1970: Grateful Dead / American Beauty

by J A Gray

Well so far so good.  Plenty of people are going to nod in agreement when I say The Beatles were great, or that The Kinks are a national treasure, or that there’s this cool cult band called Love you should check out if you haven’t already.  Here’s maybe where I split the vote.  Some folks will see Grateful Dead’s name up there and think “yes, absolutely”.  And others will run for the hills.  As rock music became the dominant force in youth culture, so all the various tribes started to form, and these tribes would be fiercely defensive of the music on their scene and downright hostile towards ‘other’ kinds of music.  This was the culture I grew up in.  I was encouraged to think by Marcus and by my peers that bands like The Grateful Dead weren’t really for me.

Back in the 70s we obviously didn’t have the internet, but even other forms of media relating to rock music was limited.  There were, I think, four weekly music papers on sale during my formative years.  New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds and Disc.  They were the staple diet for music fans.  There were also pop magazines like the one I mentioned in the Revolver chapter, filled with lyrics and pin-ups.  You could see import magazines from the States like Rolling Stone or Creem in some of the bigger cities, but they were rare and exotic sightings.  On TV we had the lowest common denominator chart pop of Top Of The Pops.  Cheap and cheerful but usually essential viewing back when pop was fun.  And late at night there was ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris with The Old Grey Whistle Test.  It was for very serious music fans and tended to be a little too austere.  There were a lot of beards.  I was usually in bed by the time it was on.  That was pretty much it for rock music on telly.  We didn’t have a Waterstones in every town, we had small local bookshops, or maybe a W H Smiths.  Neither would have much in the way of a ‘music section’.  You might see one or two books.  And if they contained anything on a band you liked and they were cheap enough (ie your pocket money could run to it), you’d probably buy it.  Information on rock was hard to find and you’d get it where you could.

It was with this mindset that I ended up owning not one, but two different large format books detailing album cover art.  A little bit of text, but mostly page after page of album artwork.  You’d get the same effect, more or less, by typing “LP covers” into Google image search these days.  However I would look at these pictures of record sleeve art for hours, and both had several examples of Grateful Dead covers.  There were invariably skulls or skeletons and they were smoking or playing fiddles or they were draped in roses.  They were pretty scary.  I was creeped out but also fascinated.  Who were these people?

Marcus also had this book which became something of a bible for the two of us.  The NME Book Of Rock 2.  NME stood for New Musical Express.  And every copy I have seen ever since has also been a 2 edition.  I’ve yet to see a 1.  I still have in my head absolutely useless information regarding the discographies and personnel of utterly obscure 70s bands thanks to reading this book from cover to cover several times in my youth.  The book was later updated in a larger format as The New Musical Express Encyclopedia Of Rock.  I bought a copy of that after Marcus left home and promptly read that cover to cover as well.  In fact I still pull it off the shelves to check certain things now.  It’s falling apart.  There’s as much Sellotape as book these days.  Those books were my boyhood Wikipedia.  They were how I knew that the most approachable and most commercial two Grateful Dead albums were called Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty about 15 years before I heard the former and about 30 years before I heard the latter.

In the meantime I bought the soundtrack album for the movie Zabriskie Point because it included three rare Pink Floyd recordings.  It had a short excerpt from the Dead’s Dark Star on one side, and a solo instrumental by Jerry Garcia on the other.  Neither track made much of an impression, or indeed made any sense to my teenage brain.  But at least I found out that the music wasn’t as scary as those album sleeve pictures.

I think I was in my mid 20s when I found myself waiting in a young woman’s living room for her and her flatmate to get ready.  I have no idea where we were going.  I barely knew either of them and there was no romantic interest on anyone’s part, so I’m at a loss to explain what I was doing there, but anyway this woman, Claire, asked me if I wanted to put a record on while I was waiting.  I flicked through her collection.  Most of it probably wasn’t to my taste.  How else to explain that I pulled out a copy of Workingman’s Dead?  Claire said that the record wasn’t even hers and that I could have it if I wanted.  I think she put on something else very hastily.  The LP was damaged.  It had a crack running from the outside edge into the vinyl measuring about an inch or so, effectively ruining the first song and a bit on either side of the album.  Or so you’d think.  In reality I think I only made it past side 1, track 1 once or twice.  That first song, Uncle John’s Band, sounded so glorious to me that I played it over and over, big old crack and all.  “Oh the first [CRACK] days are the hard[CRACK]est days, don’t you wor[CRACK]ry anymore” and so on.  That’s pretty much what I heard.  I loved and still love that song.  In fact these days I rarely play a gig without including my version of it.  For all that, it took me another 15 years to get around to hearing a copy without the unwarranted extra percussion.

Out of the ashes of my band Onionhead came a second band Tenderloin.  Some people have since told me they hate both those band names.  I can see what they mean.  So be it.  Anyway, Tenderloin had a Canadian lead guitar player called Dave.  He was younger than the rest of us, but he was already a seasoned acid tripper.  And he was also a Deadhead.  We all met up at Sammy the bass player’s dingy flat and took a trip together (except the drummer, who declined to show up).  It was the early to mid 90s.  Dave had brought some live Grateful Dead CDs, insisting that they’d be the perfect musical accompaniment for the hours ahead.  The backs of the CD jewel cases gave the timings for the songs.  Some of these tracks went on for 20 or 30 minutes each!  I think I was as apprehensive about the music as I was about the acid.  As it transpired I don’t think I noticed the music very much at all.  I was too busy thinking Sammy’s face looked like that of a goat.  And then how much the walls were melting.  And then standing out in his back garden and trying not to fall down into the massive cracks between the clumps of soil that seemed to descend into the bowels of the earth.  And then I think I got a bit cosmic about something or other.

Over the next few years I heard the occasional track.  I once even caught an acoustic gig with the now Garcia-less band* during a holiday in the States.  It was OK, but again no great impression was made on me that day.  There was also a guy that used to drink at a couple of pubs I regularly haunted in Moseley, Birmingham who used to stop me and bend my ear about all things Grateful Dead week in and week out.  Even though he knew I hardly knew a note by them.  The fact that I’d heard of them was enough.  He needed to talk to someone about the band and I’d do.  I listened with good grace, but boy, it wasn’t fun.  I was very nearly put off the band for life there and then.  And then someone on an internet forum sent me a lovingly compiled set of songs featuring the Dead’s Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel guitar.  And I liked it.  The country side of the music was the perfect ‘in’ for me.  After all it’s that side of the Dead’s music that had made Uncle John’s Band such a big favourite.  The tape included a couple of songs from American Beauty and they too soon became favourites.

Then about 3 years ago I noticed that Amazon had discounted The Golden Road box set.  I’d looked at it before over the years and thought, hmm, maybe.  Even for a total neophyte it was an attractive set – all of Grateful Dead’s original albums with bonus tracks covering the years 1965 to 1972.  And now it was so cheap.  After all it would be a pity to pick up just Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty and then decide to explore further when I could get so much in a big box for not very much more money.  And anyway by now I had a serious box set fetish.  I went for it.  I sat through all the discs in chronological order.  It was sometimes fun but sometimes an endurance test.  Those half an hour long tracks of improvised jamming – I could admire the talent on show and the band’s incredible collective intuition, but this wasn’t my idea of music for pleasure.  But when the band were more focussed on songs then it made much more sense to me.  The Dead’s early years ticked by over the course of a couple of weeks.  And then I got to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.  It was like reaching a calm and soothing forest stream after a long time spent struggling up a mountain with an enormous back pack.  Especially American Beauty.  The Dead had been learning how to sing harmony from hanging out with Crosby, Stills & Nash.  The Dead’s take on harmony singing was less pitch perfect than CSN’s.  The voices were wobbly and you can hear a bit of straining here and there.  But there’s a certain charm in that.  The music is also fairly close to that being played by CSN on their debut album, except that the Dead’s sound is more homogeneous.  A CSN album had to include the quite disparate worldviews and writing styles of its three principals, but nine of the ten tracks on American Beauty have the same lyricist, and the music for each the songs, though varied, sounds like its coming from the same font.  The music is earthy, steeped in the traditional sounds of country, folk and blues.  There’s precious little lead guitar on the record.  There’s no jamming.  No cosmic improvisation.  Just ten highly melodic, well played, beautifully arranged and produced concise songs.  It was like a spaceship full of aliens touching down on earth and putting on jeans and t-shirts and saying “we’re just like you”.  The Dead could probably have been making records like this before, they just didn’t want to.  From here on in the band would continue to explore all kinds of music.  They would assimilate all the different styles, from the spaciest jazz to old timey tunes, even to disco.  They embraced everything.  It was all music to them.  They really were a people’s band.  They often described themselves as being a dance band.  They played music for their audience to dance to, and the audience, in theory, brought as much to the party as the musicians did.  Band egos were kept in check.  I like all this about the Dead.

American Beauty is a big warm-hearted hug of a record.  It’s also one of the few albums that me and my other half, Gill, enjoy with as much enthusiasm as each other.  Box Of Rain, Ripple, Candyman and Attics Of My Life get a couple of extra shaky harmony parts from us on every car drive it provides the soundtrack for.  It’s such a consistently good record.  There’s also Friend Of The Devil, Sugar Magnolia, Brokedown Palace, Truckin’ – absolute gems one and all.  Box Of Rain though is a particular favourite.  Robert Hunter’s words said what Phil Lesh was unable to write himself – a fond farewell to his dying father.  It’s not maudlin though.  The melody is bright and open.  And those CSN singing lessons have really paid off.  I can’t hear it without choking a little towards the end.  It’s a very emotional song.  Gill is also smitten with the song.  She once spent far too long yelling out the title as a request to a French Grateful Dead cover band.  I translated this to “Boîte De Pluie” for a giggle and yelled that out.  Soon the whole field was asking for Dead songs using dodgy French translations.  I surpassed myself with “L’Autre Une”**.  Even the band, a fairly surly looking bunch if truth be told, laughed at that one.

American Beauty is the Grateful Dead album that you don’t have to be a Deadhead to enjoy.  Workingman’s Dead is similar, but a little rougher around the edges.  It took me a long time to get comfortable with the band (no, I am flat out refusing to call it a “long strange trip”).  Not just the music, but also the San Franciscan hippie culture surrounding it.  And Lord knows I’m still not that comfortable with jazz rock improvisations that take as long to unfold as a whole album by somebody else.  But I suppose I’m now kind of, sort of, maybe, a Grateful Dead fan.  So why do I feel like I’ve just stood up to make an announcement at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?


* Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist and main vocalist passed away in 1995.

** Or, in English, The Other One – one of the Grateful Dead’s legendary improvisatory epics.

N.B. American Beauty is currently available, in remastered form, as a CD with bonus live and studio tracks.  This same CD is also available as part of The Golden Road 12 disc box set.

My other nominations for 1970 albums of merit:

Creedence Clearwater Revival / Cosmo’s Factory

Roy Harper / Flat Baroque And Berserk

Spirit / Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus

Steeleye Span / Hark! The Village Wait

The Beach Boys / Sunflower

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young / Déjà Vu

Parliament / Osmium

John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band

Simon & Garfunkel / Bridge Over Troubled Water

The Byrds / (Untitled)

Nick Drake / Bryter Layter

George Harrison / All Things Must Pass