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'In the Dark' at 35: When the Grateful Dead went mainstream

The 1980s were a mess of contradictions for the Grateful Dead. The original idyllic hippie lifestyle that originally followed the band was dead, but a new alternate stream of true believers began tuning out from consumerism-heavy reality and started following the band full time. The Dead didn’t release a studio album for seven years, and yet their audiences grew exponentially over that same period of time. The band had access to everything from professional doctors to spiritual healers, but Jerry Garcia‘s health was taking a noticeable turn. It was the best and worst of times for the Dead.

Then, in July of 1986, Garcia fell into a diabetic coma. The fate of America’s favourite jam band was now precarious, and when Garcia finally awoke, he had to relearn everything from walking to playing the guitar. He also brought rejuvenation to the band: the Dead were always surrounded by death, but it had never seriously affected the group’s existence up to this point. It became clear after Garcia’s coma that it was time to embrace living in the moment.

With that philosophy in mind, the Dead entered the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium for just one week in January of 1987. With a half-decade of new material continuing to filter into the band’s live shows, the Dead decided to counter their notorious lack of comfort within the recording studio by making an album completely outside of a studio. Instead, the stage of the Marin Vet was miked and arranged to replicate the band’s live shows.

The basic tracks for what would become the Grateful Dead’s 12th studio album, In the Dark, came out surprisingly poppy. Keyboardist Brent Mydland had incorporated a new array of synthesisers into his setup, while drummer Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann embraced the reverb-heavy drum sound of the time. Even with this fresh sonic coat of paint, In the Dark was still psychedelic. Now bolstered with three confident singer-songwriters, the Dead were more multi-faceted than ever before.

Garcia renewed his creative partnership with lyricist Robert Hunter, providing four of the album’s seven tracks. The gentle shuffle of ‘When Push Comes to Shove’ rubbed up against the sleazy strut of ‘West L.A. Fadeaway’, and when it came time for the LP’s emotional finale, Garcia belted out one of his most impassioned vocal performances on record with ‘Black Muddy River’.

Guitarist Bob Weir and lyricist John Perry Barlow were more pointed in their contributions. ‘Hell in a Bucket’ was only a few ticks away from being a Huey Lewis and the News pastiche, complete with some flippant observations about love and downward spirals. The pair got more serious on the apocalyptic ‘Throwing Stones’, the rare political Grateful Dead song that took a hard-line approach to war, nature, and preservation of life.

For his part, Mydland contributed the train song ‘Tons of Steel’. It would still be another two years before Mydland would come into his own as an equal contributor to the Dead, providing four songs for the band’s final LP Built to Last. Just as had happened with previous keyboardist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, Mydland’s increased songwriting boost would coincide with his tragic early death, leaving him just a few contributions to the large tapestry of Grateful Dead classics.

All of these songs were perfectly fine, but none of them were especially different from the hundreds of songs that could be heard at any Dead show throughout the 1980s. Nothing had properly propelled the band into the mainstream of music in their first 20 years, and the Dead seemed like relics of a different time during the MTV-focused scene of the 1980s. But the Dead had an ace up their sleeve.

As early as 1982, fans began hearing a new song slowly make its way into the Dead’s live repertoire. It was poppy, optimistic, and surprisingly catchy. Featuring a sing-along chorus and one of the band’s tightest grooves, the song instantly became a favourite, then a standard, of the Dead’s setlists. When it came time to record a new album, there was never any doubt what the first track and leadoff single was going to be: ‘Touch of Grey’ stood alone at the top of the list.

But ‘Touch of Grey’ also saw the band acquiesce to the format that they had resisted for years: music videos. Suspicious of the flash and pomp of MTV, the Dead took the same approach to shooting a video as they did to recording In the Dark – replicate the live experience as much as possible. That’s where the magic was, so why mess with it?

That’s how, after a concert at the Laguna Seca Recreation Area in Monterey, California on May 9th, 1987, the Dead invited their fans to stay after the show and take part in the video shoot for ‘Touch of Grey’. The only difference from a regular Dead set was that the band were replaced by macabre skeletons that replicated each member’s unique look. Less than a year after Garcia almost shuffled off the mortal coil, here he was as a literal member of the Dead.

Although a number of songs from the band had been baked into the fabric of pop culture during their first two decades, ‘Touch of Grey’ represented something new – a true-blue pop single. Complete with a video that could play to the MTV crowd without betraying the signature style of the Dead, there was a feeling around In the Dark that had never followed the Grateful Dead before: a feeling of mainstream acceptance.

When the wave hit, it hit big. In the Dark reached number six on the Billboard 200 and went multiplatinum. That was largely thanks to the success of the ‘Touch of Grey’ single, which reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. Together, the song and the album represent the apex of the Grateful Dead’s commercial success, 22 years after playing their first show together.

The achievements of In the Dark proved to be a mixed blessing for the Dead. With mainstream popularity came an increased focus on the band and their community of Deadheads, most of which had been viewed as hippie burnouts by the general public throughout the ’80s. With the Dead suddenly en vogue, hordes of curious onlookers arrived at Dead shows to find a massive party. Soon, the scores of people outside the shows began outnumbering those inside, with gate-crashing, drug overdoses, and even riots following the Dead wherever they went. Everyone wanted to get on the bus, even if the unique trip of the Dead wasn’t made for everyone.

Although it would have a detrimental effect on the band, In the Dark‘s success was the moment that the Grateful Dead and their cult went mainstream. Being a Deadhead wasn’t countercultural anymore – it was a part of the culture. Perhaps that ultimately spelt the end of the band, which would limp along for another eight years until Garcia’s death in 1995, but the excitement and energy that surrounded In the Dark was undeniable. Nothing was ever straightforward with the Grateful Dead, not even a long-delayed acceptance into the mainstream.