Early Dead Albums...

Early Dead Albums...
Authored By John Nicholson

It all depends on which door you come into the Grateful Dead. If you're later to the party, and joined after Live/Dead, especially if your first exposure is Wake of the Flood (one of my personal favourites) you might love the jazz/folk tinge to their work, or if your point of entry is Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty they were a kind of more adventurous hip version of CSNY. But if you started your journey at the beginning, and you love the acid rock days, you will have had to go through a lot of assumptions of what the band were and became.

They appeal to different constituencies. The acid rock weirdness fits a certain kind of brain. You have to have an adventurous spirit and not expect anything you’ve heard before. The radical nature of the music was brought home to Warner Brothers exec Joe Smith when he arrived during the Anthem of the Sun sessions. He arrived to find Phil Lesh trying to record the sound of ‘thick air’ he thought the bass player particularly was certifiably insane.

They weren’t mad, they were just taking a lot of strong drugs. And boy does it show. The first four records are a unique mix of R and B and 100% pure psychedelic experimentation. The debut is quite a straight rhythm and blues set albeit one that was allegedly mixed fast because the band were speeding, but their second and third and live fourth are a real trip. Mixed live, Anthem lives on the outer reaches of consciousness. That’s It For The Other One is like a fragment of a dream. Part live, it comes and goes and leaves you feeling stoned. I think it is the ultimate psychedelic record and established the band as the best band to get off your face to while listening. 

The follow-up was Aoxomoxoa, of course bits a palindrome, and the lettering on the cover is the kind of liquid psychedelia that meant you stared at it, trying to find meaning for hours. In St.Stephen and the brilliant China Cat Sunflower, the album coheres around songs, but on What’s Become of the Baby? It all disassembles and gets as weird as you could want. On the live double, Dark Star is a state of mind that chimes if you inhabit the space. And one track is just a wall of feedback noise. Of course.

Those who loved it were not millions in number, but they changed lives. They were the perfect match for a trippy lifestyle, wilfully and successfully left field, Warners must have been delighted when they handed in Workingman’s Dead and it was a straight collection of songs and melodies. In some ways they are a different band, though recognisably the same. If you are in the mood to revisit the state of mind that was a regular place for us to be when we were 18, I highly recommend those acid rock days and the first four albums.

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