Mar 8, 2018

1967: Album Review


Rating: *****

This album is possibly the finest yet by a group in the general area of white blues-rock. Those who prefer another sort of rock may disagree with the Grateful Dead's predilection for the blues, but no one could deny after hearing the record that the band is superb.
Jazz fans should find this LP a good introduction to some of the better rock music.
The Dead began, three men strong, as a jug band, and Minglewood and Viola Lee are from the repertoire of the old Gus Cannon Memphis Jug Stompers, best known for their Walk Right In. However, the Dead's versions of these tunes are a far cry from the Cannon sound.
Viola Lee is a 10-minute track with an unusual accelerando middle section. Toward the end McKernan's organ is flying, and the whole band is in such an orbit that the return to the initial tempo for the final vocal choruses is a shock.
Most vocals on the album are by Garcia, with a couple of significant exceptions: McKernan sings and plays harmonica on the chestnut Little Schoolgirl, and rhythm guitarist Weir sings lead on Jesse Fuller's Down the Line.
The rest of the material is in a more modern vein. In Tim Rose's superbly ominous Morning Dew, an excellent vocal is backed by lovely instrumental figures. The arranged nature of the instrumental breaks and leads for this and Cold Rain and Snow, while retaining the spontaneity of the usual blues band, demonstrates a way out of some ruts. Most of the originals on the album are collaborations, with Lesh doing much of the catalytic work; Garcia said that Cream Puff is the only song used by the group that he wrote by himself.
Sometimes the Dead's lyrics are written strictly for simplicity, avoiding "significance."
"The lyrics are nonsensical and banal," one of the group told a Ramparts reporter. The hit tune The Golden Road is noteworthy in this respect. Although performance is always predominant with this group, lyrics like those for Cold Rain and Snow certainly tell a story.
Instrumentally, Garcia's unusually round-sounding guitar lead, the full-toned organ of McKernan, and the very active bass lines of Lesh produce a powerful effect. Weir and Sommers are also excellent musicians, but greater than anything else is the unity of effect these men produce. In many rock bands the listener is tempted to imagine how much better the band would sound if only he could substitute some personal favorite of his. This feeling never occurs regarding this group, nor do people talk much about its stars or its outstanding members; it's just the Grateful Dead.
When the band first was approached about recording, Garcia and the others felt that the Dead was simply not a recording group.
"I don't believe the live sound, the live excitement, can be recorded," Garcia told Newsweek. In spite of these doubts, a superb record has been created. Engineer Dave Hassinger traveled to San Francisco to hear the group live several times before planning the date, and he has captured the sound of the band wonderfully well.
There are all sorts of rock or electric bands. Some emphasize melody, some stress poetic lyrics, some are more like jazz groups with a little singing added. Some are folk-derived, some are 90 per cent Negro blues influenced. Indian music, Nashville c&w, and countless other forms have their effect.
You simply find your way to the bands that derive from what you're used to and go on from there. But along with the recent Beatles albums, the Byrds, the Lovin' Spoonful, Paul Butterfield, and Bob Dylan, I find the Grateful Dead outstanding, and I especially recommend them to jazz fans.

(by Edward Spring, from Down Beat, 21 September 1967)

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  1. A positive, detailed, and prescient review of the first album.

    This was actually the very first review of a rock album in Down Beat magazine. As a jazz magazine, it took tentative steps into rock reviewing - I'm not sure whether picking the Grateful Dead as the first step was just chance or an inspired choice. But in April '68, Down Beat offered a free copy of the Dead album to new subscribers!
    Matt Brennan's book When Genres Collide reports that Down Beat had trouble adding rock reviews "without alienating the existing jazz readership. [Editor Dan] Morgenstern wanted to get writers who were conversant with jazz to the extent that they could make references or comparisons and put rock into a context which made sense to jazz fans... But none of the staff at Down Beat were interested in rock music themselves... [Morgenstern] did not listen to rock music himself, [and admitted that the rock coverage] 'probably could have been done better if we had been a little more knowledgeable about rock, but we were not.'"
    As a result, the lack of interest & knowledge among the editors meant that rock coverage in Down Beat was rather spotty and erratic, with some far-fetched attempts to appeal to jazz fans on their terms; most rock albums were just ignored and live rock-show reviews were rare; but they did find some regular rock reviewers and there were a number of in-depth reviews and profiles over the years.

    Anyway, this review definitely caters to jazz fans who need "a good introduction" to rock music, so the Dead are picked as a fine example. Their links to blues music are emphasized (as they are on the album), and the instrumental work praised. The lyrics, in contrast, are just noted for their "simplicity," with the music more important, but the reviewer notices how some of Garcia's cover songs "tell a story." The band's "unity of effect" is noted, though you can tell how early the review is since it's said the band doesn't have an individual "star." (This was already not true.) The reviewer also says the Dead's sound was captured "wonderfully well" in the studio - he mentions the group's reservations about this, but hasn't heard them live himself to compare the album with.

    I was surprised this reviewer had found several quotes from Garcia, from different sources - unusually well-researched! - but it's likely the articles he quoted from were included in the Warner Bros. press-release kit, so he didn't have to go digging for them:

    I have not found the Ramparts article mentioned, but I believe it's this article by Jann Wenner (date unknown) which was reprinted in other papers:

  2. One jazz column in 1968 included a few words about the Dead's first album in a discussion of Frank Zappa's album Freak Out and his social satire:

    "The Grateful Dead, on the other hand, don't believe in explaining their music. Instead, they pen songs like Good Mornin' Little School Girl and Cream Puff War - both of which express just as succinctly the new awareness of American youth...
    In 'Downbeat,' their first album was rated five stars...and they have been described as the most musical unmusicians going today.
    Their album, titled simply Grateful Dead, is not a logical progression (or retrogression) as is that of the Mothers. It is rather a collection of thoughts, helter-skeltered around in gay abandon.
    They don't appear, on first hearing, to be as destructively critical as the Mothers. This is possibly because they are more subtle - one doesn't know whether to treat Beat It On Down The Line as solid rock or giant-size tongue-in-the-cheek...
    [What this] has to do with the accepted definition of jazz is an arguable point. There are those who will say that the Mothers of Invention and the Grateful Dead are merely teeny-bopper beach boys growing up and, as far as I'm concerned, they're entitled to their opinions...
    But it's my guess that those who dismiss the MI and the Dead as crabby and banal either haven't listened to them as they should, or have no understanding of contemporary American youth."

    (Kevin Hamilton, "Youth's Say," in The Age (unknown city), April 27, 1968)

    This is a curious attempt by another jazz reviewer to recommend the Dead (and Zappa) to traditional jazz listeners. Granted, it's written in haste for the limited confines of a newspaper column, but it seems to avoid mentioning anything about the Dead's album that might interest a jazz fan. No word about their folk & blues covers (he says they wrote Schoolgirl!), no mention of the lengthy Viola Lee. He seems to be a lyric-focused reviewer who's more concerned with the Dead's social "awareness" and sees the album as a statement by "contemporary youth" - whereas on the album lyrics were secondary, the Dead reveled in the songs of a former age, and the "contemporary" aspect was mostly limited to the electric rock arrangements.
    Listening for an album that isn't there, he's a little puzzled by the lack of overt social comment, and concludes that the Dead are just very subtle, or perhaps even a put-on. So much for understanding contemporary youth!

    It might not seem even worth quoting such an off-the-mark review, were it not a good illustration of the perspective of the older generation in the '60s, wondering what's going on in this new music and putting it in entirely the wrong framework. Also, "helter-skeltered around in gay abandon" is a great line.