ROUND THINGS ARE...BORING
Considering a rock group as a
separate sociological entity may sound a bit intellectually
pretentious, and it probably is, but anyway, some groups are just groups
of assorted personages collected around a common musical concept, while
there are others who transcend the normal concept of what a group is,
One such unit is The Grateful Dead. They are not a
rock group, they are a complete family unit. And this separates them
from the rest of their field by the simple fact that as a family they
can only play good music. Also, as a family they show the many human
foibles so subdued in a majority of minor rock and roll country bands.
They are human and so is their music.
Now, the Dead are not one
of the richest groups around. They sometimes ask enormous sums to
perform simply because they need this money to enable them to continue
their music. Being a rock and roll band is a very expensive business.
You have to pay for equipment managers, equipment, food and clothing for
a group consisting of over 30 people. They are also famous and as such
have been arrested numerous times on various charges and this takes a
lot of money to straighten out. So the Dead is really a rock band in
serious financial difficulty most of the time.
Yet they still
won't hesitate to do a free concert for a cause they believe in. What it
all boils down to is that to be a serious rock and roll star you are
usually very poor and always very hassled by everyone who wants to grab
hold of a little of your fame and spotlight.
Being one of the more
famous bands around, the Dead have a long history of problems. Yet,
despite all of their problems they will never disappoint their fans and
listeners. They have won their highly respected position in the rock
hierarchy through thought, word, and deed.
All this leads up to
the fact of their new album Workingman's Dead. This album is judged by
many as the best Dead effort to date, as well as the one Dead album that
took the shortest time to get together. And it is evident that the lp
is a work of love, frustration, and pressure.
Having all these
legal and financial troubles, they seem to have decided to pack away
their accumulated pretentions and set their problems aside and sit down
and put together an album of happy, easy flowing, relaxed music.
this is what Workingman's Dead is all about. The Dead have recycled and
gone back to the style and mood of their first album.
the albums they've put out have had something wrong with them. They
seemed capable of only getting it together on one side of each album.
For example, in "Anthem of the Sun" the first side of the record is
perhaps the best piece of rock montage work ever done while the other
side is good but certainly is not the quality of genius presented on the
On "Aoxomoxoa" the first side with "St. Stephen;
Dupree's Diamond Blues; Rosemary; Doin' That Rag; and Mountains of the
Moon" is truly a superb blending of musical rhythms and textures, while
the second side has an interesting but totally out of place electronic
piece called, "What's Become of the Baby."
On "Live Dead" the
sides which contain "Dark Star; St. Stephen" are exactly what the Dead
are all about in live performance, while on another side they put on an
entire side of "Turn On Your Love Lights," a Pigpen song which is cool
because Pigpen is dynamite, but it just doesn't fit with the overall
mood of the lp.
When finally making it to "Workingman's Dead"
we witness a true rarity. This Dead lp fits together, there is not one
song which takes itself out of the mood of the album. This is why I
consider this album the best (along with Dave Mason's Alone Together)
recorded effort of this somewhat dismal year.
This album is an
example of musical texture. It's an album about fluids. It's an album
which sets up a definite musical texture and proceeds to explore the
finite possibilities of that texture.
As a whole the album is
full of many pleasant surprises. This first surprise is the unusual
harmony which the group sets up - it's a jumpy harmony which goes off in
one direction and in the next instance sets off in an entirely
different direction. The other surprise is the exquisite quality of the
acoustic guitar which the group shows here for the first time with any
dominance. Both Garcia and Weir are knockout acoustic players. Still
another surprise is the amazing beauty and quality of Phil Lesh's bass
work. The bass lines on this lp are like no other this reviewer has
heard in a long time. And yes, Lesh is a helluva better bass player than
Still another pleasing surprise is the fact that
for the first time we are treated to an entire lp of Bob Hunter's
lyrics. Hunter has been the poet wordmaster behind most of the Dead's
great hits such as Dark Star and St. Stephen.
Usually it's very
boring and hard to sit down and write about individual cuts on an album,
but in this case not only is it a pleasure but a necessity.
cut on the album is a separate entity working within itself as well as
with the entire overall concept of the rest of the album.
John's Band" is an easy listening tune. It has many enjoyable moments
such as the harmony work of the group and the part where they easily
slip into a little section where they change into a complex 7/4 time.
Complementing the music are the ever present Hunter lyrics:
Come here Uncle John's Band
Playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
He's come to take his children home.
of like the Beatles' cry in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The
Dead are telling us they are a band who plays for its fans as well as
Oh, ho, I want to know
How does the song go.
The next song "High Time" seems to tell us a little about what it means to be a rock and roll star:
We could have us a hard time
Livin' the good life.
Well I know.
This song is permeated with a number of really nice pedal steel solos and a section of perfectly beautiful high raspy harmony.
Wolf" is an ancient Dead tune which they have been doing for many
years. It's an interesting song I think about the loneliness of a miner.
Don't murder me [ . . . ]
"New Speedway Boogie" begins by telling us: "Please don't dominate the
rap, Jack, if you got nothing new to say." They seem to be telling us
that this is the new Dead and that it's cool:
You can't overlook the lack, Jack
Of any other highway to ride
It's got no center dividing line
Very few rules to guide.
In these final moments of the song we hear a faint chorus of clapping. It's really nice.
Blues" is sung by Bob Weir and is one of the best cuts on the album.
The song is highlighted by a little banjo and acoustic guitar bridge
towards the end.
"Black Peter" is a slow tempo song with a really
nasty organ ever present. Yet, the highlight of the entire song is
Pigpen's almost unnoticeable harp solo in the middle, followed by a
pretty piece of harmony work.
The final two cuts on the album are the most typical Dead songs and are probably the best of the entire album.
Wind" is Pigpen's big song on the lp. His lead vocal fits nicely with
Hunter's lyrics. Yet, the highlight of this cut comes when Garcia and
Weir trade licks and Weir goes into a rhythm guitar solo.
Jones" is a song that is dominated by Hunter's lyrical mastery, the
music is kind of easy listening too, with a little Honkey Tonk Woman
riff thrown in for the sake of musical dynamics and energy flow.
Drivin' that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
Watch your speed.
And you know that notion
Just crossed my mind.
Workingman's Dead is an album about what the Grateful Dead really want to be.
As Jerry Garcia was quoted in "Rolling Stone" as saying about Workingman's Dead:
was something, all this heavy bullshit was flying around us, so we just
retreated in there and made music. Only the studio was calm. The record
was the only concrete thing happening, the rest was part of that insane
legal and financial figment of everybody's imagination, so I guess it
came out of a place that was real to all of us. It was good solid
work...man, we had been wanting to boogie for a long time."
So out of a despair created by a genre came Workingman's Dead and the new hope, the new direction, the new Dead...
One way or another,
One way or another,
One way or another,
This darkness got to end.
"New Speedway Boogie."
(by Joseph Fernbacher, from the Spectrum (Buffalo, NY), 12 October 1970)
Thanks to Dave Davis.