The Grateful Dead were a strange sort of band. They found great success as eclectic musicians who weren’t exactly radio-friendly: they moved from country to jazz to reggae to psychedelic space rock, all with a heavy dose of improvisation. And, of course, there were copious amounts of instrumental jamming. (You thought we were going to say drugs, didn’t you?) The Dead worked with major record labels but preferred to handle everything themselves, foreshadowing elements of punk and other do-it-yourself movements. Similarly, they weren’t afraid of marketing or merchandising, but they ran it all, just as they retained their album publishing rights and held their physical recording masters. Whereas these factors may have doomed other bands to obscurity, they literally earned the Grateful Dead a following. And we mean “following” literally: their legion of fans known as “Deadheads” were rabidly loyal, often travelling alongside the band for months or even years. In that spirit, join us on a strange trip through the facts and stories behind 8 Grateful Dead albums.
1. The Grateful Dead (1967)
The cover for the Grateful Dead’s 1967 self-titled debut was designed by Stanley Miller, a San Francisco rock poster artist better known as Stanley Mouse or simply Mouse. As album covers go, it’s pretty weird, but a “pretty weird” album cover is, let’s face it, pretty normal. You’ve got a creepy statue, rays of sunlight shining down on one band member while another is being sucked into some extradimensional portal, all while the sun ejects some plasma in the background. Fairly typical, we’d say. The gibberish at the top originally read, “In the Land of the Dark the Ship of the Sun is Drawn by the Grateful Dead,” but Jerry Garcia felt that was a “tad pretentious” and had Mouse change it. (Extradimensional portals? Okay. Text? Pretentious. Got it.)
All things considered, it feels like the Dead stopped short of full-on psychedelia. Even their music on this album was rather tame. At least they could say it only got better from there.
2. Aoxomoxoa (1969)
This cover by Rick Griffin got a little weirder. You’ve got your skeleton and spaceship hookahs, alien trees, Metroids, and a sun that totally isn’t a reproduction metaphor or anything. The “Grateful Dead” lettering includes an ambigram–meaning text that can change when read from different perspectives–that says “we ate the acid.” We know, guys. We know.
The back cover includes a photo of band members and roadies and their families. One of them, a young girl, is sometimes reported to be Courtney Love, daughter of road manager Hank Harrison. But she’s probably just drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s daughter, Stacy. Deadheads argue about this on the internets.
3. Grateful Dead (1971)
Now we’re getting iconic! The band’s 1971 self-titled album, designed by Mouse and Alton Kelly, is often referred to as the “Skull and Roses” album. Because, you know, that rose wig is fantastic. The image appropriates an illustration by E. J. Sullivan in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a selection of Omar Khayyám poems translated by Edward FitzGerald. Often called “Bertha” or “Big Bertha”, the rose-enwiggened skeleton can be found on a variety of Dead merchandise.
4. History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice) (1973)
Even more iconic! But what’s that, you say? We used the back cover instead of the front cover? How right you are. The front cover is rather ordinary, but the back cover is notable as the first appearance of the Grateful Dead “Dancing Bears.” The Dancing Bears are also omnipresent on Dead clothing, patches, and, perhaps most prominently, a series of plush and bean bears. The “Bear” referred to in the title was the band’s soundman Owsley Stanley, who recorded and produced the album.
5. Wake of the Flood (1973)
1973’s Wake of the Flood was a bit of a departure. The cover, designed by Rick Griffin, looks more like something out of medieval serfdom than an album cover. It was also the first cover where the band remembered to include the lyrics. (We kid.) The music was also a departure, the first with their new pianist, Keith Godchaux, and drew heavily from his jazz roots. There’s really nothing funny about this cover, because, you know, medieval serfdom.
6. From the Mars Hotel (1974)
Here’s where we take a little diversion. On the cover of From the Mars Hotel, a San Francisco flophouse has, through the magical powers of artistic trickery, been transported to Mars. Except Mars is blue and there’s a green biodome of some sort and volcanic activity and silver spheres and, well, all kinds of un-Mars-like stuff. And then there’s text at the top that looks like gibberish but if you hold it in front of a mirror and flip it upside down, it actually says “Ugly Rumors," which was Tony Blair’s band.
Wait, what? You mean that British politician? The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 10 years? Yeah, that guy. In the 1970s, Tony joined a band because he was the only singer to know the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.” (Default: the two sweetest words in the English language.) They named themselves Ugly Rumours after this cover art but added the extra “u” because they’re British and then they played a show where the drum kit literally fell apart. For reals. Here’s where we all collectively wish that YouTube had existed in the 70s, because that would been meme-tastic.
7. Shakedown Street (1978)
The cover for 1978’s Shakedown Street represented a timely crossover between underground countercultures: jam bands and comic books. Artist Gilbert Shelton, previously known for The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Superman parody Wonder Wart-Hog, drew a scene typical of San Rafael, where the Dead rehearsed. In time, the name Shakedown Street would be applied to the parking lot outside Grateful Dead concerts, where Deadheads bought their wholesome food and drank plenty of water on warm days. Because even Deadheads know that it’s important to maintain a proper fluid balance.
8. Dead Set (1981)
Dennis Larkins’ cover for Dead Set really sums up the Grateful Dead. The gatefold front and back covers show San Francisco and New York City, respectively, a nod to the vast musical territory covered by the band. At its heart, the Grateful Dead represented American music in its entirety, from its roots in folk and blues through country and jazz and finally to rock and psychedelia. And, watching over everything, was an enwiggened and star-spangled-enhattened skeleton. We don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Probably death or something. But it’s an album cover, so whatever, it’s all good.
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What’s your favorite Grateful Dead album? "More importantly," are you in Camp Courtney or Camp Stacy? We all love to hear a good road story, so let us know about your favorite Dead experience in the comments below. And, as always, remember that we have a selection of Grateful Dead t-shirts to add to your collection!