Why the Grateful Dead’s ‘From the Mars Hotel’ Deserves Another Listen
When the Grateful Dead released their seventh studio album From the Mars Hotel on June 27, 1974, it was taken as something of an anomaly in the band's catalog. Compared to their previous album – 1973’s breezy, carefree Wake of the Flood – it sounded extremely taut and strangely disciplined.
It’s also the first Dead record with no real cohesive song cycle. Pile-driving rockers such as "U.S. Blues" or "Money Money" were followed by delicate Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter compositions like "China Doll" and "Ship of Fools," making it to be something of a jarring listen if taken in one sitting.
Even the band’s biographer Dennis McNally stated in his book, A Long, Strange Trip, that From the Mars Hotel was a "slick sounding album of stand-alone songs. It was highly professional, but not inspired Grateful Dead."
Yet, when picked apart and dealt with one-by-one, the tracks actually stand as some of the best moments in the Grateful Dead’s canon.
Listen to the Grateful Dead's 'Unbroken Chain'
"U.S Blues," with its juxtaposition of good-time shuffle and scathing commentary on America in the time of Watergate, might be one of their most confounding and rollicking tunes. The song closed many a set in the Dead’s tour runs from the '80s and left the audience pumped and ready for whatever the rest of the evening had in store.
The tender Phil Lesh-penned "Unbroken Chain" is another gem found on From the Mars Hotel. It’s a song the band considered so distinct and delicate that they didn’t premiere it live until 1995.
Then there's the good-time groove of "Scarlet Begonias." Although the song cuts off a little after the four-minute mark on the album, it was continuously stretched out in the live setting, leading the Grateful Dead into uncharted territories of improvisation.
From the Mars Hotel might give off a more inert vibe than previous Dead albums, but the songs themselves emerge from individual, still-involving universes they carve out for themselves. If anything, the record represented a new chapter in the band's existence: From the Mars Hotel showed the Grateful Dead were ready to get down to business both literally and figuratively.