Listening to The Beatles for the first time in the 1960s was a Promethean moment for so many people. Ozzy Osbourne described it as suddenly being able to see colour for the first time, Bruce Springsteen said that he demanded that his mother stopped the car immediately and he sprinted straight to the bowling alley to call his girlfriend, and Jerry Garcia’s old bandmate, David Nelson, described it as almost making him physically sick… in a bad way (if there is, in fact, a good way?).
The story goes that Nelson got an excitable phone call from his high school friend Garcia one evening saying, “’We’ve got to go down to St. Mike’s Alley now. They’re playing this group, the Beatles. They’ve got the album, and I want you to check it out.’ So we went and got coffee and sat there looking at each other, listening on the sound system to the Beatles’ first album; the ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ album,” Nelson recalled.
Nelson was notably less favourable, as he continues: “After every song, we’d look at each other. I was going, ‘This is going to make me puke, man.’ He said, ‘Oh no, give it a chance. Let’s listen with an open mind.’ After each song, it was like, ‘Pretty good. Good harmony; like in the bluegrass band. Yeah, they do sing good harmony.’ We finished the album, and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, what’s the verdict? What do you think?’ And we both gave it the iffy sign. Not the okay sign – it was iffy.”
Unlike many of their musical compatriots, their relationship with the ‘Fab Four’ was not an instant love affair, however, from tentative beginnings, it would flourish, nevertheless. Aside from the music, The Beatles delivered on something new beyond anything sonic — they put forward a complete artistic gestalt; they had a mantra, a look, personae and profound individualism.
Frank Zappa, one of music’s few true iconoclasts, had a brief stint working in advertising in the early sixties and he came out of that experience in the knowledge that music was now about 50% to do with an image. That was a lesson that The Beatles were doling out for free, and it wasn’t one of cynical commercialism either, it was a revolution that said virtuosity isn’t everything in art, character and creativity can usurp stilted skill in style. The alluring band on the run legacy of ‘The Dead’ is the perfect embodiment of this.
For Jerry Garcia, this message was rammed home with effect when he watched the film Hard Day’s Night. As Nelson recalls: “Seeing it, he realised, ‘Hey great, that really looks like fun’… They were a little model of good times… The Beatles were light and having a good time, and they were very good too, so it was a combination that was very satisfying on the artistic level… It was like saying, ‘You can be young, you can be far-out, and you can still make it.’ They were making people happy.” Later adding: “The Beatles were doing something new, and they had great musical ideas and a great thing going. Plus, seeing the movie Hard Day’s Night was a turn-on.”
Grateful Dead guitarist, Bob Weir, would later state that “The Beatles were why we turned from a jug band into a rock ‘n’ roll band.” From thereon that love never ceased. Despite having a wildly differing approach on the surface, ‘The Dead’ went on to play at least 14 songs written by the ‘Fab Four’ during their 30 years on the road, with Furthur, The Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends and The Jerry Garcia band playing them on many more occasions. Perhaps their most notable cover comes in the form of the anthemic ‘Hey Jude’ that entered their setlist at least 30 times.
As it happens, it would also seem that the relationship between the bands didn’t merely stop at admiration either. Upon the news of Garcia’s passing, Paul McCartney told the New York Times: “I heard on the news that Jerry had died, and I thought, ‘Oh no, I was just about to show the film to him,’ I’d been in correspondence with him because he was a painter and I thought he’d like this. Unfortunately, I missed him. I suppose it has become a little bit of a tribute to Jerry because of it.” Needless to say, it was a sentiment that Garcia would’ve appreciated.
Every Beatles song covered by The Grateful Dead:
- ‘Day Tripper’
- ‘Dear Prudence’
- ‘Get Back’
- ‘Good Day Sunshine’
- ‘Hey Jude’
- ‘I Want to Tell You’
- ‘It’s All Too Much’
- ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’
- ‘Paperback Writer’
- ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
- ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’
- ‘That Would Be Something’ (Paul McCartney solo)