After the release of the 1980 album Go to Heaven, the Grateful Dead had fulfilled their contract stipulations with Arista Records. This allowed the band to get out of the studio and focus on their real interests, touring arenas and releasing live albums. The Grateful Dead would spend the next six years of their career doing just that. However as the band continued to exist in their bubble, the music industry around them began to change. By the time the band got back into the studio in 1986, the industry was almost entirely different.
In 1980, the best selling album of the year was Pink Floyd’s The Wall. However by 1986, the popular rock music genre had transitioned into hair metal and the best selling album of that year was Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut album. One of the biggest changes in the music industry had come just a year after the release of Go to Heaven, when Viacom launched a television channel devoted to showing music videos. This channel, MTV, became the most influential way of reaching a new generation of music fans. The radio single became second fiddle to the music video and by 1986, VJ’s were the tastemakers and the music video was king.
All the while the Grateful Dead’s fanbase was growing show by show, but performing for ever growing crowds had come with its own issues. By 1983 the toll of long tours, heavy cigarette smoking, unhealthy eating, and opiate addiction was manifesting in Jerry Garcia. His performance on stage lost its life, with all his energy going towards playing his guitar. In 1985 the band held an unsuccessful intervention due of his heroin use and soon after he was arrested in Golden Gate Park for possession. Garcia spent a considerable amount of 1986 clean before relapsing. This time he fell into a diabetic coma for five days, coming out with a new lease on life. Within a few months Garcia had rehabilitated and was back to playing on stage.
The Grateful Dead decided to re-enter the studio to produce an album of new songs they had been playing for the last few years. They tried a new approach this time, recording all together in a dark theater to recreate the feeling of hearing the songs live. This approach, in conjunction with songs that had years of perfecting, would lead to an album of seven solid tracks. The album, In the Dark, would become the band’s best selling studio album, as well as, their highest charting.
The first side of In the Dark immediately starts off with the band’s hit single, “Touch of Grey.” The Garcia/Hunter track enjoyed mainstream success thanks in part to a frequently played music video on MTV. The track is a welcoming one for the new album, inviting new listeners. Garcia’s voice now sounds deeper and his aging and declining health is taking a sonic toll. However, the song still has great percussion from Mickey Hart and nice harmonies from the group of middle-aged rockers. The album transitions into “Hell in a Bucket,” another single which featured MTV play. The track penned by John Perry Barlow with music by Bob Weir and Brent Mydland is a heavy rocker. Weir delivers some powerful vocals tinged with comedy. The lyrics are about a guy who’s aware of his eventual demise, but is going to enjoy the long way down. The song drums up images of bikers and circuses and includes the sound effects for it in the background.
The band then slows things down on the track, “When Push Comes to Shove.” The slowed down blues rock song features Hunter using the famous idiom in a catchy way. The real standout on the track is keyboardist Brent Mydland, whose piano playing pulls the emotion out of the track. Side one winds down with another Garcia/Hunter track, “West LA Fadeaway.” The melody is right out of the Garcia playbook, but brought up to date with some synth playing from Mydland. These synths, along with the pitched up background vocals and rattle effects, feel incredibly dated compared to modern music.
The other side of the record starts off with the Brent Mydland track, “Tons of Steel.” Mydland’s only lead vocal on the album is strong, utilizing his emotional and gruff voice. The lyrics, which compare a woman and a train, are fairly cheesy, but feel much more meaningful because of Mydland’s vocal prowess. Again though, Mydland plays with a overly-’80s synthesizer which only dates the song. The next track, “Throwing Stones,” is a Barlow/Weir composition that sounds pulled out of the group’s ‘70s discography. With an opening riff that sounds similar to “Terrapin Station” and an “Althea”-like progression, Garcia gives the song and instant Dead quality. Barlow’s political lyricism echoes the maturity, which in tandem with the nursery rhyme “Ashes to Ashes” in the chorus, make the tune smart and entertaining.
The group wrap up the album on “Black Muddy River.” The nostalgic folk song feels like “Ripple” or “Brokedown Palace”. The track’s lyrics ring with the maturity of a middle-aged man realizing they are halfway through their life. The track is a perfect ender for the album, and is especially fitting that it was the second to last song played at the Dead’s final concert. On the tape release of In the Dark, there was one more song, “My Brother Esau”, which appeared after “Black Muddy River.” This Barlow/Weir composition was ultimately omitted from the Vinyl and CD releases, as well as, the digital edition to this day.
In the Dark is the natural progression of the Grateful Dead after over twenty years together. They never get too into the jams and produce a short album with all radiolength songs. The experience of studio hiatus, newfound energy, and a fresh approach in the studio was the perfect synergy to create an album that would find success. In the Dark’s success can be attributed to many factors, but timing might be the ultimate reason. Looking back at 1986-1989 many artists who came to fame in the 60’s had regained success, Paul Simon with “You Can Call Me Al,” The Beach Boys with “Kokomo,” George Harrison with “Got My Mind Set On You,” and Steve Winwood with “Roll With It,” just to name a few. All these artists had well over twenty years in the industry under the belts and were still charting in the Top Ten.
With a music video on MTV, “Touch of Grey” became a huge hit. This hit song led to In the Dark peaking on the Billboard chart at #6 best selling album of the week. After 22 years of existing in the counterculture the band was finally mainstream in their middle age. The success of In the Dark also gave birth to a new generation of fans dubbed Touchheads. These new Deadheads began to flood the live shows for the band. The Grateful Dead were now attracting more people to their concerts that could fit in the arenas and soon had more people outside of the venue than in. The Dead were bigger and more mainstream than ever, but the band had now become the group they never strived to be.