Review Summary: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
The year is 1967 and the counter-culture movement had begun to spread across the United States, culminating with the fabled Summer of Love. The Grateful Dead’s self-titled album was recorded in their hometown of San Francisco and not by accident, was released earlier that same year. This album would be their first release out of 22 future studio recordings; thus beginning the ascent of the Grateful Dead to their eventual cult-like following. By 1985 the band would be selling out stadiums across the U.S., and by the time of their disbandment in 1995, they had become the most live-recorded band in music history.
The Grateful Dead would become known for their diverse and ever-changing sound, incorporating elements of country rock, bluegrass, folk, jazz, blues, and of course psychedelic rock. But this isn’t necessarily how they started off as a band. For the most part The Grateful Dead
is filled with psychedelic-tinged standard blues numbers. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s organ gives the album it’s distinct Haight-Ashbury psychedelic rock feel, layered upon straight-up blues rock grooves led by Jerry Garcia. The most representative track of this formula would be “Cream Puff War”. The song starts with Jerry’s steady blues riffing and an atmospheric organ line. The momentum of the song continues to build until the 2:00 mark, when rhythm guitarist Bob Weir gives a perfectly timed scream and Garcia lets loose with a signature improv blues solo. This shows the Grateful Dead’s ability to combine more traditional elements of music with other styles such as psychedelic rock and heavy improvisation. The outcome is a very unique and eclectic sound for the band, one which they would continue to use and build upon for the remainder of their recording and touring career.
Contrary to the majority of their later material, most of the tracks on here remain under 5 minutes in length. The album would be the only Grateful Dead release that had a similar sound to other contemporary bands of their time, such as the Quicksilver Messenger Service, 13th Floor Elevators, and Jefferson Airplane. Just a year later they would release Anthem of the Sun
, an album which better captured the live-experience of the Dead and left out a majority of their blues-rock influence; in favor of extended, improvised jams. The final track on the album, “Viola Lee Blues” shows a hint of what was soon to come. It’s easily the best song off their debut and clocks in at just over ten minutes in length. It’s a cover of Mississippi’s Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the band responsible for popularizing jugband music in the early 1900s. The Dead use this country rock groove as a basis for improvisation, and the song ends up going to places entirely unrelated to the song’s original apparent destination; all before coming back to the original chorus and closing the song. It’s quite literally a trip (no pun intended) and marks the first development of their trademark sound they would soon come to be known for.
Their debut release is a fun and highly danceable psychedelic rock album, but not one that is entirely unique or different from other bands of that time. If you were to compare songs on this album to others on later albums, such as the highly acclaimed American Beauty
or Blues for Allah
, it would most likely sound like a different band altogether. Their career history is marked by frequent changes in style and consistently incorporating new elements of music into their repertoire. The Grateful Dead
shows where the Dead came from as a band and the roots of their sound that continued to evolve over the next 28 years of existence.