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Definition: Grateful Dead from The Macquarie Dictionary

US rock group, formed in 1966.


Summary Article: The Grateful Dead
from The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music

The premier psychedelic group of the sixties, the Grateful Dead were almost an anachronism in the high-technology eighties, the decade of their greatest commercial success. Primarily a live performance group, they bore the marks of their roots in the hippie lifestyle of sixties San Francisco throughout their career, most notably in the long improvisational shows featuring ragged harmonies and blues-based meandering guitar work by Weir and Garcia. Despite a five-year recording gap in the eighties, the Grateful Dead remained one of America's top concert attractions, mainly due to the successive generations of fans who, calling themselves Deadheads, flocked to see the band as if to somehow find again the sense of community the band had represented for three decades and that they as individuals had lost. After Garcia's death in 1995 the group disbanded and its members pursued solo projects.

The roots of the Grateful Dead lay in the 1960 meeting of Robert Hunter (later the Dead's non-performing lyricist) and Garcia, who played banjo and guitar on the West Coast folk circuit with Country Joe McDonald and others in the early sixties. In 1964 Garcia joined Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions within which guitarist Weir and keyboards-player McKernan performed folk and blues material. The following year they added Lesh (bass) and Kreutzmann (drums), became the Warlocks and went electric. Based in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, the group became the Grateful Dead and evolved a free-form improvisatory style which fitted the mood of the fast-growing hippie culture. Hunter had previously participated in Stanford University's LSD tests, Garcia had become known as Captain Trips, and the Dead became the 'house band' at author Ken Kesey's Acid Test events. With LSD chemist Stanley Owsley in charge of their sound, the band's long rambling sets at numerous free concerts in the San Francisco area often included forty-minute versions of Wilson Pickett's 'In the Midnight Hour', sung by Pigpen. With the addition of Hart on percussion, the band signed to Warners.

Their early recordings were issued much later as History of the Grateful Dead (MGM, 1971) but the band's first release was an eponymous album in 1967. This collection of short songs, though representative of the group's influences (Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' and the traditional 'New, New Minglewood Blues'), was untypical of the group's live performances, which were more faithfully reflected in Anthem of the Sun (1968), the palindromically titled Aoxomoxoa (1969), which introduced 'St Stephen', and especially the double-album Live Dead (1969) with the majestic 'Dark Star' and a fifteen-minute rendition of Bobby Bland's 'Turn on Your Lovelight'.

With lyricist Hunter coming to the fore, Workingman's Dead (1970) was a tighter, country-influenced album. Among its songs were 'Uncle John's Band' (a playful reference to the group's manager), 'New Speedway Boogie', the Dead's response to the Altamont incident where a fan was killed during a Rolling Stones concert, the sombre 'Black Peter' and a drug-culture reworking of 'Casey Jones', originally a hit for Billy Murray in 1910. The group maintained the same approach on American Beauty (1971) with the soft-rock 'Sugar Magnolia', the autobiographical 'Truckin'' and the philosophical 'Box of Rain' and 'Ripple'. Material from these two albums was regularly featured in the Grateful Dead's later concerts, while their greater commercial success enabled the group to develop in the seventies into an extended family of bands and musicians.

In 1972 the group formed their own Grateful Dead label and Round Records, for side projects by band members. The latter included New Riders of the Purple Sage and Garcia's bluegrass band Old and in the Way. For the Dead themselves, the early seventies was a period of musical consolidation as the live double-album Grateful Dead (1971), which included Merle Haggard's 'Mama Tried', an extended version of Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away' and Kris Kristofferson's 'Me and Bobby McGee', outsold all their early work. Though it showed the group lacking in inspiration at times, the gargantuan triple-album Europe '72 was also successful. There were personnel upheavals, however, as Hart left and Pigpen died of liver failure. Keith and Donna Godchaux (both vocalists) joined in 1972. Their career to this date is well documented in the compilation What a Long Strange Trip It's Been (Warner, 1977).

During the early seventies Garcia, Lesh and the Godchaux all made solo recordings, though perhaps the most interesting individual efforts were those of Hunter. Like his earlier lyrics for the Grateful Dead, the songs on Tales of the Great Rum Runners (Round, 1974), Tiger Rose (1975) and Jack O'Roses (Dark Star, 1980) confirmed an abiding interest in the underdogs of American life which Hunter shared with The Band's Robbie Robertson.

The Grateful Dead's next studio albums, Wake of the Flood (1973) and Blues for Allah, appeared on the group's label but were as indecisive as the live recordings. By 1976 the momentum was gone and Clive Davis signed the band to Arista, providing an arranger (Paul Buckmaster) and outside producers. Keith Olsen supervised the superior Terrapin Station (1977) while Little Feat's Lowell George handled Shakedown Street (1978). By the time of Go to Heaven (1980) keyboards-player Mydland had replaced the Godchaux.

The following year brought Reckoning and Dead Set, both double-albums documenting live shows. The former was an all-acoustic set documenting the group's folk and country leanings, the latter the definitive eighties concert offering. For the remainder of the eighties, the band reverted to being one of rock's most popular live bands. Then in 1987 the group recorded the bestselling In the Dark, which spawned 'Touch of Gray', the Grateful Dead's first Top Ten hit in their twenty-three-year existence. In the same year the band toured with Bob Dylan, releasing the album Dylan and Dead (Columbia, 1989). Hart revived his solo career in 1989 with Music to Be Born, following it with At the Edge (1990) and Planet Drum (1991).

The Dead carried on with the aptly titled Built to Last (1989), which had Mydland singing lead on several tracks. Following his death in 1990 Bruce Hornsby briefly stepped in before Welnick was recruited full time. Without a Net (1991), a triple live set, neatly summed up the group's approach to performing. The same year, Garcia released the double live album The Jerry Garcia Band (Arista), on which he tackled songs by The Beatles, Dylan, Los Lobos and Smokey Robinson. From 1991 onwards, the Dead also began releasing a number of live albums from their huge archive of concert recordings, including One from the Vault (1991) and Dick's Picks No. 1 (1993). In the early nineties it was revealed that through the charitable trust the Rex Foundation Lesh was financially supporting recordings of a number of British classical composers, including Havergal Brian and Robert Simpson.

A tribute album, Deadicated (1991), featured versions of the group's songs by such artists as Bruce Hornsby, Midnight Oil and Elvis Costello. Dark Star (1994) edited together numerous versions of perhaps the Grateful Dead's most famous compositions.

In 1995 Schanachie released the interesting Roots of the Grateful Dead. A collection of the original recordings of material associated with the group, it showed how broad was the range of influences upon them. It was followed by the compilation album The Arista Years, a three-CD live set, Dozin' at the Knick, and Dick's Picks Vol 4 (all 1996). This last, a three-CD set, is considered by most critics to feature the group's best-ever recorded live show (New York, Feb 13-14, 1970). Made just as the band were to record Workingman's Dead, it melds material from that album with established favourites such 'Turn on Your Lovelight' and, of course, 'Dark Star'.

In the late summer of 2000 former Dead members Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann and long-time associate Hornsby, with Alphonse Johnson on bass, toured as the Other Ones to a rapturous critical and commercial reception.

The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, © Phil Hardy 2001

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