The Grateful Dead
Warner Brothers Records, 1967
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/22/1999
I remember well when I first started to get into the Grateful Dead in 1990. The more I listened to them, the more of their albums I had to own. During one such trip, I decided to lay my hands on some of the Dead's earliest works, so I snagged the tapes for the first four albums.
To be honest, my emotions about these albums vary with each listen. There are times that they can put a smile on my face, and there are times that they can let me down in a big way. But no matter what, one undeniable fact about the band's self-titled debut release from 1967 stands out: It highlighted a band that wasn't quite sure what they were about to embark on, and the tentativeness shows.
Now that I'm guaranteed flame mail for the better part of the weekend, let me clarify: The Grateful Dead is not a bad album, but it sure is different when compared to works like Wake Of The Flood (or, for that matter, Aoxomoxoa). With one exception, Jerry Garcia and crew charge the blues full-tilt, abandon cast aside like so much laundry.
Even in 1967, this was a radical concept; the Dead were plowing new ground while creating their own niche in the world of psychedelia. There's a reason why tracks like "Beat It On Down The Line" remained popular all throughout their career, and why other more "traditional" tracks like "Morning Dew" and "Cold Rain And Snow" were fan favorites. (It is interesting to hear the Dead rip through "Cold Rain And Snow," a song I first became acquainted with as a momentum-building song used to start shows... and never played that fast.)
But there is something that strikes the listener as being inherently odd while listening to this album - namely, this is not your typical Dead album. Now, I'm not saying that this is a bad thing; hell, everyone needs something to start off with. But especially for someone coming into the whole Deadhead scene late in the game like I did, or even after the band's breakup, it's a weird trip to go from the happily jangling tempos to almost breakneck speed blues.
And while I'm busy alienating fans, might as well drive one more nail into my coffin: I have never been a fan of the track "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", no matter who the artist was that performed it. So even hearing the original Dead version featuring Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on vocals doesn't do anything for me.
Despite all of this, at least one or two tracks will end up growing on you. For me, those tracks are "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)" and "Sitting On Top Of The World". And there is one connection to the band the Dead were soon to become on record: the ten-minute workout known as "Viola Lee Blues," a track that seems to fly by.
It would be easy for me to sit back and say that The Grateful Dead is a "for the fans" disc, or is one that should be approached with caution... but I'm not gonna do that this time. It still is worth checking out, if only for the historical interest and to hear how it all began in the development of this band. Besides, if people got into the Dead thanks to some of the "best-of" packages, chances are they're already familiar with a chunk of this album.
Finally, make sure you don't get this one confused with the officially-untitled release from 1971, with the skull and roses on the cover... we'll get to that soon.