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Grateful Dead Roll Out Surprise ‘Workingman’s Dead’ Studio Outtakes

On ‘The Angel’s Share,’ out today, we finally get to hear the Dead in a studio, making one of their classic albums. But why did it take so long for the material to emerge?

For the first time, the Grateful Dead are releasing hours of studio outtakes from their classic 1970 LP 'Workingman's Dead.'

Herb Greene/Warner Bros. Records

On that late-winter-1970 day at Pacific High recording studio in San Francisco, Jerry Garcia wasn’t happy with what he was hearing. The Grateful Dead were trying to finish “New Speedway Boogie,” a song they’d played live only three times, and they were having trouble finding a groove.

“Keep it nice and fucking together, you fuckers,” Garcia said semi-jokingly as they took another pass at it. They started again, but the tempo still wasn’t locking in. “It’s faltering,” he said, sounding more exasperated than before. “It’s weird, man, it isn’t grooving. It’s just not grooving at all.”

In the quarter-century since Garcia’s death, the Grateful Dead industry has rolled out countless authorized live recordings of individual shows and entire tours. What’s never materialized to any extensive degree is the sort of material Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Elvis Presley estate have recently unveiled: studio rehearsal tapes of musicians honing songs on classic albums, sometimes take after laborious take.

That changes today with the release of Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share. Pegged to the 50th anniversary of that momentous album, the Dead and their label, Rhino, are issuing two and a half hours of studio rehearsal tapes of each of its songs as a streaming-only collection — a first in the history of authorized Dead archiving. Fans will finally be able to hear the Dead at work, finessing the eight songs on Workingman’s Dead: Garcia and Bob Weir practicing the chord changes for “Uncle John’s Band”; the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan leading the Dead through more than a half-dozen takes of his showcase song, “Easy Wind”; and, yes, the band attempting, across 11 takes, to end up with a satisfactory version of “New Speedway Boogie.”

“The complete takes show the development,” says Dead legacy manager David Lemieux, who oversees the band’s archiving. “The Dead had been playing these songs for so long, in some cases nine months, so they had them down. But this is where the nuances developed.”

The Angel’s Share is a digital-only release, with no physical offering currently planned. The album title stems from a term in the whiskey industry. Thanks to the porous quality of wooden barrels used to make the drink, some of the alcohol is lost in the process. “Because the liquid would evaporate into the heavens,” according to TheWhiskeyWash.com, “it was dubbed ‘the angel’s share.’” In a statement, Rhino Records added, “Much like the whiskey-distillation process, there were also ingredients that were vital to the creation of Workingman’s Dead that were lost and did not end up on the final album, the band’s own version of the ‘angel’s share.’”

More than just remnants, The Angel’s Share documents a crucial moment in the Dead’s history — a moment of cohesion and creative respite in a band that had more than its share of turmoil and discord. “The magic and spirit of the band, and the music, were on a synchronous level,” says engineer Bob Matthews, a key part of the Dead team who worked on the original Workingman’s Dead. “It was rare and joyful to see. This was a happy time for the band, with the band members and their families, and you can hear it in the music.” And now, Garcia’s occasional exasperation aside, we can hear it at last.

“We were into a much more relaxed thing about that time,” Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1972, reflecting on the origins of Workingman’s Dead. “And we were also out of our pretentious thing. We weren’t feeling so much like an experimental group, but were feeling more like a good old band.”

The year before, the Dead had temporarily purged themselves of their experimental studio impulses. The group had just spent many months — and close to $200,000, then an exorbitant figure — making Aoxomoxoa, an experience that left everyone involved drained and broke. “We learned how not to make a record with Aoxomoxoa,” says Matthews. “What we learned is don’t beat the music like a dead horse. On that album, we went over so many tunes so many different ways, adding this and trying that, that any love or joyous feel from the music was long gone. It felt like it lost its soul.”

When the time came to make another record, early in 1970, the band and its team adopted a very different approach, especially since they were now in debt to their label. “When record time came around and we were getting new material together,” Garcia said in 1972, “we thought, ‘Let’s try to make it cheap this time.’” Matthews — who worked on the album along with co-engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson, another vital member of the Dead team — took Garcia’s words to heart. “I was very cognizant of the cost,” Matthews says. “We weren’t going to dillydally around and try this and try that and wear out the music.”

A different, quicker approach also suited the songs that Garcia and his friend and lyricist Robert Hunter had begun writing. The various members of the Dead — Garcia, Hunter, Weir, and McKernan, especially — had been immersed in folk, blues, jug-band music, and bluegrass, and that side of the group’s music reemerged in the new material. In line with the unplugged early-Americana trend that had sprung up in rock by the end of the Sixties, the songs included the campfire singalong “Uncle John’s Band,” the swampy sway of the mysterious “Black Peter,” and the country chug “Cumberland Blues. “The music was a whole change in direction,” says Matthews. “If anything, it was a country & western album. It has that flavor to it. It has easy, happy rhythms and tempos, and the words are fun.”

According to Hunter, those words cost the band a bit more money. Hunter asked Lenny Hart — father of drummer Mickey Hart and then the band’s manager — about being placed on salary. But as Hunter told Rolling Stone in 2013, Lenny Hart “didn’t think it was a good idea.” The band talked their manager into the arrangement, though, and Hunter was put on a weekly retainer to write lyrics. “And Workingman’s Dead was all written and recorded,” Hunter said. “Forty dollars a week.”

In what Matthews calls the equivalent of movie preproduction, the Dead first went into the studio for two days to put their new songs on tape in rough form. Garcia, Matthews, and Cantor-Jackson then figured out an order for the songs, and cassettes were made and distributed of which would be included and in what sequence. (Cantor-Jackson was also responsible for the album’s highly regarded mastering.) “It was so operatic in its timing,” Matthews says. “One song followed the another. It went one from tempo and one key to another and it had a beginning on Side One and then to the end of Side Two. We put together the musical concept of the songs and an order. It had a flow.”

The Dead then hunkered down with that tape and rehearsed the new songs for about two weeks, even down to working up Crosby, Stills, and Nash–inspired harmonies. Finally, in mid-February, the Dead, along with Matthews and Cantor-Jackson, began recording for real.

The band’s prep work is apparent in The Angel’s Share, as the musicians efficiently work out the final arrangements of the songs with few interruptions and more focus than they normally brought to the tedious art of record making. Garcia, who sounds very much in control, at one point tells them, “If anything’s wrong, then let’s stop and start again.” In some of the between-take conversation we hear, Garcia tells Lesh “not to dwell” on certain chord changes in “High Time” or, at another point, advises his bandmates, “Let’s not get too elaborate.” We hear Garcia and Weir finalize chord changes and guitar tones. When bassist Phil Lesh messes up a part, the music stops and he admits, “I fucked up.”

“In ‘Casey Jones,’ you really get to hear Weir’s part come together,” says Lemieux. “The prominence of Phil’s bass on all the songs is really nice. The way the tapes were mixed, you can hear him better now. And I love the banter. We don’t hear enough of that. It’s great to hear [drummer] Billy [Kreutzmann] saying quite a bit, too. He had a lot to say, and so did Phil.”

“New Speedway Boogie,” Hunter’s pointed shot at San Francisco Chronicle writer Ralph J. Gleason about the Dead’s involvement in the disastrous Altamont festival, is among the most revealing sections of The Angel’s Share. Altamont — the free show with the Rolling Stones; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Jefferson Airplane; and others — had taken place just two months before the sessions, leaving chaos and a murder in its wake. The Dead had been involved in the planning and had been scheduled to play but, at the last minute, refused to go onstage amid the Hells Angels–induced turmoil.

Between the sensitivity of the subject matter and the fact that the Dead hadn’t fully worked out the song onstage yet, the band grappled with the appropriate arrangement of it. “It’s hard for me to sing and maintain a groove,” Garcia says at one point in the tapes, before instructing Matthews and Cantor-Jackson to “slam the fucker” out of his guitar sound. “The charm is that when a song falls apart, we get to hear that — and we get to hear them bring that tempo back up,” Lemieux says. “Ten years from now, people will listen and say, ‘Hey, that’s a really cool part of the story.’”

Most of the tracks don’t include the lead vocals or harmonies that would later be added. But in another sign of how ready the Dead were to make the album, it appears they made only a few passes at the singing; vocal outtakes are pretty much nonexistent. “The band was prepared,” Matthews says. “They knew which parts they were going to sing and who was going to sing how many parts.” Still in the vaults, though, is a Weir falsetto harmony on “New Speedway Boogie” that Hunter felt distracted from the song and so wasn’t used.

Despite the occasional breakdown of a song, the work was so efficient that most of what we’re hearing on The Angel’s Share is the entirety of what was found in the vault. Lemieux says only minor tweaking — editing out moments when the band took a break to retune a guitar, for instance — was done. “I don’t remember much about those sessions,” Lesh admitted to this writer in 2014. “It was pretty quick. But that was a turning point, making Workingman’s Dead. We couldn’t revisit Aoxomoxoa. We’d done it. It’s not the kind of thing you can keep repeating. So it was exciting to focus and make such a left turn and focus on the song. It was kind of neat.”

The Dead weren’t the only ones happy with Workingman’s Dead when it was completed on time and under budget. Joe Smith, the feisty head of Warner Bros., had long been frustrated by the band’s inability to make what he considered radio-friendly music. But Matthews remembers the band visiting the Warners offices in L.A. to play Smith the album. When it was done, Smith was clearly pleased. “He came out from behind his desk and came over and shook my hand,” Matthews recalls. “And he said, ‘You can hear the voices — and you did it for under $15,000.’”

When it was decided that “Uncle John’s Band” would be a single, Matthews was asked to splice the word “goddamn” out of the finished version to ensure pop radio stations would play it. “I hated doing that,” Matthews says. “But [Dead manager] Rock Scully said it had to be done, and he told Jerry and Hunter, and they told me to cut it.”

But as often happened with the Dead, connecting with the mainstream always involved one hurdle or another. In 2013, Hunter recalled visiting Boston to promote the album, but just before the DJ was about to play “Uncle John’s Band,” lightning struck the building and knocked out its power. That same visit, Hunter said that the DJ showed him a copy of “Casey Jones” with a scratch in it, making it unplayable on air. “I could still get sore about that one,” Hunter said in previously unpublished comments from that interview. “Those songs were our hits, and they were taken away from us by the government. At that time Nixon had said that if any station played, uh, drug-related songs, their license applications would be considered very seriously.

“I said that on a panel later,” Hunter continued, “and the other guy on the panel just laughed at me and thought I was saying something that wasn’t true. As though I was saying the reason we didn’t have hits was because of Nixon. Well, you know, it’s true! And I felt real miffed. If Nixon hadn’t done that, I think the Grateful Dead would’ve been rich and famous looong before they were. Because those are two mighty big songs.”

Still, Warner Bros. was ready to promote the album. “An album of country-flavored tunes by the Grateful Dead — an album different from anything they ever did before,” went one of its radio ads, which cheekily added, “Steal it.” But at the time, no one worried about record-store theft. In spite of that ad and problems with radio play, Workingman’s Dead became the band’s most popular record to that point, breaking into the Top 30 on the Billboard album chart. To this day, Matthews says he still receives royalties for his work on it.

“You know, the thing was selling good,” Hunter said. “I got 90 grand. I had never seen money like that in my whole life. Never even hoped to. The phone never stopped ringing with people wanting loans.” With equal doses of humor and disgruntlement, he added, “The beginning of being a rich man.”

The discovery of what became The Angel’s Share was an unexpected, late-day surprise for the Dead archive crew. This spring, they had just finished work on a separate 50th-anniversary Workingman’s Dead reissue that will include a full live show from 1971. That bonus material was all finalized and firmed up when Lemieux heard from engineer Brian Kehew and archivist Mike Johnson that an unlabeled batch of tapes had been discovered in the Dead vaults in Los Angeles.

Given that the only Workingman’s Dead leftovers that had surfaced before had been various takes of “Dire Wolf,” Lemieux wasn’t sure what to think. “We’ve been burned before,” he says. “We’ve designed an album cover for a great live show and then the tapes showed up and we couldn’t use them. But here Brian and Mike had a feeling it was something Workingman’s Dead–related.” Given that most of what Lemieux has overseen was live material, he “freaked out,” he says, when he realized what those tape boxes contained.

The reason that concert recordings have dominated in the post-Garcia world is simple: Studio outtakes of the Dead are as rare as Lesh lead vocals. In terms of other vault tape boxes, “some clearly say Shakedown Street and there are lot of unreleased takes of Go to Heaven,” says Lemieux. “There might be 15 or 20 multitrack reels, some with many takes of ‘Alabama Getaway.’”

But those discoveries are the exception. “For some albums, we have nothing,” Lemieux says. “There’s not much [leftover] from Wake of the Flood. Literally nothing from Terrapin Station. That’s always been a big mystery in the Dead world. We never found out what happened with the Terrapin tapes.” Some studio tapes exist for American Beauty, which will be celebrating its own 50th in November and will be given an in-progress deluxe release. But Lemieux cautions that those tapes are not “on the same level” and not as extensive as those found for Workingman’s Dead.

Then there’s the matter of the sniff heard ’round the world. On the original Workingman’s Dead, “Casey Jones” — about that conductor “high on cocaine” — is preceded by the sound of a loud inhale. According to Matthews, Garcia would often prepare to sing in the studio by gulping a half shot of Drambuie liqueur, then washing it down with a half shot of pure lemon juice. “The Drambuie would collect all the viscous material and the lemon juice would drain it,” Matthews recalls.

With the tape rolling on “Casey Jones,” Garcia decided to “clean out his nose,” the engineer says — and the sound made it onto the album. “And that was that,” Matthews says. “Most people thought, ‘Well, that’s funny.’ Jerry wasn’t real happy. But he heard the whole album before it was released and he did not tell me to take it out.”

Either way, the nasal sound effect won’t be heard on The Angel’s Share, since Lemieux and his team never located it on any master tapes. “It’s a really funny intro,” Lemieux feels. “When I heard it when I was 14, I thought, ‘These guys are funny — that’s bold.’ But I couldn’t find it. I don’t know where the snort exists.”