Articles - Features

Classic Album: Grateful Dead – Live/Dead (1969)


The very best music takes you to a different place, a different headspace, to the one you’re in before you hear it. And on the Grateful Dead’s masterful 1969 live album Live/Dead, they grab the listener and pull them head-first into another dimension. You don’t have to be on drugs to enjoy this, but that’s not to say they didn’t need them to create it.

The psychedelic era of the late 60s is a problematic time in music history. On the one hand, it saw a generation of talented people reach deep into themselves, and begin to push at boundaries and limits that most of us didn’t know existed. On the other hand, many of its ideals were fundamentally flawed, preyed on by the unscrupulous, and endured by the naive. This was an era when a man could dig inside his mind, take his musical instrument into the nth dimension, and then come home and expect his girlfriend to have cooked and cleaned, whilst also being up for some of that groovy Free Love that he’s heard of.

Far from breaking down barriers, and offering us freedom of choice, hippie idealism was corroded by drugs, sexism, and money. And if the hippie underground had a ‘house band’, it was the Grateful Dead. Originally cutting their teeth as The Warlocks, the band’s nucleus centred around guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboard player Ron ‘Pgipen’ McKernan, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Soaking up a myriad of influences in San Francisco, from amped up electric blues, to old time jug-band music, folk troubadours, and mop-topped beat groups, the Dead eventually gained a reputation for being the band-du-jour in the burgeoning counterculture scene, soundtracking political gatherings, ‘happenings’, and the Acid Tests of author Ken Kesey.

These legendary gatherings are open to interpretation. For some, Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ were on a journey to confront social norms, and become some kind of living artwork. For others, it was as if Kesey was recasting himself as a Christ figure to his followers, with the gospel consisting of the letters ‘L’, ‘S’, and ‘D’. Either way, the Acid Tests consisted of people coming together in Kesey’s house in the woods, drinking acid-laced Kool Aid, and going on a wild, psychedelic journey. A journey which was frequently soundtracked by the Grateful Dead.

Quite what this experience was like is hard to imagine (as the saying goes, “If you remember the 60s, then you weren’t there”) but by the time the Dead got round to recording Live/Dead, midway through 1969, they had honed their live psychedelic explorations to the point where the doors of perception had been kicked wide open, and everyone was invited into the party.

The band’s previous two albums, Anthem of the Sun (1968) and Aoxomoxoa (1969) had been viewed as expensive failures by Warner Bros records, keen to tap into the financial rewards promised offered by signing the underground’s most celebrated band. For their part, the Dead had struggled to capture their mercurial spirit in the studio, utilising a number of pioneering tape and electronic experiments to convey their mind expanding psychedelic fury, but never quite matching the heights they were capable of live. With the record label looking for a return on their deal, the obvious solution was to go straight to the source, and get the band on stage.

A double album, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sides of Live/Dead feature some incredible performances, the Dead dipping into their growing back catalogue and letting the songs come to life in live performance. Whereas ‘St. Stephen’ is good on record, it simply glows on the stage, spilling out of the speakers, whilst ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ finds the Dead raving it up, tearing up the blues for the psychedelic generation. ‘Feedback’ is a nightmarish plunge into the abyss, and they bring it all back home for ‘Goodnight’, offering a quiet and brief spiritual to end this psychic celebration.

If this was all the music that made it to the finished album, it would be rightly hailed as a fantastic document of a band in full flight, capturing the highs and lows of their eclectic set. But there’s more, the 1st side of the album being given over to their magisterial take on ‘Dark Star’, the undoubted highlight of the album, and an indisputable high point of the entire psychedelic era.

The song was originally released as a single, a jaunty little number that sank without trace the previous year. However, for Live/Dead, the band seem to have reached deep within the humble two minutes and forty four seconds of the original, and found some deep, mystical truth about the nature of the cosmos, the guitars of Garcia and Weir sounding like liquid light, spiralling and delving into the recesses of the human mind. Lesh’s bass pummels the senses, whilst the other members maintain some sense of ever shifting stillness, some kind of quixotic riddle where nothing seems to happen in the song, but somehow everything has changed.

Needless to say, it sounds nothing like the original, and over the course of the twenty three minutes that follow, the band rarely seem bothered with things like melody, structure, and rhythm, instead creating a new musical lexicon all of their own. In later years, the song could swell up to over an hour, but on Live/Dead, the song retains a valuable tether to reality, and cements its reputation as a stone-cold classic.

Live/Dead went on to make the Grateful Dead and Warner Bros a lot of money, and the band responded by ditching the mind-expanding experiments of their first period in favour of a rootsy, acoustic sensibility that made both parties a lot more money. But the stage remained the quintessential Grateful Dead experience, and over the years the band would continue to tour, and to release live albums, few of which have the charm or restraint of Live/Dead. Which, given the totally otherworldly and far-out sounds of Live/Dead, gives some idea of how wayward the Dead could go.

Of course, it all ended in death, financial problems, drug addictions, and questionable sexual politics, but such is the way of idealism. If the hippie dream was an unobtainable utopian dream, then at least it gave us the creative space for Live/Dead. It might not have brought ‘Flower Power’ to the streets, and Free Love is inadvisable at the best of times, but one listen to ‘Dark Star’ is enough of a  reminder that there are more important things in life than our earthly concerns. And if the Dead had heeded their own message, perhaps things would have worked out differently. Steven Rainey

is a writer and broadcaster who has spent his entire life being an elderly version of himself. He believes in the power of True Rock, and discovered heavy metal at the age of 30. He has never married, but has been divorced twice.