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The Grateful Dead’s ‘Anthem of the Sun’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

How vivid trips, John Cage and the sound of “thick air” informed the band’s 1968 studio masterpiece

Read 10 things you might not know about the Grateful Dead's 1968 experimental masterpiece 'Anthem of the Sun.'

Malcolm Lubliner/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Anthem of the Sun was our vehicle,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said of the band’s 1968 LP. “It was our springboard into weirdness.”

The Dead’s 1967 self-titled debut introduced the world to a band striking an exuberant midpoint between roots, blues and psychedelic rock, but the album didn’t quite capture what set them apart from the start: their thrilling live show. Anthem of the Sun came much closer. Overlaying studio recordings with flashes of uncut inspiration drawn from various gigs, the established lineup of Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – along with Hart, new lyricist Robert Hunter and avant-garde keyboardist Tom Constanten – realized a convention-defying patchwork of jam-band bliss and studio trial-and-error.

“We found ourselves with enough music on tape for maybe a third of an album, so we had to figure out what to do,” Lesh said of the album in Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life. “But we did have a lot of live performances [recorded].” In piecing together the LP, the band would fuse different versions of the same song to suggest, as Lesh put it in his autobiography Searching for the Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead, “a thousand-petal lotus, unfolding in constant renewal.”

From shapeshifting suite “That’s It for the Other One” to the album’s avant–boogie-rock coda “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks),” the music of Anthem was like gazing deep into a cracked kaleidoscope. A half-century later, it still holds up as a masterfully disorienting 35-minute trip.

On its 50th anniversary, and in the wake of a new deluxe reissue, here are 10 things you might not know about the Grateful Dead’s second album.

1. Opening track “That’s It for the Other One” stitched together four different live renditions of the song.
“That’s It for the Other One,” known simply as “The Other One” on most recordings, took the form of a dizzying suite divided into four separate “sub-elements.” Using a Valentine’s Day 1968 performance at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom as its core, the track also incorporated passages of the song recorded at shows at Lake Tahoe’s King’s Beach Bowl and the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. “All four performances start together at the same point in the music but almost immediately begin to diverge from one another ever so slowly; suddenly we can see all the possibilities at once, and hear time from the standpoint of eternity, as if the music has broken through into a higher dimension of awareness,” Lesh explained in Searching for the Sound. “This lasts just long enough to engender a feeling of disorientation, it’s then faded down, allowing the core performance (now expanded from two to four tracks) to emerge, as if this one, this particular musical universe, had evolved inevitably out of the probabilities generated by the many (the others heard previously).”

2. Relations between the band and producer Dave Hassinger broke down when Bob Weir requested the ambient sound of “thick air.”
Having produced the band’s debut, Warner Bros. staff producer Dave Hassinger was drafted in to record its follow-up a few months later. But with the band exploring decidedly more experimental territory on Anthem – not least telling Hassinger they wanted to record environmental audio of both the desert and the city – the producer jumped ship. “I was describing how I envisioned the song, and [long-term Dead sound engineer Dan Healy] and Hassinger were hassling over something,” Bob Weir said in Oliver Trager’s 1997 guide The American Book of the Dead. “I announced, ‘Right here I want the sound of thick air.’ I couldn’t describe it back then, because I didn’t know what I was talking about. I do know now: a little bit of white noise and a little bit of compression. I was thinking about something kind of like the buzzing that you hear in your ears in a hot, sticky summer day.”

Already disillusioned by the band’s increasingly avant-garde approach, the producer promptly quit the project and flew back to Los Angeles. “Hassinger literally threw up his hands and walked out, mumbling,” recalled Lesh in David Browne’s 2015 Dead chronicle So Many Roads.

“It wasn’t exactly my fault,” Weir told Trager, “but I think I was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

3. The album’s instrumental palette went way beyond that of a typical rock record.
From the tripped-out melange of kazoo, timpani, crotales, finger cymbals and electronic tape manipulation that color the album’s 11-minute peak “Alligator” to Lesh’s breakneck trumpet interlude on “Born Cross-Eyed,” the album was crammed with unusual accents. “It was far out,” Garcia later recalled of the record in Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip. “Even too far out. We weren’t making a record in the normal sense; we were making a collage.”

4. Jerry Garcia claimed that the band mixed the album “for the hallucinations.”
For Garcia, Anthem was an open invitation for the listener to drop out simply by dropping the needle. “Anthem of the Sun was like a chance for us to try a lot of things, to see what things might work and might not,” he said in Jeremy Marre’s 1988 documentary Anthem to Beauty. “When we mixed it, we mixed it for the hallucinations. Phil and I performed the mix as though it were an electronic music composition. It was pretty intense.”

Following the acrimonious departure of producer Dave Hassinger, Dan Healy helped the band concoct a feature-length flashback to the acid tests. “Dan eagerly took up the challenge and instantly became the core of the tech team,” Phil Lesh later recalled. “From running the board and tape machines, to soldering forbidden connections in the guts of the various rented tape machines, to performing a transfer of live tracks by controlling the speed of the machine with his thumb on the tape reel – his expertise, flexibility, imaginative approach, and can-do spirit validated the concept.”

Having bowed to the Dead’s contractual stipulation of unlimited studio time (a clause unheard of in rock music at the time) Warner Bros. executive Joe Smith was less idealistic about the band’s exploratory attitude toward the studio. “We were dealing with a counterculture and a new method of recording,” he later said. “But there was also the element of chemicals involved here, which never had been a factor up until that point with the acts that we dealt with, or if it had been, it certainly was under control and didn’t show itself in the studio. So these guys were stoned a part of the time, living in a fantasy world and looking for sounds that may not even be possible.”

“It was terrible – they were so undisciplined,” Smith said of the Anthem sessions in So Many Roads. “You’re in the studio and the clock’s running. If you want to do this at home, go home and fuck around. But don’t do this at a recording session with all the equipment and engineers.”

5. Bill Walker’s cover design was conceived after a particularly intense trip.
Resembling a mandala and incorporating the likenesses of the band members’ heads, Bill Walker’s Hindu-inspired cover painting for Anthem is, for many fans and the artist himself, indivisible from the sounds contained therein. “I can’t separate the painting from the music,” Walker said in Anthem to Beauty. “Music was an integral part of the painting.”

In his self-penned, 30-plus page PDF Anthem Guide, Walker delved deeper into the process, saying, “The drawing unfolded intuitively and spontaneously. I didn’t have to think about what I was going to draw – it literally projected itself out of my head onto the canvas. I had the sense that my eyes were merely transferring, out of a boundless and radiant space, the image onto the canvas, and all I had to do was effortlessly delineate or play the patterns I was seeing on the canvas. This sense of ‘seeing’ was not just a visual experience, but synaesthetic. The drawing took a little over a week of very intense participation. Most often I had no awareness of day or night and recall eating only a few times.”

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the artistic epiphany stemmed from a psychedelic experience. “I began the painting a month or so after a particularly memorable experience after ingesting YAGE (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis) and 250mcg of LSD,” Walker told Rolling Stone over email. “That was NYE 1967-68 in the Valley of Fire, Nevada with Tom Constanten and another friend.” Speaking to the Grateful Dead historian Blair Jackson in the Spring 1986 issue of the Golden Road zine, Walker noted how he incorporated the likenesses of the band into the artwork: “I tried to perceive each person’s subtle energy patterns. I didn’t contrive it. I painted what I saw.”

6. Keyboardist Tom Constanten borrowed techniques from avant-garde composer John Cage.
Guiding Anthem’s forward-moving experimentalism was the involvement of Tom Constanten, who played with the Grateful Dead from 1968 to 1970. His contributions stemmed straight from the avant-garde, using prepared-piano techniques borrowed from radical composer John Cage. In Searching for the Sound, Lesh recalled how Constanten’s input in the record developed: “My old friend Tom Constanten flew in to add some keyboard texture to the transition from the ‘Cryptical’ reprise into ‘New Potato Caboose.’ Later in the week he also played a few licks on ‘Alligator’ and ‘Born Cross-Eyed.’ To prepare a piano, one inserts objects between the strings of a given note, causing the pitch and timbre to be changed radically. Tom had set this one up so that it sounded as if three gamelan orchestras were playing at once, each about a quarter-tone out of tune with the others. It sounded eerily beautiful, surging and swelling like an ocean of bells.”

“Many of our procedures were unprecedented,” Constanten himself recalled in an interview with Bands That Jam in 2013. “Partly because of the burgeoning technology, offering possibilities not available before, partly because of our adventurous nature. We were trying to recreate the excitement from a live show, something the first album didn’t accomplish. So we overcompensated. The result was nothing like a live show, but it did represent our musical thinking at the time.”

7. “Alligator” marked longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s first contribution to the group.
A sprawling masterstroke credited to founding Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, “Alligator” is arguably the most inspired track on Anthem. Its words were penned by Garcia’s longtime friend Robert Hunter, who would go on to become the band’s primary lyricist. “The scene I was in, I had to get out of that scene entirely, because as long as it was around I would be tempted, so I went off to New Mexico,” he recalled in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone. “While I was there I had been writing some songs, mostly before I left Palo Alto. I had written ‘St. Stephen’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower,’ and I sent those – and ‘Alligator’ – off to Jerry, and he uncharacteristically wrote back [laughs]. He said they were going to use the songs and why didn’t I come out and be their lyricist? Which I did.” Though comprising only the first quarter of this instrumental-heavy gem, Hunter’s words – not least the “Call for his whiskey/He can call for his tea” line, which references traditional British nursery rhyme “Old King Cole” – strike pure imagistic gold.

8. “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” grew out of the band jamming along with a passing train.
Closing Anthem in a flurry of warped frequencies and fizzing acid feedback, “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” dates back to the band’s earliest incarnation as the Warlocks. In A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally revealed how the song originated from the band’s residency at a Belmont, California, club six nights a week: “As the band continued to play … grueling sets at the In Room, they noticed that the trains on nearby tracks rolled by at consistent times every night. Rather than waiting for the trains to pass, or trying to drown out the noise, they chose to play along with the rumble of the trains. Within a few nights, they took that train noise, combined it with a fragment of the song “Mystic Eyes” by Them and created “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks).”

In Searching For the Sound, Lesh recalled the exact moment the idea took hold: “At one point, we were standing out there, entranced by the rhythm of the wheels clickety-clacking over the welds in the rails; Billy and I looked at each other and just knew – we simultaneously burst out, ‘We can play this!’ ‘This’ later turned into ‘Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks),’ one of our simplest yet farthest-reaching musical explorations. Based on the train rhythm, it had only one chord and was played at a blistering tempo …”

9. Early pressings of the album include the phrase “The faster we go, the rounder we get” inscribed on the vinyl.
Many of the Dead’s album covers and jackets reward a keen eye by featuring arcane influences and allusions. For example, on the back cover of Live/Dead, the word “acid” is superimposed inside the word “Dead”; on the cover of their debut album, a significant inscription from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (“In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead”) is concealed in the artwork; and the lyrics to the song “Blues for Allah” were printed in Arabic inside the jacket of the Blues for Allah album issued in the Middle East. Anthem’s Easter egg can be found etched in the matrix area of early pressings of the record. Also the title of the third section of “The Other One,” “The faster we go, the rounder we get” was a phrase believed to have come from Ken Kesey’s acid tests, which the Dead famously helped soundtrack during 1965 and 1966.

10. The band’s turn toward a more song-oriented approach on its 1970 albums was a direct result of Anthem‘s intensely experimental direction.
After Anthem of the Sun, the Dead would move into more linear, FM-friendly territory on American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, their beloved 1970 studio albums. According to Phil Lesh, that might have been because the band had already gone so far out on Anthem.

“I’ve always felt that as an artistic statement, Anthem of the Sun was our most innovative and far-reaching achievement on record: as a metaphor for the manifestations in our live performances, as a temporal collage, as a summation of our musical direction to date,” the bassist wrote in Searching for the Sound. “The problem is, once you’ve delivered yourself of that radical a rethinking, it’s just not workable to keep repeating yourself in the same vein; for continued growth, it’s necessary to take an almost dialectical approach: to consider the polar opposite. Our live performances, then, would build upon the discoveries of Anthem and result in a double live album (Live/Dead), while in the studio, the creative pendulum would swing from organized chaos to a far simpler, more ‘focused’ approach: songs, songs, and more songs.”

In This Article: RSX, The Grateful Dead

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