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Grateful Dead's seminal album 'Skull and Roses' at 50


The idea was simple: give them a way to connect with each other. The Grateful Dead had always been about connection, whether it was pairing two souls in communion, sparking up the body with rosy reds and electric blues, or going through the transitive nightfall of diamonds, and with an ever-growing, increasingly rabid fanbase, why not organise them into something more like a fan club? The Beatles had one, why not the Grateful Dead?

The message was equally straightforward: “Who are you? Where are you? How are you?” With that, any fan could write in, stay informed, and become part of the growing group of dedicated Dead fanatics that were creating their own alternative lifestyle around the band. All they needed was a name: an old-timey reference to bums who rode the rails without charge seemed to tap into the classic Americana explored within the band’s lyrics (and perhaps accurately represented more than a few burnt-out hippies of the day), so it was practically fate that the band’s fans became Deadheads.

The message that appeared on the back of the Grateful Dead’s second live album, here known as Skull & Roses, initially only got around 300 replies. As the band continued to tour like crazy, and as Skull & Roses continued to sell in large numbers, the number of newly-christened Deadheads writing in began to expand exponentially. By the mid-70s, around 40,000 fans were writing in to the Grateful Dead’s offices.

Part of the appeal of a Grateful Dead live album was that the band subverted the traditional rehashing of their greatest hits in a live setting. The Dead didn’t have any hits, only a fluid setlist of songs that changed night to night. Of the selections featured on their first live album, Live/Dead, only ‘Dark Star’ and ‘St. Stephen’ had appeared on previous studio releases, both in radically different arrangements.

Finding “the definitive” version of a Grateful Dead song is a wonderfully Sisyphean task: just as you think you’ve found the one performance that trumps all others, another recording comes in and sends your boulder back down the hill. That’s what’s so great, and occasionally so frustrating, about the Dead — there’s an almost endless well to fall into, to the point where finding your way out is almost impossible.

Not that anybody would want to, but in 1971, it was still difficult to properly articulate just what made the band so amazing. Sure, they were a live act first and foremost, but not everyone could make it to a concert. Kids in flyover states, especially before the implementation of manager Sam Cutler to organise the band into more thorough and more profitable tours, couldn’t quite experience the magic, left with only the alternately experimental (Aoxomoxoa, Anthem of the Sun) and polished (Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty) studio work along with live tapes of dubious quality.

That all changed with Live/Dead, the 1969 album that captured the Grateful Dead in their comfort zone on stage at the Fillmore West. Utilising 16 track recording, a major technological leap at the time, the Dead were able to translate the excitement of their live performances into a neatly marketable package for the first time. Two unauthorised live LPs from Sunflower Records followed, but Warner Bros. knew they finally had a viable way to sell their most troublesome act and quickly commissioned another live album.

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The legendary status of Skull & Roses is secured, but it might conflict with purists’ views of a Dead show, as almost all the vocals are studio overdubs. The New York run of shows in spring of 1971 are legendary as some of the Dead’s best, during a brief period after Mickey Hart’s departure and before the arrival of Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux where the band were leaner and more responsive to each other’s playing. The band had friend Merl Saunders overdub organ on new compositions ‘Bertha’, ‘Playing in the Band’, and ‘Wharf Rat’, overpowering contributions from regular organist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan. These might be sticking points for those who prefer the unaltered Dead live sound, but the crystal clear production of a live Dead show is enough to assuage even the loudest detractors.

Structured like a condensed version of a standard Dead show, the album kicks off with ‘Bertha’ and follows with some of the band’s standard first set country/blues tunes: Bob Weir’s take on Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ and the driving 12 bar ‘Big Railroad Blues’ from band favourite Noah Lewis. After that, the band debut another new song, the slinky ‘Playing in the Band’ before it appeared in a more solidified form on Weir’s solo LP Ace a year later.

It’s all a build-up to one of the band’s signature exploratory jams, ‘The Other One’, the only track from the LP that had previously appeared on a studio album. Here, ‘That’s It For the Other One’ is stripped back to Weir’s ‘The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get’ section completely with the greatest example yet of the Dead’s interpersonal jamming. With little more than a riff and a chorus to guide them, the quintet conjures some of their most indelible improvisations ever put to tape. Exploding out of a Bill Kreutzmann ‘Drums’, the band pick up the twists and turns with untamable enthusiasm.

As a palate cleanser, the band once again drop into a number of covers, including ‘Me & My Uncle’, ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, and ‘Johnny B. Goode’. Then comes another new song, the languid and emotional ‘Wharf Rat’. The Dead would often lift out of the chaos of ‘Drums’ with a Jerry Garcia ballad, and ‘Wharf Rat’ is perhaps the band’s best, completely engrossing and strangely uplifting in its central characters unbreakable spirit. The final track would be a classic Dead show ender: Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ diving headfirst directly into ‘Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad’. The transition from the Bo Diddley beat of the former into the propulsive railroad rhythm of the latter is one of the band’s greatest sonic magic tricks.

The album was clearly the band’s best attempt to translate their unique appeal to a wider audience, but they almost ruined it by giving it an unsellable name. Whether Skull Fuck was actually ever meant to be the title or just another poke at the stiff suits of Warner Bros. is up for debate, but the compromise that came out meant that the live album is technically self-titled. That’s probably for the best — there’s nothing to get in the way of the band’s iconic iconography.

Today, Skull & Roses plays like the perfect primer to introduce a nascent Deadhead into the magic of the Grateful Dead. Heavy on jams in parts, most of the album is actually quite clean and brisk, leaving the headiest elements of the band on the cutting room floor. Sides one and three are energetic and playful, while sides two and four are dense with extended improvisation. It’s a perfect balance, and a perfect time capsule of a band fully leaving their “Primal Dead” jamming of their initial incarnation to the past. Skull & Roses perhaps did the most to bring the cult fascination of the Grateful Dead into greater reaches of the world, converting an untold number of Deadheads along the way.