MTV (Music Television) was born 30 years ago, just around the time that I began to understand the concept of popular music.
As a tween, I began to religiously listen to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 every Sunday morning from 9am to 1pm.
This music education curriculum left me with a pretty limited purview of the musical galaxy. It would be quite a while before I realized that Albert Einstein was not just a great scientist but a wise philosopher when said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count, everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
Prior to that epiphany, I figured that every song reached the Top 40. I didn’t think that it was possible for a song to be so unpopular not to. (And, of course, I figured that popular and “good” were directly related.)
When I was a kid, MTV would occasionally play what it called “Closet Classics.” These videos were usually black and white (but sometimes color) clips of bands performing a song. It was from one of these that I first heard and saw a band called The Grateful Dead.
I felt like I had heard the name of the band before, and had some sense that the band was really popular. But when I looked up the band in a book that my brother had, I learned that it had never had a Top 10 hit and that its albums usually sold a mere 100 or 200,000 copies.
“What?!” I thought. How is it that such a popular band had never had any songs that were “good” enough to reach the Top 10? And how sad is it that the The Grateful Dead had never had a Gold (500,000 sales) or Platinum (1,000,000 sales) album?
I would later learn that the Dead was a very popular concert attraction, but this only deepened the mystery. Why would so many people go so see a band whose songs were not Casey’s Top 40 caliber?
Anyway, The Grateful Dead finally recorded a song in 1987 that was good enough to not only reach the Top 40, but the Top 10 (“Touch of Grey”). This week in that year, the band also entered the Top 10 of the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart with a record called In The Dark.
It turns out that the week of August 8, 1987, was a good week for several artists to have their first Top 10 album.
Slippery When Wet, the third album by a band from New Jersey called Bon Jovi was at #10. It had previously spent seven straight weeks at #1 in January and February, and an a single week there the previous October. Other hair-metal bands who were in the Top 10 for the first time were Motley Crue with Girls, Girls, Girls (#6) and the British band Whitesnake, whose eponymous album was #2. (The latter band had been around since 1977.)
The #6 album twenty-four years ago was the sixth album by an Irish band called U2. The Joshua Tree had reached #1 five months earlier. Six of the band’s seven subsequent releases of new material would also top the chart. This massive success eventually made U2′s lead singer, Paul Hewson, think that he could save the world.
The other Top 10 first-timers were later Guiness record holder Kenny G[orelick], whose Duotones was #7, and LL Cool J, who was at #5 with Bigger and Deffer. The remainder of the Top 10 included the soundtrack to the movie Beverly Hills Cop II (#8), Bad Animals by the female-Led Zeppelin-turned mushy Adult Contemporary-superstars Heart (#2), and Whitney, by the future Mrs. Bobby Brown (#1).
Back to the land of the Dead. In The Dark was the band’s first album since 1980′s fan- and critic-panned Go To Heaven, the cover of which had the members of the Dead decked out Bee Gees-like atire.
Maybe their feelings were hurt by the adverse response, causing them to not record any new material for the next seven years.
As “Touch of Grey” reached the Top 40, I remember learning from Casey Kasem that the only other song that Jerry Garcia and co. had on the singles chart was the classic “Truckin’.” He said that it topped off at #64 in 1971. Therefore, even though I hadn’t heard it, I assumed that it must have been a very bad song. It’s actually pretty good, if you like that sort of thing.
In The Dark was obviously quite a comeback (it reached #6), but to Deadheads, The Grateful Dead was never gone as long as they were touring, and they pretty much always were. In 1987, a tour with rock ‘n roll’s poet laureate called Dylan & The Dead included a stop at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro(ugh), Mass. (You get three guesses at what it is called now.)
To date, In The Dark has sold more than two million copies, which ties it with 1970′s American Beauty--on which “Truckin’” originally appeared--as The Dead’s biggest-selling studio album. The band’s best-selling album overall is the greatest hits collection Skeletons From the Closet, which has sold three million copies, most of which non-Deadheads probably purchased in order to have a bit of cred among rock’s most devoted folowers. Among those devoted followers specifically, the most popular album is probably the double platinum two-disc live album Europe ’72.
Jerry Garcia, who was more or less the face of The Grateful Dead, died on August 9, 1995, a mere 53 years of age. Nowadays, Deadheads get their fix from Furthur, the band that Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir formed in 2009.