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‘Wake Of The Flood’: How Grateful Dead Stormed Into A New Era
In Depth

‘Wake Of The Flood’: How Grateful Dead Stormed Into A New Era

Despite being recorded amid tragedy and internal reshuffles, Grateful Dead’s ‘Wake Of The Flood’ album overflowed with inspiration.

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When Grateful Dead entered The Record Plant, in California, in August 1973, to record their sixth studio album, Wake Of The Flood, it was the first time they’d been in the studio since the sessions for 1970’s American Beauty.

Listen to to the 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of ‘Wake Of The Flood’ here.

The backstory: “He was one of the best, if not the best, keyboardists”

A lot had changed in those three years. Founder member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had died on 8 March 1973, after suffering a gastrointestinal haemorrhage. The keyboardist’s role in the band had diminished in recent years – he stopped touring in September 1971, after being admitted to hospital with a perforated ulcer and hepatitis, leaving a space which was filled by pianist Keith Godchaux. Though Pigpen rejoined the Dead in December, assuming harmonica and vocal duties, his health had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer perform on stage. He played his last gig with the band on 17 June 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, before becoming another tragic entry in rock’n’roll’s notorious “27 Club”.

Though Pigpen was considered by many to be the heart and soul of the Dead, his bluesy playing had its limitations. The classically trained and jazz-literate Godchaux gave the Dead a whole new dimension, the pianist’s nuanced musicality freeing the band up to explore fresh sonic terrain. “He was one of the best, if not the best, keyboardists that I’ve ever had the honor of playing with,” Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann explained in his memoir, Deal: My Three Decades Of Drumming, Dreams, And Drugs With The Grateful Dead. “He didn’t need to know the material first,” the drummer continued. “He could learn songs before he was even done hearing them for the first time. And he could play just about anything.”

Godchaux and his wife, Donna (who joined the group on backing vocals in early 1972), were bedded in on the road, with the pianist coming into his own on the summer tour of Europe that was later documented on Europe ’72, an essential triple-disc live set that remains one of the best Grateful Dead albums. When it came time to record Wake Of The Flood, Godchaux was a fully fledged member of the band.

Going independent: Forming Grateful Dead Records

But Pigpen’s death wasn’t the only shake-up to affect the Dead in the early 70s. The band’s financial manager, Lenny Hart (father of Dead percussionist Mickey) disappeared in March 1970, after embezzling roughly $150,000 from the band. He was discovered and arrested in San Diego in July 1971, after failing to keep a low profile – he’d been posing as the Reverend Lenny B Hart and performing baptisms – and was sentenced to six months in jail. Ashamed of his father’s actions, Mickey left the group in February 1971, robbing the Dead of a brilliant and forward-thinking musical voice.

The experience caused the Dead to look at their finances more carefully. They employed the tough, former Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler to manage their day-to-day affairs, and, as they’d reached the end of their contract with Warner Bros, decided – with the considerable help of former Wall Street arbitrageur and manager Ron Rakow – to start their own record label. Rakow worked on a business plan known as the “So What Papers” (after the original name of the label) and presented it to the band in July 1972. Later that year, he and the Dead met with Clive Davis, the head of Columbia Records, who had been trying to sign the group, to debate the merits of going independent. The band sided with Rakow and formed two separate labels – Grateful Dead Records, to release the Dead’s music, and Round Records, for solo projects and spin-offs. Grateful Dead Records was owned collectively by the band, and Round Records was owned by Rakow and Jerry Garcia.

The recording: “The tunes… are the best we’ve ever written”

Despite the behind-the-scenes upheaval, the material the band had amassed for Wake Of The Flood was positively serene, with a lush and bucolic sound matched by lyrics that dealt with elemental forces and spiritual matters. Moving on from the Bakersfield Americana that characterised the 1970 one-two of the Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums, the group added prog-like excursions and elements of jazz fusion, folk soul, and even reggae to their sound. And as well as Donna and Keith Godchaux, the Dead were also joined by a brass section, plus violinist Vassar Clements, making Wake Of The Flood their most musically fleshed-out album to date.

Talking to Cameron Crowe for Circus magazine, in 1973, Jerry Garcia was confident in his band’s new music. “Right now, all I know is that the tunes are all good,” he asserted. “The tunes that me and Robert Hunter wrote are the best we’ve ever written. For sure… They’re a little more sophisticated in terms of structure than our other ones, the new tunes. But they’re Grateful Dead all the way. I mean they sound like the Grateful Dead. I can’t really look at them objectively, but I feel that they’re better… All the tunes are very different from each other and the ones that preceded them as well.”

The release and legacy: A new era in Grateful Dead history

When Wake Of The Flood was released, on 15 October 1973, fans were able to hear for themselves just how different the Dead’s new music was. The album’s charming opener, Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, was a nimble, Dixieland jazz-inspired tune that had been honed on the road and was indicative of the sophistication Garcia had spoken of. And the tricksy groove of Let Me Sing Your Blues Away, written by Keith Godchaux and Robert Hunter, recalled a more laidback Little Feat.

The heart of Wake Of The Flood, though, came with a run of four songs from Garcia and Hunter. The loping, reggae-inflected Row Jimmy, the spectral beauty of Stella Blue, Here Comes Sunshine’s warming glow and the lilting soul of Eyes Of The World could all take their place among the best Grateful Dead songs. Following these, guitarist Bob Weir’s 12-minute-plus Weather Report Suite – worked on with new collaborator Eric Anderson, and flitting between bucolic folk, organ-led gospel and brass-fuelled mariachi – served as a reminder of the Dead’s ability to push musical boundaries.

Not for the first time, the Dead had weathered a storm and emerged triumphantly. Wake Of The Flood became their highest-charting album to date in the US, and many of its tracks became staples in the Dead’s setlist. A new era in Grateful Dead history was well and truly underway.

Buy the 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of ‘Wake Of The Flood’.

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