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Monday, October 19, 2015

After almost fifty years of trying I found a Grateful Dead album I really like

Always preferred the concept of the Grateful Dead to the sound of them. I tried their albums over the years and could never get past the bloodless voices and the lack of whomp in the rhythm section. "You have to see them live," said people. I did that a few times but always felt like an unbeliever at a revival meeting.

That's all changed now. In the spirit of Alan Bennett's parents who delightedly announced "we've finally found an alcoholic drink we like"  – it was bitter lemon –  I've found a Grateful Dead album I can listen to all the way through. Well, apart from the drum solo.

The band wanted to call it "Skull Fuck". The official name is "Grateful Dead". The fans call it "Skull & Roses". It's live, of course. Most of the songs are standard blues band warhorses like "Not Fade Away", "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad", "Johnny B. Goode" and "Big Boss Man". It's a delight to find that here they finally achieve that benign shuffling sound I've read about so much and never heard.

When was it made? 1971, of course.


  1. "Benign shuffling sound.." Sounds like what Little Feat achieved every time they played. But thanks -like you, I love the idea of the Grateful Dead, just never heard anything much to love. So I'll give it a go. But I can't help thinking I'll end up back with Lowell and the guys for the sound of shuffling feet.

  2. I could never reconcile the sound of the Grateful Dead with the prevailing image of them as a 'head band'. Hard to imagine anything less psychedelic than
    the sound of averagely talented musicians and songwriters whose only catchy song that springs to mind is Casey Jones*. Eventually I realised that the drugs were necessary to make the music sound vaguely interesting.

    Careful how you go David. You've established your good sense by not being impressed with Exile on Main Street so don't go and spoil it; this Skull & Roses could be a 'gateway album'.

    *Yes I know, the cocaine song.

  3. I agree - like the concept of the Dead but the music not so much. The exceptions are "Workingman's Dead" & "American Beauty". They are 2 of my all-time top albums. I have been playing them a lot recently. Every now and then try to give the Dead another go but always end up back with WD & AB.

  4. Hi David,

    I boarded the bus in 81 watching the Rockpalast show from Essen broadcast on the Beeb, so congrats on finding a good entry point to this wonderful music. Average musicians? Nope, superlative and unique.... And the songs are timeless. I'm a quarter of the way through the 30 Trips Around The Sun compilation, it's fantastic, one performance from each year 1965-95, what a brilliant concept. Check it out. Thanks for the blog, really enjoy it. Cheers from Australia, Nigel

  5. Everyone I know has one Grateful Dead album they think is pwp. Me I have "Grayfolded" a double CD of oh about a zillion "Dark Star" versions interwoven using computers to make one ultra-psychedelic double LP jam. It looks great on paper doesn't it? Ho hum.

  6. I tried too, and failed miserably.

    I heard Lol Creme say when I was at a 10cc gig (not sure what that does for my credibility), "They're dead, we're grateful". A bit corny I know, but it got a big cheer.

  7. Add me to the list of people who have never 'got' The Grateful Dead, and this despite being a huge fan of every other West Coast band from the Airplane to It's A Beautiful Day.

    I even had a friend play me Workingman's Dead on a loop back in the early 70s, still nothing. For me, it's all about the songs, and the Dead just don't have any.

  8. When Jarvis Cocker started his radio show, there was a weekly-feature called "Are they any good?". Jarvis asked for fans of The Band/Zappa/Grateful Dead/Richard Thompson/etc to tell him the most representative song of the artiste's genius, which he then played at the end of the show. A few tracks flagged up gaps, but most didn't.

    Surprisingly, the people I'd heard of and hadn't gotten into coincided with pretty much my taste too. Wonder if the influence of Peel's play-list was still in there?

  9. An old colleague of mine had a succinct phrase, which he applied to Captain Beefheart and probably would have done to the Grateful Dead - "cult crap"

  10. "Cult Crap". Yep fully agree.

    But there is a lot of it about.

  11. So how do you distinguish between "cult crap" and things you don't happen to like?

  12. I don't... and I don't think there is any difference really.

  13. Exactamundo. I have loved the Captain since I was knee high to a knee. I have been asked to justify this, for about as long, by people who deem him "unlistenable." I think it is a ridiculous demand. I find Suede, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Joni Mitchell unlistenable...but I haven't spent decades trolling their fans.
    What would be the point? It is just things I don't happen to like!

    But there is this about the Grateful Dead:- what do they do that someone else doesn't do better? The improvvy noodling is done better by Man and Can, the country rock is done better by the Byrds. And unlike Country Joe & Jefferson etc they have no real "hit" songs. Even Beefheart sort of has those (eg the multiple covers of "Dropout Boogie") .

  14. Good point. I'm not defending the phrase (it was directed at my fondness for Beefheart!) but I kind of know what he meant. It's the sort of stuff which is revered by critics and little cliques which most people find unlistenable, despite being constantly told how great it is by the aforementioned. To be 'cult crap' it has to have a certain standing in critical circles, probably accompanied by a touch of the king's new clothes phenomenon - people are scared to criticise in case they seem uncool.

  15. I guess at their essence the Dead are a Jam band - very much an American phenomenon at this stage. I would also consider the Allman Brothers, both the Duane Allman/Dicky Betts edition and also the Derek Trucks/Warren Haynes version, to be essentially a Jam band. To my mind far superior to the Dead. The Dead jams seem to be linear with no peaks whereas the Allmans workouts are peppered with much more exciting peaks and troughs.
    I must add I have never seen either live. I would pass on the Dead but regret not having caught the Allmans in full flight.