On March 17, 1967, Warner Bros. released the first Grateful Dead album, The Grateful Dead. At the release party in North Beach’s Fugazi Hall, Joe Smith, wearing a dapper Warner Bros. blazer, rose to announce, “I want to say what an honor it is for Warner Bros. Records to be able to introduce the Grateful Dead and its music to the world.” The Dead’s Jerry Garcia stood up and, deadpan, responded that the Dead were proud to introduce Warner Bros. to the world. It was the first chapter of what would be the Grateful Dead’s eternally ambivalent relationship with the record business.
The Dead were bound for a pretty glorious future, but it would be based on live music. They needed an audience—not necessarily a large one, but their music required response. Their next two albums would be extraordinarily experimental as they investigated the possibilities of what could be done in a studio, although each would be flawed in some way. But The Grateful Dead would be hobbled by other limits—inexperience, nerves, and unsympathetic production.
For starters, there was no good professional studio in San Francisco at the time, so they’d been forced to go to Los Angeles, never one of their favorite places. They laid the record down at Hollywood’s RCA studios in just a few days, and to accentuate the hasty feel, they supplemented their diet with amphetamines. Although they denied it to a man, one gets the impression that they were a bit intimidated by the experienced—and very straight—RCA engineers. In any case, if you compare this album to, say, Surrealistic Pillow, recorded with advice from Garcia in the same studio just a couple of months before the Dead’s, it lacks the soaring harmonies, catchy tunes, unified sound, and general impact of the Airplane’s work.
The two albums actually bookend what would become known as the San Francisco sound, with the Dead’s propensity for extended jams at one end and the Airplane’s superb harmonies and popular songwriting at the other. It’s those qualities that ignited the Airplane’s career, and just those qualities again that inspired, fifty later, the tribute that honored the album, the “Surrealistic Superjam” at the Fillmore in 2017.
Which is not to say that The Grateful Dead is a bad album by any means. There’s brilliant guitar playing in “Morning Dew” and “Viola Lee Blues,” songs that the band got from Bonnie Dobson and Noah Lewis respectively, but would re-make into their own. There’s sardonic wit in Garcia’s “Cream Puff War,” high energy in their re-make of “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” and delicious funk in Pigpen’s rendition of “Good Morning, Little School Girl.” It’s all worth listening to, but it’s also impossible not to realize that they were going to grow so very much beyond this stage.
After they finished the session, Warner Bros. wrote and said, in the standard manner of record company marketing minds always, “We don’t hear a strong single.” So they responded with “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion),” taking the title from their fan club, and drew a portrait of the street outside their door: “See that girl barefootin’ along..There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet, / She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street.” Oddly enough, although recorded in San Francisco, it actually sounded much better than the material recorded in the supposedly superior RCA studio in Los Angeles. The song had bounce and verve and if the whole album had been done in a more sympathetic environment…who knows? It was just as well that it wasn’t a big hit. When, twenty years later, they did finally have a hit record, it almost killed them. A slow and steady rise would be the Grateful Dead’s career path.
About the author:
Dennis McNally was selected as the Grateful Dead’s authorized biographer in 1980 and became the band’s publicist in 1984. in the process working on its behalf at the United Nations, the White House, and Congress, as well as every significant large performance venue in America. In 2002 he published his long-awaited history of the band, A Long Strange Trip/The Inside History of the Grateful Dead with Broadway Books, a division of Random House. It achieved the New York Times best- seller list. His third book, On Highway 61/Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom was published in 2014, and won the Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson award for music writing from ASCAP. In 2015 Hachette published his edited compilation of interviews with Jerry Garcia, Jerry on Jerry, in both written and audio formats. He earned his B.A from St. Lawrence University and his Ph.D. in American History from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. For more information, go to www.dennismcnally.com