This is the first part of an ongoing series where I listen to Grateful Dead albums and decide whether I like them or not. I give each album a fortnight and report back.
First of all, why am I doing this? Mainly because I want to find out if I can end up liking an act simply by listening to their music. Will sheer force of repetition charm me? Also I want to find out about the Grateful Dead, to get inside their music, to understand their fans’ devotion. There must be some element within the music for it to have sustained for so long. What is that key?
So I’ll start listening to their second album “Anthem of the sun” for about the tenth time and write down some thoughts as the album plays…
It all starts so sweetly. A gentle wash of organ, almost chiming guitars, and tentative drums. The first few minutes seem rather nice really. Not psychedelic as I know it. Then it all goes horribly wrong. Around 1:30, there’s a drum roll and the listener is thrust into a maelstrom of live Deads all playing simultaneously across the stereo field, fading in and out and the song rocks on. Sure, it’s fast and rocking and Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar work is lyrical but… It doesn’t move me. There’s a nice verse about Ken Kesey and the Pranksters’ bus but… it returns to the first melody again from the start, more merging of recordings. It all sounds very ordinary and when the band dive into a two chord live vamp it still does nothing for me.
Maybe I should have some drugs.
Then when all the ‘avant-garde’ noises start towards the close it sounds like a less organised version of the end of “Bike” by Pink Floyd. Probably far out if you’re zonked. Ooh look the Clangers have arrived! Big deal.
“New Potato Caboose” starts nicely too, gentle guitar arpeggios and celestes or tack pianos and this is nice melancholy psych. Will the mood last? Will it hell! Actually this song drifts along rather well. The anticipated explosion doesn’t happen but some noodling does. In fact the noodling takes over and I already feel like nodding off. Maybe it’s the painkillers. What is this headache I’ve had all day? Why is it at the back of my head not the front? Oh, there’s multiple Deads again. This is sounding like a mess. Garcia said this was to “bring on the hallucinations”. Frankly I’m not having it. This is going on a bit now.
“Born Cross-Eyed” sounds like the last song. Or maybe the “Feels like I’ve been here before” is ironic? But at least it is short. But bloody hell they noodle even in a three minute song. How is that possible?
“Alligator”, that opening drum should be looped. Again all very lyrical but kazoos are generally a bad idea in music. Are they kidding? They’re all good players (excepting kazoos) and they work well off each other but bloody hell they’re going to start noodling, I know it. Oh no, sorry just a key change and more kazoos..and then it goes all A Certain Ratio – or multi percussion anyway, “Come on everybody get down and dance!”. Jeez, do I have do? I can see pictures in my mind of hippies swinging around the mud. Is the alligator a metaphor? Or just an alligator? Either way, this is going on a bit. I never thought I’d be glad to hear some guitar, even if it’s just pentatonic scales with a few bends and vibrato. (Harsh…but fair). I’m sure they must have enjoyed playing this more than I am enjoying listening…There’s another five minutes of this? I know that eventually they get a good riff going and I’m just waiting for that. Play that guitar, Jerry. (Looks at watch). This cost $100,000 to record. Dave Hassinger gave up on the band during the recording process. I take my hat off to him. (I love Hassinger’s work for the Stones and the Electric Prunes by the way). Oh, they’re back on the riff. Did my mind wander? Oh just get on with it! Please! Now for another freeform noise freakout, as used by every band in the world when they’ve run out of ideas. (I should know, my band did it often enough)
“Caution (Do not step on tracks)” makes good use of two drummers, Garcia’s guitar but the lyrics are blues cliches. Though Pigpen’s style of singing reminds me of David Crosby, though it’s more likely Pigpen influenced Crosby. And repeating “All you need” over drums makes me think of live versions of “Drill” by Wire (“Could this be a….?”). What the hell, they’re messing with the speed of the tapes now. Very clever. And just as I think it’s finished they all start again. My cat is looking out of the window at the rain. Then they do the freeform freakout thing again. More noise and nonsense. Far out. Yawn.
OK, I’m being a bit harsh on “Anthem of the sun”. I’ve been listening to it for a fortnight and it has mostly bored me stupid and made me question the validity of the project. There’s some nice moments – the melodious parts on “That’s it for the other one” and “New potato caboose” – but the majority of it is noodling. Maybe I need to unwind a bit. Maybe I need to be a little bit wasted. That isn’t going to happen. Maybe I should have listened to their debut album first but that is uncharacteristic, I’m told.
What is most odd is that the single recorded at the same sessions – “Dark Star” – turns out to be utterly lovely. The guitar interplay is gorgeous, the general atmosphere is spooked, deep pools of reverb, there is no percussion beyond a few cymbal washes, there’s twinkling keyboard notes… I absolutely love this song. Which slightly worries me as I know they will stretch it out for the rest of their career.
Still, that’s what ’68 Dead sounded like. I wonder what ’69 holds
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