Category Archives: Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead Discography

It’s 1967 and hippies are growing like mushrooms in the shadows of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, beneath the careless eyes of two burning black-light suns called Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. As for the Airplane, they crashed and burned because of internal bickering, then resurfaced as a commercial airline flying under the banner of the almighty dollar. But The Dead never did (die). Instead, their legend lives on today as fresh as the acid flashbacks of the loyal Deadheads who keep their lovelight lit in warm, fraternal vigil.

In the beginning (because everything must have a beginning), the Dead were a motley assortment of psychedelic upstarts with a four-fingered guitarist (Jerry Garcia), a couple of classically trained musicians (Phil Lesh, Tom Constanten), three singers (including Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan), a poet (Robert Hunter) and one too many drummers (Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart). Following the departure of Constanten–and, with him, much of the band’s experimental tendencies in the studio–they recorded Workingman’s Dead (1970). Influenced by the American folk/country/rock sound of CS&N, Bob Dylan and The Byrds, it was their strongest effort to date, featuring classic Garcia/Hunter compositions including “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones” and “Dire Wolf.” American Beauty (1971) was even better. Those two albums plus their live set at the time (which included “Dark Star,” “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat”) constitue the bulk of what many would consider classic Grateful Dead.

After a world tour in 1972, the Dead got their own label (Grateful Dead Records) and begin releasing a mix of solo albums and group efforts that came together on stage. Dead albums from this period reflected the band’s live performances by finding equal time for the songs of Garcia, Weir and the rest of the band (which now included husband-and-wife Keith and Donna Godchaux). A Dead show wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by “Scarlet Begonias,” “U.S. Blues,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “The Music Never Stopped” or “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo.”

In the late 70s, the band signed with Arista Records and released the fan favorite, Terrapin Station (1977), but their next two albums received a lukewarm reception from critics and fans. After a six-year absence from the studio, the Dead surprised everyone by releasing In The Dark (1987), which went on to be their biggest seller and featured their only Top 10 hit, “Touch of Grey.” Lightning didn’t strike twice, however, and Built To Last (1989) proved to be their last. Still, the band continued to tour until a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995; it marked the official end of one of music’s longest and strangest trips.

Yet the Dead continue to live on through their live recordings and merchandising—from ties to teddy bears. Dozens of archival concert recordings have been released over the years, many of them under the Dick’s Picks title, so named for Dick Latvala, the Dead tape archivist who oversaw the series initially. Such is the immortal appeal of the Dead that even Latvala’s death in 1999 couldn’t kill the series, which now continues under the direction of David Lemieux (although it’s still called Dick’s Picks because I guess Lemieux’ Chieux would be hard to pronounce).

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The Grateful Dead (untitled) (1967)

Kronomyth 1.0: DAWN OF THE DEAD. Half-baked and occasionally brilliant, the maiden voyage of the Dead consisted of cut-up, sped-up and screwed-up songs which have since gone on to broader fame (“New, New Minglewood Blues,” “Cold Rain And Snow”) or infamy (“Cream Puff War,” “The Golden Road”). A good half of these songs have since been played more than one hundred times on stage, but none of the versions recorded here could be called definitive. This is the Dead in the dawning of full consciousness, posable figures with discardable nicknames who were mistakenly molded into pop stars by a label (Warner Bros.) eager to launch the next Jefferson Airplane. The Dead playing two-minute songs is obviously unsatisfying, even if they sound pretty good (and they do). The five-minute “Morning Dew,” six-minute “Good Morning Little School Girl” and ten-minute “Viola Lee Blues” make plain that the Dead are best served long and live. (A 23-minute “Viola Lee Blues,” recorded live in the fall of 1967 and appended to the 21st century remaster, is the stuff of legend.) It’s a long way between here and the Oz of American Beauty, but the Dead were clearly headed down the right road. The band would grow more confident with time, their lyrical acuity grow sharper with the eyes of Robert Hunter, their interplay more intricate. Their music would be refined in the crucible of time and explore deeper mysteries with more profundity. It would not, however, depart from the path marked here, which sets into motion one of the greatest musical quests of the 20th century. Enjoy the trip.

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Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun (1968)

Like the Airplane before them, the Dead abandoned short-form songs after one album and began making more experimental, trippy music. Anthem of the Sun is the first album that attempts to bring the band’s extended, improvisational approach of their stageshow into the studio. Although the band still had a few kinks to work out as they sought to blend everything together, they were clearly on the right path; the golden road, it turned out, had been a shortcut to nowhere. Here you’ll find the sneaky, minor-key melodies wrapped in deep, mystical packages (“That’s It For The Other One,” “Alligator”), psychedelic sound collages and double drum solos that would become synonymous with the Dead. Like the acid tests of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead (and the Airplane) were going further into their own cosmic consciousness through music, ignoring boundaries, embracing everything in complete non-judgment. They would get better at filtering the accidental from the experimental with time, but Anthem of the Sun is in many ways a new dawning of the Dead. The album is experienced in three large sections: the first side of music, featuring songs encased in their own self-contained universe, and two extended songs/jams on side two. The effect is listener immersion; time becomes relative, it passes too quickly and as the last traces of “Caution” disappear we find ourselves back in a cold and empty world. The Dead were beginning to bend time and space with their music, which is something very unique to them. While Anthem does represent the beginning of the “classic” Dead period, it is a different chapter than American Beauty and beyond. The keyboards never really find a home in the arrangements, and the polyrhythmic explorations of Mickey Hart had yet to blossom. Their next album, Aoxomoxoa, would distill the songs and experiments, which made for a more accessible album but also a less cohesive experience. In many ways, Anthem of the Sun is as close as the band has come to making a live studio album, which makes it a fan favorite even 50 years on.

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Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa (1969)

Kronomyth 3.0: DED ‘ED. Palindromes, ambigrams, epigrams… oh my. Aoxomoxoa marks the beginning of the band’s best music, including such perennial favorites as “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower” and (my own personal favorite) “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” Much of the credit belongs to new lyricist Robert Hunter, whose pithy observations would help to define the Dead. And yet, the psychedelic touches are still too pronounced, too precious on Aoxomoxoa, diluting what would otherwise be a nearly perfect album. Specifically, Jerry Garcia as cosmic cantor on “What’s Become of the Baby” is exactly the sort of song that CD makers had in mind when they invented the skip button. That freakshow and “Rosemary” would sink a lesser album. Fortunately, Aoxomoxoa is buoyed by tracks like “Doin’ That Rag” and “Cosmic Charlie.” Even the brittle “Mountains of the Moon” makes for a pretty musical box. I tend to listen to the first side of this and leave the second side alone (if I could swap “Cosmic Charlie” with “Rosemary” I might never flip it over at all). Despite the frequent criticism that the Dead sounded confined in the studio, Aoxomoxoa isn’t confined by anything but the occasional lapse in judgment. The intricacies in the arrangements shine through, the playing is lively and the interplay organic enough. It is the closest thing to a psychedelic pop album that the band has made, at times sounding like an American version of The Kinks. It’s also the last studio album to feature the (musically) experimentally minded Tom Constanten, whose exotic instrumentation (harpsichord, electronic tapes) would have seemed strangely out of place on the earthier, folkier Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

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The Grateful Dead: Live/Dead (1969)

Kronomyth 4.0: LIVE/DEBT. The band was a hundred kay in the hole after the ambitious Aoxomoxoa and, figuring better Dead than in the red, stayed out of the studio for their next release, Live/Dead. One of the first (if not the first) 16-track live recordings, Live/Dead captured what was best about the band: the magic interplay that happened on stage as the band navigated strange, familiar avenues. Seamlessly stitched together from several recent shows, the set begins with what is likely the most beloved version of the quintessential Dead song, “Dark Star,” played here at an uncannily unhurried pace. “Dark Star” consumes all of side one, and belongs with the best sonic spelunkering of its day (Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream), yet manages to be a much warmer interstellar journey than “A Saucerful of Secrets” or “Zeit.” Side two features a fine retelling of “Saint Stephen” and the first recorded appearance of “The Eleven,” which was a song of sorts (an instrumental with bits of song encased in it, really) that provides the perfect bridge between “Saint Stephen” and the Pigpen workout, “Turn On Your Lovelight.” Live/Dead closes with the powerful “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” the trippy “Feedback” and the after-dinner mint at the end of the great feast, “And We Bid You Goodnight.” Live/Dead succeeds at delivering the Dead’s live show to your doorstep in the order they intended it. If Aoxomoxoa proved a poor investment in studio resources (and I would think the album has since recouped its costs), Live/Dead was an inspired stroke of genius, leveraging the enormous investment that the Dead had already made in their live shows and wisely capturing all of the nuances in sixteen tracks of color. Together with their next two records, this is the peak of the legend of the Dead.

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Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead (1970)

Kronomyth 4.0: OWSLEY, STEEL & NASHVILLE SKYLINE. The psychedelic acid test of Anthem and Aoxomoxoa was over. The Dead entered the studio to make an American country/blues album that echoed the recent work of Bob Dylan, The Byrds and, in its rich vocal harmonies, CS&N. The music on Workingman’s Dead, like its subdued sepia-toned cover, seemed a calculated contrast to the flashy excess of the past. Where once the band had been counterculture revellers, they now appeared to pay court to the American musical traditions of country, blues and the cowboy mythology. Robert Hunter’s lyrics drew from a rich American mythos of crows, dire wolves and runaway trains, with death a constant companion. Jerry Garcia gave a prominent place to the pedal steel guitar on songs like “Dire Wolf” and “High Time.” The songs offered complex musical interplay behind a folksy persona that was friendly and familiar; listeners dropped their guard and discovered that the Dead were breathing new life into their beloved country. Workingman’s Dead quickly became their best-selling record and set the stage for just about every Dead album after. “Uncle John’s Band,” “Dire Wolf” and “Casey Jones” are indelibly written in the great American songbook, and even songs like “Black Peter” and “New Speedway Boogie” feel like they’ve been with us from the beginning. Scratch the surface of these songs, however, and you’ll find the old spirit of subversion at work, as though the Dead (like Dylan before them) were picking and playing and winking at us all at once. More of that shone through on American Beauty, which in some ways made Workingman’s Dead sound like a dry run of that album. Both works are absolutely essential works that distill the Dead’s appeal into its purest studio essence, though on stage they burned purer still.

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Grateful Dead: American Beauty (1970)

Kronomyth 6.0: GREAT FLOWER BED. A Dead album by any other name would not smell as sweet as American Beauty. The band returned to the studio six months after the breakthrough Workingman’s Dead to record a new collection of songs written this time by various members in collaboration with lyricist Robert Hunter, and the results were the strongest of their short career: “Box of Rain,” “Friend of The Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple,” “Truckin.” If their last album had been a revelation, American Beauty was paradise found. Instruments intertwined like DNA strands, voices creaked like comfortable sneakers, piano and pedal steel provided the perfect punctuation to Hunter’s sage-poems, and the entire album rolled easy with a deceptively loose feel that belied the artistry underneath. Although many have heard on American Beauty a continuation of the band’s country-rock adventures, this album has always struck me as a partial return to the ornate style of Aoxomoxoa. Again, the cover artwork seems to capture the essence of it: psychedelic rock framed in a country-rock context. The track sequence for American Beauty is an interesting one, showcasing different members of the band before settling in for half an album of Hunter/Garcia songs. Jerry Garcia’s contributions have a quiet intensity to them (“Brokedown Palace,” “Attics of My Life,” “Candyman”), forming the soul (if not the heart) of American Beauty’s appeal. It’s strange to think this would be the last studio album from the band for several years. Ron McKernan’s health issues had forced him into a peripheral role (“Operator” essentially amounts to a cameo), and Garcia in particular was already eyeing other alliances with New Riders of the Purple Sage, Howard Wales and David Grisman (all of whom appear on this album). American Beauty thus stands as the pinnacle of the band’s first phase, and (for my money) the finest album they’ve ever recorded.

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Grateful Dead: “Truckin'” (1971)

Kronomyth 6.1: TRUCKINDOSCOPY. The fun thing about the Dead is that, the deeper you dig, the more you discover. Take “Truckin’” as an example. This song has been subject to so much speculation on the part of listeners, some of it founded (the reference to New Orleans is obviously about that year’s drug bust, the title is inspired by R. Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’ cartoon) and some of it not (Is Vitamin C really a reference to acid? Is Sweet Jane a nomme de tomb for Janis Joplin? Does “soft machine” refer to Burroughs’ book, a Dallas club or something else?). Whatever your conspiracy theories, there’s no denying the song is an allegory in which we’re encouraged to get through life one day/city at a time. Originally released on American Beauty, “Truckin’” was edited, apparently remixed and released as a single at the beginning of 1971. Although it only reached as high as #64, “Truckin’” had the distinction of being the band’s highest-charting single for years (until “Touch of Grey” eclipsed it). It remains one of the band’s most identifiable songs, and the line “what a long, strange trip it’s been” has become something of a motto for the Dead and their fans over the years. The original B side, “Ripple,” is also from American Beauty.

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New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)

Kronomyth 1.0: ZANE GREYFULL DEAD. This record is the vinyl consummation of a relationship that began almost a decade ago in the San Francisco folk scene, where David Nelson, John Dawson, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter first met. The four reunited during the Dead’s psychedelic country-rock phase (1969 to 1970), and a mixture of Dawson, Nelson and the Dead became the band’s opening act in 1970. Soon after, NRPS added full-time members David Torbert and Spencer Dryden (of Jefferson Airplane), retained the services of Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, and released this album of John Dawson originals. The songs on the first NRPS album are typical of the West Coast psychedelic country-rock sound, inviting comparison to Buffalo Springfield (e.g., “Garden of Eden”), The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Dawson, Nelson and Torbert achieve nice harmonies, Garcia’s pedal steel playing is decent enough and Dryden makes for a surprisingly credible country-rock drummer. This album has always struck me as a simple, countrified cousin to Workingman’s Dead, especially on songs like “I Don’t Know You,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Last Lonely Eagle.” The Riders dig even deeper into American folk myths than the Dead, with songs about outlaws (“Henry,” “Glendale Train”), miners (“Dirty Business”) and girls from the country (“Portland Woman,” “Louisiana Lady”). If you enjoy country-rock music with a psychedelic twist, you’ll find plenty to admire here among the purple sage. It’s not as pretty as American Beauty or as dazzling as The Gilded Palace of Sin, but it’s a pleasant ride from sun-up to sundown and, as an added bonus, one of the best of the ancillary Dead albums.

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Jerry Garcia (1972)

Kronomyth 1.0: AMERICAN BEAUTEROLL. If you enjoy the Garcia/Hunter compositions from this period, you’re in for a wheel treat. His first album (casually called The Wheel to distinguish it from his other eponymous album) features a handful of classic songs that have comfortably insinuated themselves into the Deadshow over the years: “Deal,” “Loser,” “Sugaree,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Bird Song.” Together with the complete contents of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they rank with some of the best songs to come from the Dead. Despite its strong resemblance to the Dead, this is a true solo project: Garcia plays everything but drums (provided by the brilliant, underrated Billy Kreutzmann). The Wheel is also notable for the extended sound collage on side two, which suggests a psychedelic amalgam of The Beatles (“Revolution No. 9”), Hooteroll? and Pink Floyd. The brief instrumental, “An Odd Little Place,” is just a postlude to the previous song, while the mellow, tuneful title track showcases Jerry’s pedal steel to good effect. Fans of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which I’m pretty sure is everyone) will find plenty of the same magic here. As songwriting partners, Garcia and Hunter had few peers. “Deal” and “Loser” use cards as a metaphor for life, “Bird Song” finds Hunter again beguiled by beauty, “To Lay Me Down” is a worthy candidate for the last-song-before-I-die list. Playing everything himself, Garcia doesn’t strike upon the same clever interplay as his bandmates (e.g., the bass guitar is pretty basic), but he does a remarkable job of approximating the feel of the Dead on his lonesome. In fact, The Wheel makes a compelling case that Garcia’s most sympathetic collaborator is himself.

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