Music / The Grateful Dead
Truckin’, circa 1970. Left to right: Bill Kreutzmann, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh.

The Grateful Dead were a six-piece group formed in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, best known for their improvisatory style of rock music, taking elements of Psychedelic Rock, Country Music, Folk Music, Blues and whatever else they thought would fit. Essentially, they were the godfathers of the Jam Band genre. They appeared at the now famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and the even more famous original Woodstock festival in 1969 (however, band members admit they weren’t at top form at either one), and have a reputation for long tours and musically exploratory shows where one song often blends into another.

The line-up was Jerry Garcia (lead guitar), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar), Phil Lesh (bass), Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (drums - yes, two drummers, folks!) and a succession of keyboardists starting with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Garcia and Weir were the primary vocalists in the group and were as different as night and day; while Garcia had a wispy, almost fragile sounding voice, Weir was best known for some of the group’s most raucous rock and roll “shouters” and his fondness for “cowboy songs”. Most of the band’s songs were collaborations between Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, though Weir contributed many as well, particularly with the help of lyricist John Perry Barlow. They also had an enormous library of covers, especially traditional Americana and blues, plus more modern country and rock pieces.

The Dead are probably as famous for their fanbase as they are for their music. The Deadheads, as they’re known, were so dedicated that many of them would follow the band on tour for extended stretches of time, and trade tapes of past concerts. This latter practice was encouraged by the group. Since the Dead never worked from a show-to-show set list (they had a gigantic concert repertoire and are documented to have played more than five hundred different songs in their thirty-year existence), trading tapes became to the Deadheads the ideal way to experience the music short of attending a concert live. Compounding this is that many consider the recordings of their songs from the original albums often pale to live versions of the same song, though some albums (notably, Anthem of the Sun, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty) are still considered classics. The Dead toured every year of their existence except 1975, drawing millions of fans, both hardcore touring “heads” and casual listeners across the country. In spite of this cult popularity, the Grateful Dead were never quite as famous or mainstream as many of their peers of the period. In 1987, the band scored the sole US Top 40 hit in their long career, “Touch of Grey”, a catchy pop tune that had the odd side effect of turning their erstwhile cult into a stadium-filling circus for the rest of their career. This later period was a time of ups and downs, as the band were playing bigger shows than ever, but the influx of new fans led to some unfortunate incidents at shows. Keyboardist Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose, and Garcia’s own health and addictions fluctuated wildly until his death in 1995.

The band formally dissolved in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s demise, though members will occasionally reunite for special occasions, and they have performed under other names as The Band Minus the Face (e.g., The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur, Dead & Company, etc.). Culturally, outside of their music, the band’s most famous impact is arguably the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor “Cherry Garcia,” the company’s best-selling flavor, which was briefly made with black cherries after his passing. Selected songs from their studio albums are also available for download in the video game Rock Band (incidentally, several programmers have expressed that Grateful Dead songs in particular are a serious pain to chart).

After Garcia’s death and the Dead’s disbandment, a band from Vermont called Phish, which had existed for about ten years and had already started to become popular with college crowds, became the de facto jam band for people to follow. However, Phish and The Dead have very different sounds, as fans of either band will point out - while both psychedelic bands, the Dead was more country-, blues- and folk-influenced, while Phish found more influences in jazz and alternative rock.

The Internet Archive has a massive collection of live Grateful Dead recordings. The rights issues with the band’s music are sometimes complicated; as of early September 2017, audience recordings can be downloaded or streamed, while soundboard recordings can only be streamed.

Studio Album Discography

  • The Grateful Dead (1967)
  • Anthem of the Sun (1968)
  • Aoxomoxoa (1969)
  • Workingman's Dead (1970)
  • American Beauty (1970)
  • Wake of the Flood (1973)
  • Skeletons from the Closet: The Best of the Grateful Dead (1974) (a Greatest Hits Album)
  • Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel (1974)
  • Blues for Allah (1975)
  • Terrapin Station (1977)
  • What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been (1977) (another Greatest Hits Album)
  • Shakedown Street (1978)
  • Go to Heaven (1980)
  • In the Dark (1987)
  • Built to Last (1989)

Live Albums released during the band's career

  • Live/Dead (1969)
  • Grateful Dead (1971, also known as Skull and Roses to avoid confusion with their debut studio album)
  • Europe ’72 (1972)
  • The History of the Grateful Dead: Volume One - Bear’s Choice (1973)
  • Steal Your Face (1976)
  • Reckoning (1981)
  • Dead Set (1981)
  • Dylan & The Dead (1989)
  • Without a Net (1990)
  • Infrared Roses (1991)
  • Hundred Year Hall (1995)

Notable live albums released after the band's disbandment

  • Dozin’ at the Knick (1996)
  • Fallout from the Phil Zone (1997)
  • Live at the Fillmore East 2-11-69 (1997)
  • Nightfall of Diamonds (2001)
  • Go to Nassau (2002)
  • The Closing of Winterland (2003)
  • Rockin’ the Rhein with the Grateful Dead (2004)
  • Truckin’ Up to Buffalo (2005)
  • Live at the Cow Palace (2007)
  • Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978 (2008)
  • To Terrapin: Hartford ’77 (2009)
  • Crimson White & Indigo (2010)
  • Sunshine Daydream (2013)
  • Cornell 5/8/77 (2017)

There's also the Dick’s Picks series of retrospective live albums which (usually) feature whole concerts personally selected by the band’s tape archivist Dick Latvala (and after his death in 1999, David Lemieux), which started in 1993. After signing to Rhino Records in the mid-2000s, Dick’s Picks was discontinued (after thirty-six volumes!) and replaced with the Road Trips series, which is just the same thing with a different name. After seventeen Road Trips releases, that name was also retired and replaced with Dave’s Picks, named for the aforementioned David Lemieux. As of September 2017, there have been twenty-three of those. There is also a Digital Download series, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.

What a long, strange trope it’s been:

  • Aerith and Bob: Jerry, Bob, Phil, Bill... and Pigpen.
  • After the End: “Morning Dew” consists of dialogue between the last man and woman surviving on the planet after a nuclear holocaust; it was inspired by the film On the Beach, according to its author, Bonnie Dobson (incidentally, it was the first song she’d ever written).
  • The Band Minus the Face: The “Grateful Dead” name was retired after Jerry Garcia’s death, but various surviving members have continued to perform the band’s music under other names since then, including The Dead, The Other Ones, Furthur (named after Ken Kesey’s bus), and Dead & Company, an incarnation fronted by John Mayer.
  • The Beat Generation: A major influence.
  • Company Town: “Cumberland Blues”
  • Dead Artists Are Better: When Jerry Garcia passed away, not only was there increased demand for the albums, but also for his line of men’s ties and even Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” ice cream, which had existed since the mid-’80s and went from being one of its better selling flavors to the brand’s biggest selling flavor of all time.
  • Dem Bones: a common theme in their artwork, the most famous being their “Skull and Roses” logo (based on an illustration from the book Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam) and the Touch of Grey video.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: see Old Shame for details. Steal Your Face was two disks totalling about 84 minutes of material. The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack was five disks, adding 300 more minutes of material from that era.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Yes, the Grateful Dead, of all bands, have an example of this trope. Casey Jones crashes the locomotive because he is high on cocaine. There’s also a rueful reference to “living on reds, Vitamin C, and cocaine” in “Truckin’”.
  • Epic Rocking: Most of their songs are epic jams of several minutes in length; in concert, the group often strung several songs together into a single jam that could run an hour in length or more. A particularly celebrated example is the threesome of “Dark Star”, “That’s It for the Other One”, and “Turn On Your Love Light” from the band’s Fillmore East show on February 13, 1970 - they are a continuous ninety-minute performance with no gaps between the songs, each of which is thirty minutes long by itself. This show is considered one of the Dead’s best live shows ever, and these three songs are the main reason. (These three tracks are available on Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4, though it doesn’t include the whole show.)
  • Fading into the Next Song: On their respective albums, “That’s It for the Other One” -> “New Potato Caboose”, “Alligator” -> “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)”, “Ripple” -> “Brokedown Palace”. They would do this all the time live as well, to the point where some pairings became outright Siamese Twin Songs due to how frequently they appeared together. See below for examples.
  • Four More Measures: One of the band members (it sounds like Weir) actually starts singing the first line of “Dancin’ in the Streets” four bars early in the Cornell ’77 performance (1:29 on the CD version).
  • Fun with Palindromes: Aoxomoxoa, though it doesn’t actually mean anything.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Thanks to their lengthy tenure, they have four.
  • Grief Song: “Birdsong”, “Cassidy”, “Box of Rain”
  • Improv: The band is known for their long epic jams, which is also why they were better appreciated during live concerts. Alongside The Allman Brothers Band, they’re generally considered the best improvisers in ’60s & ’70s rock music, and they were famous for never playing a song the same way twice.
  • Lead Bassist: Lesh has elements of types A, B, and D. He sings some of the band’s best-known songs (e.g., “Box of Rain”) and performed in a melodic, contrapuntal style as though his bass were simply another guitar, as opposed to the simple timekeeping manner most rock bassists had used beforehand. This was actually fairly unusual in rock music at the time - arguably only the likes of Paul McCartney, Jack Casady, Jack Bruce, and James Jamerson were doing similar things with the instrument at that point. (Charles Mingus is another clear influence on Lesh’s playing, and he’s also credited Johann Sebastian Bach’s use of counterpoint as influencing his approach to his instrument.)
  • Limited Lyrics Song: Due to their extended jam sections, any of their songs is liable to end up as an example of this in concert. Many versions of “Dark Star” are half an hour or longer, and very little of that contains lyrics. This is compounded by the fact that sometimes the best-loved concert versions of songs were recorded before the band finished writing their lyrics – for instance, the Cornell ’77 “Fire on the Mountain” is generally regarded as being the definitive performance, and apart from a couple of lines, the third verse of the song hadn’t been written yet, so for the other lines, the band just repeats the first verse.
  • Long-Runner Line-up: Type 2: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Brent Mydland, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart for 11 years, from 1979-1990.
  • Looks Like Jesus: Jerry, often.
  • Mascot: The group has several, most notably a group of rainbow-colored dancing bears, a skeleton draped in roses, and “Stealie”, the red-white-and-blue skull.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Their sound combined elements of Psychedelic Rock, Folk Music, Country Music, blues, space rock, bluegrass, modal jazz, reggae, disco, Classical Music, and any number of other genres, depending upon what they felt like playing at the time. Due to their wide range of stylistic influences, while a number of jam bands have followed in their footsteps, the Dead’s sound remains unique.
  • Obligatory Bondage Song: “Hell in a Bucket”
  • Officially Shortened Title: (The Grateful Dead) - (Jerry Garcia) = (The Dead).
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.
  • Our Ghosts are Different: The story that they found their name when Garcia saw it in a dictionary are true. It was a folklore dictionary. “The grateful dead” or “the grateful dead man” occurs in fairy tales where the hero arranges for a stranger’s funeral, usually with the last of his money, and is joined by a companion who saves the day and often marries him off to a princess before revealing that he is the ghost of the man who was buried.
  • Precision F-Strike: In “Wharf Rat”:
    Half of my life I spent doin’ time
    For some other fucker’s crime
  • Progressive Rock: While not generally considered to belong to the genre, they could be considered an Ur-Example with their complex time signature changes, their Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly approach to composition which incorporated influences from disparate genres (including some that are considered mandatory points of influence for prog groups, like jazz and classical), and their common usage of Epic Rocking. “That’s It for the Other One” is even divided into multiple movements, much as later prog groups would do.
  • Psychedelic Rock: One of the most famous groups in this genre.
  • Pyramid Power: The reason they did a concert at the pyramids of Giza, during a 1978 solar eclipse.
  • Revolving Door Band: Downplayed; the band was infamous for its rotating keyboard spot, but apart from the occasional spots in the band’s early and late career where they had two keyboardists simultaneously, most of the changes to the position happened years apart. The core of the band - Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann, Hart, Weir, and Hunter - remained together from 1967 up through Garcia’s death in 1995, apart from a few years in the 1970s when Hart took a sabbatical.
  • Rockstar Song: “Truckin’”
  • Scare Chord: The post-drum duet jam from The Closing of Winterland concert has a Scare Thunderclap, which is very jarring if the sound is turned up.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: The band was scheduled to play at Altamont, but bailed after hearing that Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out trying to break up a fight between the Hells Angels The Rolling Stones had hired to do security and the audience, as seen in the Gimme Shelter documentary.
  • Shout-Out: They have quite a few. A few representative examples:
    • The chorus of “Loser” makes a lyrical reference to Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”.
    • The band’s publishing company is named Ice Nine Publishing, after the lethal MacGuffin of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat's Cradle (Vonnegut was one of Garcia’s favourite authors).
    • “Uncle John’s Band” makes allusions to the Gadsden Flag (the coiled snake with “Don’t Tread on Me”), the folk song “The Story the Crow Told Me”, and Robert Frost's “Fire and Ice”.
  • Siamese Twin Songs: “Scarlet Begonias” -> “Fire on the Mountain” became a particularly famous one in concerts, and became a much sought after pairing for fans. They would do this a lot when playing live, to the point where the “Scarlet -> Fire” coupling is often indexed as the same track. “China Cat Sunflower“ -> “I Know You Rider” were also almost always performed together during concerts - once the band started performing them that way, there were only two cases where they weren't performed together for at least the next seven years. “Lazy Lightning” -> “Supplication” were also usually performed together. There were other songs that often got performed together a lot, though not quite as inseparably; a particularly common one was “Dark Star” -> “Saint Stephen” -> “The Eleven” -> “Turn On Your Love Light”, which is represented in this form on Live/Dead and was still being performed that way the next year (the February 14, 1970 Fillmore East show is one example, where the combined four tracks lasted over an hour), and the surviving band members even performed them together in one of their 50th anniversary shows. The sequence that takes the cake, though, was from the February 13, 1970, show, where they played three consecutive songs (“Dark Star”, “That’s It for the Other One”, “Turn On Your Love Light”) that lasted a combined ninety minutes.
  • Sixth Ranger: Despite not actually being a performing member of the band, Robert Hunter was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the band in 1994, due to his importance as the band’s primary lyricist. Garcia and Weir both considered Hunter to be an official member of the band, even though his role was as a songwriter.
    • The only member of the band not inducted as a band member also counts as a Sixth Ranger. Bruce Hornsby (a Grammy-winning musician and Deadhead), who was the band’s keyboardist on-and-off during their last few years (he was, however, the band’s induction presenter during the ceremony).
  • Solo Side Project: Guitarist Jerry Garcia released several solo albums, and also had several side projects, including Saunders and Garcia (rock and funk), Old and In the Way (bluegrass), and Wales and Garcia (free jazz). All this while still remaining a member of The Grateful Dead.
  • Something Blues: About a dozen different songs.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Averted; there is no “The” in the band’s official name, even though it’s almost always used when referring to them colloquially (and even on this very wiki). Look at pretty much any album sleeve, though, and it won’t be there.
  • Straw Vulcan: The soldier in “Terrapin Station“.
  • The Chick: Donna Godchaux, backing vocalist and wife of keyboardist Keith Godchaux.
  • Train Song: “Casey Jones”, written about the legendary machinist Casey Jones who prevented a train accident, but lost his own life as a result.
  • Uncommon Time: They used this a lot, to the point where David Crosby cited their experimentation with this trope as an influence on some of Crosby, Stills, Nash (And Young)’s later work.
    • “Uncle John’s Band” contains a riff in 7/4 (including the passage that closes off the song), and also frequently skips a beat during the verses, inserting a measure of 3/4 into passages that are otherwise in Common Time.
    • Part of “Truckin’” is also in 7/4 (the “sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me” part; it switches back to 4/4 for the song’s most famous line, “What a long, strange trip it’s been”).
    • “The Eleven” gets its title from its 11/8 meter signature (usually 3+3+3+2/8 during the verses, though all kinds of polyrhythms and variations are played during the instrumental breaks).
    • “Playing in the Band” is in 10/4 (usually 4+4+2/4, but again, this can vary).
    • “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” are both in 7/4, which is probably one reason they were usually performed as Siamese Twin Songs.
    • “Estimated Prophet” is also in 7/4, and yet somehow manages to incorporate significant reggae influence at the same time.
    • “Viola Lee Blues” is an “eleven-bar blues” which essentially has five bars of 4/4 followed by a bar of 2/4, repeating.
    • Their versions of “Peggy-O”, at least in 1977, generally used patterns of 5+4+5+7/4 (adding up to 21/4).
    • “Unbroken Chain” is... complicated; see the link at the end of this list for a breakdown.
    • “Money Money” is mostly in 7/4, but at times they'll add or subtract a beat to the point where it can get extremely disorienting; again, see the link at the end of the list for further info.
    • The time signature of “Slipknot!” is... possibly even more complicated.
    • This undoubtedly isn’t a complete list; another attempt to create a list can be found here, but it too isn’t complete (for instance, it doesn’t list instrumentals, nor does it list songs that are mostly in Common Time but with a few measures that deviate from it).
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: In their version of “Stagger Lee”.
  • Vocal Tag Team: While Garcia is usually perceived as the frontman, he, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Pigpen, and others would trade off lead vocals most of the time. Garcia sang several of the band’s best-known songs (“Touch of Grey”, “Friend of the Devil”, “Ripple”, “Casey Jones”), but not all of them - for instance, Lesh sang lead on “Box of Rain”, Weir sang “Sugar Magnolia”, and Weir and Garcia traded off lead vocals on “Truckin’”. Pigpen also took many of the lead vocals early on (including several of their most loved jams and cover songs like “Turn On Your Love Light”, “Smokestack Lightnin’”, “Hard to Handle”, and “Good Lovin’”, plus studio cuts like “Operator”, “Easy Wind”, “Good Morning, Little School Girl”).
  • Wanderlust Song: “Friend of the Devil”.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: “China Cat Sunflower”

Alternative Title(s): Grateful Dead