Grateful Dead: where to start in their back catalogue

The album to start with

American Beauty (1970)

It is easy for people unfamiliar with their music to dismiss the Grateful Dead as amorphous jamming for dirty hippies whacked on LSD. There is a degree of truth to this assessment, but there are many different phases to the Dead. American Beauty, more than anything else, shed some of their soupy psychedelic baggage, replaced it with mellifluous folk-rock, and helped them reach a wider audience.

The countrified tunes are the stars of the show. Attics of My Life groups leader Jerry Garcia with rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh in close vocal harmonies – a rebuke, perhaps, to those who accused the Dead of jamming by the seat of their pants. Brokedown Palace has Garcia trading his blazing electric guitar for a pedal steel, and Ripple is an acoustic campfire song with touching, simple lyrics. Box of Rain, written for Lesh’s dying father, raises grief to the level of high art as the band harmonises: “What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?” Big-bearded Garcia seems cuddly, but on Friend of the Devil takes on a rakish, outlaw persona.

There are rockers, too, namely Truckin’ and Sugar Magnolia, classic rock radio hits that inspired monster live expansions in the years to come. Contrary to most of the Dead’s output, these are songs that were best served on their concise studio recordings.

The three albums to check out next

Live/Dead (1969)

Garcia famously once said: “Making a record is like building a ship in a bottle. Playing live music is like being in a rowboat in the ocean.” The shows were the Dead’s principal art. The four-sided Live/Dead was their first official live album: those who didn’t make Ken Kesey’s acid tests or collect early bootlegs could finally hear what the fuss was about.

Side one features just one song, Dark Star, a 23-minute odyssey with Garcia’s crystalline guitar, Weir’s unorthodox rhythm chords, Lesh’s fuzzy bass strides down low, plus bright keyboards and two percussionists going wild. It’s part rock, part jazz, part ambient space. Other highlights include the shouty scorcher St Stephen, the rockabilly Turn on Your Love Light (sung by keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan) and a classic example of Garcia’s psychedelic Americana, a cover of Reverend Gary Davis’s Death Don’t Have No Mercy.

Dick’s Picks Vol 3: Hollywood Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, FL, 22 May (1977)

Many Heads say 1977 was their peak: the band had embraced danceable funk – “disco Dead”, as it’s sometimes known. The 15-minute Franklin’s Tower, in particular, is a never-ending bliss jam – Jerry’s pointillist playing transforms into seemingly limitless, joyous sheets of sound. On Lazy Lightning/Supplication, Lesh’s bass is unpredictable without interrupting the flow, as he worm through double percussionists Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. The in-the-pocket riff on Estimated Prophet eases into laid-back harmonies with the Dead’s only female member (vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, from 1972-79) building to another Garcia solo peak. There’s a smooth, agreeable energy to this era of the Dead that was in pure form on this night.

Wake Up to Find Out (recorded at Nassau Coliseum: Uniondale, NY, 29 March) (1990)

The Dead was always a popular ticket, but after the unexpected radio success of Touch of Grey in 1987 their audience expanded tremendously. They never made their concerts milder, still including the freeform second-set mainstay Drums/Space (an experimental percussion jam that segued into an amorphous instrumental before a recognisable theme emerged) at each show, even if some newer fans used this time to hit the bathroom. One successful experiment was jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis sitting in with the group on four occasions. (It happened when Lesh invited him to watch a gig. The next night he came back with his horn.)

Related: How San Francisco’s hippy explosion shaped the modern world

Marsalis’s contributions add a refreshing texture to the Dead sound, which by the 1980s included keyboardist Brent Mydland and his electronically enhanced glassy tone. On Bird Song, Marsalis starts by shadowing Garcia’s voice, but by the instrumental break rages with avant-garde confidence. The highlight is the 16-minute Eyes of the World, which balances expressive jamming and a mesmerising simple chord progression repetition.

One for the heads

Well-Matched: The Best of Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia (1971-74)

One band wasn’t enough for a dynamo like Jerry Garcia. He toured and recorded bluesy rock with the Jerry Garcia Band, country-rockers New Riders of the Purple Sage, the bluegrass outfit Old & in the Way and in duets with mandolin artist David Grisman. But don’t miss his collaborations with R&B keyboardist Merl Saunders. Their greatest hits collection Well-Matched is a marvellous marriage of funk laced with Garcia’s inimitable voice: the covers of Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come and Smokey Robinson’s I Second That Emotion prove this psychedelic shaman was also one heck of a soulful crooner.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click here; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading

A Long, Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, by Dennis McNally
You could fill a whole shelf with books about the Dead, many written by members of the group. This tome by the band’s in-house historian, who toured with the group for years, is the most comprehensive single volume.

Interview with Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir, 16 April 1991, by Howard Rheingold
This interview conducted by Whole Earth Catalogue editor Howard Rheingold for a family-themed issue of Interview magazine offers insight into the bonds formed by the epoch-defining band.

Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, by Jesse Jarnow
This 2016 books is like a less showy expansion of Tom Wolfe’s 1968 classic Electric Kool-Aid, paying close attention to the way LSD spread throughout the US and was tied to enormous social changes still felt today. While not the Dead’s primary intention, their travelling carnival, aided by their audio engineer/acid cook Owsley “Bear” Stanley, played a key role in its spread.