|by the Encyclopedia of Popular Music Copyright Muze UK Ltd. 1989 - 1998|
Edited by Mark
The enigmatic and mercurial (cliché, but
absolutely true) Grateful Dead evolved from Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions to become
the Warlocks in 1965. The legendary name was chosen from a randomly opened copy of the
Oxford English Dictionary, the juxtaposition of words evidently appealing to members
of the band, who were at the time somewhat chemically stimulated.
The original line-up
- Jerry Garcia (b. Jerome John Garcia, 1 August 1942, San Francisco,
California, USA, d. 9 August 1995, Forest Knolls, California, USA; lead guitar),
Weir (b. Robert Hall, 16 October 1947, San Francisco, California, USA; rhythm guitar),
- Phil Lesh (b. Philip Chapman, 15 March 1940, Berkeley, California, USA; bass), Ron
'Pigpen' McKernan (b. 8 September 1945, San Bruno, California, USA. d. 8 March 1973;
- Bill Kreutzmann (b. 7 April 1946, Palo Alto, California, USA; drums).
Grateful Dead have been synonymous with the San Francisco/Acid Rock scene since its
inception in 1965 when they took part in Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. Stanley Owsley
manufactured the then legal LSD and plied the band with copious amounts. This
hallucinogenic opus was duly recorded onto tape over a six-month period, and documented in
Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe stated that 'They were not
to be psychedelic dabblers, painting pretty pictures, but true explorers.'
which started out as straightforward rock, blues and R&B, germinated into a hybrid of
styles, but has the distinction of being long, wandering and improvisational. By the time
their first album was released in 1967 they were already a huge cult band. Grateful
Dead sounds raw in the light of 90s record production, but it was a brave, early
attempt to capture a live concert sound on a studio album. The follow-up Anthem Of The
Sun was much more satisfying.
On this 'live' record, 17 different concerts and four
different live studios were used. The non-stop suite of ambitious segments with
tantalizing titles such as 'The Faster We Go The Rounder We Get' and 'Quadlibet For
Tenderfeet' was an artistic success.
Their innovative and colourful album covers were
among the finest examples of San Franciscan art, utilizing the talents of Kelley Mouse
Studios (Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse). The third album contained structured songs and
was not as inaccessible as the palindrome title Aoxomoxoa suggested. Hints of a
mellowing Grateful Dead surfaced on 'China Cat Sunflower' and the sublime 'Mountains Of
The Moon', complete with medieval-sounding harpsichord. In concert, the band were playing
longer and longer sets, sometimes lasting six hours with only as many songs.
Their legion of fans, now known as 'Deadheads' relished the possibility of a marathon
concert. It was never ascertained who imbibed more psychedelic chemicals, the audience or
the band. Nevertheless, the sounds produced sometimes took them to breathtaking heights of
musical achievement. The interplay between Garcia's shrill, flowing solos and Lesh's
meandering bass lines complemented the adventurous chords of Weir's rhythm guitar. The
band had now added a second drummer, Micky Hart, and a second keyboard player, Tom
Constanten, to accompany the unstable McKernan.
It was this line-up that produced the
seminal Live Dead in 1970. Their peak of improvisation is best demonstrated on the
track 'Dark Star'. During its 23 minutes of recorded life, the music simmers, builds and
explodes four times, each with a crescendo of superb playing from Garcia and his
colleagues. On the two following records Workingman's Dead and American Beauty,
a strong Crosby, Stills And Nash harmony influence prevailed. The short,
country-feel songs brought Garcia's pedal steel guitar to the fore (he had recently
guested on Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young 's Déja Vu).
'Dead' reverted to releasing live sets by issuing a second double album closely followed
by the triple, Europe '72. After years of ill health through alcohol abuse,
McKernan died in 1973. He was replaced by Keith Godcheaux from Dave Mason 's band,
who, together with his wife Donna on vocals, compensated for the tragic loss. Wake Of
The Flood in 1973 showed a jazz influence and proved to be their most commercially
successful album to date. With this and subsequent studio albums the band produced a more
mellow sound. It was not until Terrapin Station in 1977 that their gradual move
towards lethargy was averted. Producer Keith Olsen expertly introduced a fuller, more
As a touring band the Grateful Dead continued to prosper, but their studio albums began
to lose direction. For their funky Shakedown Street they enlisted Lowell George.
Although they had been with the band for some years, Keith and Donna Godcheaux had never
truly fitted in. Donna had trouble with her vocal pitch, resulting in some excruciating
performances, while Keith began to use hard drugs. They were asked to leave at the end of
1979 and on 21 July 1980, Keith was killed in a car crash. Go To Heaven (1980) with
new keyboard player Brent Mydland betrayed a hint of disco-pop. The album sleeve showed
the band posing in white suits which prompted 'Deadheads' to demand: 'Have they gone
Ironically, it was this disappointing record that spawned their first, albeit
minor, success in the US singles chart with 'Alabama Getaway'. All of the band had
experimented with drugs for many years and, unlike many of their contemporaries, had
Garcia, however, succumbed to heroin addiction in 1982. This retrospectively
explained his somnolent playing and gradual decline as a guitarist, together with his
often weak and shaky vocals. By the mid-80s, the band had become amorphous but still
commanded a massive following. Garcia eventually collapsed and came close to death when he
went into a diabetic coma in 1986.
The joy and relief of his survival showed in their first studio album in seven years, In
The Dark. It was a stunning return to form, resulting in a worldwide hit single 'Touch
Of Grey', with Garcia singing his long-time co-songwriter Robert Hunter 's
simplistic yet honest lyric: 'Oh well a touch of grey, kinda suits you anyway, that's all
I've got to say, it's alright'. The band joined in for a joyous repeated chorus of 'I will
survive' followed by 'We will survive'. They were even persuaded to make a video and the
resulting exposure on MTV introduced them to a whole new generation of fans.
laconic Garcia humorously stated that he was 'appalled' to find they had a smash hit on
their hands. While Built To Last (1989) was a dull affair, they continued to play
to vast audiences. They have since received the accolade of being the largest grossing
band in musical history.
In August 1990, Mydland died from a lethal combination of cocaine
and morphine. Remarkably, this was the third keyboard player to die in the band. Mydland's
temporary replacement was Bruce Hornsby until Vince Welnick was recruited
full-time. In 1990, the band's live album catalogue was increased with the release of the
erratic Without A Net.
The transcendental Grateful Dead have endured, throughout the many difficult stages in
their long career. Their progress was again halted when Garcia became seriously ill with a
lung infection. After a long spell in hospital Garcia returned, this time promising to
listen to doctors' advice. They continued to tour throughout 1993 and 1994, after which
they began to record a new studio album.
However, on 9 August 1995, Garcia suffered a
fatal heart attack while staying in a drug treatment centre in California. The reaction
from the world press was surprisingly significant: Garcia would have had a wry grin at
having finally achieved respectability all over the world. The press was largely in
agreement, concurring that a major talent in the world of music had passed on (either that
or all the news editors on daily newspapers are all 40-something ex-hippies).
In the USA
the reaction was comparable to the death of Kennedy, Luther King, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon.
Over 10,000 postings were made on the Internet, an all night vigil took place in San
Francisco and the president of the USA gave him high praise and called him a genius. The
mayor of San Francisco called for flags to be flown at half mast and, appropriately, flew
a tie dyed flag from city hall. Bob Dylan said that there was no way to measure his
greatness or magnitude.
Garcia's high standing in the USA is undisputed, but it is hoped
that he will be remembered elsewhere in the world not just as the man who played the
opening pedal steel guitar solo on Crosby, Stills And Nash 's 'Teach Your
Children'. Garcia was a giant who remained hip, humorous, humble and credible right up to
his untimely death.
At a press conference in December 1995 the band announced that they
would bury the band name along with Garcia. With no financial worries, all of the members
except for Kreutzmann have a number of forthcoming solo projects that will see them well
into the twenty-first century, which is precisely where many of their fans believed they
Encyclopedia of Popular Music Copyright Muze UK Ltd. 1989 - 1998