The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa turns 50

On June 20, 1969, The Grateful Dead released their third studio album, the palindromic and nearly unpronounceable Aoxomoxoa. In celebration, a 50th Anniversary version of the album has been released featuring both the original 1969 mix and the 1971 remastered version along with a selection of live recordings from the Avalon Ballroom performances from January 24 through the 26th. The album, here in its original mastering next to the remastered version, is an incredible time capsule of the high-water mark of psychedelia and shows one of the greatest bands in rock music just on the edge of a massive breakthrough.

I had not realized previously that the album I knew as Aoxomoxoa was actually the remastered 1971 version and so when I jumped into listening to this anniversary release, I was excited to hear the songs in their original release. My first take-away after listening to the 1969 version of the album is that it is mixed horribly, and I completely understand why the band felt the need to remaster it when they could. Their struggles with the original mastering are understandable. This was the first time they were recording on a 16-track recorder and the first major studio album to do so as well. At the time, the Dead had an uncomfortable relationship to the studio struggled with trying to bring the energy of their live sound to the album to such a degree that they used both live tracks and studio tracks to cobble together their second album Anthem of the Sun. Adding new technology to the process was not going to help the band at that time and the original mix is proof of that. By the time they had remixed the album, the band had found their voice in the studio with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, their two best studio albums.

But even if the remastered version is a better listening experience overall, the original album feels more important, for both its overall historical context and its context in the history of the band. The summer of 1969 is laced with events of giant historical import. Human beings reached the moon, probably our greatest achievement to date. There was Woodstock and the Manson murders, the demon-and-angel twin children of the flower power era. Aoxomoxoa was not the soundtrack of that summer for most people (the soundtrack to Hair and the Beatles White Album probably share that title), but it is an album that has a sound that could only really exist in its context. From the reverby harpsichord underscoring the Tom-Bombadillian lyrics of Mountains of the Moon to the acapella ending on Doing That Rag to whatever the heck acid-test noise is going on What’s Become of the Baby?, this album is one of the last gasps of the psychedelic rock movement that began with The Beatles experiments on Revolver in 1966 and peaked with Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and then almost seems to officially end with Jimi’s blistering National Anthem at Woodstock. For all its imperfections, the original release of Aoxomoxoa is more true to its time than the cleaned up version of 1971.

It is also a more accurate representation of who the Grateful Dead were at that time than the ’71 remix. The band didn’t just improve their studio recording technique in the time between 1969 to 1971, they became a completely different band. Keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan may not have been the frontman he was when the band started as an electric blues band, but he was still a huge part of their sound. Aoxomoxoa signals the move away from him, with Garcia taking lead vocals on all the tracks and only Dupree’s Diamond Blues even remotely harkening back to the original blues concept. By the time of the remix, the Dead had possibly fired Pigpen once and seen him step aside from the band for health reasons for a stretch of time. The blues roots that had been the impetutus for forming an electric band were giving way to a broader blend of styles that drew from Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots, Lesh’s avant-garde background and even early bebop. The experimentation that began in the Acid Tests’ format-free musical searching was arriving in a new place that would be hinted at with the subsequent release of Live/Dead and fully released with the release of Europe ’72. As they were making the original Aoxomoxoa, the Dead were just on the edge of becoming the defining “jam-band,” the foremost masters of group improvisation in the rock band format.

The album shows the Dead in transition at the exact moment rock music was in transition. Apart from The White Album and the soundtrack to Hair, the best-selling albums of 1969 seem to point in a new direction for the next decade of Rock N Roll. Former ace studio musician Glenn Campbell released Wichita Lineman late in 1968 and it was a top seller in 1969 along with Johnny Cash’s masterpiece Live at San Quentin. Creedence Clearwater Revival had a top hit with Green River following Bayou Country and The Band followed up 1968’s Music from Big Pink with their self-titled second album. The psychedelic sound was clearly giving way to a return to where the decade had begun with more folk and country sounds finding their way into music from some of the artists who spearhead the psychedelic sound. Eric Clapton joined Steve Winwood for Blind Faith and played  with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. The Rolling Stones spent much of the year working on Let It Bleed, signaling their move to the more roots-based sounds that would be fully on display with Sticky Fingers with songs like Country Honk and Midnight Rambler.

The Grateful Dead followed suit the next year with their breakthrough studio album Workman’s Dead and made their best studio record, American Beauty, in the same vain right after. The wah-pedal and heavy reverb sounds that had defined rock in the late Sixties fade away as quick as they had arisen and Aoxomoxoa sits right at the edge of that transition. Between one version of Aoxomoxoa and the next, the overtly trippy sounds and lyrics of songs like China Cat Sunflower, Cosmic Charlie and Mountains of the Moon would give way to the more fully realized compositions that define the best side of the Dead’s songwriting ability, songs like Box of Rain, Tennessee Jed, Friend of the Devil, Truckin,’  Uncle John’s Band and Ripple.  Pop music was leaving the doors of perception behind for green grass and dirt roads and the Dead were on the same trip.

By the time the band remixed Aoxomoxoa, they were a better studio band and they were now using their studio albums as a way to provide templates for their songs before they were re-imagined and reinvented on stage nightly. The 1971 remaster sounds much better and the songs are much clearer, but that comes at the price of the album’s context. The better presentation cannot fix the fact that the songs are still not as polished as what 1970 will bring. Only China Cat Sunflower became a jamming staple, though Cosmic Charlie had its moments and St. Stephen is one of their best early live tunes, especially as presented on Live/Dead. The strangeness of the songs almost makes more sense in the stranger, harder-to-listen to mix. There is a fog that the songs can’t quite cut through and apart from St. Stephen and Dupree’s Diamond Blues (on which the vocal is really buried), a better look at the songs doesn’t make them much better. In 1969, they were going for something new and strange and by 1971, they were cleaning up an album that they had moved beyond.

It is incredible to think that things were moving that fast, for the band and for music in general. The best thing about Aoxomoxoa is that feeling that this is something from another world, that it is completely disconnected from what pop music in any conventional sense sounds like. I have seen it referred to as the peak of the Dead’s experimental phase. That is a strange idea to try to apply any one point in the history of a band that existed solely for experimentation, but it is not a foolish notion. The Grateful Dead began as electric blues band at the time when Eric Clapton and John Mayall were making that the coolest thing you could be. They took tons of acid and tried to find a new road through the amps to musical freedom. That road led back to where they began in country blues, folk, bluegrass and jazz. At the point where their parabola crested and began its return, they made this album and it remains an incredible listen and a trail marker in that journey.