Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Grateful Dead

  • The Grateful Dead [Warner Bros., 1967]
  • Aoxomoxoa [Warner Bros., 1969] A
  • Live/Dead [Warner Bros., 1969] A+
  • Workingman's Dead [Warner Bros., 1970] A
  • Vintage Dead [Sunflower, 1970] B-
  • American Beauty [Warner Bros., 1970] A-
  • Grateful Dead [Warner Bros., 1971] B+
  • Europe '72 [Warner Bros., 1972] B+
  • Bear's Choice: History of the Grateful Dead (Vol. 1) [Warner Bros., 1973] C+
  • Wake of the Flood [Arista, 1973] B-
  • From the Mars Hotel [Grateful Dead, 1974] B-
  • Blues for Allah [Grateful Dead, 1975] C-
  • Steal Your Face [Grateful Dead, 1976] C-
  • Terrapin Station [Arista, 1977] B
  • What a Long Strange Trip It's Been: The Best of the Grateful Dead [Warner Bros., 1977] B
  • Shakedown Street [Arista, 1978] C
  • Go to Heaven [Arista, 1980] C
  • Reckoning [Arista, 1981] B+
  • In the Dark [Arista, 1987] C+
  • Built to Last [Arista, 1989] C+
  • Two from the Vault [Grateful Dead, 1992] A-
  • Dick's Picks, Vol. 2 [Grateful Dead, 1995] ***
  • Dick's Picks Volume Three [Grateful Dead, 1995] Neither
  • Hundred Year Hall [Arista, 1995] Neither
  • Dick's Picks, Vol. 4 [Grateful Dead, 1996] *
  • Dozin' at the Knick [Arista, 1996] A-
  • The Arista Years [Arista, 1996] Neither

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Grateful Dead [Warner Bros., 1967]
One of the year's few supposedly psychedelic LPs that wasn't actually a pop LP (cf. Sgt. Pepper, Forever Changes, Mellow Yellow), the already legendary San Francisco band-collective's debut stood out and stands tall because its boogieing folk-rock epitomizes the San Francisco ballroom ethos/aesthetic--blues-based tunes played by musicians who came to rhythm late, expanded so they were equally suitable for dancing and for tripping out. It's also the only studio album that respects and documents the impact of Rod "Pigpen" McKernan, who died in 1973 of cirrhosis of the liver. McKernan's organ is almost as pervasive as Jerry Garcia's guitar. And although Garcia and Bob Weir both take vocal leads, their singing styles are still in Pigpen's white-blues thrall. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]

Aoxomoxoa [Warner Bros., 1969]
One experimental cut which hasn't made it for me yet, otherwise fantastic. A

Live/Dead [Warner Bros., 1969]
An admitted fanatic raves to all the other admitted fanatics. Side two of this four-sided set contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded, and the rest is gently transcendent as usual. Beautifully recorded, too. A+

Workingman's Dead [Warner Bros., 1970]
Of course they don't sing as pretty as CSNY--prettiness would trivialize these songs. The sparse harmonies and hard-won melodies go with lyrics that make all the American connections claimed by San Francisco's counterculture; there's a naturally stoned bemusement in their good times, hard times, high times, and lost times that joins the fatalism of the physical frontier with the wonder of the psychedelic one. And the changeable rhythms hold out the promise of Uncle John's Band, who might just save us if we'll only call the tune. Inspirational Verse: "Think this through with me." A

Vintage Dead [Sunflower, 1970]
This resurrection from the golden days of the Haight suggests something about the value of iron pyrite when the assay office is far away. The singing is weak, the guitar work often uninspired and the recording stinky. Recent converts beware. B-

American Beauty [Warner Bros., 1970]
This is the simplistic folk-rock album Workingman's Dead is supposed to be--sweeter vocally and more direct instrumentally, with words to match. Robert Hunter is better at parsing American conundrums than at picking American beauties, so too many of the lyrics revolve around love, dreams, etc. But only "Attics of My Life" has nothing upstairs. A-

Grateful Dead [Warner Bros., 1971]
I wish some of this live double had been done in the studio--might have saved Bob Weir's faint "Playing in the Band" if not his "Me and Bobby McGee"--and the drum-and-guitar interlude isn't going to inspire anybody to toke up, much less see visions. But even there they gather some of that old Dead magic. And it's about time they documented their taste in covers--I've craved their "Not Fade Away" for years. B+

Europe '72 [Warner Bros., 1972]
This live triple is where everybody except certified Grateful Dead freaks gets off the bus, but I've still got my card and it ain't a joker. Sure they're beginning to sound very complacent--the whole "Morning Dew" side could be scratched, and the long version of "Truckin'" proves conclusively that the song doesn't truck much. But the best stuff here--the ensemble playing on "Sugar Magnolia," the movement of "China Cat Sunflower," Garcia's It Hurts Me Too" solo, the lyric to "Ramble On Rose"--is a lot more than laid-back good. It's laid-back brilliant. Most of the rest, patchy though it may be, is laid-back good. Also, I like the way they sing. (And write.) B+

Bear's Choice: History of the Grateful Dead (Vol. 1) [Warner Bros., 1973]
Really a Pigpen memorial album, although the Dead would never be so mundane as to put it that way. Recorded Fillmore East, February 1970, and you had to be there. C+

Wake of the Flood [Arista, 1973]
Capturing that ruminative, seemingly aimless part of the concert when the boogiers nod out, which doesn't mean nothing is going on--what do the boogiers know by now? Musically, this is a deceptively demanding combination of American Beauty and Aoxomoxoa, sweet tunes mined for structure and texture--including good fiddle, which figures, and good horns, which doesn't. But the lyrics are more of the old karma-go-round, with barely a hook phrase to come away with. I remember Robert Hunter when he was making up American myths. B-

From the Mars Hotel [Grateful Dead, 1974]
Brighter and more uptempo than Wake of the Flood (which is not to claim it's "high energy"), with almost as many memorable tunes as American Beauty. Robert Hunter is not progressing, however--even "U.S. Blues," an entertaining collection of conceits, seems received rather than found. And a Weir-Barlow song about money is just one more way for rich Marin hippies to put women down. B-

Blues for Allah [Grateful Dead, 1975]
I've been hypersensitive to this band's virtues for years. This time I find the arch aimlessness of their musical approach neurasthenic and their general muddleheadedness worthy of Yes or the Strawbs. C-

Steal Your Face [Grateful Dead, 1976]
Their fifth live double (or triple) of the decade is the first with the sorry earmarks of the genre--namely, lots of stretched-out remakes. And believe me, the Dead can rilly stretch 'em out. C-

Terrapin Station [Arista, 1977]
Although this may be the Dead's best studio album since American Beauty, it runs a distant second, just nosing out the likes of Wake of the Flood, and will convert no one. In fact, it's a good thing Weir-Barlow's "Estimated Prophet" and Lesh-Monk's "Passenger" are the band's best originals in years, because Donna Godchaux's singer-songwriting debut is a disgrace; similarly, it takes a terse, jumping arrangement of "Samson and Delilah" to cancel out (and then some) a questionable "Dancing in the Streets." A confusion of quality also pervades the Garcia-Hunter title suite on side two. It works pretty well musically; for a while, I was ready to turn in the kazoo on "Alligator" for Paul Buckmaster. Then I listened to the lyric, a fable so polite it sent me hustling back to the verbal, vocal, and musical crudities of Anthem of the Sun, which "Terrapin Station" recalls formally. Amazing how all the hard-won professionalism of a decade disintegrates in the face of the sporadic, irresistible inspiration of their lysergic youth. B

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been: The Best of the Grateful Dead [Warner Bros., 1977]
In this uncommonly loving compilation, Dead head Paul Wexler does what he can to eliminate the fecklessly smug and the recklessly experimental. It coheres as well as Dead albums usually do, and offers two nice singles, which is nice. But "Me and My Uncle," which hardly counts, is the only cover, a questionable decision. Plus--here's the real catch--four (out of eight) songs from Workingman's Dead, which coheres a good deal better. B

Shakedown Street [Arista, 1978]
"I Need a Miracle" is the first anthem any of these rabble-rousing necromancers has written in years. On the title tune, however, Jerry once again warns against "too much too fast," and this album definitely ain't the miracle they need. C

Go to Heaven [Arista, 1980]
Not counting the lovely revamped "Don't Ease Me In," the best song here is a Garcia-Hunter trifle called "Alabama Getaway." It grieves me to report that it isn't about dope dealers fleeing the troopers. 'Cause without hippiedom, they're lost. Utter wimp: new keybist Brent Mydland. C

Reckoning [Arista, 1981]
I know you're not going to care, but I've played all of this live-acoustic twofer many times and felt no pain. Sure it's a mite leisurely, sure Jerry's voice creaks like an old floorboard, sure there are remakes if not reremakes. But the songs are great, the commitment palpable, and they always were my favorite folk group. B+

In the Dark [Arista, 1987]
Despite the hooks, highlighted unnaturally by do-or-die production, this is definitely the Dead, not Journey or Starship. But only "When Push Comes to Shove," a ruminative catalogue of paranoid images that add up to one middle-aged man's fear of love, shows up the young ignorami and old fools who've lambasted them as symbols of hippie complacency since the '60s were over. One problem with the cosmic is that it doesn't last forever. C+

Built to Last [Arista, 1989]
Though the hookwise production values are even more obtrusive, this still sounds like the good old Grateful Dead. Except for newish guy Brent Mydland, who sounds like Don Henley. Survivors have to stick together. C+

Two from the Vault [Grateful Dead, 1992]
The preserve of a huge, insular cult accustomed to rendering its very real aesthetic discriminations within a context so uncritical no outsider need pay them the slightest mind, the Dead's music has disappeared into the mythology it engendered. They were a great band--probably still are on the right night. But trying to convince an unbeliever is like trying to tell a stranger about LSD. Recorded in August 1968, when Pigpen McKernan was still living in his body, these nine songs include all six on the classic Live/Dead; playing is comparable, audio superior. Great drummers were hard to come by in the hippie era, and the Dead were too discursive to want one anyway--Bill and Mickey rocked out by revving tempo and volume and letting Pigpen take it away. But often the Dead's ruminations have content--they listened more responsively than any other band of the era. And on solos of over a chorus or two, Jerry Garcia stands as the era's most inventive guitarist short of Hendrix and Page. God they were a trip. A-

Dick's Picks, Vol. 2 [Grateful Dead, 1995]
the good old days, circa Keith Godchaux ("Jam," "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad") ***

Dick's Picks Volume Three [Grateful Dead, 1995] Neither

Hundred Year Hall [Arista, 1995] Neither

Dick's Picks, Vol. 4 [Grateful Dead, 1996]
three (more) CDs from their Fillmore East heyday ("China Cat Sunflower," "That's It for the Other One") *

Dozin' at the Knick [Arista, 1996]
For years I've sought concrete proof that two decades of Deadheads weren't the marshmallow-ears the world believed, but after several concert tapes failed to get over I decided I had more pressing business than finding the good nights that were probably still there. Now, finally, after several half stabs (Hundred Year Hall, Fallout From the Phil Zone), comes this four-hour three-CD document from historic Albany, New York. Solid new Bob Weir opener, coupla excellent! Bob Dylan covers, Brent Mydland more Rod McKernan than Page McConnell, creaky and transcendent "Black Peter," "Walkin' Blues" and "Jack-a-Roe," the nightly "Drums" and "Space" excursions scenic enough. And above all, that mesh of the tight and the shambolic that on their best nights rendered their music responsive and interactive in a way marshmallow-heads will never understand and therefore never hear. A-

The Arista Years [Arista, 1996] Neither

See Also