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“Anthem of the Sun” by the Grateful Dead (1968)

Say you’re a recording engineer who helped get the riff to sound the way it did on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” From there, you go into production for Warner Bros. Records, where you’re assigned to work with a relatively new band from San Francisco.

Your first album with the group goes relatively smoothly, the result of a three-day session that was typical in early 1967. That fall, you start work on the followup.

Welcome to Dave Hassinger’s world. Dealing with the Grateful Dead at the time – or at any point in the subsequent 28 years, for that matter – wasn’t going to be easy for anyone who was used to dealing with anything near normal, and Hassinger wasn’t up to the task.

The breaking point famously came when Bob Weir requested a sound like “thick air.” After that, the band was on its own. Warner’s could have scuttled the project, but company president Joe Smith believed in what the Dead was doing. So the members were granted the then-unheard-of privilege of producing their own record.

The finished product, “Anthem of the Sun,” finally made its way to the shelves in the summer of 1968. Even amid the spate of different-sounding music – history tends to lump it together as psychedelic – emerging at the time, the album stood out for its blatant disregard of conventional song structures. To this day, it remains one of the most intriguing listens not only in the vast Dead catalogue, but in the whole of what now is considered rock’s classic era.

The album’s credits attest to the complexity of “Anthem of the Sun.” The musicians are credited with playing unexpected and somewhat exotic instruments: Jerry Garcia on vibraslap; Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on celeste and claves; Phil Lesh on trumpet, harpsichord and guiro; Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart on orchestra bells, gong, chimes, crotales, prepared piano and finger cymbals; and Tom Constanten on prepared piano and electronic tape. Oh, yeah: Garcia, Lesh and Weir also play kazoo.


A vibraslap

(I had to look this up, because I didn’t know if it really exists: “A vibraslap is a percussion instrument consisting of a piece of stiff wire [bent in a U shape] connecting a wood ball to a hollow box of wood with metal ‘teeth’ inside. The percussionist holds the metal wire in one hand and strikes the ball [usually against the palm of their other hand.] The box acts as a resonating body for a metal mechanism placed inside with a number of loosely fastened pins or rivets that vibrate and rattle against the box.”)

By the way, “Anthem” marked the Dead debut of Hart and Constanten, who helped steer the band toward new visionary heights as the experimentation of the late ’60 reached its pinnacle.

The staggering array of recording venues also demonstrates that the album is out of the ordinary: four studios in California and New York, plus half a dozen live performances, including such quaint-sounding locales as the Eureka Municipal Auditorium, Eagles Auditorium in Seattle and the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore.

That was the band’s grand concept, to merge concert and studio tracks to produce something akin to an actual Grateful Dead show of the period. Fortunately, the live recordings survived to be released decades later; the Feb. 14, 1968, performance at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom, available as “Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 2,” actually contains the whole of what would become “Anthem of the Sun” and serves as the basis for much of the album.

As far as the music goes, everything starts deceptively simply, with an organ note and Garcia singing “The other day they waited, the sky was dark and faded/Solemnly they stated, ‘He has to die, you know he has to die.'” Despite the lyrical subject matter and a minor-key, phase-shifted middle eight, the next minute and a half proceeds relatively lighthearted compared with what follows.

Garcia’s short narrative, called “Cryptical Envelopment,” actually is the opening part of a suite called “That’s It for the Other One,” which evolves into a cacophony of instrumental bursts derived from numerous concert tapes layered on top of one another. What eventually emerges became one of the Dead’s most-played riffs, the E-D combination of “Quadlibet for Tenderfeet,” better known as “The Other One.” Weir’s lyrics seem to tell of some type of mystical journey, culminating with “Cowboy Neal at the wheel of a bus to Never-Never Land,” his tribute to the legendary Neal Cassady of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” fame, who died just before the Carousel Ballroom show.

“That’s It” features a brief reprise of “Cryptical Envelopment” before heading into John Cage-type territory with the sound collage called “The Faster We Go, the Rounder We Get” and “We Leave the Castle.” For listeners who adhered to the Dead’s lifestyle beyond music, the combination of all the percussion instruments listed above must have been a real treat, particularly for those wearing headphones.

Eventually the noise dies down and a cheery guitar riff takes its place, leading into “New Potato Caboose,” Lesh’s composition with lyricist Bobby Petersen. Elements of the song sound relatively normal following “That’s It,” particularly the extended out jam, which became a high point of live sets featuring Phil’s bass guitar explorations.

Following is Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed,” which manages to compress several bizarre approaches to songwriting and execution into just over two minutes of music. Nevertheless, Warners released the song as a single, perhaps solely because of its brevity. (The B-side is a short studio version of “Dark Star” that bears little resemblance to what it would become during Dead concerts over the decades.”)

“Alligator” is notable as Robert Hunter’s first lyrical contribution to a Grateful Dead recording; he’s co-credited with Lesh and McKernan, as opposed to the monster songwriting team he’d later form with Garcia. The song is treated to numerous overdubs, including those kazoos, that frame it in a thoroughly different context from its in-concert origins.

The overdubs eventually give way to a rawer sound, as the band relies primarily on the Carousel show to take the song to its conclusion, which is a segue into “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks”).

“Caution” dates all the way back to 1965, when the band was in the process of transforming from the Warlocks to the Emergency Crew to the Grateful Dead. The song began life as a knockoff of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” but became a showcase for Pigpen’s bluesman persona: “I went down to see that gypsy woman, and I told her my story …”

The album concludes with a long segment of guitar feedback, which is exactly how the band wrapped up its concerts, much to the delight of the more chemically aided members of the audiences.

The listening public in general didn’t know what to make of “Anthem of the Sun” on its release, as the album peaked at No. 87 on Billboard. And it received plenty of retroactive criticism during the ’80s backlash against ’60s psychedelia.

But of course, the Dead’s reputation has soared since those dark days, and the album eventually was ranked number 287 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

That’s not bad for a project that had the producer quitting right smack in the middle.

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“Garcia” by Jerry Garcia (1972)

The Grateful Dead’s official discography has the band’s studio work with Warner Bros. concluding with the classic “American Beauty.”

Yet two more Warner studio albums figure prominently in the Dead’s history, recordings that provided ample concert material for decades while also being somewhat hard to find for years.

Bob Weir’s “Ace” (1972) is a Grateful Dead album in all but name, with all members of the band’s lineup at the time taking part in the sessions. As such, it’s the first studio effort to feature the Godchauxs, Keith and Donna.

By contrast, “Garcia,” released the same year, basically is a solo effort: Jerry played everything on the albums except drums, which were handled by the Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann.

“Garcia” and “Ace” both went out of print a few years after release and were much coveted by Deadheads until their release on compact disc in the late ’80s. I remember buying “Ace” on 8-track because that’s the only way I could find it!

A copy of “Garcia” actually sat for a long while in a bin at a record store we frequented in Indiana, PA, our college town. But we had no idea until later; the album’s cover gives little indication as to what it contains.

Our loss.

Of the two albums, I prefer “Garcia.” Nothing against Bob’s effort, which contains many of his best compositions (although I’ve never been fond of “Looks Like Rain”). But, hey, Jerry was Jerry.

Plus the songs on his first solo album are among his most memorable, kicking off with “Deal.” Not only is it one of my favorites to play and sing since I learned it 20-some years ago, but it always was a personal concert favorite. I particularly remember it as a first-set closer during a show on City Island in my hometown of Harrisburg, an epic performance that had me clearing out a large swath of the audience to accommodate my boogieing to the music. (No, you don’t want to picture that.)

Back to “Garcia”: It continues with two more songs that became concert favorites, “Bird Song,” Jerry and Robert Hunter’s ode to Janis Joplin, and “Sugaree,” their invective against a woman who must’ve done somebody wrong.

The first side of the LP wraps up with “Loser,” a minor-key tale of a gambler that particularly was effective in concert with its dynamic shifts an Jerry’s dramatic guitar soloing.

The LP’s flip side opens with pure experimentation leading into the melodic instrumental “Eep Hour”; the suite of songs figures prominently in the surreal animated sequence that opens “The Grateful Dead Movie.”

“To Lay Me Down” is a heartfelt effort that reappears on the Dead’s acoustic live album, “Reckoning,” and the “So Many Roads” anthology of unreleased material. Next is the aptly titled “An Odd Little Place,” which is an odd little jam.

“Garcia” wraps up with some of Jerry’s finest pedal-steel guitar playing (he abandoned the instrument during the Europe ’72 tour) leading into “The Wheel,” which began life as an improvisation and wound up as yet another concert favorite when the Dead revived the song following its 1974-75 hiatus.

The duo album by Bill the drummer and Jerry on everything else stands as one of the Grateful Dead’s finest studio accomplishments, even if it featured only two of the boys.

“Blues for Allah” by the Grateful Dead (1975)

When the late promoter Bill Graham organized a concert he called SNACK – that stood for Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks – to benefit after-school programs in the San Francisco area, he corralled a bunch of his heavyweight buddies to participate.

How about some of these names: Bob Dylan, Neil Young (backed by The Band), Santana, Jefferson Starship, Joan Baez, Tower of Power and the Doobie Brothers.

Also part of the March 25, 1975, extravaganza, coming out of “retirement,” was a group of Graham’s oldest friends, the Grateful Dead.

The Dead ostensibly had played a series of farewell concerts at Graham’s Winterland in October 1974, part of which later appeared in “The Grateful Dead Movie” and the poorly mixed “Steal Your Face” album, and still later as a much-better-sounding five-CD soundtrack to the movie.

At any rate, when members of the Dead reunited for SNACK, they performed perhaps the most esoteric set of their 30-year career: a half-hour-plus instrumental jam of music that was new to the band’s repertoire, neither the psychedelia of the ’60s nor the roots-rock of the ’70s. This was a jazzier version of the Dead, augmented by keyboard player Merl Saunders and anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. And of course, the late Jerry Garcia’s fluid guitar playing helped weave everything together.

Even for a San Francisco audience, those in attendance at Kezar Stadium must have been mystified by the proceedings until Bob Weir sang the familiar “Johnny B. Goode” for the encore.

The bulk of the performance laid the groundwork for what became the Grateful Dead’s “comeback” album, “Blues for Allah.” Unlike its approach to previous studio albums, the band woodshedded for three months at Hart’s house, formulating new music throughout.

The finished product kicks off with a three-song medley that served as a highlight of many a Dead show for the next 20 years: “Help On the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower.” The relatively complex rhythmic patterns of the first two sections give way to a three-chord progression that benefits significantly from Garcia’s tasteful picking.

An instrumental medley, “King Solomon’s Marbles/Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey,” incorporates themes that were prevalent at the SNACK show, with the rhythm section at full power.

Side One of the LP concludes with “The Music Never Stopped,” with lyricist John Perry Barlow capturing the Dead’s essence of “a band without description, like Jehovah’s favorite choir.” The original version clocks in at 4 1/2 minutes, but later concert versions often stretched beyond the 10-minute mark.

Side Two consists of an esoteric but rewarding sequence of songs, starting with the deceptively relaxed “Crazy Fingers,” which on closer examination contains a series of unconventional key changes, built around an arcane Robert Hunter poem.

Weir contributes an acoustic guitar instrumental, “Sage & Spirit.” According to longtime band associate Rock Scully in his book, “Living With the Dead”:

“Bobby wrote ‘Sage & Spirit’ while my daughters, named Sage and Spirit, were jumping on his bed and generally trashing his hotel room. He was trying to play his guitar and came up with the rhythm for this from their jumping. The flute (played by Steven Schuster) mimics their laughter.”

The album closes with another medley, “Blues for Allah/Sand Castles and Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” which fully exhibits the band’s experimental orientation. Supposedly the compositions were supposed to be the next in line among epic Dead concert jams, from “Viola Lee Blues” to “The Other One” to “Dark Star” to “Playing in the Band.” But the group played it live only a handful of times before abandoning it.

“Blues for Allah” is one of the Grateful Dead’s most fully realized studio projects, and one that stands up under scrutiny better than the band’s subsequent albums in the ’70s and ’80s. The title medley might be a bit of a challenge for the listener, but the other songs are among the Dead’s more memorable in the course of the long, strange trip.