Live. A note. A melody. A passing riff. It’s fleeting, one-of-a-kind artistry. Few know this better than Deadheads.
In the 160-odd years since audio was first recorded, many a musical legend has attempted to bottle the elusive magic of their live performances. Some successfully. Others less so. But few rock bands have produced anything as influential as Europe ‘72, the Grateful Dead’s triple live album, chronicling their wild ride through The Continent in April and May that year. Released 50 years ago on Nov. 5, 1972, it remains one of the most commercially successful albums by the Dead. It’s also perhaps their one release most responsible for The Live Cult of the Dead – the cultural movement that today is still very much alive and well. It’s the gateway drug for prospective Deadheads. While bootleg tape-traders can argue over which recording of what show during which era is the band’s best, Europe ’72 is their best-known and most widely acclaimed.
By the early 1970s, it had already been a long strange trip for the Grateful Dead. What started in 1964 as the trad-folk group Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions quickly and temporarily became The Warlocks by 1964, before the core group—singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia, singer-rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, bassist-vocalist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann—settled on Grateful Dead by ‘65. From their first show at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, the band was at the center of the 1960s psychedelic and counter-culture explosion in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Second drummer Mickey Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter joined in ’67, and the band then went on a run of classics, starting with the heavily experimental (1968’s Anthem of the Sun and 1969’s Aoxomoxoa) before moving out of SF to Marin County, Calif., to reinvent the Americana sound with their legendary psych-folk duo of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (both 1970).
It was an incredibly productive period for the Dead. In ’69, the band released their first live album, Live/Dead, for which the band’s audio engineer, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, adopted then-revolutionary new gear and techniques, including 16-track recording and a microphone splitter that cleaned up the sound. Recorded at SF’s Fillmore West and the Avalon, the LP introduced exploratory renditions of tracks like “Dark Star,” “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven.”
“Studio versions could never do those songs justice,” Kreutzmann said in his 2015 memoir, Deal.
In ’71, they followed up with a self-titled live album, lovingly known as Skull & Roses for its iconic cover art, which introduced tracks like “Bertha,” “Wharf Rat” and “Playing in the Band.” Then, in early ’72, Garcia dropped his eponymous debut solo album, shortly followed by Weir’s solo release, Ace. It all helped add to the Dead’s live repertoire.
A few more lineup changes occurred during this time: Hart began a three-year absence in ‘71, leaving Kreutzmann as the Dead’s sole drummer. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux joined in September ’71 to help prop up the 26-year-old Pigpen, who was by then in and out of the hospital with health problems. And finally, Godchaux’s wife Donna, a onetime session singer for Elvis Presley, joined as a backing vocalist. The stage was now set for Europe ’72.
“Magical stuff was happening in ’72,” longtime crew member/manager Steve Parish said in Amazon’s four-hour documentary A Long Strange Trip. “Stuff that to this day, I can’t explain. They we repushing us into the light, and the light was bright.”
On the Dead’s first extended European tour, the group played a total of 22 shows (most of them clocking in north of three hours) starting and concluding in London, and hitting Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich and others in between. It was a 50-person traveling circus of family members, wives, girlfriends, friends, kids, roadies, dealers and hanger-ons. Live, the band leaned into the kaleidoscopic, yet dusty, psych-Americana sound of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty with slithering guitar solos and rollicking rhythms. Each night’s full set was recorded with a future release in mind—the band was in debt to their label and the tour needed to be profitable. They jammed into the night aided by a bottle of distilled LSD smuggled across the Atlantic on the plane.
In the end, the best 17 tracks were chosen for Europe ’72, including the introduction of a handful of new tunes: “He’s Gone,” “Jack Straw,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Ramble on Rose” and “Tennessee Jed,” most of which never saw release in the form of a studio version, adding more value to Europe ’72 as a stand-alone album.
Extended, energetic improvisations abound, and post-tour overdubs eliminated most of the crowd noise (some new vocal takes were added, too). The tour de force is Garcia’s messianic closer, “Morning Dew,” recorded at the last show of the tour in London. It’s a Canadian folk tune, recounting a conversation between the last man and woman alive on earth following a nuclear apocalypse, but heavily interpreted by the Dead and Garcia: “Walk me out in the morning dew my honey,” he sings, his guitar gently reassuring, Pigpen’s organ lines floating beneath. “I’ll walk you out in the morning dew my honey. I guess it doesn’t really matter anyway.” Garcia reportedly played the version on the live album with his back to the crowd, tears running down his face.
Europe ‘72 was one of the first triple-record rock albums to be certified gold, and has since been certified double platinum. The Dead’s best-selling live album also marked a coda: the group’s final recording with Pigpen, who died the following year.
In 2011, all recordings from the tour were released as Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings—across 73 CDs.
And the legend roles on. After Garcia’s death, in 1995, the band’s various members carried the torch, performing their classics in too many incarnations to mention. In 2015, members of the Dead unexpectedly partnered with John Mayer for a new band, Dead & Co. Yes, “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” Rolex-collecting, Jessica Simpson-dating Hollywood pop-blues playboy John Mayer. At first, it was a very curious partnership. Many Deadheads were livid. Now, in hindsight, it feels like destiny. The band’s live shows over the past seven years have drawn millions and been positively embraced by Deadheads. Meanwhile, the band’s quarterly archival live release series, Dave’s Picks, have delivered their highest chart placements in recent years. And in summer 2023, the Dead & Co. will wrap up their run with a series of shows across North America. It’s one of the hottest tickets on earth.
But that won’t be the end of the Dead or their Cult of Live.
“Being alive, means continuing to change,” Jerry Garcia said in A Long Strange Trip. And The Dead never die.