VINTAGE DEAD; HISTORIC DEAD
I think I liked it better when rock didn’t have a history. These days record companies seem to be the victims of some Tutankhamen-like curse, obsessively searching for buried treasures, long forgotten tapes that they can buy cheap and sell dear. I can see what’s in it for them but it makes life hard on a reviewer.
Take these Grateful Dead albums. What could be more exciting than a tape of the Dead playing San Francisco’s mythical Avalon ballroom in the acid year of 1966? And what could be more shoddy than the package that Polydor actually gave us? Here are two full priced albums, with the minimum of information and, in the case of Historic Dead, the minimum of music (total playing time 29 minutes). There is excessive surface noise throughout and the mix is eccentric, often reducing the band to guitar and bass, and putting the vocals so far back that they’re only semi-audible.
Worst of all, the music doesn’t even sound live. There’s applause at the end of each track but there’s no trace of that hum of excitement that gives live albums their edge. No, if you still don’t know what the Dead are about, listen to the Live Dead album. If you want to know about San Francisco ballrooms, stick to Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills.
Unfortunately these Dead albums are also history. Can I dismiss them so easily? I’m supposed to be searching for origins and portents, for explanations. Like what did San Francisco mean? Why were the Dead so special? How did just another blues band with a fine guitarist become legendary? Are these records filled with answers?
Well, they reveal that the Dead could be very ordinary. The version of ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ on Historic Dead lacks Pig Pen’s lecherous presence and is only saved from complete monotony by Jerry Garcia’s virtuosity. It sounds like Paul Butterfield’s 1966 Blues Band on a very bad day. ‘It Hurts Me Too’ (on Vintage Dead) is nicer but still sounds like a thousand other sub B.B. King white blues groups. Meanwhile, the long tracks on the same album, eighteen minutes of ‘The Midnight Hour’ and eight of 'Dancing in the Street,' are actually embarrassing. The Dead weren’t aggressive enough to do this sort of material; they weren’t into the necessary clipped discipline. They would have been cut by any satin-suited English disco group.
The source of the Dead’s magic lay elsewhere, in their relaxation, their complete lack of self-consciousness. There’s a lovely, affectionate, version of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ on Vintage Dead, complete with mock Dylan sneer and Al Kooper organ. No one except Manfred Mann has covered Dylan with such a driving ease. An even sunnier track is ‘Lindy’, vibrato vocal on rebel-rousing guitar. It’s odd to think that the Dead are rated a ‘heavy’ group. Even in these early days they were doing their ‘country’ rock, with jerky melodies and harmony singing, though it’s difficult to judge the two examples here (‘Stealin’ and ‘I Know You Rider’) as they’ve been mixed into a state of muffled inarticulacy.
But the Dead’s real glory lay in their combination of the blues framework and their own looseness to create the San Francisco version of acid rock. Good trip music has to be a mixture of security and anarchy. It has to lead you on without ever threatening to get you lost. This was the form the Dead mastered. On the most fascinating track here (Willie Dixon’s ‘The Same Thing’) you can hear this form being developed from its very raw beginnings. What starts out as a straight white blues rhythm section underpinning Garcia’s lyricism, ends up as a Dead special, everyone roaring down their own individual paths without ever shaking the basic pulse. At the end of such a track all I can do is open my eyes and smile. It does bring back memories: stoned in a dark hall, enveloped in the rhythm of a thousand other people, alone in my own mood. Once upon a time acid rock was fun.
The Dead weren’t just the source of good trips. They symbolized the original hippie ideals, the naive attempts to combine total individual freedom with a loving community. Their music achieved the dream. It allowed each musician an individual freedom based on a complete instrumental trust. These albums were recorded at a time when the trust was still being established. Only on ‘The Same Thing’ is there any individual creative expression.
The Dead are still strangers to the suspicious English tradition of super-stars plus backing (if Jerry Garcia had been in a different sort of group he would have been boss white guitarist for the last five years), of excitement built on the tension and conflicts between musicians. But, not very long after this music was made, it was Cream and their successors who captured the rock audience. San Francisco’s search for community found psychedelic fascism, the individual trip became a downer. The Dead are an old group now, not a new one.
I hate historical records. They bring back too many faded expectations. ‘School days are the happiest days of your life,' they used to say, lying. Now they say, ‘They don’t make records like that any more.’ I don’t believe that either. It’s too depressing.
(by Simon Frith, from Cream, June 1972)