The 1987 Grateful Dead album In the Dark got its name from a practical joke that percussionist Mickey Hart played on his colleagues during recording sessions. This album became unexpectedly popular because of the peppy ‘Touch of Grey’ which was the band’s only single to reach the top ten (and, for that matter, top 40) on the Billboard Hot 100. The video was played frequently on MTV along with ‘Hell in a Bucket’ and ‘Throwing Stones’ which helped the Grateful Dead get more rock radio airplay. The album reached the top ten of the Billboard 200 album charts, which was the highest ranking the Grateful Dead would ever have. The band had been playing most of these songs live for a while, so they already knew what they were doing with them and this gave them time to spare on the record. The Grateful Dead decided to experiment and they literally fumbled around in the dark, hoping to stumble into happy accidents. Mickey decided it would be a fun exercise to turn off the lights in the middle of a jam, which made things incredibly weird. This experiment didn’t work, but it gave them the idea for the album title.
They set up onstage like they would normally do if they were going to play a concert, but this was a serious recording, for their first LP in six years. The band members were actually were looking at each other, but there was no audience. Mickey came up with the idea to turn the lights off, so he told his equipment guy, “On my signal, turn the lights off.” Mickey didn’t let anybody else know about this prank, and when the signal was given, the guitarists couldn’t see their fretboards and the drummers couldn’t see their cymbals or drums, and it became chaos out there. They were playing a song, and it got dangerous, because nobody was able to see what they were doing, but then everyone started laughing really hard. When Mickey signaled ‘em to turn the electricity back on, they all stopped and looked at each other laughing their brains out. Mickey said, ‘Yeah, it’s great to be playing music in the dark.”
The Grateful Dead decided to record the baseline tracks for the album in a darkened theater that was empty (no audience), on a stage with the same lighting as they would use on tour (just to have the band perform in a more comfortable, familiar setting). The idea was to capture the “feel” they had for the songs as if they were playing them to a live audience. This idea was inspired by the video shoot that ended up becoming So Far, a music documentary video that was intended to give a subjective view of the Grateful Dead experience. Garcia said that Marin Vets the place where they recorded, turned out to be an incredibly nice room to record in. There was something about the formal atmosphere in there that made them work, instead of just hanging out like they did on many other recording sessions. Not having an audience and playing just to themselves was an experiment that actually worked for them.
Written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Tale Weaver – In the dark – hosted by Stephanie Colpron of Word Adventures.