Before they were the Grateful Dead, they were “San Francisco’s Grateful Dead.” At least that’s how they were to be billed on the title of their debut album: a scuzzy, organ-drenched oddity, more representative of the era it came from than the band it introduced. Leading up to the record’s release in 1967, the Grateful Dead had fortified their reputation as an uncontainable force, a live act who had to be seen to be believed. They were a band inextricably linked to their locale (Haight and Ashbury, San Francisco) and the scene it had hatched (namely Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, for which the Dead served as the house band). In a spirited but nascent Vancouver show attached to this 50th anniversary reissue, mostly comprised of embryonic attempts at original songs (“Cream Puff War,” “Cardboard Cowboy”) and jumpy renditions of soon-to-be standards (“I Know You Rider,” “New Minglewood Blues”), the audience greets the band with silence. Bob Weir responds dryly, “I see our fame has preceded us.” He’s not entirely kidding. At the time, no one was quite sure what to do with the Grateful Dead. It was a question the band would face multiple times throughout their career and one that was immediately apparent when they recorded their debut album: How do the Grateful Dead present themselves, stripped of the context that defines them?
While the band would never find a definitive answer to that question (although they came a hell of a lot closer on their next self-titled release, a staggering live album from 1971), their debut record found the Dead choosing the path of least resistance. Signed to Warner Brothers with a “jazz rate” deal—meaning they were paid by song length, not number of tracks—the band conceded to nearly every label expectation, transforming themselves into something like a traditional garage rock band. In thirty-five minutes, they speed through the album’s nine songs with an anxious energy, resulting in an endearing-but-muddy listen—something Phil Lesh would describe as “sound and fury buried in a cavern.” Maybe it was the nerves of a group of young freaks trying to sell themselves for the first time, or maybe it was the massive amount of Ritalin they were all on, but the Grateful Dead sound more energetic here than they ever would. Which is to say, if the Dead’s characteristic brand of sprawling experimentalism isn’t your bag, then this might be the album for you.
On the flip side, it also means that this is not a particularly essential album in the Dead’s catalogue. Jerry had not yet developed his trademark brand of soloing—or if he had, he was keeping it to himself; it’s almost comical hearing the songs fade right as his solos are about to pick up. In lieu of Jerry’s defining sound, Pigpen’s organ mostly steals the show: just listen it bobbing chaotically throughout “Sittin’ on Top of the World” like an LP playing at the wrong speed. The album’s finest moments are a slow, summery “Morning Dew” and a thrilling take on “Viola Lee Blues” where you can allegedly hear someone in the studio urge the producer, “Let them play!” just as the track fades. It’s no coincidence that these highlights arrive when the band settle down and play the way they want to.
While the Dead would never sound quite like this again—their following studio albums would be more confrontational and experimental, and then looser and statelier—they would also shift their attitude as musicians. On The Grateful Dead, they were not only submissive to producer Dave Hassinger, who had previously worked with the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane and maybe wanted to turn the Grateful Dead into a tripped-out combination of the two, but also to their label, who had the nerve to request a single out of them. The Dead responded with “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” the album’s buzzy opening number and one of only two original songs on the record. It’s telling that even when the Dead were trying to sound commercial, this is how it came out. “The Golden Road” is a warped and woozy pop song, almost novel in its unwieldiness. They try to harmonize during the chorus but it comes out sounding more like a gang of strangers doing vocal warm-ups with earplugs in. Of course, the Grateful Dead would eventually write an honest-to-god hit single—they’d also record tighter albums and find their own permanent place in rock history. But, as with all things the Grateful Dead would do, it would be on their own terms and in their own time. “Let them play,” indeed.