When the baby-booming generation first heard The Beatles in the early 1960s, it was akin to the big bang for culture. After that moment, nothing would ever be the same. Life was to change for the better, and on the back of the coattails of four young upstarts from Liverpool, society was thrust into the orgiastic light of the future with its fluidity, musical experimentation and artistic enlightenment.
One band hearing The Beatles had a transformative effect on was psychedelic poster boys, the Grateful Dead. Frontman Jerry Garcia was particularly captivated by the sugary sounds of the Liverpool quartet, however, his love for the band wouldn’t be immediate. His friend and bandmate in Newe Rider of the Purple Sage, David Nelson, recalled them both first hearing The Beatles, and the pair’s reactions were markedly different to everyone else’s.
One evening, in high school, Garcia phoned Nelson excitedly proclaiming: “’We’ve got to go down to St. Mike’s Alley now. They’re playing this group, the Beatles. They’ve got the album, and I want you to check it out.’ So we went and got coffee and sat there looking at each other, listening on the sound system to the Beatles’ first album; the ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ album,” Nelson recalled.
Notably, Nelson wasn’t that impressed. He continued: “After every song, we’d look at each other. I was going, ‘This is going to make me puke, man.’ He said, ‘Oh no, give it a chance. Let’s listen with an open mind.’ After each song, it was like, ‘Pretty good. Good harmony; like in the bluegrass band. Yeah, they do sing good harmony.’ We finished the album, and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, what’s the verdict? What do you think?’ And we both gave it the iffy sign. Not the okay sign – it was iffy.”
Like with everyone, The Beatles would eventually win over Garcia and Nelson, and after this turnaround, Garcia’s life would be changed forever. When he realised that The Beatles were the new embodiment of individualism and artistic verve for the future, something was awoken in Garcia, and this concept of an artistic mantra would go a considerable way in helping The Grateful Dead to establish their own unmistakable style.
This moment of realisation came after Garcia watched 1964’s Hard Day’s Night. Nelson remembered: “Seeing it, he realised, ‘Hey great, that really looks like fun’… They were a little model of good times… The Beatles were light and having a good time, and they were very good too, so it was a combination that was very satisfying on the artistic level… It was like saying, ‘You can be young, you can be far-out, and you can still make it.’ They were making people happy.”
Nelson also explained: “The Beatles were doing something new, and they had great musical ideas and a great thing going. Plus, seeing the movie Hard Day’s Night was a turn-on.”
In Jackson Blair’s 2000 biography, Garcia: An American Life, Dead guitarist Bob Weir also shed light on how The Beatles inspired them. “The Beatles were why we turned from a jug band into a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said. “What we saw them doing was impossibly attractive. I couldn’t think of anything else more worth doing.”
From that moment when the Grateful Dead fell in love with The Beatles, they would constantly show their love for them over their long career. During their 30 year existence, they were known to perform at least 14 cuts by Liverpool’s favourite sons during performances. Outside of The Grateful Dead, Garcia would also perform Beatles songs regularly in the majority of his extra-Grateful Dead outfits.
Notably, The Grateful Dead clearly had a special love for the uplifting ‘Hey Jude’ which made its way into their sets on over 30 occasions.