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‘Workingman’s Dead’: Behind Grateful Dead’s Americana Rebirth
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In Depth

‘Workingman’s Dead’: Behind Grateful Dead’s Americana Rebirth

Emerging from a time of crisis, the ‘Workingman’s Dead’ album kick-started a creative revival that reshaped Grateful Dead’s career.

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The 70s began ominously for Grateful Dead. The band had been busted by plain-clothes policemen following a show in New Orleans on 31 January 1970. They were in debt to their label, Warner Bros, after sales of their first three studio albums had struggled to recoup the costs of recording them. In February, they discovered that their then manager, Lenny Hart (father of drummer Mickey), had been embezzling funds from the band; when taken to task, Hart fled to Mexico, leaving the group in dire financial straits. It was a set of circumstances that would leave any band reeling but, that same month, the group recorded Workingman’s Dead, a landmark album that saw Grateful Dead adopt a new sound and sensibility, changing their fortunes forever.

Listen to ‘Workingman’s Dead’ here.

In many ways, the Dead were shaped by the challenges they faced. Their financial situation forced them to rehearse and record Workingman’s Dead in a matter of weeks at Pacific High Recording, a modest San Francisco studio located just around the corner from the Fillmore West. Running up a huge studio bill while experimenting with the possibilities of studio recording was not on the agenda this time around. For these sessions to work, the material had to be written and rehearsed beforehand – a convention that the freewheeling Dead had previously only flirted with.

“It was the first record that we made together as a group”

In a Rolling Stone interview around the release of Workingman’s Dead, the group’s lynchpin, Jerry Garcia, reflected on the effect that misfortune had had on the group’s mentality. “Being able to do that was extremely positive in the midst of all this adverse stuff that was happening,” he said. “It was definitely an upper… it was the first record that we made together as a group, all of us. Everybody contributed beautifully, and it came off really nicely.”

With their loyal engineers Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor on production duties, the band rehearsed the songs at Pacific High for a week. Matthews then took the best recordings of each and arranged them into a running order informed by the themes that emerged – work, journeys, the natural world, mortality. Impressed, the band went with it. As Matthews told Buzz Poole, author of the 33⅓ book on Workingman’s Dead, “When we went into the studio, the concept was in place. The recording was a delight.” Songs agreed, the Dead honed them with another week’s rehearsal, and Workingman’s Dead was ready to record.

“We got a single!”

The economy and focus of the sessions suited the material and prompted a major stylistic shift, from free-form lysergic jams towards country-rock. Garcia’s and lyricist Robert Hunter’s collaborative approach to songwriting had turned a corner following the band’s move, in 1968, from the LSD-fuelled Haight-Ashbury scene to the lush surroundings of Larkspur, Marin County, in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Inspired by the more down-home direction rock was heading – as spearheaded by the late-60s work of Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Crosby, Stills And Nash and The Band – as well as his own jug-band roots, Garcia’s songs became more direct and melodic. The Bakersfield country sound made famous by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens also became a touchpoint: rootsy country with an R&B bounce. Mostly, though, Garcia followed the direction suggested by Hunter’s lyrics. Inspired by the way Robbie Robertson mythologised US history in his songs for The Band, Hunter sought to tell the stories of ordinary North American workers, communities and local legends. Garcia and Hunter worked with an intuitive understanding that bassist Phil Lesh, writing in his memoir, Searching For The Sound: My Life With The Grateful Dead, would later described as being “almost miraculous”.

Legend has it that when Joe Smith, the Warner executive who’d signed the group – and had defended them to his bosses ever since – heard Workingman’s Dead for the first time he was confused, even suspecting it to be a joke. When it became apparent that the Dead had delivered the real deal, he ran around the Warner corridors shouting, “We got a single, we got a single!” Hearing the opening track, Uncle John’s Band, it’s easy to see why. CSN-inspired close harmonies ruminate on mortality and the passing of time, offering wisdom and bonhomie set to a sun-dappled acoustic backing. It had hit potential but, more importantly than that, it became an anthem for the Dead’s followers – a free-thinking community united by the spiritual succour they found in the band’s music and all that surrounded it.

“It’s my way of expressing thanks to the whole tradition”

The album’s closer and other hit, Casey Jones, showed a different side to the Dead. Robert Hunter repurposed the folk tale of the titular locomotive engineer who died in a train crash in 1900 with one hand on the train’s whistle and the other hand on its brake. Here the story is set to a radio-friendly boogie, Casey Jones is “high on cocaine” and the narrator is issuing a warning for the engineer to “watch his speed”. Garcia spoke about the song in an interview with Flash magazine in 1971: “It’s partly a way of redeveloping what’s been put into us, and it’s partly my way of expressing thanks to the whole tradition: to try and add a good song to it.”

Following its release, on 14 June 1970, many of Workingman’s Dead’s songs became Dead concert staples, among them the country twang of Dire Wolf, the speed-freak shuffle of Cumberland Blues, Black Peter’s deathly folk-blues. It was the group’s most consistent and satisfying album to date and, peaking at No.27 in the US and even cracking the UK Top 70, the biggest hit they’d managed go far. The album’s success gave the Dead a chance to start over – and not just musically. Their new manager, Sam Cutler, insisted the band hit the road like never before, and the Dead live phenomenon kicked into gear.

Their next album, American Beauty, followed hot on the heels of Workingman’s Dead, in November, and, with a little smoothing of its predecessor’s rough edges, became an even bigger hit. Having started the year with their future hanging in the balance, the Dead ended 1970 well on the way to becoming national treasures – a remarkable feat for a remarkable group.

Find out which ‘Workingman’s Dead’ tracks live on among our best Grateful Dead songs.

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