The Grateful Dead were an ever-evolving band. During their initial days, the San Francisco musicians played jug band style music under the name Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. With the addition of Bill Kruetzmann, the band turned to a more explicitly garage rock style of rhythm and blues. But when Phil Lesh joined the band, a strong avant garde voice began pushing the band into more psychedelic and experimental territory.
As the band picked up members like Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten, and as the acid-soaked hippie boom began taking over San Francisco, the Grateful Dead soon garnered a reputation for long jams, noise collages, and exploratory tendencies that made them one of the most ambitious, and difficult, bands of the 1960s. Major label Warner Brothers picked them up largely to show that they weren’t falling behind with regards to the progression of rock music, but what they weren’t counting on was a group of drug-fueled mad scientists using expensive studio time for their own wild trips.
With 1968’s Anthem of the Sun and 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the Dead went as far out as they possibly could. Stories abound of members wanted to record open air as a rhythm track, mixing studio and live versions, and demanding to use a brand new 16 track recording machine even though it meant throwing out an entirely recorded version of Aoxomoxoa to start from scratch. The Dead racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in studio bills thanks to their proclivities, but the results were bold and challenging territory for a rock band to cover.
The amount of instrumentation and sonic collages fit into both Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa made them incredibly dense pieces of work, mixing in elements of rock, orchestral music, musique concrete, tribal rhythms, folk, jazz, and a cappella. While the albums were representative of a band at the peak of their eccentric innovation, the version of the Grateful Dead that listened to those albums a few years later were unsure about the results they got.
In 1970, the band released Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two records with stripped back arrangements and more explicitly mainstream-friendly sounds. The blend of country, folk, and rock music turned the Dead from America’s most unwieldy acid rockers to real commercial pop stars. Despite being the leaders of the experimental work of the past, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh decided that the dense arrangements and unorthodox instrumentations were no longer representative of the band, and so they set forth to remix both Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa to remove some of the more explicitly psychedelic elements.
Aoxomoxoa was first, and the pair stripped away the avant-garde noises in ‘What’s Become of the Baby’, the backing choir on ‘Mountains of the Moon’, and the a cappella ending of ‘Doin That Rag’. They also made edits to some of the runtimes and lengths of songs, with songs like ‘China Cat Sunflower’ being cut down to be shorter. Anthem of the Sun received similar treatment, with certain live takes swapped out for alternative versions of songs. As a result, two remarkably different versions of Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa could be found in record stores in the early ’70s and beyond.
When Warner Brothers reissued the albums in their newly remixed state, the only indication that the music was different was either in the credits of the back cover or with the inclusion of an “RE” on the catalogue number. Otherwise, the albums were reissued under the same catalogue number as their previous mixes, making them largely interchangeable for buyers who didn’t necessarily know that there were different versions of the album.
In England, no remixes were sent, while in America the remixes were thrown in interchangeably with the originals. The remixed version of Aoxomoxoa became the more widely-distributed version of the album after 1972, appearing on most reissues. Conversely, the original mix of Anthem of the Sun was chosen for the reissues, making it the more commonly heard version.
The confusion took 50 years to fully rectify: the deluxe anniversary boxsets of Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa included both mixes of each respective album. Deadheads could now compare the two different albums in the same place without having to search out two different vinyls copies of the album. The seemingly haphazard way that fans could wind up hearing completely different versions of what was ostensibly the same album is another example of how loose and messy the world of the Grateful Dead often was.