Aug 3, 2015

Summer 1969: Grateful Dead History


Recently I somewhere read the quotation, “The Grateful Dead are more a heard-of than a heard band.” True. Quite lamentably, one of rock’s most dynamic aggregations has never been featured in an interview, never culled honors in critics’ polls, never enjoyed a widespread popularity or a sales reputation bearing any relationship to the caliber of the talent they possess. When the Grateful Dead are mentioned, it is almost exclusively in the context of fellow musicians’ conversations (or interviews). Perhaps the latter situation (the matter of popularity proportional to talent) is irremediable; when you are creating a musical product along the order of the Dead, you can’t hope to appeal to as wide an audience as Steppenwolf or Creedence Clearwater. The former situation, the absence of any substantial critical appraisal, is inexcusable; if we can continued to make extended commentary on the Beatles, Hendrix, Cream, et al, we certainly owe the Grateful Dead some attention.
Like most San Francisco pioneers (with the exception of the Airplane), the Grateful Dead are primarily an instrumental group. This is merely because, as a band, they choose to pursue instrumental activity in rock, more than singing, as such. Their music embodies one of Brian Wilson’s oft-cited concepts: the voices are instruments, not exclusively designed tools to communicate any “message”; the Dead, however, are quite competent vocally; their strength is formidable, in Pig’s style, in the sensitive approaches of Garcia and Weir. Particular illustration of this is offered in the stunning vocal arrangements of Aoxomoxoa. On their axes, these individual musicians are true heavyweights; as a unit, their rock is probably the most alive stuff available today. After initially digging the effects of their kineticism (which, during their early days, was the band’s primary drawing power), I was intrigued by the somewhat awesome aspects of the group’s potential; in less than a year, they had outdistanced every other San Francisco unit, no mean task. To appreciate the progress they’ve accomplished in the last three years and to hopefully point to future directions, a history of the group is in order.

In the very early sixties, Jerry Garcia was teaching guitar at a Palo Alto, California, music store. One evening Bob Weir, who played guitar, dropped in to visit. Out of a mutual admiration for bluegrass and folk sounds, Jerry and Bob formed a small jugband (something like “Mother Macree’s Uptown Jug Stompers”, Jerry on banjo, Bob on guitar). They got gigs in some local and some San Francisco coffeehouses, learning and perfecting technique, polishing up what was to become a style (early tapes of the jugband disclose the finger-picking mode which so influences Garcia today). Ron (Pigpen) McKernan joined the jugband, contributing Lightnin’ Hopkins imitations, harp, and what was to strongly affect the early electric Dead – a proclivity for hard r&b. According to Garcia, after some time in the jugband format, it was simply time to go electric, the next place to visit. The band electrified itself (Weir, Garcia on guitars, Pig on organ), took on Dana Morgan on bass and Bill Kreutzmann (who taught drums at Morgan’s music store) and commenced playing a funky brand of r&b in Peninsula bars; the period was germinal, and it was not until the leaving of Morgan and his replacement by classically-trained trumpet player turned electric bassist Phil Lesh, that things began pulling together. In 1965 the band, calling themselves the Emergency Crew, cut a demo (Early Morning Rain) for Tom Donahue while auditioning for his San Francisco club Mother’s. Later that year they became the Warlocks, later still the Grateful Dead, and they began gigging the slowly emerging hip circuit (Mother’s, the Matrix, the Longshoreman’s Hall).

The event which seems to have sprung the Grateful Dead on an unsuspecting world was Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests and his January ’66 Trips Festival. With the impetus given them by their appearances for Kesey (Ralph Gleason waxed enthusiastic over their performances), they became Fillmore, then Avalon regulars and their legions began to grow. The phrase so widely used then to describe the effect of the Dead was that they sounded “like live thunder.” Indeed. The group erected a wall of sound that Phil Spector labeled “unbelievable”; the rhythm they sent bouncing around the cavernous old halls was propelled by an urgency that forced entire audiences to whirl into fits of dancing frenzy. The band’s repertoire was a mixture of popular r&b (Big Boss Man, High Heel Sneakers) and older, often obscure folk and country material (Viola Lee, Beat It On Down The Line, etc.). The band was decidedly eclectic (Garcia once told a reporter, “We’ve stolen freely from everywhere, and we have no qualms about mixing idioms”), but yet not derivative; from the beginning, their music sounded not like white city boys covering Muddy Waters (as so many of the early East Coast and recent English blues bands do), but like the Grateful Dead. The reason for this is twofold; on one hand, the essential nature of their eclecticism was a diversity of influences, rather than a studied attempt at accommodating various musical styles (Lesh’s classical training, Garcia’s Chuck Berry/bluegrass/banjo-fiddle style, Pigpen’s closeness to blues, all had to be reconciled with each other if they wanted to play as a unit; they had to integrate their multiple influential aspects if they hoped to make any music at all). The other factor was the format in which they were being presented, the dance-concert. As a dance band playing hour-plus sets, they had ample time to stretch out instrumentally, to improvise. Certain numbers developed into showcases for these excursions (Midnight Hour, Viola Lee), and they created a distinctive style in practically no time. By mid-1966 the Dead were local favorites; accordingly, they’d cut a sparsely distributed Scorpio single, Stealin’/Don’t Ease Me In, and played everywhere. By the end of the year it was time to trek down to Los Angeles to start work on their first Warner Bros. album.
The Grateful Dead (WB 1689) is evidence of one of the classic encounters between San Francisco rock music and the recorded medium. As was expected by the group and their fans, studio attempts to recreate the live Dead sound would be pale to the real thing; much of the bite is taken out of most of the performances. Despite this, the LP displays a mastery over instruments and a comprehension of group dynamics that has yet to be surpassed, the sense of what rock is all about, that makes albums by the Stones and the Miller Band landmarks. The organicism that defined the Dead’s “right on” musical approach appeared on that first album.

Middle-period Dead probably began in late 1967 and early 1968, during the various recordings which were compiled to form Anthem of the Sun. Mickey Hart joined Bill to form a drum team, and Tom Constanten took over keyboards to free Pigpen for more vocal work. The group had become a self-contained rock outfit, composing ambitious new tunes, rearranging all of their material constantly. During this time, as exhibited in Anthem, the Dead assumed a position at the forefront of improvisatory rock. Their intuitive grasp of rock dynamics, the complex and completely knowledgeable interplay among members (Garcia riffing off one drummer, Lesh and Weir weaving threads and building elaborate rhythmic structures off the other drummer), and the plain explosiveness of Garcia’s guitar led them to cover areas thus far inaccessible to most rock bands. About this time some mention was being made of Garcia’s incredible versatility, but today the mass rock public persists in believing the best guitarists are those who can string together twenty minutes of blues cliches at ear-shattering volume and really “get it on.” The formless jamming of Anthem (and of more recent live sets) contains an inventiveness and excitement that make such extended instrumentals as Cream’s Spoonful, and Creedence’s second LP plain linear redundancies. Perhaps the only other group capable of achieving a similarly graceful flow is Pentangle, whose music embodies a similar format of cyclic rhythms and a kind of general concentricity.
Anthem of the Sun is noteworthy in that it was the first record to generally succeed in duplicating a band’s live sound. The technique for accomplishing this was conceived by the Dead; they recorded several separate gigs on 8-track, miking various sections of the halls to get a full sound, went into the studio to add bass and drum tracks, spliced and overlaid segments, and mixed it all down: the result is a fairly ‘live’ recording. This has since been standard live recording procedure, re Happy Trails, Pointed Little Head.

The post-Anthem Grateful Dead exhibit a capacity for potential which is stunning. The old iceberg theory. Though Aoxomoxoa may be viewed as a compromise, since it features less of the exploratory freedom and achieves a kind of compact tightness (which might, Warner Bros. hopes, make the group a more saleable commodity), it is a good set. Most impressive to me are the arrangements on the album (Doin’ That Rag, St. Stephen) and the incantatory, magical lyrics supplied by Robert Hunter. The current Dead are blowing in every possible direction. Their next LP, scheduled for August release, is explanation enough; an exquisite Dark Star, much in the manner of the longer St. Stephen, hints at elusive melodies and flirts with rhythmic patterns which appear, disappear, then reappear at points in the flow; the song is understated beautifully, the words are sung, then the instrumental transcends itself via Garcia’s fluid guitar playing (recently having been much affected by Gabor Szabo), changing into St. Stephen. The Aoxomoxoa piece is succeeded by a long jam of varying texture; the tonal shifts achieved through the balancing of the ensemble are remarkable.
The music is continuous (apparently the plan is to release the set as a two-LP package), passing from highly lyrical guitar-bass-organ configurations through strategically placed bits of musique concrete, emerging at Pigpen’s invitation to the audience to participate in Turn On Your Love Light. Bobby Bland’s song is completely reworked, transformed into an intensely swinging variety of what might be legitimately labeled jazz-rock. The storm of Love Light subsides into the calmness of Death Don’t Have No Mercy, which closes the hour-and-a-half program.

Recently the group has experimented with electronics, as in What’s Become of the Baby; Pigpen is now doing some Otis Redding stuff and knocking audiences out. The whole group recently did a concert of all country music, and a local resort featured Dead accomplice Marmaduke singing country (and playing guitar) to the accompaniment of Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar. To speculate as to future directions for the Grateful Dead would be pointless. Rest assured that whatever area of musical endeavor they enter next (I assume they’ll eventually get around to all of them) will yield them abundant rewards and enable them to remain at the front of rock for some time. They are that good.

(by Gene Sculatti, from Jazz & Pop, September 1969)

Thanks to

Another Sculatti piece on the Dead, from 1966:  


  1. This is one of the best early overviews of the Dead's history - at the time, not that much had been written about the band's biography.
    It is rather pretentious and awkwardly written, but at the same time very detailed and insightful.

    Michael Lydon's long Rolling Stone piece was printed in August '69 - Sculatti had not seen it yet. (My guess is this was written in July, around Aoxomoxoa's release.) For most of his info, Sculatti draws from the radio documentary on the Dead that had aired on KSAN in June. Obviously, he also had a tape of the Live/Dead album that was broadcast on KSAN back in April/May. (Note that he expects an August release, and is uncertain whether it will be a double album.)

    Sculatti says the Dead are only mentioned by other musicians - I'm reminded of a comment Garcia made in '72 that "a lot of musicians like us but that's generally been true. We were a musicians' band before we got to be popular." The critical view on the Dead was mixed - some critics were fans, some disliked the trippy "drug" albums - and the albums weren't really big sellers. Sculatti says that Warners is hoping for more sales with the "compact tightness" of Aoxomoxoa, which is kind of a hilarious phrase to use about that album, especially in its 1969 mix.

    Sculatti can be rather obscure when describing the music, but he has good words for the first album, admires Anthem as a peak, likes Aoxomoxoa ("a good set"), and has high praise for the variety of the upcoming Live/Dead. He accurately describes the band's evolution as a live band, and also makes some interesting comparisons: he says the Dead are better improvisers than Cream, more inventive & exciting, and compares their "graceful flow" to Pentangle (of all bands!) - I'm not sure if he'd just heard Pentangle's Sweet Child album, or if he'd seen one of their longer instrumentals live. In any case, he feels the Dead stand alone in "areas thus far inaccessible to most rock bands" (a sentiment Lenny Kaye would repeat in a Live/Dead review).

    Not every detail might be accurate - I'm not sure the Dead ever played at Mother's, for instance. (I don't think they passed that audition!) He also says Garcia has been influenced by jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, but I don't recall Garcia ever mentioning that (I know Santana was a Szabo devotee, though).
    But it's still impressive research - a Garcia quote was drawn from an old '67 Ralph Gleason article, the names are all correct, and Sculatti knew about the obscure Emergency Crew demo & Scorpio single.

  2. One surprise, when he talks about the Dead's '66 shows: "the group erected a wall of sound that Phil Spector labeled 'unbelievable.'" Sculatti had seen the Dead back in '66 (and raved about them in a Crawdaddy article on the San Francisco rock scene), so his description here of an old Dead live show is firsthand. It's interesting to hear that even then, the Dead's "live thunder" sound stood out and they "outdistanced every other" SF band.

    The ending section on what the band is currently up to is quite up-to-date. Sculatti mentions the the lost 6/11/69 California Hall "country" show and the recent Marmaduke/Garcia shows (the New Riders were only just forming). He even mentions Pigpen's new cover of Hard to Handle which is "knocking audiences out!" But I'm not sure what he's referring to with the group's recent "experiments with electronics" - it makes me wonder if there were local shows where they did more tape/feedback experiments like the 4/26/69 encore in Chicago.
    I'm struck by his prescience about the Dead's "capacity for potential": that their next direction was unpredictable, what audiences had seen so far was just the tip of the iceberg, and that they'd eventually play in all areas of music.

    By the way - one indication of how the Dead were viewed at the time is that Garcia is only seen in a band photo in the article. But a picture of the scowling Pigpen fills the whole first page.