By Brian Ives
Fifty years ago this week (March 17, 1967), the Grateful Dead released their self-titled debut album. Side 1 kicked off with “The Golden Road (To Unlimted Devotion)” which clocked in at a very svelte two minutes and seven seconds. If this was your first introduction to the group, you might have thought that this was a funky, psychedelic garage rock band.
However, the album ends with “Viola Lee Blues,” which just about cracks the double digits, lasting ten minutes and one second; of course, that was the shape of things to come from the San Francisco band, who would routinely improvise in concert, seeing some of their songs (or medleys) stretch well past the twenty minute mark.
But no matter how long their jams were, they were always great at writing (relatively) concise songs. So, in honor of their 50th anniversary, we decided to list our favorite Grateful Dead songs, with with a few rules: our list consists of only studio recordings, not live ones (and since the studio recording of “China Cat Sunflower” is kind of weak, we’re skipping it). To make this list, a song has to be an original composition or an arrangement of a traditional song (so no “Morning Dew” or “Mama Tried”) and it has to be from a Grateful Dead album, not a solo album (so, no “Deal,” “Sugaree” or “Loser,” which were from Jerry Garcia’s catalog, or “Greatest Story Ever Told” or “Playing in the Band,” which were from Bob’s repertoire). Also, we’re skipping the most obvious hits: “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,” “Alabama Getaway” and “Touch of Grey.” Finally, all the songs must be less than six minutes long (which eliminated some of our favorites, including “Candyman,” “Althea” and “West L.A. Fadeaway”).
If you put all twenty of these songs together, it’s still shorter than two live Grateful Dead songs — if those songs were the live version of “Darkstar” from Rotterdam, the Netherlands on May 11, 1972 (which lasted forty-seven minutes and eleven seconds) and the live version of “Turn on Your Lovelight” from the Fillmore West on June 6, 1969 (forty-six minutes and fifty-nine seconds).
1. “Ripple” from 1970’s American Beauty (4:09) – Written by Jerry Garcia and the band’s lyricist Robert Hunter, it was one of the many highlights of American Beauty, one of the band’s two acoustic-based albums from 1970. The song has been covered often over the years; it’s the last song alt-rock legends Jane’s Addiction released before breaking up in 1991. More recently, it was recorded by “Playing for Change,” a project that coordinated musicians from all over the world to play on a single version of the song.
2. “Box of Rain” from 1970’s American Beauty (5:18) – “Let Phil sing!” was a chant that was heard at Grateful Dead shows over the years, and while fans may have wanted to hear “Unbroken Chain” or “Pride of Cucamonga,” “Box of Rain” was surely his best moment as a singer-songwriter (he co-wrote this song with Robert Hunter). In fact, we were going to keep this list to songs under five minutes, but we changed it when we realized that the five-minute rule would prevent “Box of Rain” from making the cut.
3. “Uncle John’s Band” from 1970’s Workingman’s Dead (4:42) – Who was Uncle John anyway? Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt? John the Baptist? Jerry Garcia himself (whose full name was Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia, and who co-wrote the song with Robert Hunter)? It didn’t matter; what did matter were the band’s incredibly tight Crosby Stills & Nash inspired harmonies. This is one of their finest moments, no jams required.
4. “Scarlet Begonias” from 1974’s From the Mars Hotel (4:19) – Another Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter co-write, this one was covered by Dead disciples Phish at their very first concert back in 1983; it was also on the debut album by west coast ska/punk band Sublime.
5. “Sugar Magnolia” from 1970’s American Beauty (3:19) – Sung by Bob Weir, who co-wrote it with Robert Hunter. “We can have high times if you’ll abide” pre-dated The Big Lebowski’s “Dude” character (played by Jeff Bridges, a guy who has probably listened to a bit of the Dead in his day).
6. “St. Stephen” from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa (4:26) – C0-written by Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter, the live version of this song often segued into the much longer “The Eleven,” but the studio version of this tightly written song is roots rock at its best.
7. “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” from 1967’s The Grateful Dead (2:07) – Co-written by the entire band, it was one of two originals on the Dead’s debut, and was about as short as their songs ever got.
8. “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” from 1973’s Wake of the Flood (5:42) – Another Garcia/Hunter co-write, this was always a great live song, but on stage it lacked the evocative fiddle playing of bluegrass great Vassar Clements, known as “the Father of Hillbilly Jazz.”
9. “Friend of the Devil” from 1970’s American Beauty (3:24) – Co-written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, along with John Dawson from west coast country rockers New Riders of the Purple Sage, the lyrics tell one of Hunter’s most vivid stories, of an outlaw who escapes from the police with the help of Satan himself.
10. “New Speedway Boogie” from 1970’s Workingman’s Dead (4:01) – Another Garcia/Hunter classic. The Vietnam War was still raging when Workingman’s Dead was released; the lyric “One way or another, this darkness got to give” surely resonated during that era and surely has resonated in many eras since.
11. “Dire Wolf” from 1970’s Workingman’s Dead (3:11) – This Garcia/Hunter classic saw the Dead delve far into country music territory, with Garcia burning it up on pedal steel guitar.
12. “Passenger” from 1977’s Terrapin Station (2:48) – One of the Dead’s most rocking moments, the vocals are split by Bob Weir and Donna Godchaux, but was co-written by Phil Lesh with Peter Monk, a member of the Dead’s extended family, who had served in the Navy and went on to become a Buddhist monk (which sounds like good source material for its own song, or movie).
13. “Fire on the Mountain” from 1978’s Shakedown Street (4:59) – Co-written by drummer Mickey Hart with Robert Hunter, this song was often paired with “Scarlet Begonias” in concert and would go on for up to twenty minutes or more. But taken on its own, it’s a great piece of laid-back west coast ’70s rock.
14. “China Doll” from 1974’s From the Mars Hotel (4:09) – Another Garcia/Hunter song, it features more of Hunter’s cinematic lyrics: “A pistol shot at five o’clock/The bells of heaven ring/Tell me what you done it for/No I won’t tell you a thing,” feels like the opening of a classic western.
15. “Franklin’s Tower” from 1975’s Blues for Allah (4:37) – Written by Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter and drummer Billy Kreutzmann; Hunter’s line “If you get confused just listen to the music play” was a line that was taken literally by Deadheads.
16. “Shakedown Street” from 1978’s Shakedown Street (4:59) – Again, Garcia/Hunter, this song took some criticism at the time for being “too disco,” but all these years later, that seems like a churlish complaint about a great song. “Shakedown Street” would enter the parlance of Deadheads, as it would describe the scene outside of Dead shows where people sold stuff like tie-dyed shirts and grilled cheese sandwiches.
17. “I Need a Miracle” from 1978’s Shakedown Street (3:36) – Co-written by Bob Weir and lyricist John Perry Barlow (who, bizarrely, used to work for Dick Cheney), the song’s title, like “Shakedown Street,” would also enter the Deadhead lexicon: fans walking around outside of a concert with one finger up were looking for a “miracle”; in other words, they were hoping for a free ticket to the always-sold-out shows.
18. “Hell in a Bucket” from 1987’s In the Dark (5:35) – Co-written by Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow with keyboardist Brent Mydland, “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride” was a great turn of phrase from Barlow. And “If I’m unable to dance I will crawl” is another line that Deadheads have surely taken literally.
19. “Don’t Ease Me In” from 1980’s Go To Heaven (3:13) – A traditional song, arranged by the Grateful Dead. They recorded it as part of their first single in 1966 ut revisited it in 1980 for their first album of the new decade. It’s one of the highlights of the rather thin Go To Heaven.
20 “Ship of Fools” from 1974’s From the Mars Hotel (5:22) – If you’re certain you don’t like the Dead, try listening to Elvis Costello’s version of this Garcia/Hunter classic, it may change your mind.