BLUES-ROCK BEAT GOES ON
THE GRATEFUL DEAD
This album is different from what you might expect from looking at the psychedelic record jacket.
There are no electronic or weird noises (except for the conventional electric guitars) and no psychedelic lyrics. Rather, the group is similar in many ways to the blues-oriented Animals and Rolling Stones.
The Grateful Dead consists of Jerry Garcia, lead guitar; Bob Weir, rhythm guitar; Phil Lesh, bass; Bill Sommers, drums; and Ron ("Pig Pen") McKernan, organ and harmonica.
The lyrics of the songs have been accurately described by Lesh and Garcia, who do most of the writing, as "nonsensical and banal."
However, it is difficult to ascertain this from the record, as the instruments drown out the voices most of the time. The songs are for the most part rock-blues. There is only one slow song, "Morning Dew."
One mostly instrumental tune, "Viola Lee Blues," lasts ten minutes, in which the tempo gradually speeds up, the music slowly gets louder, and the pitch gets higher and higher, until a climax is reached and the beginning tempo is returned to.
"Cream Puff War" will probably become a hit. It is catchy, and the rhythm changes from 4/4 to 3/4 and to 1 several times, similar to the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" time changes.
Besides the instrumental work being better than average, especially the organ, there is really nothing special about this album. The Grateful Dead are supposed to be one of the best groups in the San Francisco area. According to several reviewers and hippies, they are supposed to be fantastic in person.
To let the San Francisco sound go unspoiled, Warner Bros. gave the Grateful Dead a unique deal, allowing them complete control over material and production. It isn't that great.
(by Jackie Harper, from the "Record Reviews" column, Daily Aztec, 11 April 1967)
http://digital.sdsu.edu/view-item?i=171958 (page 5)
A disappointed review from the San Diego university paper. The writer had heard that the Dead were "one of the best groups" in San Francisco, that they were "fantastic in person," that they were totally psychedelic... And here was an album of speedy but mostly straightforward blues-rock - "nothing special." Anthem of the Sun may have pleased this reviewer more!ReplyDelete
Of course, the "psychedelic" aspect of the Viola Lee Blues jam is totally overlooked in the focus on its technical aspects.
I wonder where the writer saw Lesh & Garcia's description of the lyrics as "nonsensical and banal" - since the Dead only wrote two songs on the album! (But they probably did feel that way about their originals, before Hunter arrived.)
The reviewer was not alone in hearing a resemblance to the Stones - the Crawdaddy review points that out as well; and Richard Goldstein's review also mentions other contemporary bands the Dead sound like. Goldstein, in fact, makes the same point as this review: "It is straight, decent rhythm and blues - some of it so civil it passes for dull. Certainly, this is no 'psychedelic' music." The difference being, he liked it, and was more attentive to the nuances in the Dead's playing (and he'd heard them live).
Others who'd seen the Dead live were also disappointed that the record didn't reflect more of their live sound - the Dead themselves certainly were. Garcia felt at the time that their sound couldn't be captured on record, and told Michael Lydon in '69, "At the time, it was unreasonable for us to do what we did [live], which would have been one LP, two sides, one song. They would never have gone for it; it was not the thing to do with the [record] form. So we made the first record of short songs...but they were our little warm-up numbers... And we had to live with the first record for a year and we grew to hate it."
I bought, and loved, Anthem Of The Sun in 1968 - this was the first time I'd heard the Dead (in the UK) other than Born Cross-Eyed on the radio sometime earlier. A short time afterwards, I went to a record shop and listened to the first album which seemed very 'primitive' and lacking in fluidity by comparison. Not impressed, it was another couple of years before I went back and bought it.ReplyDelete
I actually really like their first album. Especially since the Golden Road release where they include the fuller length versions of the songs..ReplyDelete
Ralph Gleason wrote an article in the 5/7/67 San Francisco Examiner, “The Big Sound of the Bay Area Bands,” reviewing recent albums by Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe, and the Dead:ReplyDelete
“The Grateful Dead, which is one of the most consistently exciting bands I have ever heard, has a beautiful album out on Warner Brothers, “Grateful Dead” (Warner Bros. 1689) which, again like the Airplane, is not as good as the band itself is in person, but is closer to it than the Airplane’s album.
The thing about the Dead is that they are absolutely and completely together. They have developed a really individual sound, they swing like mad, and the solos by Jerry Garcia on guitar as well as the vocals by Pig Pen are utterly delightful. On this LP the bass playing of Phil Lesh is a revelation. I had never really heard him before.
This LP and the one by the Airplane are two of the very best rock band albums this year anywhere, and the only products in this country that are comparable with the best of the British bands, such as the Who.”
Surrealistic Pillow was already "an unmistakable smash hit" and he predicts it "may end up being the best seller ever to be produced in San Francisco," but he warns that even though the album is good, "the band is better in person."
"Country Joe & The Fish, who have been a Berkeley favorite for some time, are in a slightly different bag than either the Airplane or the Dead. Joe MacDonald is straight out of folk music, the band is political in the song content, and there is a heavy influence of Eastern music... They are not as consistent as the Dead or as drastic as the Airplane, but they are infinitely better, for instance, than the Fugs, and their music and songs have potential that could put them among the handful of top bands in the country."
But their first album "is again not as good as they are in person. I think it was recorded too soon and the sound is erratic. But it has some fine songs on it and gives a reasonable sampling of what the Fish can do in person."
He also mentions that Big Brother "has a record out and that is a poor example of what the band can do." He expanded on that in a later article:
“The way the San Francisco rock bands have been recorded is nothing less than a cultural crime. Only the Grateful Dead on Warner Brothers sounds reasonably like the in-person sound. The RCA Victor job on the Jefferson Airplane went from horrible to passable in two LPs but it still isn’t as good as the Warner Brothers job on the Dead and that, as anyone who has heard them knows, is only a whiter shade of pale compared to the real thing. The Charlatans, too, were misused in the studio, and the most recent example is the Big Brother & the Holding Company album just issued on Mainstream. This is a fine, exciting band and Janis Joplin is a remarkable singer...but we all surely detest the process which got so little of their true sound into the groove... What has been exposed by this album is the inadequacy of Mainstream's recording process.”
("Rock's Wrapped Up in the Blues," 8/20/67 SF Examiner)
Early in the year, Philip Elwood had worried that none of the local bands would come across on record: “The pallid recordings on the Top 40 tend to emphasize the distinctive attractiveness of our live Airplanes, Country Joes, Quicksilvers, and Grateful Dead, none of whom, I’m afraid, can ever be recorded to properly project their in-person rhythmic and harmonic excitement.” ("Monkee Business Spins the Wheels to Pop-Rock," SF Examiner 1/10/67)Delete
His point was that while the top 40 was being filled with contrived pop, the local rock scene was still going strong and it was better to see bands live. For instance, the Young Rascals at the Fillmore: "Their records, echo chambered, filled with voices and other special effects, don't display anything very interesting. But in a big hall with an informal and roaring crowd The Rascals come on very strong... The Rascals are good dance music: the kind of funky blues-beat which is missing on many of the hit records." He predicts that the Fillmore & Avalon dances will continue to draw thousands of patrons every week "long after the Monkeeshines have dimmed."
For some 1968 comments on the disparity between records and live shows, see: