A fundamental part of being a music lover is loving talking about it. And whenever we start talking about it, a debate is always just a heartbeat away. Debating is intrinsic to music loving because it allows us understand to ourselves why we love what we love by forcing us to verbalize. For the inaugural post for this music blog, I wanted to touch upon one of my favourite debates them all: which is the Grateful Dead's best year? The criteria is focusing solely on the live shows, the studio albums are not really taken into consideration.
A pillar of Deadheadness is debate over favourite year. Once an incipient Deadhead gets his bearings, it quickly becomes apparent that the Grateful Dead's peak period occurred between 1968-1974. Pick just about any show from the 533 (an astounding number and worth digging into in a future post) they played during this seven year stretch and it'll be a winner, most likely a classic. So it's only right that each Deadhead has his favourite year and his own unique and very persuasive reasons why he's right and you're wrong. Besides the '68-'74 golden era, the only other year in the running for favourite is 1977. So basically the debate revolves around these eight spectacular years in the life of the band that played good time music for good time people.
Now, within this eight year window, the debate within truly dedicated Deadhead circles revolves around the years '72-'73-'74. Benjamin Wharton, my esteemed co-editor, swears by 1972 as the year the Dead reached their ultimate peak. I'm a '74 man myself. Another seasoned Deadhead says we're both bozos, 1973 is the best. Luckily, the brilliance of the Grateful Dead lies in our collective rectitude; whichever year you choose, it'll be legendary.
For me, any discussion around why 1974 is the best must begin with the sound. Simply put, the recordings of live shows from this year have crystal clear sound quality. For a band that played over 2300 shows between 1965-1995, one can imagine the extreme variations in live recording sound quality. But there's a good reason 1974 stands out: Wall of Sound.
This is typically a point of confusion for non-Deadheads. We're not referencing the studio recording techniques of convicted murderer Phil Spector, most notably heard on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass triple album. The Grateful Dead had their own version of Wall of Sound, developed by their LSD guru, Owsley Stanley, for their live shows beginning in 1974. It was the largest concert system sound system ever built at the time. By the end of the year, the magnitude and momentous strain of transporting and maintaining this behemoth wore heavily on the band's road crew and especially their finances. They were most certainly going broke supporting this juggernaut. (Which is why it's abandoned after 1974.)
What the Wall of Sound created was the most pure live Grateful Dead sound recordings possible. Jerry Garcia's solos soar and sear like Apollo's chariot, Phil drops bombs like it's 1944 Dresden and you can feel every one shaking you to your core. Bob's unusual and really quite innovative rhythm playing isn't buried in the mix like it might in many other recordings.
From the beginning, the Grateful Dead had rightfully earned the reputation as being a freak-out acid rock jam band. They invented the jamband genre, famously encapsulated by Fillmore promoter and longtime Deadhead Bill Graham, who said the Grateful Dead "aren't the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do." But something began to happen in the early '70s, they began to slowly move away from their psycho acid freakouts and began to embrace the artistry of song craftsmanship. Lyrically and musically, they shifted to a hyper-real idealized vision of Americana that used railroads, hobos, and bluegrass country as its central themes. Although it is incontrovertible that 1972 was the year the Grateful Dead fully matured as the rock gods they are, I submit it was in 1974 that they hit their artistic and performance peak, when they were able to fully synthesize their acid test origins with their literary-tragic-minded humanistic aspirations. Listen to any version of Ship of Fools or U.S. Blues from 1974 and you'll hear what I mean.
Finally, 1974 was the year Keith Godchaux fully integrated himself into the band and became an indispensable member. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was the Dead's original keyboard player and in many ways their first frontman. Although quickly looked upon as a leader, Jerry Garcia was from the very beginning a very shy individual. When he realized how fans were hanging on his every word, he stopped talking at shows. You'll be hard pressed to find a recording of Jerry Garcia idly talking between songs after 1971. It was Pigpen who would get the crowd on their feet. After all, this music was meant to dance to! By 1972, Pigpen had drinked himself into cirrhosis, playing his last show on June 17, 1972. Pigpen passed away March 8, 1973. Keith had joined in 1971 but it wasn't until 1974 that I believe he fully came into his own as a foundational member of the Grateful Dead. Listen to any Playin' In the Band or Dark Star from 1974 to hear Keith in all his glory.
For all these reasons and more!...is why 1974 is the best in my humble opinion. Wall of Sound at its peak; new level of artistry accessed; Keith Godchaux. Finally, 1974 would mark the last year of pure Grateful Dead. They basically took 1975 off, 1976 was an experimental year where they redid all their songs in a brave but frankly uninteresting way. Wharton said it best, "If I were a fan who started listening to the Grateful Dead in 1973, for instance, and then picked them up again in 1976, I'd say to myself, 'what the hell happened to these guys?'" The late '70s mark a period that is beloved by many Deadheads and there are indeed many legendary shows, but it also marks the Dead's attempt to adopt a more mainstream sound. Concurrent with this, Jerry Garcia begins to smoke heroin in the late '70s and this tragic fact essentially leads to a long steady decline in Grateful Dead live show quality until he drops dead in 1995. 1974 is the last year pure year.
My Top 10 Grateful Dead Years by live performances
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated that the Wall of Sound first began in 1972. This is incorrect, the first complete Wall of Sound unveiling occurred on March 23, 1974 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, CA. We regret the error.