Oct 4, 2018

1970: More Workingman's Dead Reviews


My favorite pop rock heart throb group of musicians is the Grateful Dead. I first saw the Dead at a pre-peace march dance in Longshoremans Hall on April 9, 1967. I was fresh from New Jersey and I had never seen a light show, much less the Dead. They came on right after the Sopwith Camel, and they blew my mind; and it's been uphill ever since.
I was sitting eating pizza some time ago when this fellow said that nothing important had come out of the rock explosion. I turned around in my chair and made myself heard as I told him of the virtues of the most holy Grateful Dead. I dragged him to my home and sat him down in front of some enormous speakers and played Anthem of the Sun for him at very high volume. He shouted that they broke all the rules and then he wept as he said, "but it works."
My list of converts is long. I especially like the look on the faces of the people who can't believe that the Live/Dead album was really recorded live. I lean back, light up my four foot marigewana ceegar and explain that if they were to encounter these types in person the rest of their brains would be suitably shattered.
I've followed the Dead's encounter with the forces of capitalism with great interest. Many's the time that some experienced rock hustler would call me aside and say, "how can they expect to make money when they spend over $100,000 on one album. They'll never last, never!"
Ahhhhh but they have lasted, and each succeeding album converts more and more people, not to mention the hamsters. The Dead are the embodiment of the revolution. They live ("I don't know but I been told it's hard to run with the weight of gold.") with a lot of people, and they feed a lot of people, and no one who's ever been with the Dead has ever told a bad story about my pop rock idols.
The Dead have been party to every different type of rock and roll shuck and they've managed to weather them all and feed their family and make every new album. This one's the Workingman's Dead, a mindblower.
In fact they're so good that their good old (and it is a good) record company wouldn't let the Dead loose even if they sold maybe no records. Remember the Dead are the guys who told Billy Graham to fuck off when they were broke. Talk about soul.
The Dead fulfill a most marvelous vision of mine. They are a band which is highly blues and country influenced, which makes music which is exciting and good in terms of anybody's vision. The new album is more down home than anything except "Lovelight" on the Live/Dead album. The songs are sort of short for the Dead, and the words courtesy of Robert Hunter are super good.
"driving that train/
high on cocaine
Casey Jones you better watch your speed
trouble ahead
trouble behind
and you know that notion just crossed my mind."
That's the opening of Casey Jones. Here's the opening of Uncle John's Band:
Well the first days are the hardest days
don't you worry anymore
when life looks like easy street
there is danger at your door
think this through with me
let me know your mind
what I want to know is all you'll find  [sic]
The combination of Garcia/Lesh and Hunter is working out and very well. The Workingman's Dead is the finest example of this work, and I hope it's a portent of things to come.
I need some energetic Dead freak to maybe do a service for all mankind. Like sit down with all your Dead albums, and gather the lyrics of all their original songs so that some other revolutionary can print them up and give them out free and thereby give the revolution some good songs. The Dead's songs make you think and are very educational.
This latest example leans heavily on the country roots of the Dead, and I'm sure, on the New Riders of the Purple Sage. That's a mystery for those of you who don't know what that is. The songs are real down to earth. They talk about whatever you like. I find a lot of revolution in the songs; other people may find other things. It'll be in your local ripoff record store in a few weeks, but first a message about local ripoff record stores. There are a few record stores that are run by the people and for the people, like Leopolds in the East Bay and the New Geology Rock Shop in the Haight. Like dig it when the White Front throws a sale the capitalists cry crocodile tears as they rip off the people's cash money. Like Leopolds et al is the best we got till the people own the entire means of production. Also if you know of other records stores that are in the interest of the people, drop a line.
"One way or another, this darkness has got to end." (New Speedway Boogie, by the Grateful Dead on the Workingman's Dead) Dig it.

[The rest of the article reviews Spider John Koerner's Running Jumping Standing Still album.]

(by Sam Silver, from the San Francisco Express Times, 29 May 1970)

* * *

WORKINGMAN'S DEAD, The Grateful Dead, Warner Bros. WS1869

The Dead only know how to get better. This new album captures perfectly the unique craftsmanship they exhibit so effortlessly in concert. They offer several exceptional cuts ("Uncle John's Band," "Dire Wolf," "Casey Jones"), and there isn't a disappointing note on the LP. Even the use of two or more drummers on several of the cuts doesn't intrude on the basic gentleness that is the core of all their recent work. It's music that should be lived with, rather than simply listened to. (And are those really old Sanford Clark licks on "New Speedway Boogie"?)

(from "Recent Releases," the Madison Kaleidoscope, 1 June 1970)

* * *

GROUP GROUP  (excerpt)

Speaking of live and free, the Grateful Dead have a new record out. Now, the Dead are a live band if there ever was one. And they used to play for free pretty often too.
The magical band. The Acid Test band. THE San Francisco band. And - on a good night - the highest of the high.
But they've never got it down on a record. Some tracks on "Live Dead" came close, particularly "Love Light." And "Viola Lee Blues" with that stratospheric jam on the first record. In fact, every album has good music on it. But they've never captured the magic.
Sadly, this one is no exception. "Workingman's Dead" is the most "country" of their albums. But it's constipated. Despite impeccable musicianship, it drags like a 300lb. bag of pure country cowshit.
The first cut is downright embarrassing. Thought it was Crosby, Stills, ad infinitum at first. But I soon realized that, despite the whining, the musicians were too good, too tight, and too together to be C.S.N.&Y. Inc.
But it still wasn't the Grateful Dead.

(from the Berkeley Tribe, 19 June 1970)

* * *


Ah, a new Grateful Dead album - Working Man's Dead. The Dead generally have had a hard time getting together in the recording studio. Their recording history has sort of paralleled the Airplane's - the bands are close. First albums were very tight and cramped, just hints of the freedom and life and beauty of the live performance. Successive albums - Bathing at Baxters, Crown of the Sun [sic] were mixtures of live and studio recordings, and Crown of Creation and AOXOMOXOA were back in the studios. Then came live albums - Bless Its Pointed Little Head and Live Dead which were finally definitive of the power and majesty of the band's potential. Then the Airplane with the help of a few friends made Volunteers, their best studio album. Quicksilver Messenger Service has gone the same route, only internal hassles in the band made their last studio album untogether - dominated by Nicky Hopkins and not enough Quicksilver. So where were the Dead going?
I couldn't imagine anything following Live Dead. The music there is free, easy, loud, soft, fast, slow, beautiful and terrifying - the Grateful Dead live.
What happened was the Dead got themselves together - having found out they could put their music on a record after all - and put down very easy and flowing in the best Dead style sketches of 8 songs.
Most are songs I remember from being freaked out in giant concerts waiting for the Dead and they come out and do magic and start playing and Christ there's the Dead man real fucking people up there playing so cool so easy flying high and it's no longer a freaked out pop concert as the Dead take us out of the giant cement arenas in 20th century Amerika and into the magical acid world of the Grateful Dead.
But these aren't live versions of the songs as each could be as a side of an album like the songs on Live Dead, but they are sketched skeleton metaphor of the songs live as just the bare essentials of the song are there, but are there so easily and you don't expect a live performance or Live Dead because it's Working Man's Dead - a record.

(from the Rag (Austin, TX), 22 June 1970)

* * *


The Grateful Dead album, Workingman's Dead, is a tribute to a generation. That generation is the Beat Generation, with its pot, its music, its drinking, singing, and most of all, its love of life. The Beats wanted to grasp life as one would a goblet of wine, and then drink it down lustily, so they lived fast, played hard, and never stopped searching for fresh horizons, fresh thrills, and fresh meanings in their world. Out of the storm of the Beat Generation came William Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. And with Kesey came the Grateful Dead.
The Dead have been around for a long time - they put out the original underground album in 1965 - and yet each album reveals a different musical idea. "Workingman's Dead" is unlike anything else the Dead have ever done. Gone is the feedback, the loud, screeching guitar riffs, the shouted vocals and inexact harmonies of previous LPs. Instead, one finds a series of low-volume arrangements where the words themselves come across and capture the listener's attention. The lyrics are varied in subject matter, ranging from humorous to philosophical to frightening, but there is no variety in their quality. All the songs are outstanding in their ability to tell a tale without sacrificing the quality of the music itself.
It is an album of poetry put to music, true, but to the Dead, music has always been first in importance. Much of the guitar work is acoustical, so that the vocals, the highlight of the disc, stand out. "Uncle John's Band" gives a fine description of what music really is to the Dead. It is playing with the folks that mean something to you just for the sake of getting together for a good time.
I live in a silver mine / and I call it Beggars Tomb
I've got me a violin / and I beg you call the tune.
Anybody's choice / Let me hear your voice
Wo, ho and I want to know / How does the song go?
"Cumberland Blues", "Casey Jones," and "Easy Wind" deal with the kinds of jobs the Beats usually ended up holding - common labor that paid just enough so they could enjoy life in their own way. These jobs allowed them to work without the responsibilities of better paying positions, for when one of them decided to up and leave for a while, it was easy to quit such a job.
Been ballin' that shiny black steel jack hammer
Been breakin' up rocks for the great highway
I'll live five years if I take my time
Ballin' that jack and drinkin' my wine.
The heroes that the Dead give us are again the common laborers. "Casey Jones", which is almost certainly a tribute to the late wildman Neil Cassidy, presents a fine portrait of the workingman-become-hero.
"Workingman's Dead" is a musical documentary of a generation, a poetic portrait of a unique way of life. This album has beautifully captured the Beat Scene. The Dead also have reached a peak of musicianship on this LP, as they finally bring everything together. Instrumentally, vocally, lyrically and creatively, this is their finest effort.

(by Dan Cook, from the Observer (Case Western Reserve U), 13 October 1970)

See also:


  1. A few more reviews from the underground press...

    The first review has a marvelous start - he presents himself as a Dead worshipper, converting people to the glory of the Dead wherever he goes. (One guy gets dragged to his house and turned on to Anthem: "and then he wept.") The nay-sayers are proven wrong: "They'll never last, never!" But each album draws new fans, as the Dead continue blowing minds and staying holy. To him, "the Dead are the embodiment of the revolution," keeping their integrity and never making a false move. (He even somewhat accurately says that Warner Bros. wouldn't want to let go of the Dead even if they didn't sell any records.)
    He's a fan of Hunter's lyrics and predicts good things to come - he even hopes the Dead's lyrics will be printed up for "the revolution." He calls the new album "down home," noting that the new songs are "sort of short for the Dead" and "lean heavily on [their] country roots," but doesn't seem to consider it a big break in style from their previous work.
    (I'm surprised he accurately remembers the date of his first Dead show, 4/9/67. He recalls the Dead playing after Sopwith Camel, but that's doubtful since Sopwith Camel were the headlining band.)

    The next review also notes the Dead's "basic gentleness" and country influences. The Seed (in Chicago) had an article about the country influence on rock music mentioning, "The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia is an ex-Bluegrass banjo picker and the Dead's latest album 'Workingman's Dead' is as close to a completely country album as they've ever come... It sounds like country but listen close, it is really the Grateful Dead." (Warren Leming, "Country Comforts," the Seed 8/15/70)

    There's one dissenting voice, though, complaining that the Dead "have never captured the magic" on record, that this album is too country, too close to CSNY, and not the real Dead. It's rare to find a reviewer in 1970 who was a Dead fan but DIDN'T like their new country style.
    By and large, these reviewers are not surprised by the album's new direction - they'd been to Dead shows, they may have heard many of the songs months earlier, so it wouldn't have been a shock.
    The last reviewer, familiar with the songs, perceptively says that the album versions are just bare "sketches," to be filled out in live shows. So the album's easy and flowing as the Dead finally "got themselves together" in the studio, but still nothing like "the power and majesty" of their concerts. He has a great description of seeing them live: "they come out and do magic and...take us out of the giant cement arenas...and into the magical acid world of the Grateful Dead."

    Warner Brothers ran large promotional ads for Workingman's Dead in a lot of underground papers that summer, featuring quotes from various reviews:
    "...the Grateful Dead is one of the best bands in the world...on a good night the Dead is as good as it gets." - David Crosby quoted in Rolling Stone
    "The Grateful Dead are a thousand steps ahead of everyone else." - Phil Ardery and Mary Duffy in Circus
    "Workingman's Dead is an excellent album." - Andy Zwerling in Rolling Stone
    "Heck, it's so nice, things like this don't happen too often." - Tim Jurgens in Fusion

  2. I have been searching for that Phil Ardery and Mary Duffy multi-page article from Circus magazine for the longest time. My recollection from nearly fifty years ago is that the headline was "The Grateful Dead are a thousand steps ahead of The Beatles."

    So far, no luck.

  3. A short Workingman's Dead review from a college paper:

    "Without a doubt, the Grateful Dead's new disc is the best effort of the last few months. Workingman's Dead is the culmination of close to ten years of working together for the Dead, and there isn't a bad song on the album. "Uncle John's Band" could well be the finest number they have ever done; some think it is the best rock song to date. Vocals are featured on Workingman, and well they might be, for the lyrics are incredible."
    (from Dan Cook, "Summer Sound: In Retrospect," the Observer, Case Western Reserve U, 9/25/70)

    1. Cook was so enthralled with the album, in fact, that he wrote a longer review for the student paper a month later, which I've added at the end of the post.