“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.
(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.