Grateful Dead – From the Mars Hotel (1974)
Welcome back to YDCS! This week we’re taking a listen to one of my favorite albums by the Grateful Dead, From the Mars Hotel. The Grateful Dead tend to inspire passionate feelings on both sides of the aisle, but From the Mars Hotel is the easiest transition into their music. We’ve already covered American Beauty on YDCS which was much more inspired by blues and acid rock. This seventh studio album still pulls from the blues roots that inspired the band in the first place but we hear more “jam rock” coming out of this album than the former. It’s one of the least acid-rock inspired albums in their repertoire, features a number of the band’s biggest hits, and is generally an easy-going kind of album to listen to.
There’s really a lot to like about From the Mars Hotel. All of the songs on the album work really well together as a cohesive unit but there’s enough variety to keep listeners interested. I found that a significant part of that came from putting songs with significantly different tempos back-to-back and using jazzy, syncopated beats to give up-tempo songs a groovy drive. There’s a lot of big hits on this one so enough talk, time to get to the album. I hope you enjoy it!
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
U.S. Blues: You’ve got to open an album with a catchy song to capture interest, and “U.S. Blues” does a decent job of that. It’s not the strongest song on the record but it has its moments where it shines. I love the fuzz from the guitar that reminds you that this isn’t just a blues track, it’s a rock track too. “U.S. Blues” is a good song in its own right but pales slightly when you compare it to what’s coming up on the rest of the album. This is like the appetizer, good but you want more. Dad’s Rating 6/10
China Doll: “China Doll” is the first of a few slow tracks on this album. Slow tracks normally bore me and this is no exception. It takes a special ballad (like some of the others on this album to be frank) to hold my attention, and “China Doll” is one of those songs that remind you that you’re listening to the Grateful Dead and they were likely high when they wrote the song. Dad’s Rating /10
Unbroken Chain: “Unbroken Chain” is one of the band’s best songs, both in terms of instrumentation, harmony, and story. Dissecting that, the instrumentation on this track is beautiful. The keyboard plays a more central role until the midsection where this becomes a spacey (maybe of Mars?!), faster-paced song. The synthesizer that creates spaceship noises helps to pull the whole song together and link the different solos. The vocals are top-notch and show off the range of Phil Lesh’s musical ability. Finally, the story. The rumor among Deadheads was that “Unbroken Chain” would be the last song the band performed live and would never be played before then. Almost true to form, “Unbroken Chain” was only performed on the band’s penultimate tour in 1995 then again at their last concert later that year. The story, the beauty, and the balance come together here for a fantastic song. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Loose Lucy: I’m a big fan of “Loose Lucy,” and I’ve kept it on repeat for a good portion of the week. What appeals to me is the groovy, slightly funky instrumentation driven mostly by the keyboard. Instrumentally this isn’t the most complex song on the album but it’s a fun track to groove out to. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Scarlet Begonias: “Scarlet Begonias” is one of my favorite songs, hands-down. There’s a lot to like about this song too, starting with the drums. The syncopated beat that Kreutzmann lays down initially gives the song a jazzy feeling, but then the dual guitars playing off-beat syncopated harmonies changes it to almost a reggae-track. You can use a variety of genres to try and define “Scarlet Begonias,” but it ultimately comes down to ‘jam.’ Matter-of-factly, the Dead would often turn this song into an extended jam session during their live performances because it lends itself so well to that idea. “Scarlet Begonias” is one of those songs that is simple on first listen but reveals more of itself the more you listen to it, and I’ll always have a soft spot for it among my favorite songs. Dad’s Rating 10/10
Pride of Cucamonga: “Pride of Cucamonga” was the only song from this album that was never played live. Yes, among the hundreds and hundreds of live Grateful Dead recordings you will never hear “Pride of Cucamonga.” Interestingly, the song starts off as a soft, easy-listening blues rock track, takes a break with a hard rock middle, and transitions back to the soft rock sound to finish off. This is a fun song that shows great musicality in the backing keyboard, attention-grabbers in the shouts of “oh-oh” during the chorus, and great band cohesiveness. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Money Money: This track sounds the least traditional Grateful Dead song on the album, and I’m okay with it. I dislike when albums sound the same throughout and “Money Money” pulls from all over the place to create a really unique song. The song is peppered with jazz chords to give it a funk sound but the guitar and vocals tell a different song and could have almost been copied from a Motown record. This is a great song that doesn’t get pulled out of the catalog much. I hesitate to call it a hidden gem because From the Mars Hotel is a landmark album for both the Dead and jam rock, but it definitely deserves a listen. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Ship of Fools: “Ship of fools, sail away from me.” That’s such a poetic way to end an album. When you listen to this track, you can feel the passion in Garcia’s voice, and the gospel inspired instrumentation helps lift the song to new heights, pausing only for a soft guitar solo as if it were a choir soloist. Wrap this one up. Dad’s Rating 9/10
The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.