Feb 18, 2012

1968: Anthem of the Sun Reviews


On the Grateful Dead's Anthem of the Sun, the studio with its production work dissolves into live performance, the carefully crafted is thrown together with the casually tossed off, and the results are spliced together. The end product is one of the finest albums to come out of San Francisco, a personal statement of the rock aesthetic on a level with the Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxters. To be sure, the album has its weak points, but as a total work it is remarkably successful, especially when compared to the first Dead album.
The first side of Anthem of the Sun is a masterpiece of rock, "That's It for the Other One" and "New Potato Caboose" being particularly noteworthy. The main theme of "Other One" is an eminently memorable quasi-country melody that starts right off with the tasteful guitar of Garcia that dominates the record; a second movement starts the confusion between live and studio (nice stereo production work here), fading into a restatement of the main theme; then there is some beautiful musique concrete leading into "Caboose." Already there is evident carefully arranged vocal work, a departure from the Dead's previous release. The end of "Caboose" is a driving solo by Garcia that builds into structured frenzy thanks to Lesh's bass, the drums of Hart and Kreutzmann, and especially Garcia's masterful playing. Garcia is that rarity among rock guitarists, a thoughtful phraser who logically constructs his solos in a manner not unlike a capable jazz musician. Together Lesh, Weir and Garcia (together with McKernan's fat globs of organ) produce a complex, tight sound that stands with the best hard rock around.
Kazoos open "Alligator," which is that kind of song, hardly dead serious. But it includes another fine Garcia solo; Lesh shows here as elsewhere that he is a fine bass player, while Hart and Kreutzmann work together to form one of the most powerful (and inventive) percussion units in rock. With "Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)" we are confronted with the album's most curious track, which ranges from a white-imitation blues riff vamp-until-ready to 60-cycle hum and microphone feedback. The vocal sounds like Danny Kalb (poor in other words), but this in fact is the main consistent problem with the album: the vocals. Often the voices are muddy, and on blues none of the Dead sound particularly persuasive; but this is a minor quibble when so much else is right on this album. The mixture of electronic and serious music achieved by Edgar Varese on "Deserts" stands as one of the most impressive achievements in this area; on their own terms the Dead have achieved a comparable blend of electronic and electric music. For this reason alone Anthem of the Sun is an extraordinary event. It's been over a year since the first Dead album. It was worth waiting.

(by Jim Miller, from Rolling Stone, September 28 1968) 

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'ANTHEM OF THE SUN' by The Grateful Dead. Warner Bros WS1749. Jerry Garcia (ld. gtr.); Bob Weir (rhm. gtr.); Ron McKernan (org.); Micky Hart, Bill Kreutzmann (drms. perc); Tom Constanten (prep. pno.).

Recorded a year ago largely at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco, which they part owned, here is a group deep in the 'underground', submerged in the community concept so that individual virtuosity is sacrificed to group sound. This may never have been a conscious decision at all but none the less the interest points in the music are those of a changing music surface and not the solos.

'Anthem of the Sun' sounds like the background music to a revolution. Cool in a.detached way, emotionless, dealing in psychic head energy flows, the results of their 'Acid Test' show still deeply imprinted in the sound. The music is from an extreme position, difficult to listen to with sympathy as 'revolution music' is now the thing and psychedelic music is 'out'. The Carousel is closed and the criteria changes. The Dead will remain and their heads will have music in them.

(by Miles, from the International Times (London), 29 November 1968)


  1. In the August 10 issue of Rolling Stone, the magazine offered a free copy of Anthem of the Sun to anyone who subscribed:
    "Do this one quickly; you'll be the first on your block to get the Grateful Dead's new album with your subscription to Rolling Stone. This offer is very limited, and so you must act with all appropriate haste. If you are already a subscriber, you can get the album by sending a gift to a friend, a nice thing to do anyway."

    The Warner Brothers album ad claimed:
    "An album one year in the making...and sonically advanced to the point of making you rediscover your body. The second coming of the Grateful Dead: now a fact of Life."

  2. Anthem Of The Sun was my introduction to The Bus. I loved Pink Floyd in 67-68 and had vaguely heard of the Grateful Dead. When Anthem came out, the UK paper 'Disc & Music Echo' carried a short review which included "if you like the Floyd you'll love this record" and described the cover as "a schizophrenic's nightmare". That was enough for me. Down to the record shop, listened to side 1 in a record booth (just to make sure), walked out with the album and the rest, as they say, is history. Wish I could find a copy of that paper - I wonder if/when I'd have discovered them if I'd not chanced upon that review?

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  4. High Fidelity reviewed the album in its July 1968 issue:
    "Each side of this album is a mish-mash of self-indulgent formlessness. There's really no excuse for this kind of junk, but there is an explanation. Drugs. The album is essentially background music for pot parties (or Methedrine or LSD)... Pot can enhance the listener's experience; it can make something good sound great, but it can also make something trite sound meaningful. It is within the latter category that this album belongs, and I'm sorry the Dead have fallen victim to the delusion of the complete psychedelic experience."

    Boston After Dark, on the other hand, said in its 9/18/68 issue that Anthem was "an important album in the history of jazz, rock, and modern music in general. It is also a delight to listen to... The Dead's use of understatement, the soft, and the subtle gracefully form every moment. Their free use of time, complex, intelligent bridging, and their use of straight electronic music make the Grateful Dead virtually unique in the rock world."
    (Review excerpts from Richardson, No Simple Highway, p.116.)

  5. I added a short but dense review from Barry Miles in the underground London paper, the International Times. Just a couple paragraphs, but it looks at the album from a more distant sociological point of view.
    Miles must have been somewhat familiar with the Dead (he'd seen them in New York in June '67; he knew that they ran the Carousel and it had closed; he connects the album to the Acid Tests; and he calls the Dead "deep in the underground, submerged in the community concept"). He stresses that the "group sound" and "changing music surface" are more important than individual solos, and interestingly suggests that "this may never have been a conscious decision."
    So you probably couldn't find a more knowledgeable reviewer in 1968 England, but I don't think he liked the album much: "detached...emotionless...extreme...difficult to listen to."
    Nonetheless, he accurately concludes that although "psychedelic music is out...the Dead will remain," making different music.

  6. I found it!! The review that introduced me to the Dead (see above). I read this and went out and bought 'Anthem of the Sun' the next day. So, from the UK weekly music magazine 'Disc & Music Echo', published 12th October 1968.......

    "Everybody's been talking for so long about the Grateful Dead and at last, having heard 'Anthem Of The Sun', we know why - AND HOW! It's so completely unlike anything you ever heard before that it's practically a new concept in music. It's haunting, it's pretty, it's infinite - and then zap and it's explosive and a complete mind-blower. It's continuous, with no bands between tracks. More a movement, even hymn - yes, anthem if you like.

    Pigpen, the gross, hairy organist who was once described as 'a Hell's Angel without his hog', plays lurching, jarring sheets of sound like no organist we've ever heard before; Jerry Garcia is an amazingly lyrical lead guitarist who could give any other guitarist you care to name a pretty hard time - and then some. Drumming is excellent, as is the bass, and the group seems to be rather hung-up on the 'prepared piano' (we don't know what that is either!)

    From what sounded like just another blues band with occasional patches of brilliance on their first album, the Grateful Dead emerge on this showing as being in the very front rank of those few brave souls trying to progress past the Leapy Lee-Amen Corner-Dave Dee brand of popular music (actually it's a load of old cobblers to even call the two types by the same name).

    With a frighteningly powerful cover which looks like a highly meticulous schizophrenic's portrayal of his own stranger fantasies, 'Anthem Of The Sun' is undoubtedly one of the five great albums of 1968".

    1. Thanks for the review! (I wonder what you remembered the Floyd comparison from?)

      Nice to see a positive review - and it's interesting to see that even before Anthem, the Dead already had a reputation in the UK: "everybody's been talking for so long about the Grateful Dead."
      It's rare to see Pigpen so prominently mentioned for his organ playing - and evidently his reputation had already crossed the pond too.
      That very week, the Dead were supposed to be touring in England, but they'd canceled the tour:

    2. Not sure about the Floyd comparison, maybe my memory merged two reviews into one (I also used to buy New Musical Express every week......I'll try and track this review down too). Funnily enough, and by a remarkable coincidence, I was browsing Glenn Povey's book 'The Ultimate Floyd' earlier today (after downloading a new show) and saw an advert for the Dead at Mothers Club in Birmingham (UK) on 11th Oct 1968. Mothers was a major music venue for a few years. It accommodated about 200-300 people - the Floyd recorded some of Ummagumma there in 1969 and I saw them there in 1970. I'd never seen this advert before. Here's a link to it........ https://we.tl/Wb9SftrEBl