Was It The Dead Or Was It Disco?

Regardless, Garcia and Company got into a groove on Shakedown Street

Shakedown Street artwork by comix legend Gilbert Shelton

By the time of the release of Shakedown Street in November 1978, The Grateful Dead had been an active entity for roughly a dozen years, attracting their fanatical following the process.

Though incessant touring had filled their coffers, the band had yet to break out as a mainstream act, a status they had deliberately avoided throughout the course of their career. A move to Clive Davis’ Arista Records seemed destined to change that status, if not by attaining a hit single, then at least through substantive album sales. Indeed, the pressure from their new label seemed certain to create the impetus needed to reach that goal.

Of course, the Dead were the essence of noncommercial, a status they fiercely clung to and couldn’t change even if they were so inclined.


“We could never sell out if we tried,” Hart was once quoted as saying. “And we tried. But again, we failed miserably.”

Nevertheless, Shakedown Street could be seen as a more cohesive and, dare we say, more commercial offering. The final Dead album to feature Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux — on keys and vocals respectively — it initially found Little Feat’s Lowell George in the production chair before bassist John Kahn of the Jerry Garcia Band took over the reigns just prior to the recording’s conclusion.

Unlike the looser jam template the Dead executed early on, and the pioneering Americana phase they went through as the ‘60s transitioned into the ‘70s, the band were more concerned with creating concise, pop oriented melodies that emphasized rhythm as essential to the rudimentary sound. Drummer Mickey Hart played a greater role as far as the songwriting was concerned, with his name appearing on the credits of three of the ten songs. However, many Dead Heads shunned the album initially, seeing it as an attempt by the band to dive into disco, the prevalent sound that was shaking up cynics at the time.



The title track was the most obvious example of the dance trend’s influence, leading some to slam the effort as an example of a new Disco Dead. Indeed, it’s reliance on a more conventional pop artifice proved to be an anathema to many fans, and even the title of the album itself became a derogatory term for the circus-like gathering of vendors, panderers and fellow travellers that began converging outside the stadiums that were prime venues in the group’s middle years.

Still, for all the hard knocks, Shakedown Street does have its highlights. “Good Lovin’,” a remake of the old Rascals standby, had been part of their concert repertoire since early on, but now made its formal recorded bow. Hart’s “Fire on the Mountain” was an updated take on “Happiness is Drumming,” which was originally released on the Diga Rhythm Band’s debut album two years before. “Stagger Lee,” written by Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, was an updated take on the traditional folk tune of the same name.

Still, the highlight of the album came with two Bob Weir contributions — the feisty rocker “I Need a Miracle” and the redo of their seminal classic “All New Minglewood Blues,” another early Dead standard. The latter two tracks along with “Shakedown Street” were deemed suitable enough to become part of the band’s setlist for several years to come, and even now rank among the best tracks in their ample catalogue. .Granted, Shakedown Street might not be one of their best efforts, but it’s hardly the Dead end some considered it to be at the time.




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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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