The Grateful Dead and "Unbroken Chain". The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Several versions of this classic Grateful Dead tune

 "Unbroken Chain" was possibly one of the most difficult pieces of work the Grateful Dead ever recorded and played live. Here are a few versions and some thoughts on this classic piece.


handwritten copy of the lyrics with Jerry's written chord changes


Phil Lesh and Bobby Peterson wrote this masterpiece. Phil, the music and Bobby, the lyrics. They also collaborated on "New Potato Caboose" so Lesh/Peterson has a pretty good batting average. I even like "Pride of Cucomonga".  The song lyrically holds together through the repeated use of the chain imagery. When you consider life as a chain of events, the song moves through different combinations of unbroken chains that come together like carbon pressing together to form a diamond. 

On Lesh's side, he really let his classical training show on this song. Being the only classically trained musician, besides Mickey Hart, in the Grateful Dead he also had perfect pitch. The song changes time signatures several times and has some unusual chord changes thrown in that make the fact they broke it out in 1995 all the more surprising. I still think the best Grateful Dead version of the song was the album version. There aren't a lot of songs you can say that about in the canon. This song is probably the most complex next to "Slipknot!" as "Help on the Way" and "Franklin's Tower" are pretty easy to play. I'm not saying there aren't complex jams but nothing like on the order of Phish compositions and they usually developed organically on stage live. This song is unique because it was written to be complex. The finished product is beautiful and to be honest, the best live versions of "Unbroken Chain" came after Jerry passed away. Phil & Friends played many great versions of this tune with everyone from Kimock to Warren Haynes and Trey Anastasio handling the guitar parts. 

There were always tour legends that went around the lot and one of them was when the band was going to quit they were going to bust out "Unbroken Chain" and this was years before it finally was played. When I saw it on the setlists while reading Dupree's Diamond News or Relix when I was in ninth or tenth grade, I remember hearing/reading about that little nugget of lore.

First my favorite live version out of the ten was the Charlotte version with Hornsby on piano. However, there isn't a single, isolated video version, just the whole Charlotte Show on YouTube so here is the archive.org link. It was a pretty good show for 95 and the Chain opened the second set.

Next up is, in my opinion, one of the best songs they ever put down on vinyl. That's the one from the album"From the Mars Hotel" in 1974. And between this song and "Pride of Cucomonga" these would be Phil's last lead vocals for 10 years.
Fun fact: British Prime Minister Tony Blair named his band "Ugly Rumours" because if you turn the original album upside down, the psychedelic letters seemed to spell those words. Coincidentally, American Beauty, turned upside down read, "American Reality". Just fun factoids.

Now for my favorite post-Jerry version, Phil and "Phriends". The shows in which he played with Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell at the Warfield. 

Phil and Phriends on 4/16/99

Now for an interesting little nugget here is the song's acoustic demo. This has been in circulation for a long time but I don't know if it's Phil playing guitar or not. I assume it is since it lacks Jerry's flair and Bobby's quirks and plus it was PHIL'S SONG.

It's awesome because since you get to hear Phil's commentary on the chord changes and it's getting a little peak around the curtain. Once again making it mindbending that they didn't play it until 1995. SInce it was in the catalog in 74, why wait so long to bust it out? Especially since Jerry was on the verge of death. Maybe it was Phil's attempt to take some strain of off Jerry and try to keep the ship afloat or maybe it was a coincidence. Who knows but the band but imagine Brent on this or the GD playing it in 1974 or 1977?  * Kevin Note
I was at the Philly show and they played it for Phil's Mom who was in attendance. 

Written by: Greg Heffelfinger





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