Bring Out Your Dead! Which Grateful Dead is Best?

Workingman's Dead and American Beauty have long been considered to be the two Grateful Dead albums for people who don't think they like the Grateful Dead.

Instead of extensive, some would say self-indulgent noodling jams or psychedelic roller-coasters the group offers up concise, well-constructed country/bluegrass/rock tunes with verses, choruses, hooks and folky multi-part harmonies inspired in great part by their pals Crosby, Stills and Nash. These two tuneful albums, redolent with pedal steel guitar, have well-stood the test of time both musically and sonically.

I admit it: I haven't played Workingman's Dead in many years (could be decades). When you want to know how much better your stereo is now than in the past (especially your vinyl front end), pull out and play a record you've not played in a long time. The difference between what my memory produced and what the record actually playing delivered was huge. I heard so much that had previously been buried, not to mention an overall presentation that was more tactile, spacious, and especially three-dimensional.

Originally issued in 1970, Workingman's Dead (Warner Brothers 1869) on the green keystone label, the album, for some mysterious reason hasn't had a vinyl reissue (at least that I know about) until Rhino did one a few years ago, mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering and more recently by Mobile-Fidelity on a double 45 set. Both of these were pressed at RTI.

Coming directly after the epic improv of the group's second album Aoxomoxoa the record signaled an abrupt shift. It was recorded in a few weeks in February, 1970 at Pacific High Studios and released that spring. It was a commercial and critical success. An album that begins with "Uncle John's Band", ends with "Casey Jones" and has no filler in between provides pleasure every play and the sound is "ear-delicious" with the vocal harmonies spread across the soundstage and the harmonically saturated acoustic instruments floating in 3D space.

I compared an original green label WB cut by Kent Duncan ("KD", who later acquired Artisan Sound in 1979 when the founder and original owner Bob MacLeod Jr. retired) with Chris Bellman's cut and with Mobile Fidelity's double 45 cut by Krieg Wunderlich (MFSL 2-428). I did this on two turntables fitted with different cartridges driving different phono preamplifiers and here's where this job gets difficult but not nearly as difficult as what's faced by the mastering engineers.

Are they cutting for the guy with the full range system like mine? Or for the guy with the two way floor standers? By the way, I'm always surprised when I point out to long-time fans of this album that the smokestacks and spewing smoke on the cover have been crudely penciled in.

Here's what I found: the original pressing cut when the tape was fresh is (not surprisingly) superb sounding. The group has always cared about great sound and no doubt was involved in every step of the original's production. Forty five years later the tape still sounds very good but neither Chris Bellman's nor Krieg Wunderlich's cut manages the upper frequency air and sense of "floatiness" managed by the original. The Rhino cut at 33 1/3 sounds very good but somewhat pinched in the middle and lacking in the original's air. It somewhat compensates with greater detail, more precise transients and somewhat greater dynamics.

Here I think the Mobile Fidelity at 45rpm wins over the Rhino: dynamics are greater, the staging wider—in places almost 3D wraparound and the midrange manages more of the original's bloom—but on the downside I found the bass, especially on side 1, cranked up a bit too much for a full range system. Picky, picky, picky. So I'd say if you have a clean original (good luck), you're all set and if not I'd get the Mobile-Fidelity. On the other hand if you have the Rhino, unless this is your absolute all time favorite, you're really good to go.

American Beauty

Recorded at Wally Heider's in the summer of 1970 just a few months after Workingman's Dead release, American Beauty doubled down on the previous album with more assertive bass lines, even greater instrumental precision and an overall drive that was more reminiscent of the group's earliest releases but without losing the tuneful accessibility.

The record is worth owning just for the mystical, meditative "Box of Rain", the song that first popped into my mind upon hearing of Jerry Garcia's passing but the rest of the record is equally worthwhile musically and lyrically. And again the CS&N influence is unmistakable. And yet again the cover art plays tricks with your mind. "American Beauty" is a rose variety and there's a rose on the cover but "Beauty" can also be read as "Reality".

Stephen Barncard replaces Bob Matthews as co-producer with the band and he engineers at Heider's, which produces a more closely miked and distinctly imaged production with greater bass weight, definition and extension. Workingman's Dead somewhat mellow sound gives way to greater overall sonic precision, sharper transients, wider dynamics and a top end that can slice a bit particularly on sibilants. This is true on the original as well as on all of the reissues but the overall effect produces a floating 3D Jerry Garcia projecting into your listening space that's life-like.

I compared the original WB keystone green label release (WB 1893) mastered at Artisan Sound (no individual credited on the lead out groove area) with the '70's era Mobile Fidelity reissue pressed on JVC "Super vinyl in Japan (MFSL 1-014) and with Chris Bellman's Rhino cut as well as with Krieg Wunderlich's double 45 cut for Mobile Fidelity (MFSL 2-429).

Again, the original Artisan Sound cut is damn good but it’s dynamically somewhat compressed. The original Mobile Fidelity reissue is much better. It’s easily one of the greats from the original Mobile Fidelity regime with greater dynamic range, transient precision, overall detail and especially three-dimensionality. The better my stereo gets the better that edition sounds.

Chris Bellman’s cut for Rhino splits the difference between the original pressing and the original Mobile Fidelity reissue in the best sense of the phrase. The CB reissue has greater dynamics than the original and greater transient precision as well but its tonal balance is more reminiscent of the original’s while the original Mo-Fi is slightly hyped on top but not to the same degree as some of the original Mo-Fi’s more grotesque top end cuts (like The Beatles box set).

The CB cut has good kick drum definition and textures as well as overall bottom end definition and dynamics—bettering both the original and original Mo-Fi reissue. CB’s cut has more precise high frequency transients as well (listen carefully to the cymbal work on “Friend of the Devil” for instance) compared to both the original and the original Mo-Fi, which is somewhat surprising given the tape’s current age and the ½ speed mastering process’s advantages in the high frequencies.

The new KW double 45 cut takes things to the max: maximum dynamic range and high frequency extension rivaling the previous Mo-Fi plus low-level detail resolution that’s extraordinary. The price paid though is a slight bit of vocal harshness that can become distracting and even painful on vocal sibilants especially if you play at high SPLs.

So here, of the two recent reissues, overall I prefer Chris Bellman’s cut on my stereo. You may come to a different conclusion on yours.

To sum up: green label originals of both albums are really good and if you’ve got clean copies, unless you are total Dead devotees, you’re set. Of the two Workingman’s Dead reissues, I prefer Mo-Fi’s double 45 to the Rhino 33, but for American Beauty, I’d give up some of what the double 45 maximizes for the easier on the ears Chris Bellman cut. Again, while I think your reaction to hearing these records on my system would be identical to mine, you may come to different conclusions on yours.

The bottom line is: we are so lucky in 2015 to have two great AAA reissues from which to choose, not to mention easy Internet access to original pressings. BTW: I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these records again and again and again.


"Sugary" by Jerry Gorilla and the Eternally Dead

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Dpoggenburg's picture

First, though I've said it before in past communications, I am such a fan of your work and THANK YOU for being such a great resource and so entertaining. This latest piece on the Dead is a great example why I visit your site daily (and usually more than once a day).
So, the piece also raises a question I've been meaning to pose to you: Have you considered creating an "Ask Mikey" section where a) users can send you questions (rather than trying to ask you something through these posts, as I'm doing right now), and b) you pick questions you feel like responding to, such as "Which American Beauty would you recommend?"
I'm sure you're drowning just trying to keep up with this new golden age of vinyl, but as a trusted resource I think "Ask Mikey" would certainly be a much-appreciated feature. Thanks again!

Michael Fremer's picture

If you look under "Blogs" at the top of the home page you will see "Ask Mikey". The best way to get an answer there is to ask the question in an email to

Joe Crowe's picture

Always loved the Dead for their music long before I had hardware up to the task of presenting the sonic splendor of those recordings. Would love you to do a quick and dirty comparison of your favorite AAA to the 96 and 192 KHz downloads that are currently available. Just for the fun of it.

Michael Fremer's picture

I have the DVD-A of "American Beauty" and I believe the download is from that file. Whoever mastered it plastered it with so much low end energy it sounds cartoonish.

SimonH's picture

Read an article last week - on a site not unlike this in design - on the creation of the recent Hi-Rez downloads of Dead studio LP's - shows Master Tape Boxes etc and they are diffeent from the DVD-A remix M Hart did.

faskenite's picture

Michael, thanks for this very thoughtful post on these two great records. As you will know for sure, there is a wide world of Dead stuff out there beyond these core releases. There is both light and darkness when the band gets past the mid 70s but the recent Spring 1990 TOO box set really is very nice. The performances are strong (Garcia's health being on a relative upswing at the time) and the sonics are quite good for CD - mixed from multitrack recordings, unlike the earlier Spring 1990 box. One of the best shows has also been released separately. On the analog front, and returning to the early Seventies, MFSL has done a very nice job on the 2LP live "Grateful Dead" (aka Skull etc.). It would make a nice electric complement to the two essential studio albums you have discussed.

Michael Fremer's picture

I know. I need to review that one compared to original...just must find time..

JayTrez's picture

Are the GDP reissues at Acoustic Sounds the same as the Rhino reissues? There is no mention of AAA or Chris Bellman, which seems odd...?

zzcorey's picture

There is only one proper grateful dead system!!!


tubeular's picture

Please someone have a picture with the stacks of McIntosh amplifiers? Extra points for color so you can see the meters glowing . . .

SimonH's picture

Thanks Mikey - I really like the comparisons - with LP's I really like I find it hard to be critical if they are reasonably good ( I remender an evening years ago just after Rhino released AB and WD on 180gm "mastered by Capitol" - much easier when one is poor).

Pesonally I still struggle a bit with the Mo-Fi sound and often find BG/CB a bit too bass heavy, with less air and that only come to life at levels which get your neighbours annoyed.

Has anyone else tried the Future Days (LitA) Kevin Gray cut Grateful Dead 4lp "Two From The Vault" which came out last month? A fave early live lp - it is just I had a pressing issue on the "Dark Star" side, which has kindly been replaced, but with another copy that has the same issue but to a much lesser extent - a click for the first few minutes from what looks like white radial line diametrically opposite some of the dead wax scribing.

Bigrasshopper's picture

I have not tried that one, but the problem with white marks, I have been told, is due to records pressed from recycled vinyl. The white spots are embedded bits of the old label, apparently. Their is so much coming out from the Dead live as box sets that it's hard to keep track. The quality is all over the place. I tried Dicks Picks volume three from Brookvale Records because it claimed to be mastered from org. tape but the pressing quality was so bad and the recording quality so variable that I didn't find it worthwhile. Some live Dead sounds more dead than alive, but not having some live Dead sort of misses the point. I was with them in 83, under the stars unintentionally as an usher, and blown away more by the crowd than the music. The audience was alive and moving in ways that I had never seen people move. I was very impressed, and a little frightened. I couldn't actually relate. Were they more alive than me? Beyond that night, the live stuff is all new to me, I'm treading cautiously.
Micheal, if you want to venture further into "physchodelic" reviews you could try the recent Speakers Corner It's a Beautiful Day. But if if you haven't played your Dead in that long, you may not even own one. But then I found it to be very similar to a random copy I picked up, except that there seemed to be a very high frequency noise riding along with the music, I'm not sure, but something about that reissue was slightly irritating ?

coaster92's picture

Yea I thought the crowd was kind of funny too when I first saw the Grateful Dead at age 16 in the late 70's, I used that weeks collection money from my paper route to go to the show. It's true there is a huge amount of archival stuff released by the Grateful Dead and it can be daunting, and yes the audio quality varies widely. The dicks picks are not really going to perk up an audiophile, they are more for listeners to explore the archival performances and just be glad that they were recorded at all (it is interesting that the Dead placed great emphasis on recording and listening, something Owsley did with them early on, and a practice which they continued even after his departure...with the end result being the Dead are the most thouroughly documented rock band ever). If you want better sonics I recommend from the vault vol. 1. (I could do without the stuff from side 2 of "blues for allah", but this has a really nice Help on the way/slipnot jam/franklins tower. and a very good eyes of the world/stronger than dirt jam.) I'm one of those fans who felt the performance quality dropped off somewhere in the early 80's, and also was never a fond of the Deads foray into "MIDI" technology. There is much material from their later years in very audio good quality though, with the above commented on "spring '90" being one of them, I saw 3 of those concerts, and it was a renaisance of sorts, their last solid tour, if you can get past the "MIDI".

Miro Muzlai's picture

I have a Warner Bros. German pressing of Americam Beauty that has scribbled the following in the dead wax: 'U K STRAWBERRY ( G ) R/S Alsdorf 43074 B3'. I always thought it was a pretty good sounding record and have played it regularly since I got it. What do I have here? Thanks for everything .

Michael Fremer's picture
Studio owned by the members of 10CC or at least Godley/Creme. They were very sound conscious. Alsdorf is/was a German pressing plant.
Steelhead's picture

Love, love, love my original Mofi American Beauty. It has always been one of my very favorites. HAD to get the 45 rpm. Also love the mofi Santana abraxas and am eagerly awaiting the 45 version and will move it from the wishlist to the checkout box when it arrives at soundstagedirect. Great times to be able to get great artists and performances on great wax.

rakalm's picture

I have really been thinking about cleaning my original copy of Workingman's Dead for the past few weeks. I have a NM copy and just mounted my AT150MLX today on my VPI Traveler. So, that will be on the agenda tomorrow. I agree, those are the 2 to have. I don't have American Beauty (love Friend of the Devil), but I have a nice copy of Live in Europe 72 and a nearly unplayed Aoxomoxoa. Love the credit to Owsley as Consulting Engineer on that one. Will have to keep on the lookout for American Beauty.

Dpoggenburg's picture

See, I learn something every day! Thanks for the response and the roadmap. Another thought: your year end wrap up video in which you recommended some records that you hadn't had time to review was very effective. Might be a time efficient alternative for various aspects of the site, though MY first preference will always be thoughtfully written reviews. Thanks again!

SimonH's picture

I am sure someone can give you a definitive answer - but I recall the Strawberry stamp being common in the UK from the late '70's for a while for Warner Brothers records. I had assumed it related to Strawberry Studios that I thought was linked to 10cc. At the time I had the impression that they were not the best and eventually dumped mine for US copies - it is over 30 years ago and memory can be fickle. I think though the clincher was Little Feat's Waiting for Colombus - which I thought dire compared to the first Mo-Fi release - I saw the Feat at the Rainbow the night Mick Taylor joined them on stage - and the UK pressing just missed it completely - but then my system was my Dad's old Garrard 301 with and SME and probably a Shure M75???? Feeding and Armstrong amp and Celestion Bookshelf speakers bought frm the B&W shop!

Cassius's picture

My take on Strawberry, and most foreign presses that use a copy tape is that no matter how quiet the vinyl, or skilled the person who mastered it was, a dub is a dub and 99.9% of the time is never going to "best" the country of orgin 1st press that was cut from the master, or for the sake of tis discussion an audiophile reissue that uses the master.

Sometimes companies would use lacquers worldwide, but that's not what we are talking about here. For example a good amount of early 70s West German releases WB and Atlantic utilized US lacquers. In that case you may get a quieter surface with the original mastering. This also happened when big bands like the Stones and the Who started going with a big name/independent/ mastering facility (Artisan, TML etc) and supplied those stampers for the majority of the major Western countries. That said most of the time you get an international copy of a US artist or a band that recorded and/ or mastered their album in the US, copy tapes were used. Check the deadwax and compare to the country of origin 1st press to see if there is a match.

Lastly a well recorded album, as in the case of American Beauty, will take a lot of work to screw up even with a copy tape. In other words you can have a GREAT sounding foreign presses out there, but in most cases they will always be bested by the ones cut from the master tapes.

ActorCam's picture

Not sure if anyone's pointed this out yet, but "Aoxomoxoa" was their third album, fourth if you include their "Live/Dead" album.
The Grateful Dead (1967)
Anthem of the Sun (1968)
Live/Dead (1969)
Aoxomoxoa (1969)
American Beauty (1970)

"American Beauty" certainly was a dramatic and fruitful shift.

ActorCam's picture

I think it might have been "Workingman's Dead" THEN "American Beauty." Beautiful albums both.

john ryan horse's picture

In fact it goes
American Beauty

coaster92's picture

When I was first indoctrinated into the deads music and concerts the prevailing wisdom was that the studio records were hardly worth your time and the live concert albums or "tapes" were where it was at, and that is mostly true. As time went on I began to appreciate the studio work more. "Workingmans Dead" is easily my favorite studio record by the dead. American beauty is great too, but workingmans has zero weak songs and also what has to be pigpen's best studio performance. Both records are also ones where I think certain songs as they appear on those records are my favorite versions (preferred over live performance versions).
You did a good job covering the various issues and I think your verdict nails it- Workingman's Green is king. original MFSL American Beauty is a bit bright (but also has superb detail) but still really good in spite of that. You also made note of something that I notice on just about all present day 180g audiophile reissues as compared to earlier "regular" pressings, and that is the "upper frequency air and sense of "floatiness" managed by the original" is never matched by reissues (probably a result of magnetic tape losing the particles that contain that stuff). It is somewhat subtle, and may not be noticed or missed if one listens mainly to recent audiophile reissues, it's just that elusive air and an overall quality of naturalness that the workingmans green has- this is an amazing sounding record if you get a nice original, and on top of that has some of the deads best studio stuff. I'll be sticking with my green label workingmans and either MFSL american beauty of gree american beauty. Great review.

Jim D.'s picture

I have most of the studio album by the Dead, but I definitely prefer to hear live recordings. I think the recent releases from Record Store Day releases, Dicks Picks and the 1990 box sound wonderful. I don't have a real high end system, but there have been quite a few tracks which just awed me.

bobbmd's picture

have you ever listened to the dvd-audio recordings of these two albums-absolutely outstanding/stunning bobbmd

zzcorey's picture

After reading this article I bought both mofi's, great pressing quality and as for the more bass not everyones speakers can play the lowest note on a pipe organ michael ;)

jpvisual's picture

I picked up the MOFI 45 reissues, but I wish they put out the Dead's debut album.

The first album is by far my favorite Dead studio album. They had a great sound from 65-67, glaring psychedelic guitar, farfisa organ and a lot of blues singing Pigpen.

I have the Rhino reissue of the first album, but I would like one of these companies to put out the original MONO version...PLEASE.

jpvisual's picture

I have not heard the 33 version of these records, but the 45's are F'n amazing.

If you like The Dead, just get the 45 versions, you will be very happy.

vince's picture

Just listened to the 45RPM American Beauty. You're right about the sibilants, otherwise the thing sounds totally amazing! Detail, detail, detail. You can almost hear the shaggy hair! A great sit and listen album. Really glad I bought it. Likely to buy the 45 version of Working Man's Dead next.