Grateful Dead “From The Mars Hotel”

From The Mars Hotel

For some reason I came late to the Grateful Dead. A perceptive workmate introduced me to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in the mid-70’s, and then loaned me this, their latest release, which subsequently became a lifelong favourite.

Now nobody’s ever going to claim this period as the Dead’s golden age. Their collective creativity was heavily diluted by the loss of two original members and a slew of solo and side projects; their organisation was financially mired by its 300-plus employee wagebill, massive organised bootlegging of their first independent release Wake Of The Flood and the spiralling cost of their cocaine habit; and their new fifty-ton PA system, the notorious “Wall Of Sound”, demanded yet further intensification of their already exhausting touring schedule to recoup its outlay. Somehow out of all this they managed to produce in 1974 an immaculate studio album, which despite its quality still remains largely under the critical radar.

The eight songs here all feature taut songwriting and, in contrast with the legendary loose nature of the band’s live shows, gratifyingly tight performances. All would lend themselves to funky stretchout treatment on stage, yet benefitted from the distillation necessary to fit them into a studio collection. Jerry Garcia still finds space to weave his magical, sparkling lines among the verses, and the tight three-man rhythm section (only Bill Kreutzmann on drums here) effortlessly surmounts the exotic, often shifting rhythms. Keith Godchaux provides a new versatility on keys – acoustic piano, synth and harpsichord as well as trademark organ – and his wife Donna gives a new Grace Slick-like edge to the harmonies so saccharine-sweet on American Beauty.

From the opening jaunty shuffle “U.S. Blues”, which captured good-humouredly the cynical yet defensive national attitude following Watergate, to the brooding, diminished-chord-laden Dylanesque closer “Ship Of Fools”, there really are no weak tracks here. For me the standouts include Garcia and Hunter’s oh-so-funky “Loose Lucy” which gallops along on one of Captain Trips’s most irresistable riffs, and Bob Weir’s highly enjoyable reinvention of the old Motown standard “Money” as “Money Money”, in which the avarice is transferred to his unidentified lady friend and the original riff neatly subsumed into a new chord structure and irregular time signature. Phil Lesh finally attains composer recognition with the hazy, shimmering “Unbroken Chain” and the lilting “Pride Of Cucamonga” on which guest pedal steelist, Cactus’s John McFee, provides tremendous accompaniment to Lesh’s earnest tenor. The most gifted singer in the band is of course Garcia, and my personal favourite is his rollicking “Scarlet Begonias” which forefronts the Captain’s delightful plaintive whelp either side of a brief, exemplary Garcia/Godchaux instrumental dialogue, plus some exhilarating Lesh bass on the jazzy coda: definitive 70’s Dead stuff. Oh, yes, and the album title refers to the nickname of an itinerants’ hostel around the corner from the studio.

This album could be the Dead’s best kept secret. Go discover.

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“Pride of Cucamonga”

:D CD Reissue | 2006 | Rhino | at amzn ]
:) Vinyl | 1974 | Grateful Dead | at ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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  • tony c

    I was just listening to Ship of Fools. And oddly enough, reading a hilarious take about a guy dead head on the verge of becoming a Super Dead Head who’s contemplating wearing a batik skirt like some of the Whirling / Spinning guys and gals, but instead has an epiphany and comes to his senses.

    I call it The Pigpen Moment.

    Here’s the link to the story. Pass it on, bro.

  • MIKE T

    Now I remember why I wasted large chunks of my life between 1981- ahhh..well..I guess it still is happening!…anyway…who is this?…great freakin song..I must say!!

  • tony c

    I’m guessing it’s Keith singing. I don’t know this album that well. Back when I was a post-teenage dead head I think this album and Wake of the Flood were out of print for a while. Not that many of my friends had them on vinyl.

    Read that story I linked to in the first comment. It’s funny.

  • Anonymous

    Wicked call. Workingman’s and Beauty were the only two Icould enjoy consistently till now. This ones a keeper.

  • Liberty

    Unbroken Chain Is perhaps the Dead’s zenith in the recording studio. Absolute classic.

  • Daniel

    Never listened to this album, but I have a real soft spot for its follow-up, Blues for Allah. While it peters out a little toward the end of side 2, the first 5 tracks are stone cold classics, especially the Help>Slip>Frank’s combo (better here than live) and the underrated Crazy Fingers. You should do a review of that one sometime too.

    Actually, though, you’d be surprised how many heads would count this as part of the “golden age” – those who enjoy the mellowness of 73 often find a lot to love in 74, especially in the realm of the extended jams like “Playin’ in the Band” or “Dark Star”. Now, for myself, I think the golden age ran from 68-72. After losing Pigpen, the short songs seemed to lose their edge. I love some of the incredible 74 long jams but I usually skip the rest. For the complete package, give me 1970 any day.

  • Len Liechti

    Thanx for that, Daniel. I too enjoy Blues For Allah, but I think the Dead’s unexpected detours into jazz – all those diminished chord scales on “Slipknot!” – and disco and reggae rhythms take them pretty close to Steely Dan, whilst ” Sand Castles & Glass Camels” hearkens right back, for me, to Syd-era Floyd. Parts of Blues For Allah could just be mistaken for someone else, whereas From The Mars Hotel couldn’t be anyone but the Dead. For me, still their best album.

  • Phil Lesh is singing “Unbroken Chain.” “Scarlet Begonias” is one of my top 10 Dead songs. Great post.

  • TSS

    I don’t actually own this album, but I do believe that “China Doll”, “Scarlet Begonias”, “Unbroken Chain”, and especially “Ship of Fools” are masterpieces. The version of “China” from the bonus tracks of the “Wake” HDCD is also really worth checking out. Now, “U.S. Blues” I could live without. It’s not bad, it’s just a little… I dunno, forced? I mean, I appreciate the sentiment, but couldn’t Robert Hunter of all people be a little less heavy-handed? Maybe it just hasn’t aged well. I wasn’t around back then (no, literally, I don’t mean that I was constantly wasted, I mean I wasn’t born yet), so I can’t say. Maybe someone else can chime in on this?

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