Looking back at one of rock’s greatest live albums
Long considered one of the best live albums ever made — and a rare triple disc at that — Europe ’72 consolidated the Grateful Dead’s then-current stance after they segued from psychedelia to abject Americana.
With a newfound focus on songs and structure — as opposed to the freeform improvisation that typified their earlier live persona (and the album Live/Dead in particular) — it put equal emphasis on melody as well as musicianship. It also marked several changes in the band’s line-up, following the departure of drummer Mickey Hart and the addition of the Keith Godchaux on piano and his wife Donna Jean Godchaux, who became the first woman to join the all-boys club on vocals.
Sadly, it was also the last Dead album to feature founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the band’s former frontman who excelled on vocals, harmonica, percussion and organ. He passed away shortly after the album’s release, becoming one of the founding members of the so-called “27 Club” of rockers who passed away unexpectedly at that fateful age.
Nevertheless, the album represents the pinnacle of Dead’s period performances, and the fact that it achieved gold status despite its triple vinyl status attests to the fact that it helped bring the band the beginnings of a mainstream following, one that would eventually culminate in their first “hit” single, “Touch of Grey,” some 15 years later. That was music to the ears of their record label, Warner Bros., which had helped finance what turned out to be an increasingly expensive European tour due to the addition of family, friends, increased road crew — all of whom were credited on the album’s inner sleeve — and the extra recording equipment needed to document it all.
Ironically for a band that was always known for improvisation and live performance, several overdubs were incorporated into the final mix. Nevertheless, the album cover, by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse featuring the cartoonish fool smashing an ice cream cone into his head, further etched the Dead’s irreverent image.
Nevertheless, the songs themselves marked a certain maturity, especially when it came to such offerings as “Cumberland Blues,” “He’s Gone,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Tennessee Jed”— all of which reflected the band’s newly adapted down-home image. It also featured the first official appearance on a Dead album of Bob Weir’s signature song, “One More Saturday Night,” which appeared on his first solo set, Ace, which had been released earlier that same year. The song subsequently became a regular part of the Dead’s set list thereafter.
Still, it’s not that the Dead had abandoned their freewheeling finesse entirely. Their seminal standards “Morning Dew” and “Ramble On Rose” were also included, as well as a cover of Elmore James, “Hurts Me Too,” a pair of extended instrumentals, “Epilogue” and “Prelude,” and a lengthy version of their newly inscribed anthem “Truckin’,” a song that effectively summed up the Dead’s road warrior reputation as well as their outlaw/outsider persona.
As the expression goes — and as every Deadhead can testify — there’s nothing like a concert by the good ole’ Grateful Dead. Europe ’72 provided the proof.