The first guy I met in college had a plastic bag filled with powdered mescaline (at least that’s what he said it was), and a plastic jug filled with empty capsules. The second guy I met was a veteran of the hallucinogenic wars who was determined to instruct me on the proper use of the aforementioned powder and capsules. Hey, what can I tell you? It was the ’60s. Number one on my would-be mentors list was the music of the Grateful Dead. In his opinion, their music was a must for any successful trip. I had heard their first three albums, and I wasn’t a fan. When it came to San Francisco bands, I preferred the hard-charging fury of the Jefferson Airplane to the psychedelic ramblings of the Dead.
As you might imagine, given the scenario above, I didn’t last long at that college. But the next year, something interesting happened. In June 1970, the Grateful Dead released their fourth album, Workingman’s Dead, and I loved it immediately. Dead fans (do they like being called Deadheads?) may disagree, but for me the down home, countrified, harmony-laden music on the album represented a complete musical departure for the band. They were no longer spending their time on endless noodling. Inspired by their friendship with uber-group Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter (and in one case Phil Lesh) had written a great bunch of songs, and formed them into a concise, coherent album.
The opening track, “Uncle John’s Band,” was a complete revelation for me. It sounded like a bunch of guys sitting around in the backyard, strumming acoustic guitars, and harmonizing. It was hardly the sound of the acid-soaked ramblings that I had come to expect from the band. When the song was released as a single, Warner Brothers was forced to deal with radio station objections to the song’s length, and language. They quickly edited it down to a more radio-friendly three minutes or so (Garcia hated the resultant mix), and excised the word “goddamn.” The single still didn’t make much of a splash, reaching #69 on the U.S. Pop Chart, but something more important happened. The unedited song was played by many FM radio stations, and for the first time the Grateful Dead reached the mainstream rock audience. The album’s second single, “Casey Jones,” cocaine references and all, didn’t even chart, but it also became an FM favorite and further strengthened the band’s street cred.
Looking back at it now, it’s clear that Workingman’s Dead was the band’s attempt to enter the mainstream, and as such it was a complete success. The album reached #27 on the Billboard Album Chart, and was certified platinum in 1986. It was ranked #262 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. For me, Workingman’s Dead will always be special because it is the sound of a band leaving their comfort zone and trying something new. And although that new sound had a more mainstream appeal, it must have been hard to take that leap. Take it they did however, and it was the true beginning of one of the most fabled careers in the history of rock and roll.
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