Back in 1966, or close, it was decided by a few exalted arbiters of taste (rock critics) that no San Francisco band could possibly make a record as good as its live performance, an opinion probably generated by the ecstasies experienced in those first mind-expanding San Francisco dance concerts. So it was that when The Grateful Dead was released, it was condemned as a poor substitute, a pale appetizer for the live main course. Only in recent months and years have those same critics admitted, ruefully even, that the first Dead album holds up very well indeed. Some have even deemed it a masterpiece in retrospect, for on it are classics like "Viola Lee Blues" (the song that really did get you high), "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and the beautiful "Morning Dew."
There was an interminable time lapse between the Dead's first and Anthem of the Sun, the second. They started Anthem in Los Angeles (where they had recorded the first with Dave Hassinger producing), but the Dead hated Los Angeles and kept scooting up and down the West Coast and across to New York, recording some in the studio, some live. Just read the list of locations on the back of Anthem and know why Joe Smith - and Dave Hassinger - fretted frequently in 1967. Anthem marked the end of "outside" producers for the Dead.
It didn't mark the end of the myth - that the Dead couldn't harness the recording techniques necessary to make a "live-sounding" album, and so many people missed songs with fanciful names and spellings like "Cryptical Envelopement" and "New Potatoe Caboose." [...]
Aoxomoxoa (the name is a palindrome; no hidden meaning) was the true test of a Dead freak; it contained "St. Stephen," a crowd pleaser, but also such avantly weird things as "What's Become of the Baby." It was a transition album, with the band sometimes exploring heady regions of non-rock while sometimes thumping away on toe-tappers like "Doin' That Rag." It has been their least worldly successful album - and it might well be the only rock album in recent history with no production credit. None.
The label copy reads "Arranged by the Grateful Dead" and the liner mentions Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor as Executive Engineer and Engineer, respectively; nobody was named Producer. But it was the first of a long and happy relationship with Bob and Betty, who have been involved in almost every Dead album thereafter, receiving co-production credit on Live Dead and Workingman's Dead.
Then Live Dead appeared in 1968 [sic], a double package, their first breakthrough into the Hit Album area. Live Dead had what everyone (at that time) went to Dead concerts for - long lyrical guitar passages, lengthy Pig Pen growls ("Turn On Your Love Light" was guaranteed to get an audience standing for Mr. Pen). "Dark Star," the entirety of Side One, remains one of the better examples of Garcia's mystical guitar journeys. Still, Live Dead marked the end of an era, that era of early Grateful Dead. It was as if they said, "Here it is, the live performance sound you've been harping about for so long. Now we'll get on to something else."
That something else was Workingman's Dead, released early in 1969 [sic]. It dispelled all doubt surrounding the Dead's ability to control a studio control room, and it brought forth songs - not just a few lyrics attached to instrumentals, but real songs with beginnings, middles and ends. And vocals. The Dead had been listening to their friends Stephen Stills and David Crosby and had decided that singing real harmonies could be fun. [...] Workingman's Dead is notable for one other thing: it is the only Dead album with a photo of the group on the cover.
American Beauty surfaced in the fall of 1970 with ever tighter vocals, ever better songs like "Ripple" and the Grateful Dead chronicle, "Truckin." It also had "Sugar Magnolia" by Bob Weir, one of the most commercial Dead songs ever, if Circular could be pardoned the use of the word commercial in a Dead article. It had "Operator" by Pig Pen, who had been writing songs all along (and plans a solo album some day). American Beauty also has, to the best of Circular's admittedly limited knowledge, the only song on which Phil Lesh sings lead - "Box of Rain." [...]
On the first album the Dead's original songs were credited to McGannahan Skjellyfetti; on Anthem of the Sun they noted "All selections written by the Grateful Dead." By the third album, Aoxomoxoa, they had overcome reticence about personal names and listed "All tunes written by Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh." Although every Dead has since had some kind of writing credit, most songs come from the busy minds of Hunter and Garcia. [...]
Grateful Dead is the name of the new album [...] not to be confused with The Grateful Dead, the group's first album released back in 1966. This here new one, besides fulfilling the imposing promise of presenting the Dead in their inimitable live style, marks the emergence of one Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist, as strong lead singer and the Dead Most Likely to Become a Pop Star If He Ever Wanted To. Handsome Bob sings lead on seven of the 12 songs. [...]
Behind the voices is the omnipresent elliptical perfection of Garcia's guitar, about which much has already been written (Mr. Garcia's first solo album, by the bye, will come forth in November). There's also the solid Mr. Pen (nee Ron McKernan), a lengthy drum solo by Bill Kreutzmann, the complex bass lines of Phil Lesh, and occasional thundering crowd noises. Four sides, a whole concert. New versions of old Dead songs and some brand new ones...
(excerpt from the Warner Brothers Circular, October 4 1971)