The Grateful Dead are arguably one of the most anti-establishment bands you’ll ever meet. The group were allergic to conformity and made sure that none of their artistic output ever came close to even dipping a toe in the mainstream. That’s why, looking back, it was such a surprise to see them perform on Saturday Night Live.
SNL is one of the biggest television shows in the world but, in 1978, it was still the bratty, snot-nosed new show which was grabbing all the ratings without saying please or thank you. This was what attracted the Dead to Studio 8H for the fifth episode of their fourth season.
At that time, SNL was still a bubbling bundle of chaos. With cast members Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Bill Murray all as equally wild as the rock stars they welcomed to fill the musical spots, the show was a cauldron of talent and punk ethos. Even if it had only been invented a few summers beforehand.
Of course, the Dead had been punk (in the truest sense of the word) way before that. The group’s sense of unbridled creativity and untethered artistic prowess meant they were the only band for hippies to lose themselves with. So, despite our initial reservations, it would seem that at the time at least, The Grateful Dead and Saturday Night Live were the perfect fit.
The counterculture staples were beginning the second chapter of their ‘Long Strange Trip’ when they stepped across the threshold of Studio 8h at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Still far from being a mainstream act, their staunch hippie values were beginning to wane a touch—but that didn’t mean they still didn’t have a funny side.
For the first performance of the night, Jerry Garcia’s first words on the show would be “driving that train/high on cocaine” and he delivered it with a wry smile. The song, ‘Casey Jones’ is one of the band’s most cherished and is taken from the 1970 seminal album Workingman’s Dead.
The group would go on to perform ‘I Need A Miracle’ and ‘Good Lovin” from their upcoming record Shakedown Street—but nothing hit as hard as ‘Casey Jones’ right out the gate.
The thought of Garcia, Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzman mixing with Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner and Murray is perhaps one of the most terrifyingly fun things we can think of and we bet the cheese and wine mixer after the show wasn’t exactly a quiet one.
Sadly, there’s no footage of that backstage show but we do get to see The Grateful Dead perform ‘Casey Jones’ (at 28:10, albeit backwards) as their opening moments on Saturday Night Live from back in 1978 below.