Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Grateful Dead - 1967

Warner Brothers Records didn't know what they got themselves into when they signed the Grateful Dead in 1966. RCA had signed the Airplane, the Dead was popular on the S.F. circuit, and Warners didn't want to be left in the angel dust, so they hastily signed the weirdest group of hipsters, flipsters and tripsters ever to grace their hallowed studio halls.  It was a decisive and interesting time for Warner Records.  The Studio, officially called Warner Bros. – 7 Arts, had rescued Frank Sinatra's ailing record company, Reprise, simultaneously heralding Frank's big late-60s comeback, and ushering in two of Sinatra’s biggest hits ("That's Life" and "Strangers in the Night"). It was a corporate coup.  By securing Reprise, Warners was also privy to Nancy's "Boots" (and subsequently "Something Stupid"), not to mention the U.S. rights for Hendrix and The Kinks.  The Grateful Dead, though, was Warners' first rock signing.

The band chose Dave Hassinger to produce its debut, engineer for all the great Stones' tracks cut in Hollywood in '65/'66 ("Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud"), although capturing the Dead's special brand of magic would prove elusive in the studio, and any self-respecting Deadhead would agree that the only real Dead was live Dead (this reporter, who followed the Dead on the East Coast from 1986 to 1987, was certainly enamored by the Dead experience, but far more compelled by the great studio recordings of the 70s – Workingman’s, American Beauty, Mars).  The debut, though, is a forgotten gem in its own right, but not as a Dead album, something else, a psychedelic soiree, a soundtrack to a scene, incidental music for marijuana. This "studio" LP was pretty much played live, apparently after the ingestion of massive amounts of Ritalin, which gave the whole thing a speedy, jangly, decidedly un-Deadlike, edge (except for "Viola Lee Blues," which captures a brief snippet of the true S.F. jamming spirit). Of its recording Jerry Garcia said, "So we went down there and what was it we had, Dexamyl? Some sort of diet-watcher's speed, and pot and stuff like that. So in three nights we played some hyperactive music."

The Grateful Dead is a fresh, clean sounding LP (and one cannot indeed sense a great deal of Surrealistic Pillow within its confines), fairly simple in content with some heavily blues-influenced and accomplished R'n'B. "Golden Road" opens the album, apparently included after Warner's insistence that the band "write a single." It's a decent tune with a speedy little guitar solo, but far from commercial enough to propel The Dead into the charts alongside Jefferson Airplane. "Beat It On Down the Line" is taken at a breathtaking pace, a pace that gives the album it's drive and the sensation of being on speed. "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl" features some excellent harp work, I can only assume by Jerry. Other highlights include the Garcia tune "Cream Puff War," a minor, local hit, with swirling organ work, an excellent little guitar solo, and an impassioned vocal.

A popular criticism of the debut is that it isn’t representative of The Grateful Dead and what they later became. That’s like criticizing Please Please Me for not sounding like Sgt. Pepper. True, this collection of mostly short, blues-based rock 'n' roll isn't what the band became, and isn’t terribly representative of the shows the band was doing at the time, but overall, I can't decide if the overall criticism of the LP is balderdash or poppycock. It's nonsense that the album sounds nothing like things to come. Given it's a far cry from the subsequent studio albums where the Dead plunged headlong into lethargic psychedelia, yet many of the tunes aren't far removed from the country/folk of Workingman's, not to mention that more than half the songs made it into the regular Deadshow (and remained so when I was hanging out with the Tapers in '86). 

The debut LP was Dead youth and exuberance, indeed it was Dead come to life: raw, unsure, brawny – I like it.  Okay, okay, I've played American Reality a gazillion times and I've played the debut, like, 13 times, but it's good jammin' history, well worth a listen, well worth the review, and I'm going home to play it right now.  A little of it.  Then I’ll put on Mars.