Jun 17, 2015

Vintage Dead Album Review


I think I liked it better when rock didn’t have a history. These days record companies seem to be the victims of some Tutankhamen-like curse, obsessively searching for buried treasures, long forgotten tapes that they can buy cheap and sell dear. I can see what’s in it for them but it makes life hard on a reviewer.
Take these Grateful Dead albums. What could be more exciting than a tape of the Dead playing San Francisco’s mythical Avalon ballroom in the acid year of 1966? And what could be more shoddy than the package that Polydor actually gave us? Here are two full priced albums, with the minimum of information and, in the case of Historic Dead, the minimum of music (total playing time 29 minutes). There is excessive surface noise throughout and the mix is eccentric, often reducing the band to guitar and bass, and putting the vocals so far back that they’re only semi-audible.
Worst of all, the music doesn’t even sound live. There’s applause at the end of each track but there’s no trace of that hum of excitement that gives live albums their edge. No, if you still don’t know what the Dead are about, listen to the Live Dead album. If you want to know about San Francisco ballrooms, stick to Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills.
Unfortunately these Dead albums are also history. Can I dismiss them so easily? I’m supposed to be searching for origins and portents, for explanations. Like what did San Francisco mean? Why were the Dead so special? How did just another blues band with a fine guitarist become legendary? Are these records filled with answers?
Well, they reveal that the Dead could be very ordinary. The version of ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ on Historic Dead lacks Pig Pen’s lecherous presence and is only saved from complete monotony by Jerry Garcia’s virtuosity. It sounds like Paul Butterfield’s 1966 Blues Band on a very bad day. ‘It Hurts Me Too’ (on Vintage Dead) is nicer but still sounds like a thousand other sub B.B. King white blues groups. Meanwhile, the long tracks on the same album, eighteen minutes of ‘The Midnight Hour’ and eight of 'Dancing in the Street,' are actually embarrassing. The Dead weren’t aggressive enough to do this sort of material; they weren’t into the necessary clipped discipline. They would have been cut by any satin-suited English disco group.
The source of the Dead’s magic lay elsewhere, in their relaxation, their complete lack of self-consciousness. There’s a lovely, affectionate, version of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ on Vintage Dead, complete with mock Dylan sneer and Al Kooper organ. No one except Manfred Mann has covered Dylan with such a driving ease. An even sunnier track is ‘Lindy’, vibrato vocal on rebel-rousing guitar. It’s odd to think that the Dead are rated a ‘heavy’ group. Even in these early days they were doing their ‘country’ rock, with jerky melodies and harmony singing, though it’s difficult to judge the two examples here (‘Stealin’ and ‘I Know You Rider’) as they’ve been mixed into a state of muffled inarticulacy.
But the Dead’s real glory lay in their combination of the blues framework and their own looseness to create the San Francisco version of acid rock. Good trip music has to be a mixture of security and anarchy. It has to lead you on without ever threatening to get you lost. This was the form the Dead mastered. On the most fascinating track here (Willie Dixon’s ‘The Same Thing’) you can hear this form being developed from its very raw beginnings. What starts out as a straight white blues rhythm section underpinning Garcia’s lyricism, ends up as a Dead special, everyone roaring down their own individual paths without ever shaking the basic pulse. At the end of such a track all I can do is open my eyes and smile. It does bring back memories: stoned in a dark hall, enveloped in the rhythm of a thousand other people, alone in my own mood. Once upon a time acid rock was fun.
The Dead weren’t just the source of good trips. They symbolized the original hippie ideals, the naive attempts to combine total individual freedom with a loving community. Their music achieved the dream. It allowed each musician an individual freedom based on a complete instrumental trust. These albums were recorded at a time when the trust was still being established. Only on ‘The Same Thing’ is there any individual creative expression.
The Dead are still strangers to the suspicious English tradition of super-stars plus backing (if Jerry Garcia had been in a different sort of group he would have been boss white guitarist for the last five years), of excitement built on the tension and conflicts between musicians. But, not very long after this music was made, it was Cream and their successors who captured the rock audience. San Francisco’s search for community found psychedelic fascism, the individual trip became a downer. The Dead are an old group now, not a new one.
I hate historical records. They bring back too many faded expectations. ‘School days are the happiest days of your life,' they used to say, lying. Now they say, ‘They don’t make records like that any more.’ I don’t believe that either. It’s too depressing.

(by Simon Frith, from Cream, June 1972)



  1. Frith was an English reviewer, far removed from San Francisco, and it's notable that he finds the Avalon Ballroom "mythical" and the Grateful Dead "legendary"...and 1966 ancient history.
    The Vintage and Historic Dead albums were shoddy albums, as he says, and the Dead didn't approve their release - Frith also criticizes the sound. He tries to listen in historical terms (what did the Dead sound like in 1966?), but has a largely negative reaction ("very ordinary...complete monotony...actually embarrassing").
    These tapes were recorded in December '66 - just a month before the Dead did their first album. It's probably an average show for the time - not as strong as, say, 11/19/66. But the Dead were playing a lot better here than they did earlier in '66, and they would be playing far better just a few months later. But Frith didn't have a bunch of tapes to compare to, so he didn't know that 'Midnight Hour' or 'Dancing' would improve drastically the following year, or how much worse they'd sounded in early '66. He does compare them a little to other groups, though not very specifically.
    It's funny that he says 'Schoolgirl' sounds like the Butterfield Blues Band on a bad day, considering what Michael Bloomfield said about it: "I don't dig 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' by the Grateful Dead. I don't Pigpen trying to sing blues; it don't sound like blues. It sounds like some white kid trying to sing blues. It drags me; they're not funky. They don't have a good beat....it's not the real shit and it's not even a good imitation. It's not even like the Stones."
    Frith does praise the Dylan cover and likes a couple of the other lighter tracks, and he rightly points out 'The Same Thing' as the strongest track, one that took him on a trip.
    But aside from what he thought of the music, he also uses the review to analyze just what made the Dead special. He's clearly a Dead fan - he mentions their "magic" and "glory" and recommends the Live Dead album. His thoughts here are interesting, on the social framework of their playing and how "their music achieved the dream." The end of the review is a bit rushed, though, as it's a little hard to tell what he's saying at the end.
    Given that just a couple archival albums were enough to send him on a rant about mercenary record companies releasing "buried treasures, long forgotten tapes," I wonder what he'd make of the dozens of Dead live albums available today!

    1. And as a sidenote: though Frith mentions that this was recorded "at a time when the trust was still being established" within the band, before the Dead had the individual freedom to explore new paths in the music, he does single out Garcia as being a virtuoso even at the time, and implies that the rest of the band was just backing him. But the Dead did not go down the route of "superstars plus backing," instead melding into a group expression - Frith says that "if Jerry Garcia had been in a different sort of group," he would have been considered a top guitarist for years now. An interesting implication.