Join us on a short trip through the stories behind 4 Grateful Dead albums. The band of musicians blended jazz, reggae and psychedelic space rock, and their shows were known for extended improvisation. They were successful despite not being played on mainstream radio, as the Dead's legendary instrumental jams weren't exactly radio-friendly. Although The Dead recorded with major record labels, they often handled marketing and merchandising themselves, while retaining their album publishing rights and recording masters. These factors earned the band a devoted following known as “Deadheads” who were fiercely loyal. These fans would follow the band on the road for months or even years. So follow along as we explore the stories behind these Grateful Dead albums covers.
1. Grateful Dead (1971)
The Dead's self-titled 1971 album featured artwork by Mouse and Alton Kelly. Often referred to as the “Skull and Roses” album, the design was inspired by an illustration by E. J. Sullivan in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a selection of Khayyám's poems translated by Edward FitzGerald. The rose-crowned skeleton is known as “Bertha” or “Big Bertha”, and is often seen on a variety of Dead memorabilia.
2. History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear's Choice 1973)
Now we're getting iconic! Why a back cover? Well, the front cover is rather banal, but on the back is the first appearance of the Grateful Dead “Dancing Bears.” The Dancing Bears are ubiquitous on Dead t-shirts, hats, stickers, and even collectible plush and bean bears. The “Bear” in the title refers to the band’s soundman Owsley Stanley, who recorded and produced the album.
3. From The Mars Hotel (1974)
The cover of From the Mars Hotel has a San Francisco flophouse which is located on Mars. The image is quite un-Mars-like, with a blue planet surface and a green biodome with volcanic activity and silver spheres. The text across the top might be in Martian - but hold it in front of a mirror and flip it upside down, and it reads “Ugly Rumors," which was Tony Blair’s band.
Yep, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom joined a band because he knew the lyrics to I Can't Get No Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones. Named after this cover art, but with the British spelling adding a "u", The Ugly Rumours performed at a show where the drum kit actually fell apart!
4. Shakedown Street (1978)
This cover for 1978’s Shakedown Street captured a period of time when the two underground cultures of jam bands and comic books crossed over. Gilbert Shelton, an artist known previously for The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and a parody of Superman called the Wonder Wart-Hog, drew a typical San Rafael image. The Dead rehearsed in San Rafael, and over time the moniker Shakedown Street began to refer to the parking lot scene outside Grateful Dead concerts. Here Deadheads would bring healthy food and beverages to consume while they waited for the concert to begin.