No Grateful Dead song was ever the same way twice. Famous for their ability to jam out songs to wild and psychedelic new spaces, the Dead could take even the most basic 12-bar blues songs and find new sonic territories to explore. At their best, songs like ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Playing in the Band’ would evolve in real-time into completely new songs. Even when they knew where to stop and start, songs like ‘Bertha’ and ‘The Wheel’ could become expansive enough to feel completely different from concert to concert.
One song, in particular, was a mix of both unchangeable structure and complete improvisation — ‘Beat It On Down the Line’, the rollicking and rocking number that became a Dead favourite very early. ‘Beat It On Down the Line’ was among the first songs that the Dead ever played together, with a lightning-fast version of the song being featured on their 1967 self-titled debut LP.
An early 1960s country-blues tune, ‘Beat It On Down the Line’ was representative of the Dead’s ability to adapt already existing material and tailor them to their own sound. The structure of the song itself never changed from night to night, with only Jerry Garcia’s solo being improvised. But there was an element of the song that changed between each concert – how many beats that band would play in the song’s intro.
Sometimes these beats would be determined by what the date of the concert was. Other times, a birthday or special event would determine the number of hits that would be played. On more than one occasion, the Dead would call out to the audience and ask them to give them a random number. Once they all agreed, it became a game to see who could count and who was too blitzed to keep up. On more than one occasion, only a few of the band members actually end up on the agreed-upon number of hits while the others sputter out to a hilariously awkward halt.
Especially throughout the Europe ‘72 trek, ‘Beat It On Down the Line’ saw frequent plays and frequent changes to the number of beats in the song’s intro. When they were feeling especially locked in, the band could go as high as 20 intro beats. The record for intro beats seems to be 42, which was pulled off at the band’s September 11th, 1985 concert in Oakland, California. The extremely high beat count was dedicated to percussionist Mickey Hart, who was celebrating his 42nd birthday.
‘Beat It On Down the Line’ is one of the few Grateful Dead songs that managed to survive the band’s entire lifetime. Although the band didn’t play the song at all during their final year together in 1995, the only other year where the song made no appearances was 1976. All told, there were over 300 performances of the song over the Dead’s 30-year career.
Check out ‘Beat It On Down the Line’ down below.