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The Grateful Dead's iconic debut album turns 55

Grateful Dead - 'The Grateful Dead'

Everyone has an idea about what the Grateful Dead sound like. Whether you’ve bought into the hypnotic rhythms and grooves that the band were able to whip up, or if you just thought that they were just meandering noodle-fests, the Dead garnered a reputation for long, experimental jams and highly expansive musical detours.

But from the very first notes of ‘The Golden Road’, the version of the Grateful Dead that shows up on their 1967 debut sounds noticeably different from the group that millions of Deadheads around the world eventually fell in love with. This is raw, untamed, revved-up garage rock, with only slight elements of psychedelia or extended jamming that became staples of the Dead experience.

A few notable elements are missing right from the jump. The most obvious is lyricist Robert Hunter, who would illuminate most of the band’s most famous songs with a potent mix of kaleidoscopic imagery and old-timey Americana. Without him, only two band originals are placed on the album. The aforementioned ‘The Golden Road’ is a fairly basic party/love song, while ‘Cream Puff War’ finds Jerry Garcia at his most cutting and bitter.

Other pieces of the band’s DNA, including second drummer Mickey Hart and the ever-rotating cast of keyboard players, are missing as well. The lack of secondary percussion is noticeable, but even more immediate is the organ attack provided by Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan. Although not as technically gifted as his subsequent replacements, McKernan provides a ferocity in the instrument that contributes to the raucous atmosphere of the record.

In fact, Pigpen appears to be the only member who truly sounds comfortable in his abilities. His showcase, the classic blues number ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’, finds Pigpen fully formed in his enigmatic persona, barking out classic come-ons while soulfully blowing out his harmonica. On an album where everyone seems jittery and overeager, Pigpen is relaxed and comfortable in ways that no one else is.

For fans of the rock steady grooves that became instantly recognisable in live versions of ‘Beat It on Down the Line’ and ‘Cold Rain and Snow’, the studio versions of the songs are nearly unrecognisable. Bob Weir spins ‘Beat It on Down the Line’ as fast as humanly possible, while ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ has a completely different arrangement to the later concert versions. For those looking for just how drastically dissimilar the early Dead are from their noodly and plodding final incarnation, listen to the lean and mean arrangements from The Grateful Dead.

But it’s clear that the Dead haven’t found their preferred mode of musical transportation or transformation yet. Tracks like ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ and ‘New New Minglewood Blues’ are set up and thrown down before anyone involved can get the feeling of the song down, with the overall feeling of the record being that of a band who are so nervous that they race to get everything on tape as quickly as possible.

The only real thread to the band’s future is on the album’s final track, ‘Viola Lee Blues’. Although it starts off like a standard garage rocker, the band open up for their first real exploratory jam, getting faster and noisier until the arrangement devolves into a cacophony of feedback and distortion. Then, just as things can’t get any more chaotic, the group drop back into the verse and finish the song. As one of the band’s first major experimental jams, ‘Viola Lee Blues’ showed the group what they were capable of, even at their most primal.

Today, The Grateful Dead remains a fascinating archive of the Dead pre-everything: pre-psychedelia, pre-folk, pre-jams, pre-mania. Although they became the world’s biggest cult band, the Grateful Dead were once upon a time just another young rock and roll band looking to play parties and pizza parlours. The Grateful Dead is more than a curiosity, though: it’s more listenable and immediately likeable than their experimental efforts that followed like Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa. Despite the rough edges, this is clearly a band that has talent, even if they are lacking in direction.

As a testament to the Grateful Dead’s early days, and by extension a tribute to Pigpen’s major influence on the early incarnation of the group, the band’s garage rock debut remains a hidden gem that excites just as much as it shocks. This is the Grateful Dead at their most electric, unencumbered by the weights of age and experience. Instead, a couple of guys in their early twenties fire off some of the fastest, most primal rock and roll that was ever made. Those who only view the Dead as an aimless and bloated jam band should listen to The Grateful Dead just to hear how much energy and excitement the group could truly conjure up, even without their signature sound.

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