 1928. During the course of the song the narrator gets his sentence and forlornly writes a letter asking for help even though he knows it's unlikely to come (presumably he's writing to the girl in the title, although she's never named). The first real Dead song to identify with the losers and dropouts of the world, this song isn't angry so much as weary and resigned, the rhythm somehow picking itself up and starting over again as if working on a chain gang while Garcia flails at the ropes that bind him and tries to set himself free. A marvellous arrangement by the band gives up on the original low-key justice-for-some-but-not-for-all feel of the original and turns this song into a tour de force that moves the cogs of justice one tiny wheel at a time, always pushing and pushing at the riff at the heart of the song. By the time the Dead reach the halfway point the band are flying, Garcia having temporarily blown away his shackles and is jazz style free-forming his way all round the riff, gnawing away as the panic about his sentence rises.
The moment starting around 7:45 has the noose pulling tighter and tighter around the narrator's neck as he gets more and more desperate to fight his way out of things and Garcia's fingers have never flown faster, flailing and beating the same string of notes over and over with his amplifier turned to maximum. The point at 8:30 sounds as if his guitar his having a nervous breakdown and in one of the Dead's greatest earliest moments the band pile behind him one by one, as if the world is throwing its entire weight behind the wheels of justice. Before too long though the weary narrator gives up and admits defeat, returning instead to his earlier solution of writing a letter, the track then fizzling out on a cavalcade of fiery runs as the band finally sputter out of steam. The result is extraordinarily edgy for their times: sure other bands had recently broken the ten minute mark as the Dead do here, but the Rolling Stones' 'Goin' Home' and the various song suites out there all tended to drift or change tactic partway through; no recording in rock and roll had ever built up to a part and then effectively started again to the point long past where it's comfortable (thrilling yes, comfortable no). Given their tampering with the rest of the album I'm doubly astonished that Warner Brothers let this song through as it was, no questions asked (even their three minute single edit, cut in three main places as if the song is being put on fast forward, isn't that bad if rather missing the point). Heavy, claustrophobic and proving what the Dead were already becoming uniquely good at, 'Viola Lee' may not be up to later epic improvisations but it's a massively important song in their canon and for the times and the circumstances they record it about as well as they're able, with a telepathy and spirit few of their contemporaries could match. Hearing this recording you can't help but feel that this is the 'real' Dead after being good boys and delivering what their record company wanted to hear and it also acted as a useful litmus test to see if fans were ready to jump to the next level on album number two (which all sounds a little like the second half of this track). Live Performances: A mere 32.
Overall then, the Grateful Dead's debut could have been better - 'Alice D' and a startling first go at 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' instead of the twin Weir covers alone would have made this one of the better albums from one of the greatest years in musical history. The lowest ratio of original songs on any Dead album ever made (including live records) is also a worrying sign (especially given that writing your own songs was expected, nay demanded, by the summer of love). But the Dead are already playing to their own rules rather than everyone else's and the remarkable thing about this record isn't that it doesn't quite measure up to what's to come (why would it? Dave Hassinger and the studio clock are leaning over the band's collective shoulder and neither would have put an uneasy and unsettled inexperienced group at their best) but that so much of the future Dead spirit is here. Buy this album for 'Golden Road' 'Cream Puff War' 'Cold Rain and Snow' 'Morning Dew' and 'Viola Lee Blues' (plus 'Schoolgirl' if you're partial to early Pigpen) and skip the rest if you need to - that still makes for one hell of a twenty-five minute mini-album, as great as any others from the period. By any other standards this is a daring and consistent record full of bravery and originality, even though by the Dead's future standards it's going to sound tame, rushed and unfinished starting with the very next album which is a full solar light year ahead of this one...
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