Whenever it is that you hopped on the bus—50 years ago or 50 days ago—few can deny that the Grateful Dead is a life-changing band. Today marks the 54th anniversary of the band’s eponymous debut album, the physical culmination of a very powerful movement that emerged from the San Francisco area. The second half of the 1960s was the height of the so-called “counterculture,” which can be drastically over-simplified as a movement fueled by an anti-Vietnam War sentiment and an affinity for the newly synthesized psychedelic, LSD.
San Francisco was at the heart of it all, as leaders like Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) were organizing events called “Acid Tests” to encourage mental exploration among the counterculture participants. These events are notably similar to the modern-day rave, only the music wasn’t electronic; it was the Grateful Dead. Band and participant alike would take acid, embarking on a musical journey through the realms of psychedelia. LSD was still legal at the time, and what a time it must have been!
Interestingly enough, the Dead were the result of a wide array of musical styles. Jerry Garcia was raised on bluegrass and country, Bob Weir was into the folk/Americana traditions, Phil Lesh was studied in classical composition, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was fueled by blues and booze. Lest we not forget the jazz-trained Bill [Kreutzmann] the Drummer, who seemed fairly content to go along for the ride with his musician friends.
With many directions to explore, the band’s earliest live shows were an amalgam of these styles. Though they wrote a handful of songs, the majority of tunes selected were covers, and most of these covers made it onto the debut album. Fifty-four years later, a number of these songs still remain in rotation at various Grateful performances, be it Phil & Friends, Dead & Company, Bob Weir’s Campfire Band, Bob Weir and Wolf Bros, and beyond.
As the Dead continued to gain popularity from the Acid Tests, they were picked up by Warner Bros. Records and contracted to record their first album. The result was The Grateful Dead, a nine-track offering that attempted to capture the band’s dynamic live performances. The young and inexperienced band encountered hiccups on the way, with the record label forcing them to cut down the length of various tracks. Ultimately, the resulting product did a cursory job of capturing the band’s potent energy, but it still made quite the splash in San Francisco. With “Captain Trips” smiling brightly on the cover, the Grateful Dead began to pave their own “Golden Road” with this first album release.
The album was cut in only four days, and the band would ultimately find it to be lacking. Lesh later wrote in his autobiography, “to my ear, the only track that sounds at all like we did at the time is ‘Viola Lee Blues.’” Indeed, where “Viola Lee” stretches past the ten-minute mark, the majority of the other songs are notably shorter than three minutes, designed for radio airplay and not psychedelic exploration. Still, however, the foundation of the Grateful Dead was implanted on their debut album, with original compositions (“Cream Puff War” and “The Golden Road”) and cherished covers (“Cold Rain and Snow,” “Morning Dew,” and more) alike.
In all, The Grateful Dead marks the beginning of an illustrious career. The album only helped to grow the band’s following, which would continually grow through their 30 years together. In that time, the Grateful Dead redefined what a touring band could be, and they came by it earnestly. Fifty-four years later, the band’s debut album captures the band in their youngest and hungriest days, eager to carve out a name for themselves. The rest, as they say, is history.
Enjoy the band’s debut album on its 54th anniversary, streaming below.
The Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead
[Originally published 3/17/18]