I’ve never been a big Grateful Dead fan, not because I don’t like them, but they just didn’t cross my path until I was into my early 30s, and when I did finally seek them out, borrowing a CD of American Beauty from the library to hear what all the fuss was about, I wasn’t that turned on. I realise this may be sacrilege to many people, but I guess my psychedelic-grunge requirements had been well-filled elsewhere and the sound of this slightly chugging workmanlike ‘American rock music’ is not something I’ve ever been that keen on.
I appreciate that I’m not hearing the Dead at their best, since although this CD of a 1974 release is pitched as a best of, it’s really just a primer, and it’s a bit of a thankless task to create a compilation of ‘hits’ or even just representative tracks from their 30-year odd history from a band who are best known for their sprawling live sets.
The Grateful Dead are a pivotal band in the overall history of rock music however, starting out as The Warlocks in 1965, they were soon co-opted by Ken Kesey as the house band for his LSD party happenings, dubbed the Acid Tests. Changing their name soon after to the Grateful Dead and moving to San Francisco they became integral members of the burgeoning drug and music scene, increasingly well-known through their many free gigs. That does all sound like fun, and who wouldn’t worship rapturously at the feet of a band live sound-tracking (for free) the summer of love. But a lot of the thrills, spills and pills of that excitement is lost on their recorded tracks. I guess you had to have been there.
But what we do have on this album is a good overview of their output. Some tracks from their most highly regarded pair of albums, both recorded and released in 1970 – Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty: Sugar Magnolia, Friend of the Devil, Casey Jones (with its explicit cocaine references) and Truckin’, whose verse is lifted directly from The Beatles’ The Ballad of John and Yoko. We also have a couple of live tracks: Turn on Your Love Light and One More Saturday Night, which give us a brief flavour of what their live experience was like.
My favourite here is St. Stephen, from their 1968 Aoxomoxoa album, which harks to the English psychedelic-folk-bordering-on-prog of the late 60s. Much of their music is what sounds now to be a fairly standard take on country-folk-rock, but with their sprawling live versions, and chemical enhancements, compared to much of the ‘pop’ rock and roll music around at that time, it would truly have felt like ‘a long strange trip.’
Best Bits: The total relatability of “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me, other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.” From Truckin’
Genre: Country Rock Psychedelia
Like This, Try This: Truckin’ on a summer road trip down the El Camino Real (Route 101 USA)