Friday, 4 July 2008
Grateful Dead "Anthem Of The Sun" (1968) ('Core' Album #23) (Revised Review 2015)
On which the Grateful Dead give thanks to the sun-god in five highly eccentric ways…
Track Listing: That’s It For The Other One (i) Cryptical Envelopment ii) Quadlibet For Tender Feet iii) The Faster We Go The Rounder We Get iv) We Leave The Castle)/ New Potato Caboose/ Born Cross-Eyed// Alligator/ Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks) (
UK and tracklisting) US
"Do your thing to me!"
I haven't yet taken a poll, but I'm willing to believe that 'Anthem Of The Sun' is the Alan's Album Archives record most prone to causing madness amongst it's listeners. You could make a claim for Syd Barratt's twin LPs, the solo album that Jefferson Airplane's Skip Spence was let out of an asylum to record or the Neil Young live recording where the roadies are dressed as ewok ninjas (while of course every album The Spice Girls ever released is mandatory for such a list); however I'm willing to bet 'Anthem' would beat them all. You see, it just doesn't work like any other album ever made: it's a runaway train that even by Dead standards takes a delicious delight in breaking every rule it can find and then some. After all there are only five tracks and none of them really count as 'songs' in the traditional manner, there are no choruses or verses just lots of different sections stapled together, with each of them breaking off to new ideas new inspiration rushes in and each one a mini-suite built up of several parts. A runaway train that's a thrill to ride, even though sometimes you're sitting in the cockpit cheering the creaking locomotive on as it skips a rail and zooms down an entirely different track to the one you started - and sometimes you're lying on the tracks about to get runover as the train comes off the rails big-time, a Casey Jones who doesn't know if he's looking for nirvana or plummeting to the depths of hell (the album manages to straddle both ideas more or less simultaneously). There are no other songs in my whole record collection that sound anything like any of the five songs here - not even the other Grateful Dead albums (by comparison to this even something as weird as 'Aoxomoxoa' sounds like Val Doonican at Christmas, while the first album sounds like the Stone Age) and I never feel the same way about anything after listening to it for any proper length of time. An album packed full of incident, with every nook and cranny filled with sound effects, distortion, 'prepared piano' avant garde-isms and God knows what else, there hasn't this big an offering to the sun God this intense since the days of the Aztecs.
For if ever an album matched its metaphorical title, Anthem Of The Sun is it. A dark, towering spacey journey into infinity, starting off in darkness and ultimately progressing to the light - even though the album is remarkably free of 'mystical' lyrics for an album of 1968 vintage, this just 'sounds' I'm willing to bet if any album gets as close to the 'source' of what this life and the next are all about it's this one. After all what other album do you know that begins with the incantation that the narrator of the album is going to die - and then whallops him into submission over the course of 39 astonishing minutes that ends in a full five minutes of squealing tuneless feedback? For while 'Anthem' has long been dismissed as just an album of weirdness, the theme has always seemed pretty clear to me: this is the human experience written out in song, the realisation (no doubt drug induced) that there are more layers and deeper valleys to human existence than modern society will allow. This album has long been seen as an attempt but to work out what comes next in life. 'That's It For The Other One' starts with a death (of the narrator and his old way of living) before getting on the bus that takes him out further to 'New Potato Caboose' (where a world is dying and a 'last leaf is falling') through to the pain of 'Born Cross Eyed' (a misfit's literally different way of seeing the world) to one of the furthest out reaches the Dead ever entered. Thereafter it's Pigpen's job (as it always at the gigs) to bring us down to Earth safely on side two with a tale of a lovable rogue 'out of prison on six dollars bail' and finding out the pleasures of this world with a date with a 'gypsy woman'. Throughout the course of these five songs the narrator seems to be stripped of his earthly being, as a diet of drugs and dropping out from Western society allow him to experience the 'truth' before re-acquainting him (or her) self with everything this world in particular has to offer. After effectively dying every time on this album in a squeal of noise and emotion and frailty the narrator is re-born on the second side with a new understanding (many live recordings of the time feature 'Death Don't Have No Mercy', as featured on the forthcoming 'Live/Dead' as part of the run of album songs too, just to bang the point home). Despite being occupied with death, by contrast few recordings have ever felt so alive with the sheer roar of these instruments so beautifully recorded that few albums have ever been quite so in-your-face about the whole experience.
Another much-discussed reason for this album's existence seems to be to provide a musical interpretation of a hallucinogenic drug experience. Despite being a lifelong (near enough) Dead fan I can't say drugs have ever been my trip of choice (life is trippy enough without opening any more mental doors) so I can't say for certain. But boy I'm willing to bet it is: the sudden switches in speed (the whole band play in slow motion during the middle of 'Caution' for instance), the hidden doors full of noises and effects that mean goodness knows what (Robert Hunter, describing this album in the 'Classic albums' series, went back to his warped damaged record specially for the programme and found the record was weirder than he remembered - sometimes through dirt and damage, sometimes through weird alien noises), sometimes simply through the clarity of Garcia's guitar which more than ever seems to pierce through the rest of the album (and a candidate, on the CD re-masters at least) for the best recorded guitar sound ever. A record full of musical peaks and troughs, each one rising phoenix like from the ashes of the rest, it's enough to make my CD player come out in tie-dye colours and start playing the disc backwards 'for the hell of it'. Heard in 2015 it's a frightening, surreal, kaleidoscopic prism of noise and fuel that will scare the living daylights out of anyone who isn't Dead-trained yet. Back in 1968 it must have seemed like an alien from another world.
Having established how different this album sounds to any other, then, it's important to work out why - and to remember that this is only the Dead's second album. Yes, you really did read that right: this is only record number two, the first time the band had ever been inside the recording studio for more than a week and already the Dead are pushing boundaries like no one else with a number of notable firsts that make this album largely unique among any music to gain a release. I love the way that this is album is constructed and long for some band somewhere to use the same trick again: instead of being one record played all the way through this is effectively one record played eighteen times over. In addition to the studio takes that begin the album and crop up every so often on the way through the Dead also cut up four whole different recordings of these album songs (their first to be 'professionally' recorded - for those keeping score the gigs are one at The Shrine, Los Angeles, November 10-11th 1967, Eureka Municipal Auditorium California January 20th 1968, Eagles Auditorium, Seattle, January 26-27th, Crystal Ballroom Oregon, February 2-3rd 1968, The Carousel Ballroom San Francisco, February 14th and March 15-17th and 29th-31st 1968, plus The King's Beach Bowl, Lake Tahoe, February 22-24th 1968; we don't know how much of each was used but there seems to be a preference for the Ballroom gigs, one of the Dead's favourite venues; fans of this album might be interested in four of these shows available as 'archive' releases; Road Trips Volume Two Number Two for the Feb 14th gig, Dick's Picks 22 for the two King's Beach Bowl ones and Download Series Volume Six for the March 17th one). The band then simply pic-and-mixed the lot, rising and lowering faders as they felt the songs worked best and this gives the album a sort of unpredictably that means you never quite know what tracks the railway engine is going to hop onto next and a memorable 'blurred' effect that's like the same outline being drawn eighteen times over but with the template moved slightly each time, with some lines etched darker than others. Now all this might sound daft on paper but on record it's a sign of beauty, as if instead of getting the one 'locked-in' version of one song we're getting all possible directions, more or less at once, sounding like some cosmic baton being hurled from one multiverse parallel dimension of the band to another before they all fall on in on itself at the very end Phil Lesh is more poetic, likening this technique as 'like many lotus petals flowering'). For example there's a glorious moment at around the five minute mark where 'That's It For The Other One' has reached a natural conclusion and a 'normal' fade, but no - at one of the gigs Garcia picks up on the main phrase like a dog with a bone and tears back into the section again, with only Kreutzmann grimly hanging to his tail feathers and playing without a pause, the perfect segue to the Tom Constanten sound world that leads into the next track. Despite the fact that these performances were all played in different auditoriums with different sound systems, different ambiences, are often played in different tempos and keys and by and large have been improvised to within an inch of their life so that they rarely have anything in common with the piece of music that’s just been playing, the whole works amazingly well.
'Wow' you might be thinking 'good ol' Warner Brothers for taking such a chance on such an untried and untested band making such a weird album full of feedback and unplayable on the radio with four of the songs pushed to the eight minute mark and beyond. Err, no - not really. In the first heavy clash of many The Dead had with their record company the 'straights' hated it and their producer Dave Hassinger - a respected producer with several difficult projects behind him - walked out of the sessions a third in having had something very close to a nervous breakdown (the last straw reportedly came during the recording of 'Born Cross-Eyed' when during the 'drop-out' after the Mariachi trumpet solo (we told you this was a different sounding album!) Bob Weir asked for the sound of 'thick air' rather than silence - the sort of buzz you hear on a hot muggy Californian day. Hassinger thought he was mad and walked out the studio then and there never to return, having already butted heads several times with Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart.
Ah yes, Mickey Hart. The Dead have in total three new additions for this record and all of them will play crucial parts in the band's story to come, as if all the final parts of the jigsaw are slotting into place. Mickey is the most vocal and noticeable addition to your average fan in 1968, appearing on the album cover and adding a whole second drum attack alongside Billy Kreutzmann's on 'Alligator' that give the Dead even more bite and kick (apart from a brief spell away from the band between 1971 and 1974 he'll be with the Dead until their final gig in 1995). Here often doubled to become an even more wayward foursome, the drummer duo technique (Garcia quote: 'like the serpent eating it's own tail...who play figure eights on their side in your head') making the Dead quite unlike any other band around in the era and giving them the muscle they need for their spacier sounds in this period (this album contains one of their all-time greatest telepathic interactions too, when at the start of the second section for 'That's It For The Other One' Mickey builds up a head of steam out of nothing and Billy simply goes 'THWACK!' into the start of the song, as if it's all been planned). As for side two and Alligator when the Dead begin their long tradition of a double drums attack, well, you’ll never hear this much percussion on a record outside of Keith Moon throwing a drum kit at a piano ever again.
Also new is Tom Constanten, a music student who was a friend of Phil's and joined the band on a short-term basis across 1968 and 1969. Coming at the Dead's esoteric music from the influence of 20th century avant garde composers like Stockhausen and Cage, he's best known for conjuring up the other-worldly sea of effects heard in the 'We Leave The Castle' segue between 'The Other One' and 'New Potato Caboose'. Though common to the more out-there classical lovers, these effects had never been heard against the feedback-fuelled squeal of a rock and roll band before and sound extraordinary, especially the deep other-worldly growl and the scratching ghostly fingers at the dying ends of the linking bridge (made through a spinning top being thrown against a piano's strings and slowed down and scratched fingers over piano strings respectively).
The third presence arrives more quietly, as befitting his character. Robert Hunter was Jerry Garcia's old pal from his teenage years and had been quietly building an impressive collection of poetry. Impressed by the early Dead gigs, he sent Garcia lots of encouraging letters and - after Garcia admitted to hating his own lyrics for songs like 'Cream Puff War' from the first LP - was a natural fit to write with him. For now Hunter's contribution amounts to 'merely' the lyrics for 'Alligator', interestingly the bluesiest earthiest song on the album and seemingly written from the first for Pigpen to sing. However what a set of lyrics they are: the first in a twenty-year sequence of loveable drop-outs disillusioned delinquents and poetic souls who never get a chance to show their real character, Alligator is just out of prison though we don't know what for, alternately 'stumbling' and 'hopping' his way through life one mistake at a time. Having found one slight sign of friendship, Alligator is so grateful he just won't leave, his acquaintance presumably ending in tears given the squeals of fierce feedback and protest with which the song segues into Pigpen's own 'Caution'. Hunter will get more of a role from 'Aoxomoxoa' onwards but has already very much made his mark.
That means there's now seven members on stage (two guitars, two drummers, a bass and two keyboard players) and one extra behind the scenes: this is the point where the few bands who've tried such a thing usually come unstuck and sound top-heavy, but for my money the Dead never sounded better, with a cross-section of styles that range from Constanten's intellectualness to Pigpen's rootsy party (perhaps because they were such opposites both got on like a house on fire, Pigpen not envious of having a fellow keys player on stage with him at all). Even though Garcia dominates many a Dead album to come, this time he is overshadowed by his two other front-row compatriots, disappearing vocally after his twin 'Cryptical Envelopment' sections on 'That's It For The Other One'. Thankfully though there's an awful lot of awfully good Garcia solos across this album, featuring some of his most drop-dead (excuse the pun) never-ending solos that somehow wind their way smoothly through each of the five song’s maze of chords and complex rhythms, as if he is threading a piece of cotton through the eye of a needle laid down by the rest of the band. The always under-rated and back then still-teenage rhythm guitarist Bob Weir dominates Anthem’s first side with his typically complex wayward songs (the bouncier tone of his half of 'That's The Other One' the perfect balance to Garcia's older, frailier incantation to death) and the second side is chock-full of the band’s founding member and blues legend Pigpen at his improvised rapping best. Ironically both of these two musicians were kicked out of the band around this time (but as they both refused to leave, they somehow got back in again without anybody saying anything! Half the band probably didn’t know they’d both been fired anyway as the band hated meetings and confrontations. For the record, the band’s much elder and more seasoned players thought Weir was still too young and – in Garcia’s memorable quote – ‘never seemed to come down off planet Zippy’ long enough for them to play. The firing of Pigpen was a little more complicated: a reminder of the band’s blues beginnings, resolutely against the psychedelic drugs everyone else was taking and with a character rather out of place amongst his fellow hippies, Pigpen was fired according to Garcia for not being loose enough and ‘never getting off this planet at all’. However, both musicians more than prove their worth on this album, sounding every bit the pro performers that Garcia and Lesh are and their firing – if ever meant seriously – was surely one of the worst ideas the band ever considered (along with getting the Hells Angels to provide security at Altamont – shudder – and hiring a manager who ran off with all of their money when they were already in heavy debt to their record company for making this album). Bassist Phil Lesh also turns in his only non-group writing credit until 1974’s From The Mars Hotel and – like the Who’s John Entwistle – treats his bass as more of a lead instrument than a rhythmic one, playing such wildly unexpected chords that Weir’s rhythm guitar has to be just that to compensate for the varying tempos going on around him. Bill Kreutzmann, meanwhile, is so on the ball in this period that it sounds like the Dead have two drummers even on the tracks where Mickey Hart doesn’t play, so on the beat, around the beat and doubling the beat is he all the way through this record. Billy too is more than happy to share the stage with another drummer - in fact Mickey joined at his invitation, a kindly gesture not many other drummers would have made (it's no coincidence that the finale to 'Alligator' is the closest the band ever come to putting their famous 'Drums' improvisations so common to concerts onto a studio record). It's one of the great mysteries of rock and roll how all that could end up fitting inside one not-quite-40 minute album.
This album is a true masterpiece of the how-far-can-we-push-things-before-they-snap brigade and features so many drop-dead ridiculously virtuoso moments that the Dead come out of it less like stoned hippie nutters and more like jazz rock geniuses. This album must have been a nightmare to record and mix (especially given that the band were so unhappy with their first attempt they kept tinkering with it, mixes coming as late as 1971 - and again tweaked slightly for some of the CDs out there) , but it was well worth it – the Dead are at their progressive best here and are spookily good at working out where each other’s improvised licks are going to go (they call it ‘becoming five fingers of the same hand’ and there isn’t any better example of that maxim than on this record, despite the fact that this line-up of the band have barely had a chance to say 'hello'). So precise and so sure is the band's work on this album, even more than on other Dead psychedelic opuses, it's hard to believe that his playing really was improvised night after night – but it was, just listen to any Dead concert of those vintage 1966 through 69 years, which all sound different (as opposed to the 1980s where they always tended to sound the same, only not quite as good as the night before). Making a record this strange and daring would have been enough for most groups in their peak middle years (that magic short time that usually occurs 3-5 years into a groups’ recording lifespan, when the band really are getting to grips with each other’s playing and aren’t yet so bored of the music and each other that they do anything to keep away from it). That the Dead actually finished making Anthem Of the Sun just shy of the first year’s anniversary of their record contract and when the band were still getting to know each other and were indeed still joining, is little short of staggering.
One of the forgotten greats of the psychedelic era, Anthem Of The Sun risks burning its wings several times while flying a little too close into the raw solar essence of musical improvisation, but remarkably the songs all come out largely unscathed, even when surrounded by minutes-worth of feedback and going on more side trips than if Timothy Leary was running a local bus service. An anthem to the muse of music and all that's possible inside it in all its many facets, this is a guidebook to how music should be played, the way it enables musicians to stagger out into the unknown every night without tripping over (or not tripping over too often, at any rate). Yes we can pick holes in it: the second side, while thrilling in it's own right, is a quite different wild ride to the first side and suffers a little by comparison; the largely studio version of 'That's It For The Other One', glorious as it is here, still isn't quite up to the many weird and wonderful live versions of the song from the period doing the rounds, not to mention I usually end up struggling to get to the very last note of feedback on 'Caution' (the natural end is at 7:20 and this record, while ground-breakingly different, has been oh so careful to keep the interest coming right up until this moment and it's several false endings). However that really is nit-picking compared to just how gloriously stupendously mind-blowing this record is, in 1968 and beyond, with or without drugs. This is simply one of the bravest, most pioneering records on this list and its style and raison d’etre could never be copied again short of building a time machine back to those glorious mid-60s days. No band should ever have gotten away with something like this - and yet the Dead got there on their second flipping album! You sense that had any lesser band tried to get away with something like this the results would have been a sorry mess - and yet despite the twists and turns, the moments when the train doesn't merely leave the track but crashes through a platform, three towns and a forest before finding another pair of rails and the sheer unwieldiness of it all this album is a winner, still deeply under-rated and a must-hear for every fan who thinks that psychedelic music by its very nature cannot be tough. The album must work, because the sun seems to shine that little big brighter whenever I'm brave enough to listen to it.
Things start off in a deceptively folky sort of a way, with Garcia sounding more like a medieval minstrel than the elected captain of the counter-culture on the first section of the four-part tune That’s It For The Other One. The Dead’s greatest improvisational launch-pad of the period after their famous magnum opus Dark Star (it’s name is even meant to have come from the fact that it was the ‘other long song’ in their set of the time), it ricochets in mood completely from this peaceful beginning to Weir’s rocky section Quadlibet For Tender Feet, a disorientating effect heightened by the sudden switch from the studio to the live arena. The theme is constant though – about the only thing that is in this song – with Garcia’s gentle musings about the death of the old ways round them contrasted to Weir’s excitement about everything ‘new’ around him in the 60s. Garcia’s melancholy chorus about (possibly) the younger generation’s attack on their elders (‘you know he had to die’) and the lines about learning anyway from ‘books that they were burning’ and censoring, would have been a snarling attack in other hands. Here, Garcia sounds solemn and quietly upset about all of this, reluctant to let the familiar things around him go but surrendering to a higher force against his better judgement (just listen to the way he wails the chorus on other contemporary live versions of this song – this isn’t just a neat idea for a 60s song, these are very real feelings for Garcia).
Weir’s section is far more bouncy and optimistic, telling us about the day when he got aboard the ‘hippie express’ (literally, ‘a bus came by and I got on’, referencing the psychedelic busses driven by band companion ‘cowboy Neal (Casady) at the wheel’ to recruit fellow souls to the hippie heaven of Haight Ashbury in the 66-67 period). Yet like Garcia, Weir’s narrator is driven to his experience not by desire but by fate: he is a largely apathetic witness to the whole scene, invited in the first place by a mysterious ‘Spanish lady’ against his better judgement and the psychedelic happenings occur without him actually doing anything – he just stumbles blindly into the scene that changes his life. This song is musically in great contrast to the last section – and yet thematically its similar; Weir’s narrator doesn’t want to break away from the past either and yet the ‘new’ suddenly seems so valid and right that he can no longer think about doing anything else. The effect is added to by having Kreutzmann’s frantic drumming in both speakers dominating everything else on the track, a simply un-persuadable un-changeable force so huge that it cannot be stopped despite their protagonist’s doubts. The song’s send-off chorus, finally kicking in after three straight verses (‘Coming, coming coming around’) makes it clear that this is a generational song rather than simply another 60s song – like a returning comet or the wheel of the hippie bus, the band know the whole thing will turn against them sometime in the future – and yet back again sometime in the unknown future for their grandchildren or great-grandhcildren. A masterpiece of a song cycle, making it clear that the track will rumble on forever whether we are listening to it or not (all we are hearing is the ‘60s extract’ of the timespan, with the song fading up at the beginning and fading down at the end as if in reality it is going on forever) this piece is faultlessly played and one of the deepest pieces in the Dead’s canon. (Conversely, that last paragraph might just be rubbish and I’ve been listening to this album so long its turned my brain to sawdust – albums like this one are liable to do that after a while!) All hell breaks loose by the end, with some Armageddon-sounding prepared piano from the Dead’s brief member and resident classicist Tom Constanten on the final movement The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get. Pennies scraped on piano strings are added to with cavernous echo, coins placed under piano keys while they are tapped from inside give a loud grumbling noise and wooden gyros fixed onto piano wood with the ‘loud’ pedal down sound downright scary. Taken together these effects all add up to one terrifically horrific noise, symbolising either the untwisting fate of the two narrators or the headlong crash between the two generations in the yearsa to come (Did Stockhausen ever imagine his techniques would be used in this context?!)
Out of the smoke comes Phil Lesh’s New Potato Caboose (I love the song titles on this album!) sung here by Weir again for the most part and sounding like the pure musical rebirth born out of The Other One’s destruction. This under-rated song starts out with yet another cyclical riff, but one that meanders in great contrast to the last song’s relentless style, until this song too finally explodes into a typical Dead marathon jamming session in its second half. There are some interesting surreal lyrics here that refer repeatedly to the ‘sun’ of the album’s title, the narrator’s – and possibly mankind’s savoir – when all about him has been destroyed and needs to grow once more. There is definitely something of a religious aura about this song, from the church organ that suddenly comes into play on the middle eight to the repeated hymnal processions through the line ‘all graceful instruments are known’. I doubt any church service has ever offered quite this mix of sounds before though: a booming bass that seems to be playing a whole new song of its own that only very occasionally relates to the other players, more rattling drums and crashing cymbals from Kreutzmann at his wild best, an electrifying lead Garcia guitar and a gentle layer of feedback that sounds almost nurturing in its laidback whine.
Bob Weir’s first published song Born Cross Eyed rounds out the side and although it is as surreal and hard-to-follow as Caboose, the song is one that held a lot of meaning for its author (who really was born with an eye condition that left him slightly ‘cross-eyed’). However, it seems to me as if this song is actually more about Weir’s unusual upbringing, brought up on the ‘cross-eyed’ side of the tracks as it were. Adopted as a child by a rich family who he adored but never quite fitted in with, Weir was always happiest hanging out with his scruffy penniless friends and later fellow musicians against his family’s better judgement – a strong case for the nature over nurture argument and a true case of being born ‘cross-eyed’ ie in the wrong place. (Like the previous two tracks, Weir seems to be switching his allegiance first to his family – ‘I’ll come back here now and again from time to time’ - and then to his new found freedom - ‘My how lovely you are my dear…’) Even though the song is barely two minutes long, it’s still quite an epic packed with several tempo changes, sudden drop-outs in the melody, switches of instrument, the first flowerings of the Dead’s fine three-part harmony and even a trumpet solo (played by Lesh) that seems to suddenly arrive out of nowhere and simply marches straight across our speakers and out the door, never to be seen again. Scaling higher and higher peaks of anxiety throughout and never finding a resolution as such (the song simply ends out of earshot on a Weir wail), this song is another forgotten triumph, the first real evidence that Garcia had a rival in the writing stakes in Bob Weir that could match even his own best work.
The album’s second side is dedicated fully to Pigpen, with Live/Dead’s version of Turn On Your Love-Light its only possible rival for earthy blues transmogrified into psychedelia. Alligator marks a number of firsts for the Dead. The first track to feature drummer Mickey Hart playing in tandem with his rhythm devil brother Billy, the first song to be co-written by Garcia’s future writing partner Robert Hunter (come two years time this partnership virtually was The Dead, so prolific was the new writing team) and the first of Pigpen’s small handful of credits or co-credits. The song sets the template of many of the songs to follow, especially Pigpen’s no-good outlaw with the heart of gold character that is a welcome highlight of many of the band’s first few albums. Even on this straightforward retro 50s sounding jam, however, there’s something weird going on: a furious double drum attack at the end suggests all is not as peaceful and straightforward as it seems and there’s an intriguing one-off kazoo quartet, perhaps appearing in homage to the Dead’s beginnings as a jugband (‘The Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions’ no less). This rather oddball opening, complete with a double-tracked Pigpen vocal which wanders in different directions throughout as if looking at a mirror, is disorientating in the extreme. With the opening studio part of the song a pale shadow of the noise to come, the instruments on the track suddenly cut out one by one before leaving us with Constanten’s rather dignified piano lick. Suddenly reverting back to the live arena, Weir kicks the story away from story-telling and into a rock jam with the words ‘come on everybody, get up and dance – it won’t ruin you’. Warning though: dancing to this song might well ‘ruin you’ if you try and keep it up till the end, as Alligator has even bigger and more ferocious teeth than its namesake, with its jagged beat rumbling its way through the rest of the side. A drum duet gradually reverts back into a full-blown Dead jamathon, with everyone plugging back into their amps one by one and Pigpen filtering all of his earlier swampy character into an electrifying Hammond keyboard solo. The band reach one of their best slow-burning grooves on this track, with Lesh’s bass holding the wayward band together as the song reaches a ferocious climax about 10 minutes in, especially when yet another jam from yet another live recording suddenly cuts into the mix (The blend would be seamless were it not for the sudden full sound in contrast to this song’s earlier tinnyness).
By the time the song turns into Caution (Do Not Step On The Tracks) the groove has fizzled out several times, kicked back in again every so often and finally dissolved into layers of feedback. Picking its way out of the ashes, the band then find their way through a bare-boned and rather zombified version of one of their earliest originals, performed as far back as 1965. What used to be quite a cute little blues number, with a tightly contained drama about a disappointed lover trying to get his fortune from a travelling gipsy and working out whether to try and make up with his missus or not, now finds the band stretching out into infinity. The wpole thing takes up the whole of the second side and yet contains barely any lyrics: for instance - “I went down one day …(5 minute jam)…to see a gypsy woman (5 minute jam)…just for one ‘ole day …(another 5 min jam)…she told me all you need…(10 min jam)…is some….(5min jam again)…all you got to have…(feedback)….just a touch of…(fadeout)”. The irony of the song in all it's many versions is that we never do get to hear what good ol' Pig learns from his gypsy woman - instead we hear it in the music, which alters his and our perceptions so extremely that by the end every squeak and death-rattle of this song sounds like music, re-engaging then sliding back again in bursts. Pigpen really struggles to get through his blues rap before the band explode into yet another solo and the song ends up having more false endings than the bible before the Dead train finally screams to a halt, coming off the rails in a screaming torrent of feedback and smoke. A full three minutes of feedback finish the song off, with each musician getting rid of all the pent-up adrenalin they had been building up so steadily before the song folded in on itself.
One of the most adventurous, unexpected journeys on the Dead’s long express route, Anthem Of the Sun is the Dead travelling at the height of their first period, full of examples of them at their psychedelic peak. Few albums go as far out of their way to shock and stun the listener as this one but, thanks to the strong tunes, exhilarating performances and imaginative ideas running throughout Anthem the band succeed in reaching for the stars where a lesser band would make do with smoke and promises. A band out of step with everything that anybody else was doing at any point during their long and illustrious history, no one else has come even close to the psychedelic improvisations and experiments of this band. Live/Dead might be an even better example of their telepathic playing, Aoxomoxoa might have the better individual songs and later albums might feature a more mature, more refined style, but Anthem of The Sun is by far the bravest Dead on LP, not built for everybody’s tastes but worshipped by the fans in the know as only a sun-God can be. Next stop, Terrapin Station!
Epilogue for the re-write: my headphones have just broken and I'm down to my last pair (you wouldn't believe how many I go through trying to keep this website going!) so before the shops open tomorrow I've had to listen to this album with the sound crackling and fizzing through the left speakers, cutting in and out at random, while the laptop I'm working on also insists on occasionally ignoring my pleas for mute while I'm using headphones and trying not to wake up the neighbours by suddenly playing three-second bursts through the main speakers. What an album for this to happen on. Most. Psychedelic. Experience. Ever!