What makes a "great" band? Is it the number of Top 20 hits they produce? The number of albums they sell? Their ability to pack the largest venues around with adoring fans? Perhaps it's the X-Factor, that indescribable "thing" that causes followers to love them, invest in their merchandise, and pay homage to them, even years after the shows cease. > Read more
With just a single entry in the Billboard Top 40 in over three decades of music production ("Touch of Grey" from In the Dark, which came in at #1 in 1987), the Grateful Dead probably wouldn't make a whole lot of "best" lists. However, they do have an entry in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress (a live concert on May 8, 1977 at Cornell University's Barton Hall, chosen primarily for the quality of the recording as opposed to the excellence of that particular performance). Add that to 35 million (official) record sales, 2,318 live concerts, a #57 ranking in "The Greatest Artists of All Time" by Rolling Stone magazine, and their 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Grateful Dead suddenly seems more worthy of "great band" status.
Love 'Em or Hate 'Em, the Dead are Staying Alive
Jerry Garcia, reluctant Dead frontman and late legendary "voice of the Dead," was quoted in The New Yorker, putting it this way: ?Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.
All told, there are probably more copies of Grateful Dead music being circulated than any other single recording act ever. That's largely due to the band's (usual) willingness to allow fans to record their live concerts, plus the work of Betty Cantor-Jackson, the recording engineer who toured with the Dead, recording all of their live performances for years. Dubbed "Betty Boards," these recordings were hidden for years following a money dispute between Betty and the Dead.
But something that coveted can't stay hidden forever. The missing Betty Boards were eventually auctioned off to fans and collectors, and almost all of the recordings are now available readily from any dedicated Dead Head you happen to know. Regarding the live concert tapings by fans, Garcia quipped, "Once we?re done with it, the audience can have it. Their only request was that fans share it instead of selling it for a profit. Their anti-Capitalistic hippy followers were only too happy to oblige.
About 2,000 recordings of those 2,318 live concerts are still in circulation. Though the band didn't officially "break up," for all intents and purposes, the death of Garcia in 1995 ended any real participation of the band in the world of music, unless you count the reincarnation as Dead and Company in 2017 -- a touring band featuring three original members of the Grateful Dead with John Mayer as frontman.
The Dead Legacy
Just as hotly debated as when the Dead officially ended is the question: "Which era of Grateful Dead music was the best?" Like most bands with that kind of longevity, their music followed a distinctive pattern of changes from decade to decade. Sometimes their music was polished and seemed deliberately composed. Other times, it was so improvised as to seem completely random and even difficult to follow.
The Dead borrowed from an incredibly diverse range of music, somehow seeming to recreate each genre into something it wasn't before. Jazz, gospel, soul music, Motown and funk, bluegrass and fusion, folk music, psychedelic, experimental, reggae, and space rock all made appearances in Grateful Dead albums and live performances. Sometimes the music was clean and fresh, other times it was rough and dirty. Sometimes it was both -- in the same song during the same performance.
Crowned "The Pioneering Godfathers of the Jam Band World," the Grateful Dead, unlike most bands with that kind of longstanding career, are more known and remembered for their live concerts than for their album production. Sure, they made some studio albums, but those were insignificant compared to their live work, marked by their insistence on "noodling," which is an ill-defined form of improvisation they indulged in regularly. The noodling sometimes went on longer than the actual song they were theoretically performing, up to and sometimes over 40 minutes in a stretch.
Staff writer for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten, wrote that Grateful Dead music was often, "... self-indulgent, and yet, to some ears, harmonically shallow. They played one- and two-chord jams that went on for twenty or thirty minutes." You either liked it, or you didn't. There isn't much room for in-between. Another distinct feature of the Dead that sets them apart from their contemporaries is the tendency to judge the band more on its fans than on its actual musical achievements.
Dead Heads are noted for their heavy indulgence in drug culture, their hippie-esque lifestyle (whether real or just borrowed.
Born of the counterculture of the 60's, the Grateful Dead spoke to generation after generation of music lovers. Though their music was distinctly non-political, they resonated strongly with the peace-lovers and rights-marchers of the 1970's, the headbangers of the 80's, and even the grunge and hip-hoppers of the 90's. Ironically, the band nor their music fit neatly into any of these categories.
You can date a Dead Head with pinpoint accuracy just by asking which decade of Grateful Dead they most enjoy. So, what's your favorite part of being Dead? > Less