Grateful Dead enjoyed a reputation as the most psychedelic act in San Francisco during the 1960s because of their experimental, electric, improvisational live shows and avant-garde recordings. The band’s first three studio albums and 1969 live release were full of feedback, noise, and various types of sonic assaults. That’s why Workingman’s Dead was such a shock. From the beginning, it was clear something different was going on. The guitar riff that opened the album was acoustic, as were all the stringed instruments that joined in the mix. Melody mattered. There were pretty harmony vocals with clearly enunciated lyrics that seemed to matter. This was something new for the band and the bulk of their listeners. The Dead may not have invented folk-rock or country rock or Americana or whatever one wants to categorize this sound as, but they were pioneers who spread its popularity.
That was 50 years ago. The record was initially released on 14 June 1970. A remastered version with several bonus tracks came out early in 2001 as part of a box set and in 2003 as a stand-alone disc. A 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition with two extra CDS (live performances) is scheduled for a July 2020 release. While it may be interesting to ponder what the more recently issued discs say about the contemporary fans that purchase them, now is the time to celebrate the 1970 album for the impact it had on its early audiences.
Workingman’s Dead was the record that made it hip to be square. The band members were known for their ability to create mind-altering, drugged-out music. Their reputation preceded them. They were leaders in the Bay Area music community, and by going straight (at least musically), they took their listeners on an unexpected journey into a style many thought to be the opposite of cool. The original eight tracks, four to a side, contained a prominent steel guitar, and a country sound more equated with Bakersfield than what was going on in rock. It came out the same year as the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin’s II, and the triple Woodstock soundtrack. (The Dead played at Woodstock but were plagued by technical problems, and their contribution did not make the record.) Workingman’s Dead suggested a retreat from the excesses of the West Coast Hippie scene from whence they emerged into a more chill and traditional vibe.
This record marked the first time lyricist Robert Hunter joined the Dead full-time, and his contributions served as pleasant incantations on the proceedings. The very first verse of the very first song (“Uncle John’s Band”) set the tone with the koan-like note: “Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more / ‘Cause when life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door.” Are these the good times or the bad? Yes. Or maybe no. The Dead may no longer be performing acid rock, but the lyrics remain ambiguously illogical and deep. That was true for the other songs, particularly “Dire Wolf” (“I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades, but the cards were all the same”), “Easy Wind” (“The rivers keep a talkin’ / But you never heard a word it said”) and “New Speedway Boogie” (Now, I don’t know, but I was told in the heat of the sun a man died of cold”). The lyrics sound like they are about something, but the more one examines them, the less sure one is of their meaning.
“Uncle John’s Band” became the Dead’s first hit single reaching number 69 on
Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 and received extensive radio play on the FM dial. Although the band had a considerable underground reputation, this was the first time many people had heard the band’s music. By the time the Dead’s next album was released (American Beauty), audiences were familiar with the group’s Americana-style sound.
Fifty years ago, the Dead took the radical step by going backward and seeing their future in the music of the past. “What I want to know is where did the time go?” they sang on
Workingman’s Dead. The answer still may not be known, but the music remains.