Grateful Dead – American Beauty

Grateful Dead – American Beauty
Released November, 1970

I think there a number of people who, like me, have heard of The Grateful Dead, but couldn’t tell you any of their songs. Again, I knew who Jerry Garcia was by reputation but I don’t think I had ever heard him sing or play a note until now. The image of his face is almost iconic; a full head of hair like a lion’s mane, glasses and a thick bushy beard.

Born in San Francisco in 1942, Garcia became a talented guitarist while still in his late teens. In 1962, Garcia formed the wonderfully titled Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Band Champions with keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and guitarist Bob Weir in Palo Alto. By 1965, they had added electronic composer Phil Lesh on bass and drummer Bill Kreutzmann to the line-up, and now called themselves The Warlocks. Before LSD was criminalised in the US, the Warlocks became the house band for author Ken Kesey’s public Acid Test parties. When the year reached its end, the group changed its name to The Grateful Dead and the members all moved into a communal house in San Francisco.

After numerous free concerts garnered the band a large fan base, the Grateful Dead were signed to MGM in 1966, but the studio sessions didn’t go well and they were dropped from the label. Undeterred, the group went on to become one of the most popular live acts in the San Francisco Bay Area. They soon landed themselves another recording contract, this time with Warner Brothers, and their self-titled debut album was released in 1967. Disappointed that the record didn’t capture the vibe of their live appearances, the band recruited a second drummer, Mickey Hart and issued their 1968 follow-up “Anthem of the Sun”. With only five songs making up the forty minute running time, the album showcased The Grateful Dead’s unique blend of folk, country, and psychedelic rock with their penchant for improvisational blues workouts. They also employed the use of Garcia’s old friend Robert Hunter, who would continue to write lyrics for the band for many years without ever performing with them.

1969’s “Aoxomoxoa” and their live album from the same year “Live/Dead” further cemented their experimental free-form reputation, so  when the group released an entire record of American roots themed tracks in 1970, it took their fans and critics by surprise. “Workingman’s Dead” contrasted sharply with their epic space jams, but gave The Grateful Dead their first radio hit with ‘Uncle John’s Band’. Released the same year, “American Beauty” continues this exploration with more emphasis on acoustic arrangements and vocal harmonies.

Recently ranking in the 261st spot in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, I found this record endlessly listenable. To me, it seems like the link between the country-rock of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers and the West Coast sound of the Eagles. No doubt fellow Californian contemporaries Crosby, Stills and Nash influenced their harmonies. The album opens with ‘Box Of Rain’ and it’s an excellent scene setter. Bluegrass musician David Grisman contributes some lovely mandolin work to ‘Ripple’ and ‘Friend of the Devil’, both big highlights for me. I found myself singing along to the latter during my first listen; such a catchy chorus: “Set out runnin’ but I take my time/A friend of the devil is a friend of mine”.

The bulk of the record is written by Garcia and Hunter, but Pigpen’s ‘Operator’ is an enjoyably playful track revisiting the eternal quest for a girl’s phone number and I really enjoy Weir’s ‘Sugar Magnolia’ as well. Album closer ‘Truckin” has a relaxed groove matched with a speedy lyrical delivery in the verses, as well as Hunter’s immortal line: “What a long, strange trip it has been”, summing up the band’s history. The mournful ‘Candyman’ is another great track, which deals with the darker side of gambling and social cliques. For some reason, the only song I didn’t dig was ‘Attics of My Life’. Whether it was the track’s slow plod or its meandering lyrics, I don’t know; I just found it boring. I was very surprised by this album, as it wasn’t what I expected from a band associated with LSD freakouts and psychedelia. I think the sheer musicality and accessible performances of “American Beauty” will endure it to many listeners.

Grateful Dead are one of those bands that most people know through reputation alone. Coming into this week I was one of those people. I know of Jerry Garcia, “dead heads”, the multitude of bootlegs, and the stoner/hippie culture that followed the Grateful Dead, without actually knowing any of their songs or albums. These guys formed a family and a community, which they shared graciously with their fan base. I had no idea what to expect with “American Beauty”. It’s a big old, shambolic mess, but this seems to the kind of music I’m discovering I like best. There is something quite exciting about “American Beauty” though, as whilst they are playing in the country/folk/rock type genres it feels like they aren’t following the rules. You are waiting to see where they will go next. With the folk/rock elements and three part harmonies it’s also hard not to compare them to contemporaries such as The Band, Crosby, Still and Nash, The Byrds, et al. Bill Graham, band promoter and big fan of the Dead, said “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” It took a few listens but I ended up quite enjoying “American Beauty”. This surprises me, as the country-ish album’s we’ve listened to thus far have not been to my liking at all. Maybe it’s my penchant for the pedal steel guitar winning me over.  Considering my opinion of the album upon first listen, I’m surprised as to how much I warmed to it over the week. I’m not about to put it on high rotation but as a Sunday arvo soundtrack it’s not bad at all. I’m starting to suspect that if past lives are an actual thing I was most certainly a stoner hippie in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Well, that was 100% not even a little bit what I expected. To be fair, all preconceptions I had about the Grateful Dead are based entirely on the name, having never heard a single one of their songs in my life. Take the name “Grateful Dead” at face value and you (well, I do anyway) imagine a heavy metal or at least hard rock band. This is pretty far away from that, proving the old cover of a book adage correct. Though I can’t help but find myself wishing my assumptions were a little bit correct. “American Beauty” is a nice album. It reminded me a lot of The Band, in fact, it was only released two years after The Band’s “Music From Big Pink”. “American Beauty” spans the tiny gap between country and folk, and I’m not a huge fan of either genre. To me, there’s not a lot outstanding from the album. The country folk tracks all kind of blend in to each other, and I really struggled to set them apart. That’s not to say it didn’t have its high points. The single from “American Beauty” is the final track, ‘Truckin’’. A blues rock story of life on the road, it was a good choice to use as the single. The crisp, clean bass cuts through and there’s even some lead guitar, which isn’t really a feature of the rest of the album. The other track I enjoyed was ‘Sugar Magnolia’. It doesn’t feel very country or folky, it’s just a bit more rocky, even with the Doo doo doos in the Sunshine Daydream coda. I know the Grateful Dead were icons of the hippie movement, but I hate hippies. This really was not an album I could get behind, though not for lack of trying.

I read a few articles that referred to Grateful Dead as a psychedelic band. With only “American Beauty” to use as a reference, I would say that at this time they were more folk-ey than anything. The style of the songs, especially with their 3 part harmonies, sounded just like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, a good example of this similarity is ‘Sugar Magnolia’ with it’s lapsteel solos and ‘doot doot doot’ backing vocals. This song became my favourite song of the whole album because it was one of two songs that that didn’t make me want to stab myself in the eye. Some of the other songs had all the makings of Dylan’s works, take ‘Friend of the Devil’, for example.  This one was second in line for my love. It has a great little acoustic guitar intro and features more solos throughout.  And with its catchy chorus, it’s a real foot-tapper. Melodically, the songs are really quite pretty but sometimes the harmonies are a bit out, which is both refreshing and off-putting at the same time.  It makes you believe that the album was not over-produced in the studio, so it gives it an authenticity, but it’s a bit hard for me to listen to. For the most part, ‘American Beauty’ was a pleasant-enough album to listen to, but seriously, it was so boring. The vocals have a whiney-ness to them that makes almost all of the songs sound really down-beat, even though they probably aren’t supposed to be. I feel as though the vocals really stand out in front of the instrumentation and the balance was not really right, considering that the vocals were not the strong point, for me.  Needless to say, ‘American Beauty’ has not earned a permanent spot in my music library.

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