GOLD: 50 Years of The Grateful Dead

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The Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead

Released March 17th, 1967 on Warner Bros. Records

Originally, the blitzed-out script at the top of the album cover read “In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead.”  It’s a piece of a much longer quote from the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and it’s not where the band got their name from. Jerry Garcia was playing a game involving a dictionary; it fell open to a certain place and the word divide across the crack read “grateful dead”.  It’s a much less mystical origin story but the band was always a lot less mystical than anyone seems to want to mythologize.  The old acidheads can argue on about the magic power of togetherness and the importance of drug culture; the Dead wanted to have a good time, and that was their great power.  They wanted to have a good time and therefore so did you.  As such, their debut reflects this desire. “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” sounds really mystical and sublime, but the song is a party song through and through, right down to the directives in the second verse and the “hey heys” that mark out the chorus.  “Beat It On Down The Line” is definitive proof that the Dead are at their heart a dance band, and the inclusion of strutting blues standard “Good Morning Little School Girl” doesn’t do anything to dispel this notion.  The entire album is a hint to the sort of chooglin boogie the Dead would trade in throughout their career, underneath all of the tie-dye, patchouli-scented, patchwork panted, VW bus-driving, crunchy, groovy, granular, granola-munching fan mythology.  This being the early days, the band is still finding it’s footing on their debut; everything is a bit too “psychedelicized”, if that makes sense.  It’s a pure product of San Francisco, 1967, Summer of Love and the flow of LSD – bluesy, but more freewheeling, like Janis Joplin’s Big Brother if they were actually really good musicians.  At the same time, there are better blues albums from the time – pick any Cream album – and as such it was much bigger in San Francisco proper, among people who’d actually seen them live, than on any national scale.

 

To be honest, it’s impressive that the recordings are as down-to-earth as they are.  The band named themselves while smoking DMT and played their first gig at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.  Their initial recording spaces, rehearsal house, and equipment were bankrolled by Owsley Stanley, the man who made all of Ken Kesey’s LSD.  It was also the West Coast in 1967 and as such the sheer amount of marijuana being consumed at the time in addition to all of the other drugs could have driven the band completely off the rails into art-drone trash.  As such, it’s a testament to just how utterly great the Dead are that they managed to turn in such a tight record, even if it didn’t adequately capture the band’s captivating live performances.  The real classics here are “Morning Dew”, which features a high, keening squiggle and some stately chords that probably sound thrilling at twilight (the recent National cover on their broad-minded tribute album was also stellar, incidentally) and “Viola Lee Blues”, which shows off the lengthy jamming that the Dead were even then known for.

By the way, does anyone else catch a sort of Star-Burns vibe from Jerry on the album cover?

GOLD: 50 Years of The Doors

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The Doors – The Doors

Released January 4th, 1967 on Elektra Records

BestEverAlbums: #25

RYM:  #19

The Doors hurled mainstream pop music into the mystic unknown, launching missives of darkness, poetry, and power on the unsuspecting masses.  Fittingly, the album began on a beach, with Jim Morrison appearing back into Ray Manzarek’s life and singing the melody to “Moonlight Drive”.  After hooking up with a flamenco guitarist (Robby Kreiger) and a jazz drummer (John Densmore) the group spent a time perfecting their act as the house band at the Whisky A-Go-Go in L.A., where they expanded nightly on their songs until they included the stretched-out jams found on “Light My Fire” and “The End”.  The latter would cause the group to lose their gig at the Whisky due to the Oedipal nature of the song and Morrison’s heavy willingness to scream the word “FUCK!” in the middle of it.  It would go on to have a searing second life in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! where it would soundtrack Martin Sheen’s descent into his final madness and his assassination of Colonel Kurtz.  Following the recording session for the song, Morrison returned to the studio high on acid and mistook the studio’s red lights for a fire, resulting in all of the recording equipment being sprayed down with a fire extinguisher.

Elsewhere, “Break On Through”, the album’s first single, failed to make much of a dent in the charts but “Light My Fire” (the first composition Robby Kreiger ever penned) drove the album to #2 in the U.S.  Ray Manzarek’s autobiography (Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, highly recommended) contains a passage where he gets his first royalty check for $50,000 and he thinks that it’s supposed to be split among the whole band and his girlfriend breaks the news that it’s actually just his share.  Also of note:  the two covers, “Alabama Song”, a German opera song from the 1920s and “Back Door Man”, a slick, sleazy Willie Dixon song that the band hones into a finely-edged switchblade; the party-all-night swirl of “Soul Kitchen”; and the hard-charging bounce of “Twentieth Century Fox”.  The combination of hip, blues and jazz-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and eerie, mystical psychedelic unease would, er, light the fire of an entire generation of kids; that half-mad nighttime beat would inform both the more direct homage of the Psychedelic Furs and the more subtle insanity of Joy Division, as well as the vampires of 1987’s The Lost Boys.