Lex on The Grateful Dead (The Grateful Dead, 1967)

And it was on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1967 when the Dead’s debut album was released.  As I type this, I’m listening to the album to see what it captures in my mind.

Sometime in summer of ’84, I taped an episode of “Goodnight L.A. Videos” that celebrated the music of the 60s.  One of the things I caught on tape was a short film called “Grateful Dead,” credited to Robert Nelson, 1968.

The 60s type experimental nature of the film caught my eye, but it was the accompanying score was complicated.  It was a chaotic mess of bad edits of what turned out to be two really great songs from the Dead’s 1967 debut, aptly titled The Grateful Dead.

Turns out, the Dead’s Warner Brothers debut happens to be my favorite Dead album.

Sure, the songs aren’t yet lyrically sophisticated as those from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.  For me, the Dead’s first album has a certain youthful and gung-ho “electricity,” if you will.  Dig the tune, “Beat It On Down The Line.”  The band is blindingly fast-paced, and rhythmically they click.  It’s blues, country, and bluegrass soaked in youth and experimentation.  It’s fun to listen to, and makes me groove.  The opening track, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” is a brilliant piece of “grateful pop” that welcomes the listener into the blisteringly up tempo world of the Dead in early ’67.

There’s also “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” the Dead’s hyperbolic and blinding take on blues guru Howlin’ Wolf.  This was one of the two songs that was badly edited to fit the feel and time of that “experimental” late 60s film by Nelson film I had.  What I found was a good springboard to show off the unit’s musical chops up to this point.  Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh provide a jazzy rhythmic groove underneath Pigpen’s Farfisa organ, Bob Weir’s solid guitar support, and Garcia’s bluesy solos.  (These guitar solos are among my favorite of all time, and were the inspiration for the guitar solos in the Poppermost song “Wake Up, Tell Me.”)

(Sidebar: The Grateful Dead, later re-issued in an expanded version on Rhino Records, features the fully recorded version of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” With an extra 45 seconds of the Dead’s locomotive musical interplay, including a soulful blues solo by Garcia, it’s worth more than the price of admission.)

“Cream Puff War” is an awesome piece of “grateful punk.”  Tempo changes set around the song’s chorus shows the band’s penchant for odd time signatures; in this way, they were like the jazzers of a bygone era.  It’s also evident in the 10-minute plus track “Viola Lee Blues.”  This turned out to be a pivotal song for me in that I began accepting Jerry Garcia as one of my favorite guitarists.  His flair for licks based in blues, country, and bluegrass created broader musical paths to follow as a player and a fan of music.

“Viola Lee Blues” was also the other song in Nelson’s flick that was chaotically edited.  Away from its form as “musical cabbage” in the short film, it’s a testament to their early improvisational skills.  The way that the song snakes its way from slow tempo prison dirge to psychedelic rave up, and back to prison dirge makes for a fantastic ride.

Many legends surround this album.  The guys in the Dead have said that the album was “recorded too early,” and that they had “no record consciousness” when their debut album was recorded.  The speed of the songs’ tempos are blamed on diet pills, pot, and whatever else the young musicians were ingesting.  It may be so, but it makes for a fascinating view of a band that would continue creating a sound that never seems to go far away from repeated listening.

There would be more albums after their first, and each would cover a plethora of musical ideas and territories.  That first album captures an early snapshot of their collective, kinetic energy.  It’s not exactly the one album that springs up when the Dead recordings are discussed, but their first album really does it for my musical ear.

(Lex Neon is also known as Alex Oliver, the quirky and often eccentric musical genius of cyber “sunshine pop / rock” band Poppermost.  Check out their music and Lex’s rock rantings at http://www.poppermost.com).

(Note: This recording was originally released March 17, 1967)

Currently listening:
Grateful Dead
By Grateful Dead
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~ by Poppermost on March 18, 2009.

3 Responses to “Lex on The Grateful Dead (The Grateful Dead, 1967)”

  1. Great ! The Dead is one of my favorite bands. Good blog.

    • Thanks for reading the Dead blog, Terry – I really love this album. I have a lot of other fave albums by the band, but this one is the one that made me stay home on weekends during high school. I’d sit in front of the stereo and learn Jerry’s solos line by line. Fascinating music here. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for reading this one, Terry! I LOVE the Dead. Cheers from here!

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