What Were Grateful Dead’s Biggest Hits?

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Song: Touch of Grey

Artist: Grateful Dead

Writers: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter

Album: Into the Dark

Label: Arista

Grateful Dead may be the most well-known failure in the music business. That is, if you measure success by top 40 hits, which the band obviously never did. But, I think it’s safe to say that most people assume that they have, of course, had a number of hit songs. After all, they made more albums than you’d want to count and they churned out endless songs. The answer is yes and no. They’ve had more hits than most sources report. The fact is, though, they only ever had one top 40 hit on the main charts, Touch of Grey in 1987.

 

Touch of Grey was included on the Dead’s 1987 album In the Dark. It reached no. 9 on the Hot 100 in September 1987, spending 15 weeks on the chart. It also reached no. 1 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

If you consider a hit song to be any song that breaches the top 100, then the band technically had five other hits:

  • Uncle John’s Band: 1970, no. 69
  • Truckin: 1971, no. 64
  • Sugar Magnolia: 1973, no. 91
  • The Music Never Stopped: 1975, no. 81
  • Alabama Getaway: 1980, no. 68

I often use the Hot 100 as just a quick way of pinning down a hit song or a list of hit songs. But this chart, of course, has acts like Grateful Dead competing with any kind of pop, rock, etc. song. There are, of course, more specific charts to look at. As above, Touch of Grey made it to no. 1 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart. Sticking to the top 40, they also had more radio hits on this chart:

  • Dire Wolf: 1981, no. 37
  • Hell in a Bucket: 1987, no. 3 (Into the Dark)
  • West LA Fadeaway: 1987, no. 40 (Into the Dark)
  • Throwing Stones (Ashes Ashes): 1988, no. 15 (Into the Dark)
  • Foolish Heart: 1989, no. 8

And also Top 100:

  • Ripple: 1981, no. 50
  • When Push Comes to Shove: 1987, no. 45 (Into the Dark)
  • Just a Little Light: 1990, no. 41

I’ve noted that four of these songs were from the Into the Dark album, along with Touch of Grey. So, while Touch of Grey was the biggest mainstream hit the band ever had, it wasn’t exactly an anomaly at the time. Into the Dark, in1987, was their first studio album in six years (the twelfth album in all) and it became quite unexpectedly popular! It was certified double platinum and the album as a whole reached no. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart. The band even made videos for a number of the songs, ostensibly because ‘their record label forced them to.’

So why didn’t Grateful Dead have more hits? It would be difficult to absolutely pin down the reason, as musical tastes at different times can be so fickle. They played a lot of songs, at least 500, but many of them, the great majority really, were covers. The band never cared about the two main ingredients of successful pop (or rock) music: structure and hooks.

A recognizable and dependable structure helps keep a listener grounded. People expect music to repeat in recognizable ways. This has nothing to do with pop, no matter what anyone tells you. And they want at least one catchy hook they can hand their hat on and, most likely sing along to, even if they don’t’ know the lyrics.

Grateful Dead was ‘dead-set’ on doing the opposite. They eschewed structure and couldn’t care less about hooks. They played endless meandering trippy jams. While this appealed to the adoring Dead Heads, their core fans, it would never equal mainstream success. I have to wonder if they were as surprised as anyone else when a song made it up the charts.

Another factor may have been the amount of time that they worked on songs. They were a band on the run while churning out songs and albums all along the way. Most of their songs were probably worked out live, some of them never quite perfected, and thrown on an album. They had a good four to five years to play, and perfect, the songs on Into the Dark. They spent more time in the studio, as well, analyzing and perfecting the tracks. This was something they always could have done, and it may have made a difference in their overall commercial success, without the band actually having to compromise in their core philosophy.

Touch of Grey was just about the only Grateful Dead song you could surmise to be intentionally commercial, whether or not it actually was. It had straightforward pop instrumentation, a simple structure, a good melody, and an infectious hook, especially for the familiar lyrics “I will get by, I will survive.”

What About Casey Jones?

But wait, you say, what about Casey Jones? Surely it’s one of their most recognizable songs – drivin that train, high on cocaine – and it still gets played on the radio. It must have charted. Well, Casey Jones, from 1970, was never released as a single, and never actually charted. Although it did get plenty of airplay on FM rock stations, it was stymied by the reference to cocaine. It is certainly one of their most well-known songs and one of the very few that continues to get regular air-play. The album it was released on, Workingman’s Dead reached no. 27 on the Billboard 200 (albums chart). It was also the band’s first album to sell one million copies or more. Uncle John’s Band, listed above, was also from this album, reaching no. 69 on the Top 100.

If you listen to the other hits on the list, you may find that this short list also shows how impossible the band was to pin down. You never even knew what they would play during any live show. And, well, not being able to pin down a group or a musician is not usually a good thing in terms of hitmaking or commercial success.

Look at Alannah Miles of Black Velvet fame. You probably remember that country-fried blues-rock ode to Elvis and Nashville that became such a huge hit for her..black velvet and that little boy’s smile…What you may not realize is that there was no other song on the album that had anything to do with that sort of music. And, in fact, she has no other song anything like it. She is and was all over the place. Here she’s Joan Jet, there she’s Stevie Nicks, etc.

But at least all of her songs are highly structured and many of them could have been a hit in their own right, perhaps if she had found a direction to stick with. The Grateful Dead was about improvisational jamming. No two shows were ever alike. Even their songs were crafted to go off in any direction. If you like listening to random improvisations for ten minutes before a song finds its way back to the chorus, you would have made a great Dead Head.

But don’t get me wrong. Alanah Myles sold millions of records. She’s done just fine for herself. And so did Grateful Dead. In fact, they have sold at least 35 million of them. They even broke a record.

Grateful Dead got in the Guinness Book of World Records for releasing the most full-length albums: 167. That’s a lot, especially for a bunch of hippies that never really even tried to find commercial success. As much as they were a live jam band, they could get it done in the studio. And it’s kind of amazing when you think about it. They are what is known as having a cult following. But this is not really true, is it? They are a household name, along with their founder Jerry Garcia. You may even eat his ice cream. Lots of people claim to be Grateful Dead fans even when they are not true fans, simply because the band garnered so much respect that any ‘true’ music fan feels obliged to like them.

Grateful Dead did just what they wanted to do. They never failed by any means. I never was a big fan of their music, personally, but I have deep respect for anyone who can just keep on doing what they love for so long and for tour after tour, despite such a lack of what most people consider success.

Listen to Touch of Grey by Grateful Dead

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