Aug 16, 2018

1968: More Anthem of the Sun Reviews

Rock vocal group with rhythm and electronic accompaniment...
Warner Bros/Seven Arts W 1749 or WS 1749, $4.79

The first album of the Grateful Dead, issued in mid-1967, was a disappointment to many rock fans who had seen the rock group "live." The magnetism that characterized their concert engagements could scarcely be discerned from the ill-fated recording. It wasn't a bad record, just not up to snuff. One could hear some pretty good blues guitar work, but the whole thing was sort of a bringdown.
Since that time the Dead has gotten further away from blues and into a full-fledged (and by now somewhat anachronistic) acid-rock bag. Things have been aggravated by the serious, sometimes fatal electronic bug, which has severely bitten them.
Each side of this album is a mish-mash of self-indulgent formlessness. Blues sounds, acid sounds, bell sounds, electronic sounds: they pile over each other with such boring consistency as to drive away all but the most devoted or masochistic of admirers.
There's really no excuse for this kind of junk but there is an explanation. Drugs. The album is essential background music for pot parties (or methedrine or LSD). Now lots of rock is conceived with marijuana in mind; there are many groovy sounds that are a head's delight. Hell, all of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (the Beatles' magnum opus) can be viewed in this limited way. But that album sounds awfully good straight; you don't have to be stoned to dig the Beatles. Pot can enhance the listener's experience; it can make something good sound great, but it can also make something trite sound meaningful. It is within the latter category that this album belongs and I'm sorry that the Dead have fallen victim to the delusion of the complete psychedelic experience.

(by S.L., from High Fidelity, November 1968)

* * *

At KSAN and KMET we've been playing the new GD LP "Anthem of the Sun," which demonstrates not only their superiority as trip masters, but also the fact that they have learned more about recording technique than most producers know. The Dead should be listened to at lease-breaking volume and it won't ruin you to dance.
Jefferson Airplane tops all previous outings with "Crown of Creation." They've avoided the overarranging that dragged "Baxter's" and have successfully recreated a live sound while never leaving the studio. Producer Al Schmidt deserves credit for great technical interpretations of the Airplane sound.
(from Tom Donahue's "Donahue" column, the Los Angeles Free Press, 16 August 1968)

The Grateful Dead's "Anthem of the Sun" (Warner Bros.-7 Arts WS 1749) is another original composition subdivided into intricate parts that yield a whole. The sextet's problem here is a blend of studio and live sessions which result in a sound that is inconsistent. Still, a fine one for the serious popster.
(from Wayne Harada's "On the Record" column, the Honolulu Advertiser, 22 August 1968)

* * * 

The Grateful Dead's album is called "Anthem of the Sun" (Warner Brothers WS 1749) and, as in their best sets these days, the Dead conceive of it as a unit and it should be played, preferably on stereo earphones, all the way through each listening. It's an impressive album.
(from Ralph Gleason, "New Waves on the San Francisco Rock," the San Francisco Examiner, 25 August 1968)

"Anthem of the Sun" (Warner Brothers WS 1749) by the Grateful Dead, which has been mentioned here before, is a much more powerful if less neat work. Listening to the Dead's album, particularly with earphones and without interruption, is a musical trip of considerable impact.
As with John Coltrane and certain other jazz groups, the Dead's music requires patience. It cannot be picked up and set down idly. One must really dig into it and when this stipulation is met, it offers a kind of glorious feeling and other-worldly entrancement that is quite unusual.
The Grateful Dead are now working with a poet on a set of new songs in which more attention is paid to the lyrics. I hope that this will result, as I suppose it must by definition, in more concern on the part of the group itself for the clear delineation of the lyrics. The heavy instrumental talent of the group has always tended to overwhelm their singing so that the words are heard - if at all - dimly. Jerry Garcia has a very attractive quality in his voice and with the right kind of lyric material could achieve considerable stature as a vocalist.
(from Ralph Gleason, "Getz's Kind of Music Bridges Most of the Gaps," the San Francisco Examiner, 9 September 1968)

* * * 

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead, you may ask? The new Anthem of the Sun lp sounds more like their live concerts but less like anything you can listen to repeatedly. The more the Dead got into the technicalities of their music, the more they left their fans behind. While the album contains some very nice rhythmic and even a-rhythmic highlights, the total effect of the music and production style is fatiguing.

(from Jef Jassen's "Record Rap" column, the Berkeley Barb, 20 September 1968)


To the editor:
Last week's Record Rap contained a short critique of the new Grateful Dead record, "Anthem of the Sun," but the album definitely deserves more than a vague, one paragraph putdown. It is an incredible album, and it deserves all the energy you can give it. Side one (I'm so hung up on it I haven't gotten into side two) may be the greatest rock composition ever.
The word 'composition' is important. Their Anthem is not a collection of catchy tunes (well, yes, it's that too), but a serious, important musical composition. I mean, my god, its genius is overwhelming.
We mainly hear how the Dead play free a lot. And how they're heads. Rarely a word about the music they make. The only way you'll learn that Garcia is one of our best guitarists is to listen to him - like during the first few minutes of "Anthem," which contains some of the most moving, expressive guitar work on record. He doesn't copy Clapton's copies, so our rock critics ignore him as much as possible.
There's no one like Garcia, and that makes it a little difficult to deal with him. Critics have to compare, else they'd have too little to say. I can't think of anything to say except that his music is unique and beautiful and why don't you listen closely?
Phil Lesh is the best bass player I've ever heard.
Yet there's a weird thing about the Dead - they have no superstar. No Janis Joplin, no Butterfield - no one on the album is actually spotlighted. They are a BAND of astonishingly creative musicians, and the best way to get into their album is to dig their responsiveness to one another. It's as if one mind were at work, controlling the musical flow. And it's even groovier knowing that there are actually six.
"Anthem" is about death and love and recurrence. It ranges in mood from real Mozartian melancholy ("the boy has to die") to moments of unbelievable ecstasy. Try to find another contemporary composition that produces anything like ecstasy. I'd have to go back to Beethoven to find anything that affects me similarly.
"Anthem" is about their name, the Grateful Dead. It's about your experience here and now and then and forever - "think I'll come back here again, every now and then!" But I can't take you through the changes - let the Dead guide you.
Get their "Anthem" into your blood, and, like any great piece of art, it will change your life, change the way you see things. It's a religious event. Don't be without it.

(by Sandy Lynch, from the Berkeley Barb, 27 September 1968)

* * *

ANTHEM OF THE DEAD  (abridged)

The phenomenon we call the New Music is actually one facet in the gradual resolution of a general crisis in 20th Century art: it hasn't been relevant to daily experience. Such irrelevancy is a key to understanding the tremendous acceleration of social and scientific change. . . .
In that light we begin to see the New Music as both reaction and illusion: reaction because it was an overdue and abrupt rupture with outmoded traditions; illusion because the New Music actually is a state of flux, constantly changing, forever being refined and expanded toward that distant point at which the coordinates intersect: totally comprehensive music.
Past artistic periods may have been evolutionary stages in sync with their social climates (Baroque, Gothic, Expressionist, etc.). But we must remember that the rate of change (or progress, if you will) has reached a point where it is always ahead of the collective consciousness. . . . Thus periods of artistic expression are only briefly effective and no longer follow one another harmoniously: instead, they are dramatic reactions caused by the sudden realization of obsolescence.
If we agree that the New Music began with the Beatles, its reactionary nature becomes clear. (I don't mean reactionary in the political, conservative sense.) Early Beatle music was a reaction to, and rejection of, the outmoded Ray Conniff-George Shearing-Cannonball Adderly era which preceded it. And it was hungrily embraced by a public restless and bored with the lifeless 1950s ennui.
Succeeding trends have been reactions to the reactions of the Beatles. Power music (Cream, Blue Cheer, Hendrix, The Who) is the logical reaction of rock musicians who sensed a certain Baroque tendency in the Beatles ("Michelle," "Norwegian Wood," "Yesterday," etc.). Power music at once revitalizes basic rhythm-and-blues which spawned the New Rock, while relating to an electronic world which couldn't be further removed from the R&B idiom. It's the technological beginning of comprehensive music. (Meanwhile the Beatles perpetuate the action-reaction continuum with their new power music composition "Revolution," a kind of summation of live-performance hard rock.)

The new album by the Grateful Dead, "Anthem of the Sun" (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, WS-1749), is directly in the evolutionary path of the New Music. I shall attempt to discuss it from two viewpoints: 1) as it relates strictly to the music world, and 2) as it relates to other contemporary experience.
Within the rather narrow perspective of the pop music business (which is the extent of most music criticism), the new Dead collection is a statistic: it's the first album which truly captures the group's sound, just as "Cheap Thrills" epitomizes Big Brother and "Wheels of Fire" is the zenith of Cream. This means record producers (in this case Dave Hassinger) are getting better at their job, closing the gap between record and reality; and it means those who dismissed the Dead on the basis of their first record must now re-assess them according to their new (or newly packaged) image.
Academically, "Anthem of the Sun" is a commercial and creative sequel to "Their Satanic Majesties Request" and to Jimi Hendrix. I'm not suggesting plagiarism; I'm merely pointing out similarities inevitable in artistic genesis. Influence is a prime factor in any creative endeavor. T.S. Eliot: "art is plagiarism." The Stones and Hendrix have pioneered valid modes of expression which the Dead synthesize and, to some extent, refine: another positive step toward comprehensive music.
However, "Anthem of the Sun" begins to take on wider relevance when seen in context of experience outside the music world. One must respect this music even if one cannot "like" it. I'm not suggesting that it isn't enjoyable; in fact, considering its ingredients, the album's palatability is one of its more remarkable assets. I mean only to say there are times when the importance of an art work transcends its immediate emotional appeal. We may not like "Wozzeck," for example, but few would contest its contribution to musical language.
"Standing between musician and music," said Busoni, "is notation." One reason East Indian music is received with such zeal in the West is that it approximates direct musical action (improvisation) while retaining certain modal characteristics more sympathetic to our ears than electronic chance music. There is similar appeal in the New Rock: it relates to contemporary experience . . . 
More than that, it is in harmony with the plastic arts, concerned more with essences of their own structure than with "saying" something, though a great deal gets said in the process. (John Cage: "Music as discourse doesn't work. If you're going to have a discussion, have it and use words.") . . .  The arts have progressed to the point where they are concerned with the essence of perception: construction and composition. The New Music is no exception.
Thus in "Anthem of the Sun" as in "Satanic Majesties" there is emphasis on the multiplicity of ingredients and their blending. The New Music, like ecology, is a total field of non-focused multiplicity; in terms of choice, a situation of both/and instead of either/or. It can degenerate to pretentious dilettantism (Chad and Jeremy's "Of Cabbages and Kings"). At best it relates to daily experience more completely than any art form but synaesthetic cinema.

The comprehensive nature of the Dead's music begins with instrumentation: everything from vibraslap to kazoo to celesta claves, finger cymbals, electronic tape, and prepared piano. Through these elements they weave a totally integrated tapestry encompassing a wide spectrum of musical expression which does not exclude white noise. The use of a prepared piano in the manner of Cage and Tudor is especially unique in rock music. While the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix and others may incorporate tape collages, the "live" manipulation of a prepared piano (pipe-stem cleaners between the strings, mallets fitted with various covers, etc.) is seldom heard in rock.
This invests the Dead's music with a sense of organic unity, a personal, physical quality which may relate aurally to a super-science world but which can be "composed" and played in live performance. The Mothers are the only other pop group currently employing techniques of prepared instruments.
The fluidity with which the Dead move into and out of their segments of musique-concrete is most impressive. In "2000 Light Years From Home," the Stones attempted to merge theremin-like space sounds with string chorus, but the divisions were harsh, non-integral. The Dead, however, manage to retain their legendary San Francisco sound - casual, harmonious, rhythmic, with a touch of Owsley Stanley III - while making us feel that the electronic tape collages and white noise are part of earth music: and in fact they are.
Without slipping into cliche, I think the new Dead collection might safely be regarded as head music. That is, a synaesthetic assemblage of disparate ingredients and tonal colors whose progression from start to finish is non-focused but dynamic. The Dead are organizers of sound events, composers of pure sound/music. Sometimes the sounds are identifiable, sometimes not. Listening closely we can single out dozens of styles and quotations, all miraculously interwoven.
One final observation: the brevity of any single element in this music - electronic tape collage, African log drums, calypso steel band rhythms - relates to the ephemerality of phenomena in daily life. As John McHale points out in his essay, "The Plastic Parthenon," expendability and impermanence are the hallmarks of the new age. . . .  Thus no single element in the Dead's music is carried to its conclusion. Rather we are given an impression sufficient for psychical use in "understanding" what is being said. This is especially apparent in "Alligator," a masterful sound panorama which amounts to half of the album.
Musicians like the Grateful Dead are introducing disorder to the American musical culture historically based on order. If only for that reason, they relate more to contemporary experience than, say, Simon and Garfunkel, who may not seem so profound within the contest of the coming world society.

(by Gene Youngblood, from the Los Angeles Free Press, 13 September 1968)

* * *

PAINT IT BLACK  (abridged)

Is it just me, or is this really a new year, and the old one is dead and gone, finally?
Lotsa friends (well, maybe only three or four) have suggested to me their incapacity to repeat another year like 1968. One friend spent Dec. 31, 11:59 P.M., alone in Merced listening to radio coverage of the Times Square New Year celebration. Alone in Merced. He thought the scene an apt one, considering the entire tone of the year past.
1968 - the year of the speed freak, the empty fuck, the year our political energies wasted away into a thousand petty frustrations, the year that Spring skipped.
Maybe you don't agree. You had a groovy year of it. No paranoia. But really, do you remember Spring? Do you remember a flowering? Has last winter ended yet?
Our artists' changes reflect our own. And vice versa. A year ago the Beatles were picking pansies and meditating hour after hour after hour.
The Rolling Stones were 2000 Light Years from Home.
Dylan apparently was laid up for months with a broken neck. If so, death must have been very real to him. Anyhow, the space between BLONDE ON BLONDE and [JOHN WESLEY HARDING] is an immense one.
And the best of the SF bands, The Grateful Dead, kept never getting together a second album. There were months of rumors about its release, but the birth of ANTHEM TO THE SUN was a long time coming.
Art is about getting along. No one was making it very well.
OK everyone, this is 1969 - find your road and do it in it.
The Beatles are back in style. They feel good. . . .
The Rolling Stones . . . they are so together it is dazzling. BEGGAR'S BANQUET is tight, solid and constant, and perhaps the finest rock band ever. Thoroughly "professional" in the highest sense of the word.
And the Grateful Dead - god, what an incredible creation they've given us. ANTHEM TO THE SUN contains the mythical context for revival. It's a common theme, death and rebirth, but rarely is the theme wrought so carefully and profoundly that one can take it within oneself and make it serve in the real, everyday world.
I was reassured of the importance of ANTHEM after hearing Beethoven's quartet opus 132 last night. Hearing one after the other brought things together a little more for me. The compositions are identical in terms of purpose and tone.
Listen particularly to the "Song of Thanksgiving upon Recovery from Illness." Compare its expressiveness to the first section of ANTHEM. It is quiet and tearful, yet somehow ecstatic. Sad but straining to burst open.
And both pieces do burst open. They blossom and sing and affirm.
It is impossible to be precise when talking about music. All I want is that you should listen to the music with this subject in mind. Because I think maybe Spring isn't too far away, and if we know about it we can all applaud its arrival together.
We mustn't fear the death of the past, mustn't be frightened into turning away. Instead, watch it die. The Grateful Dead - their new album explains their name. Always the finest art has indicated styles of responding to the powers of darkness, and the Dead seem to be tuned into that fact.
I mean, the blues are here to stay, but even on dark rainy days you can feel so good and rich and full of life. We've just got to keep things going. . . . 

(by KL, from the Berkeley Barb, 21 February 1969)

See also:


  1. A range of opinions, from putdowns to raves.
    I'm fond of the negative High Fidelity review: "there's really no excuse for this kind of junk." It's just drug music after all - boring, self-indulgent, formless tripe for masochistic listeners.
    While Donahue crows that the Dead are superior "trip masters" with great recording technique, Jassen feels they're "leaving their listeners behind" with this "fatiguing" album.

    The letter to the Barb editor is one of the most gushing Dead reviews I've seen: "the greatest rock composition ever...its genius is will change your's a religious event." (It reminds me of Warners ads for Anthem: "sonically advanced to the point of making you rediscover your body. The second coming of The Grateful Dead: now a fact of life.") What's funny is that he hasn't even gotten to side two yet!
    Special praise for Garcia & Lesh, and even classical comparisons to Mozart and Beethoven. I don't usually wonder if the Dead read their own reviews, but they must have seen this one; I imagine they were pleased.

    Naturally Anthem would also attract the pretentious intellectual set, and Youngblood's article reads more like an academic essay than a record review. (I omitted several bewildering digressions and was strongly tempted to condense it down to only the Dead bits.) Nonetheless, it does represent one strand among '60s rock reviewers (so many of them being college-age writers), and he makes some good points about the album amidst the socio-cultural theorizing.
    I don't agree with his argument about rock music always being a "reaction" to previous artists or that it's headed toward such a thing as "comprehensive" music, but these were the types of theories you might have heard in '68 when rock was a new and growing form, developing every year. Though he draws questionable lines of influence, it's at least an interesting early attempt to put the Dead in a broader historical context and fit them within the evolution of rock, and the comparisons to other bands are apt.

  2. A couple of these reviewers point out that the first album was a disappointment, and this album is closer to the Dead's live sound - as Youngblood says, "it's the first album which truly captures the group's sound... This means record producers (in this case Dave Hassinger) are getting better at their job."
    There was a lively debate in those years about rock-record production, since most listeners could tell that what they were getting on vinyl wasn't close to what they heard live. For instance, Tom Donahue complained that Big Brother's "Mainstream LP just didn't represent any Big Brother I've ever heard."

    One '68 article on recorded San Francisco rock music:
    "It's almost impossible to reproduce it on records. It's not just a question of volume, although I think that's a great part of it. There seems to be a blending of sounds possible in live performance that can't be matched in a studio. As a result, most of the records put out by rock groups (acid and other) sound pretentious, thin, unmusical, and trashy.
    A case in point is Big Brother and the Holding Company. I heard them on two consecutive nights in San Francisco, and they were incredibly exciting. They've been recorded, but the recording is sadly inferior. Apparently, when the group went to record, the engineers had little or no sensitivity to the kind of music the group was producing, and the electronic set-up failed to catch the right sound. This is one reason the big groups, such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, find it such a drag to record...
    Proper recording techniques will no doubt develop, and there is a chance that the major groups will look into the possibilities of setting up their own studios so as to have more control over what is produced..."
    (from Judith Addams, "Rocky Road," the Rag (Austin, TX) 3/25/68, p.19)

    Jef Jassen reviewed Quicksilver's first album in the Barb:
    "The album is not exactly what a lot of people, including myself, were expecting. It's much more melodic than ballsy... Personally, I'm disappointed with the reproduction quality of the vocal tracks and the choice of some of the material. At the same time I'm more than impressed with the instrumental things that the group was able to pull off in a studio... No San Francisco group has as yet put out a first album that could be considered "great." The changes that groups find they have to go through to record at all usually takes at least one lp to overcome. As an example, the Quick scrapped entirely their initial lp takes. As a further example, The Grateful Dead have spent more than a year on their forthcoming second lp... The thing I find lacking most in this lp, as has been the case in all other previous first albums with the possible exception of the Dead, is the overwhelming power of the Quicksilver... Perhaps the best thing about this apparent lack of power on the lp is that when people across the country hear the Quick in person they're going to get their minds blown out the door."
    (from "Hallelujah Southwind!", Berkeley Barb 6/7/68, p.13 - a full-page review, rather than the paragraph he gave the Dead's Anthem, perhaps illustrating his relative enthusiasm for the two bands)

    1. For some 1967 comments on this issue, see:

  3. Added a last article from a year-in-review Barb piece at the start of '69 - viewing 1968 as an awful year (the end of the sixties in a way), one rescued only by great rock albums.
    One refreshing thing about some of these '60s reviews is that the Dead are still seen as important modern artists, leaders of the pack (a small pack, but still) - whereas from the mid-'70s onwards they were increasingly perceived in the media as dinosaurs, musically-irrelevant drug-ridden hippie anachronisms.
    Even from a Berkeley perspective, this piece perhaps goes overboard in putting them next to Dylan, the Beatles & the Stones as the great artists of the day, with Anthem dwarfing the White Album & Beggar's Banquet as "an incredible creation," important life-affirming art. I wondered if this might be the same writer as the earlier Barb review, since there's yet another comparison to Beethoven!

    Also remarkable is the emphasis on the Dead as "the mythical context for revival," giving us reassuring music to restore life and happiness in the face of darkness, when we're alone in Merced. This point of view is ahead of its time; I don't think I've seen it expressed much in reviews prior to American Beauty.

  4. I added Ralph Gleason's comments from the SF Examiner.
    The first piece was from a collection of very brief reviews of new albums from San Francisco bands - others included Crown of Creation ("some of the best poetry the Airplane has sung, and it is an entirely beautiful album") and Cheap Trills ("it is a disappointment, since it fails to bring across the wild excitement this group can generate in person, and there is not enough of Jim Gurley's guitar for me").
    As always, Gleason is a Dead fan, and thinks highly of the album, calling it "powerful...a musical trip of considerable impact." He warns that the Dead require patience and concentration and aren't for casual listening - the album should be played uninterrupted - but that in return, they offer "a kind of glorious feeling and other-worldly entrancement that is quite unusual."
    He's heard that the Dead are now working with a poet on their new songs, and hopes that the lyrics will become more important in their music, and even that Garcia might become a better singer.

  5. From the Case Institute of Technology student newspaper in Cleveland, a brief positive review of Anthem contrasted to the "overrated" Cream. The reviewer wrote a very negative review of Cream's Wheels of Fire ("some of the worst music I have recently listened to"), hating it from start to finish with its bad tunes, bad singing, atrocious blues covers, and repetitious and boring solos.
    "Rather than listen to Cream, I'd recommend you turn on to Anthem of the Sun by the Grateful Dead. The Dead are superb improvisers with great feeling for shadings of sound and use of dynamics. Jerry Garcia's guitar is superb showing several influences. Garcia's sense of swing is amazing. The percussion is very driving, being more than supplying the beat, and Phil Lesh is superb on bass. Rhythm supplied by organist Ron McKernan and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir also supplies a solid background. The use of electronics and live and studio recordings is beautifully handled. Without a doubt one of the finest albums that "rock" has produced."
    (Weinstock, "Wheels of Fire Is Cream's Worst," Case Tech 10/18/68)