The Grateful Dead's Greatest Year

A new box captures the band's epic 1977 shows. But offstage, things were beginning to fray

The Grateful Dead in Boston, with singer Donna Jean Godchaux.
Peter Simon / Retna Ltd
June 26, 2013 9:00 AM ET

Click to listen to Grateful Dead's "Estimated Prophet - Live at Coliseum, University Of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL (5/17/77)"

Bikers, blow and Belushi: As usual when the Grateful Dead took Manhattan, the band's five-night stand at the Palladium in April 1977 had them all. Hells Angels rode their hogs right into the dressing rooms, brandishing a knife and demanding they play "Truckin." John Belushi, in his Saturday Night Live heyday, popped into a dressing room to share some weed. Onstage, though, something different took place in those shows. Dating back to their earliest performances a decade before, the Dead could be loose, sharp, undisciplined, sloppy, fierce – sometimes all during the same night. But Deadheads who caught the Palladium shows witnessed a startling sight: a firm and focused Grateful Dead. "We came out really strong," says percussionist Mickey Hart of those and other shows on the band's spring '77 tour. Recalling some of the brand-new songs the group premiered onstage then, he adds, "'Estimated Prophet,' 'Fire on the Mountain' – it was fresh meat, and we were ready to play those things. It was perfect timing."

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Ask Dead fans and scholars to name certain key years, and you know what you'll hear. Some point to 1970, when the band cut two enduring masterpieces, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Or 1972, when the Dead toured Europe for two months and played some of their finest shows, resulting in another landmark album, Europe '72. Singer-guitarist Bob Weir points to the late Eighties, just before the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland: "For me, that was our peak," Weir says. "We could hear and feel each other thinking, and we could intuit each other's moves. Jerry, Brent and I reached new plateaus as singers. We packed a punch."

Yet few years make Deadheads wax more nostalgic than 1977. Over the course of two tours, an Eastern-rooted swing in the spring and a mostly Western and Midwestern trek in the fall, the Dead played what many consider the tightest, most consistently satisfying shows of their career. "It's as close to a flawless Grateful Dead tour as I've ever heard," says band archivist David Lemieux. "There were no train wrecks."

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About a dozen concerts from that year have already been released on CDs and downloads, but on June 11th, the biggest batch yet arrived with May 1977, a 14-disc box featuring five complete shows from that tour. "We had all this new material we were excited about playing," says Donna Jean Godchaux, who sang with the Dead during this period. "Everyone wanted to say, 'All right, this is the time to make a statement and not just be a psychedelic weirdo hippie band.'" As a record-company ad that year read, A NEW DEAD ERA IS UPON US – which, as the band would learn, was both a blessing and a curse.

The dead were coming off a troubled few years. In 1973, beloved founding member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had died as a result of a longtime drinking problem. The following year, the Dead's experiment with their massive, costly Wall of Sound PA collapsed. Their attempt at running their own record label, Grateful Dead Rec­ords, had floundered and left them in the hole when label head Ron Rakow skipped town with the $225,000 he felt was owed to him. Rex Jackson, a member of the Dead's hardworking, hard-rocking crew, had died in a car accident in September 1976.

The following month, the Dead signed with Clive Davis' Arista Records, then also the home of rockers like Lou Reed and Patti Smith. At Davis' suggestion, they agreed to work with a pop-oriented producer: Keith Olsen, who had just produced a huge hit album for Fleetwood Mac. "We were trying to make a real rec­ord for Clive," says Hart.

Starting in January 1977, the band and Olsen bore down on new material – including the epic "Terrapin Station" suite and Weir's reggae-influenced "Estimated Prophet" – at Sound City, the funky but first-rate San Fernando Valley studio recently immortalized in Dave Grohl's Sound City documentary. More so than probably any previous studio collaborator, Olsen put the bandmates through their paces, making them rehearse and replay parts until they nailed them. Normally, the Dead would have bristled, but not this time: "Keith was cracking the whip, but we liked it – it made us sharper," says Hart. "We became much more disciplined. And Keith was always a little too small to hit. So he got away with a few things."

Although he got high with Garcia on at least one occasion, Olsen didn't become fully acclimated to the Dead universe until the later wrap-up sessions in New York, when Belushi came by, did cartwheels in the studio and hung out. "He drank everything he could and took everything and then passed out in front of the console," Olsen says. "Everyone said, 'Don't bother him – let him be.' This was all still really new to me." Yet Olsen was also impressed with Garcia's creativity and nonstop input: "He would have 20 ideas for everyone. He'd say, 'I got a bunch of ideas,' and we'd do them all. He really enjoyed the process."

But the process was slow. As the recording sessions started to drag throughout the winter of 1977 – and the band faced the possibility of not finishing the record before going on tour – Steve Parish, a member of the crew (and later Garcia's manager), came up with a novel idea: Nail the studio door shut. "It was a joke," says Parish. "But we were under the gun, and it kept the guys in there."

The finished album, Terrapin Station, was the Dead's most polished, professional effort to date, foreign adjectives that didn't necessarily thrill everyone in the band. Hart was upset when Olsen overdubbed strings on one of his parts without telling him. With tempered enthusiasm, bassist and co-founder Phil Lesh later called the album "a fairly successful effort" that "varied wildly in terms of material." At the time, though, the band put on a positive face about its aural makeover. "It actually sounds like a record," Garcia enthused to Rolling Stone before its release. "People won't believe it's us." Added Weir, "It's the Dead without all those wrong notes."

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