Grateful Dead "Aoxomoxoa" 1969 and 1971 mixes
In 1969, the Grateful Dead released their third studio album, titled Aoxomoxoa (pronounced "ox-oh-mox-oh-ah"). This album marked the beginning of a long partnership with lyricist Robert Hunter, who was the Dead’s non-participating songwriter. The album was highly experimental, and the band reportedly ran up a big recording budget that did not make the Warner Brothers executives happy. The album was remixed in 1971 by Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, and the original 1969 mix was discontinued. The original 1969 master tapes were reportedly misplaced, and that mix was subsequently unavailable for four decades. The original mix finally resurfaced recently as one of the 5 LP’s in Rhino’s vinyl-only box set The Warner Bros. Studio Albums, released in 2010. Rhino also released the original mix on a separate vinyl LP in 2011. As of this writing, the 1969 mix is still unavailable on CD.
The experimental sound of the original 1969 release may have been partially due to the participation of keyboardist Tom Constanten, whose brief involvement with the Dead ended shortly after this album’s release. The band was also experimenting with then-new 16-track recording technology, and the album was recorded during sporadic sessions that took place over the course of eight months.
In 1971, after the Dead had built up a larger following with their 1970 albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, Garcia and Lesh returned to the studio to remix Aoxomoxoa, undoing most of the album’s experimental qualities.
Speaking as someone who has never been much of a Deadhead, I tend to prefer the remixed 1971 version of the album. These later mixes sound more professional and straightforward. Deadheads tend to prefer the 1969 mix, but in my opinion, that mix often comes across as sloppy avant-gardism. I’m all for creative freedom and musical experimentalism, but the original Aoxomoxoa is too self-indulgent, making the Dead come across as pretentious hippies running amok in a high-tech recording studio. The most obvious example to illustrate this point is the eight-minute “What’s Become of the Baby”, an embarrassing attempt to create an arty and surrealistic mood piece. The echo and phasing effects added to Garcia’s vocals are relentlessly annoying, as their tone constantly changes for no apparent reason except to be bizarre. The remixed 1971 version of the song is less annoying, mainly because the echo-laden vocals are more consistent in tone, and many extraneous noises have also been excised. But both versions pointlessly drown Hunter’s poetic lyrics, thus the song is a self-indulgent mistake in either form. The 1971 remixes of “St. Stephen” and “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” have a fuller, crisper sound than their original 1969 mixes. The 1969 version of “Doin’ That Rag” ends with an a cappella finale, while the remixed version simply fades out.
One song that does work better in its 1969 mix is the baroque “Mountains of the Moon”, which is more majestic in its 1969 form, due in large part to the presence of angelic background vocals. The remixed version, which had the choir sounds removed from its backdrop, has less hypnotic power. The original mix of “China Cat Sunflower” has a looser jam-band vibe than its 1971 remix; for example, the 1971 version fades out, but the 1969 mix does not. One mix of that song is not necessarily preferable to the other. The original mix of the bluesy “Cosmic Charlie” has more distant sounding vocals, perhaps to emphasize the “cosmic” theme. The song’s 1971 remix sounds more down-to-earth. Again, neither version is necessarily better than the other.
The Warner Bros. catalogue number is WS 1790 for both versions of the Aoxomoxoa LP, but the original 1969 release bore the imprint of Seven Arts Records, a company which was merged with Warner Bros from 1967 until 1969. The 2011 Rhino vinyl release duplicates the 1969 Seven Arts sticker in the center of the disc. The back LP cover of the 1971 mix reads “Remixed September, 1971”. If you are searching for the 1969 mix, the best thing to do is check the back LP cover to see if this note appears.
Trivial footnote: a five-year-old Courtney Love is depicted in the back cover art of Aoxomoxoa. Her father, Hank Harrison, was the Dead’s road manager at the time.
Grateful Dead “Aoxomoxoa” (Warner Bros. / Seven Arts WS 1790) 1969
1. St. Stephen
2. Dupree’s Diamond Blues
4. Doin’ That Rag
5. Mountains of the Moon
6. China Cat Sunflower
7. What’s Become of the Baby
8. Cosmic Charlie