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Why was the first Grateful Dead album so fast?


For any hardcore Deadhead, the Grateful Dead’s first album is a strange creature. To most, it’s a charmingly ragged portrait of a young band (Bob Weir was still a teenager at the time) still trying to find their sound as they reinterpret the blues and the psychedelic rock scene of the time. There is a vocal minority, however, that actively don’t like and even occasionally react with hostility towards that first Grateful Dead album. Deadheads are usually a mellow bunch, so what’s with the hate?

Well, it’s mostly due to the fact that The Grateful Dead (or San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, according to both Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann) isn’t really a mellow album. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: 35 minutes of souped-up garage rock with acid-soaked psychedelia and breakneck tempos. The cultural perception of the Dead usually paints them as laid-back hippies, but The Grateful Dead is anything but a laid-back record.

Some of the band’s most reliable tracks in their repertoire are featured on their first album, though they would be hard to recognise even a year or two later. Songs like ‘Beat It on Down the Line’ and ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ would last for decades in the band’s live shows but at significantly reduced speeds. What was going on with Dead during the recording sessions that made them take everything so fast?

Part of the explanation was that they were a young and nervous band stepping into the studio largely for the first time. Nerves and excitement leaked into their performances, which is typical of inexperienced players, and younger bands tend to want to play as fast and loud as possible. But Kreutzmann had another explanation for why everyone in the band sounded like they were flying at the speed of sound.

“We were in Studio A at RCA Studios. We also were on a lot of Ritalin,” Kreutzmann recalled in his memoir Deal. “The album sounds like it. We played everything too fast. We were nervous. Phil was into speed – many years ago, not now of course – and he had a stash of Ritalin.”

“Playing music on speed sounds like you’re playing music on speed. It was our first experience with recording for the big league, and we all wanted the album to be popular. We wanted it to work,” Kreutzmann concluded. Anyone aware of Kreutzmann’s style knows that he’s no stranger to fast tempos: just check out the relentless bounce of ‘Cumberland Blues’ from Europe ’72. But The Grateful Dead is something else entirely, and it’s no surprise that there were some additional stimulants involved in its creation.

The Grateful Dead would be the beginning of the Dead’s difficulty in capturing their live sound in the studio. They would try wild experiments, stripped-back acoustic setups, home studios, big-name producers, and off-the-wall collaborations just to try and find the right sound, but it would prove to be the band’s white whale. Even their most critically acclaimed LPs like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty or their commercial peak on In the Dark failed to properly sound like the Dead at their fullest. The Grateful Dead is certainly their most atypical release, but it remains a fun listen 55 years later.

Check out the ferocious ‘Beat It on Down the Line’ down below.