With fifty-five years of hindsight, it’s more than a little thought-provoking to hear the Grateful Dead’s eponymous studio debut. While the record contains hints at some directions to come for the band, such as its fondness for Bob Dylan, it hardly suggests the seismic impact on contemporary culture that would eventually ensue for nearly three decades into the future. On the contrary, the quintet sound almost as amateurish on these nine tracks as any other fledgling ensemble at this early stage of its existence (and less fully-formed than say, Moby Grape, on its own eponymous debut out later this same year).
With a second CD of live recordings from 1966, however, the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of the Dead’s album does portray a band more at ease on the stage than in the studio. And while that’s not so rare a phenomenon for rookie groups, it doesn’t leave many clues about how the band would so assertively (aggressively?) experiment on Anthem of the Sun, their very next outing with producer Dave Hassinger (who would depart those sessions in abject frustration when challenged by Bob Weir to capture the sound of ‘thick air’ for some tracks). Nor does the overdubbing on, not surprisingly, the last track to be recorded, a group composition intended to be a single, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion.”
At the outset of the mere four days of recording, Hassinger had some cachet with the group. He had worked as an engineer on The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and also collaborated with San Francisco contemporaries Jefferson Airplane for that band’s second LP Surrealistic Pillow. Yet that commercial breakthrough of JA’s benefited from a mentor none other than the titular leader of the Grateful Dead: Jerry Garcia was credited as ‘spiritual adviser’ on the finished effort and he played on a handful of tracks besides coining the cryptic album title.
It’s arguable that, in the presence of such an esteemed third party advocating on behalf of the precocious psychedelic warriors themselves, Hassinger would not have acquiesced to the Warner Brothers Records demands to shorten four tracks for the record’s release. Subsequent reissues of Grateful Dead feature full-length versions of “Good Morning Little School Girl,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Cream Puff War” and “New, New Minglewood Blues,” but such conflicts nevertheless set a tone for the Grateful Dead’s unease regarding such endeavors, a discomfort that lasted for the duration of their career.
Still, in perusing Owsley Stanley’s recordings from the Vancouver Trips Festival concerts in July of 1966, it’s most telling to note that not only does the content feature all but two numbers from the forthcoming album, but also that on only one selection, “Viola Lee Blues,” does the Grateful Dead performance extend to ten minutes and beyond (and, as with its studio corollary, by mere seconds). Still, the nascent chemistry of these musicians is as apparent in these concise renditions as their studio counterparts: most discernible in the snappy but propulsive drumming of Bill Kreutzmann, it’s a distinction too often obscured by the prominent strains of a Farfisa organ from the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. The keyboard tones so common at the time now sound terribly dated, in marked contrast to that earthy soul’s genuinely bluesy harp work and guttural vocals on material that is his forte, like “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and ”Big Boss Man.”
Another long-term staple of the Grateful Dead repertoire, “I Know You Rider,” also appears in the live content alongside a clutch of tunes that would soon be dropped from setlists. No doubt because of the derivative nature of these originals, the rarely-played “Standing On The Corner” and “You Don’t Have To Ask Me,” plus a solo composition of bassist Phil Lesh’s, “Cardboard Cowboy,” was soon relegated to obscurity as the quintet took the path of least resistance for their initial recorded output: seven of the nine-song selections were cover tunes, not the least of which was the durable “Morning Dew.”
With over a half-century retrospect, perhaps that was a wise decision. Outtakes included in a previous issue of this album within 2001’s box set The Golden Road (1965–1973) proffer no additional clarity of the group’s vision. In fact, the cover art for Grateful Dead is more indicative of the abundance of ideas this now iconic group was just beginning to sort out: designed by artist Stanley Mouse, with extensive input from bandmembers (particularly Garcia), the cover collages recall poster art of the times and presage now immediately recognizable images like ‘Skull & Roses’ or ‘Steal Your Face.’
The graphics underscore the inexorable crystallization of the band’s camaraderie even if the initial results of that inexorable process had, at this juncture, barely tapped various wellsprings of inspiration further ignited in the next two years by the addition of rhythm devil Mickey Hart and lyricist extraordinaire Robert Hunter. Nevertheless, mere flashes of brilliance may well be more apparent now than when the alchemy was in its early stages at the threshold of ‘The Summer of Love.’