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‘Anthem Of The Sun’: Behind Grateful Dead’s New Creative Dawn
In Depth

‘Anthem Of The Sun’: Behind Grateful Dead’s New Creative Dawn

Sessions for Grateful Dead’s second album began in chaos, yet ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ emerged as a landmark that pointed to the band’s future.

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Released in the summer of 1968, Grateful Dead’s second album, Anthem Of The Sun, came at a pivotal time for the San Francisco jam band.

Recording sessions began at American Studios, in Los Angeles, in November 1967. A few months previously, percussionist Mickey Hart had joined the group – his interest in polyrhythms, jazz and African music would be integral to the Dead’s development. The album also featured the group’s first collaboration with Robert Hunter (on the song Alligator), the lyricist who would do so much to put the band’s worldview into words in the coming decades.

Listen to ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ here.

The backstory: “We weren’t making a record in the normal sense; we were making a collage”

The Dead were up against it. Their self-titled debut album had struggled to capture the free-flowing psychedelic abandon of their live shows and had been overshadowed by the release of Surrealistic Pillow, the second album by their San Francisco neighbours Jefferson Airplane. Meanwhile, there was a post-“Summer Of Love” backlash against the hippie movement, as drugs took hold of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene and the area became a magnet for burnouts with little in common with the movement’s original ethos. On 2 October 1967, the Dead’s communal home, at 710 Ashbury Street, was raided by the police after an informant set them up, resulting in band members Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan being charged with marijuana possession.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the increased pressure, those initial recording sessions for Anthem Of The Sun didn’t go to plan. The band reunited with producer Dave Hassinger, who had overseen sessions for their debut album and been The Rolling Stones’ chief US studio engineer from late 1964 to August 1966, as well as having worked with Jefferson Airplane, Love and Electric Prunes, among many other countercultural figures. But though Hassinger seemed like a good fit, the Dead were a different proposition from any of his other clients.

The recording: “The most unreasonable project with which we have ever involved ourselves”

A group constantly straining against convention and pre-conceived notions of what musicians should do and how they should behave, the Dead were determined to lead the Anthem Of The Sun sessions in their own way. They were also still relatively new to studio recording and struggled to lay down definitive takes of their songs in such relatively unfamiliar conditions. Dissatisfied with the results in LA, the Dead relocated to New York City and attempted to keep things moving in Century Sound and Olmstead Sound studios.

Hassinger suggested they sing as a group to cover up imperfections, an idea rejected by the band. At one point, guitarist Bob Weir requested that they record “thick air”. Weir later said, in Oliver Trager’s 1997 book, The American Book Of The Dead, “I couldn’t describe it back then, because I didn’t know what I was talking about. I do know now: a little bit of white noise and a little bit of compression. I was thinking about something kind of like the buzzing that you hear in your ears in a hot, sticky summer day.” For Hassinger, it was all too much; the producer quit the sessions.

Hassinger’s departure prompted Joe Smith, then president of the Dead’s label, Warner Bros, to send the band’s manager, Danny Rifkin, a strongly worded letter that suggested the label’s patience was running thin. “The recording in New York turned out to be very difficult,” Smith wrote. “Lack of preparation, direction and cooperation from the very beginning have made this album the most unreasonable project with which we have ever involved ourselves…

“No matter how talented your group is,” the exec, “they’re going to have to put something of themselves into the business before they go anywhere.” The Dead responded by adding punctuation and grammar suggestions to the letter, grading it and returning it to Smith.

The breakthrough: “When we mixed it, we mixed it for the hallucinations”

The band regrouped at the San Francisco studio Coast Recorders with Dan Healy, their trusted soundman, at the helm. Though the previous sessions had ended badly, around a third of the album was recorded. However, while most groups would have been cowed into toeing the company line and completing the project as directed, the Dead saw an opportunity to go for broke. Rather than using the extra studio time to nail definitive takes of the material, they decided on a radical approach – using live recordings and studio trickery to stitch together the existing recordings and create a mind-altering sonic tapestry.

“Dan eagerly took up the challenge and instantly became the core of the tech team,” bassist Phil Lesh later said. “From running the board and tape machines, to soldering forbidden connections in the guts of the various rented tape machines, to performing a transfer of live tracks by controlling the speed of the machine with his thumb on the tape reel – his expertise, flexibility, imaginative approach, and can-do spirit validated the concept.”

The band also recruited Phil Lesh’s old college roommate, Tom Constanten, an experimental keyboardist well versed in the avant-garde who had played with Steve Reich. Constanten brought cutting-edge tape-manipulation techniques and prepared piano to the sessions. Lesh wrote in his 2005 autobiography, Searching For The Sound, “My old friend Tom Constanten flew in to add some keyboard texture to the transition from the Cryptical reprise into New Potato Caboose. Later in the week he also played a few licks on Alligator and Born Cross-Eyed. To prepare a piano, one inserts objects between the strings of a given note, causing the pitch and timbre to be changed radically. Tom had set this one up so that it sounded as if three gamelan orchestras were playing at once, each about a quarter-tone out of tune with the others. It sounded eerily beautiful, surging and swelling like an ocean of bells.”

For the Dead’s leader, Jerry Garcia, the studio experimentation represented a chance to create a piece of work that truly reflected the psychedelic experience. “Anthem Of The Sun was like a chance for us to try a lot of things, to see what things might work and might not,” Garcia said in the documentary Anthem To Beauty. “When we mixed it, we mixed it for the hallucinations. Phil and I performed the mix as though it were an electronic music composition. It was pretty intense.” Garcia was later quoted in the 2013 book Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip as saying, “We weren’t making a record in the normal sense; we were making a collage.”

The release: “Our most innovative and far-reaching achievement on record”

The result was an album that sounded like something entirely new. Anthem Of The Sun began, fittingly enough, with the bold and brilliant That’s It For The Other One, a seven-minute suite incorporating four distinct sections, melded together with all manner of studio trickery. One of the best Grateful Dead songs, it begins with a fragment of Garcia’s haunting Cryptical Envelopment, before an abrupt segue into Weir’s rampaging The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get (both an account of Weir’s troubles with the law and an elegy to his friend, the Beat-poet muse Neal Cassidy). Next up: a live reprise of Cryptical Envelopment before We Leave The Castle, a passage of disorientating found sounds and electronic effects.

Elsewhere, New Potato Caboose and Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks) are epic jams that show how the rhythms Mickey Hart brought to the table freed the band up to jam – they wouldn’t look back. The bluesy boogie of Alligator offered another example of Hart’s influence, with a mid-section that flowed into a Latin-inspired percussive break.

Released on 18 July 1968, Anthem Of The Sun might not have stormed the charts as the Dead’s label had hoped (even after Phil Lesh oversaw a 1972 remix which added dynamics and clarity), but it was an artistic statement that allowed the band to find their sound. Hart later said, “It was our springboard into weirdness,” while Lesh wrote, “I’ve always felt that as an artistic statement, Anthem Of The Sun was our most innovative and far-reaching achievement on record: as a metaphor for the manifestations in our live performances, as a temporal collage, as a summation of our musical direction to date.” Who are we to argue?

Find out which ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ anthem ranks among the best Grateful Dead songs.

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