[Review] Grateful Dead: From The Mars Hotel (1974)

You’ll find a few classic Dead tracks on here, and two songs from Phil Lesh, but I got board with Mars Hotel pretty fast.

Kronomyth 12.0: Begonia loose dolls.

You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their music collection. You can learn what people want you to think about them by looking at their book collection. I remember visiting a friend of mine and noticing among his odd-dozen compact discs only one Grateful Dead disc, From The Mars Hotel. Odds are, he wasn’t a big Deadhead, not because he only had the one Dead disc, but because the one disc he did have is one of their worst.

The Dead seemed lost in the mid Seventies. Wake of the Flood was an interesting move, albeit unexpected. From The Mars Hotel seems like a standing in place, and for the first time the band sounds tired. I wouldn’t lay the blame on Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, though I would tell you that Keith’s keyboards don’t mingle with the music so much as embellish it and Donna Jean’s role as a full-time member is questionable—she’s essentially a backing vocalist on this record. No, the real problem lies with the Dead themselves.

The Dead were always greater than the sum of their parts. Sure, they sometimes struggled to make the right connections in the studio, but there was always a measurable difference between a new Dead record and, say, a Jerry Garcia album. “China Doll” and “Scarlet Begonias” are measurably better than what you could expect from the Jerry Garcia Band. “Loose Lucy,” “Ship of Fools” and “U.S. Blues” are not. You can add Bob Weir’s “Money Money” to that list too.

Tellingly, little of From The Mars Hotel has lived in on the band’s legendary live shows. “China Doll” is a noticeable exception (you’ll find several live versions that sound better than the original studio version) and “Ship of Fools” and “Scarlet Begonias” are classics in the live canon, but the rest of the record has rightly been boarded up in the attic of their life. If Garcia and Weir had indeed grown tired of writing the same old songs over and over, at least it created an opportunity for Phil Lesh to fill the gaps with two of the album’s biggest surprises, “Unbroken Chain” and “Pride of Cucamonga.” The first fuses multiple parts together (similar to the subsequent “Terrapin Station”) and introduces the synthesizer (courtesy of Ned Lagin) to create a very different but exciting musical stew from the Dead’s current members. The second is a hiccupy cowboy song that would have been a perfect fit for New Riders of the Purple Sage.

There are people who will tell you this is a great album, maybe even their favorite album by the Dead. In those cases, I can only imagine it was one of the first Dead albums they ever owned, and the discoveries most of us made on American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead were instead made here. Viewed against their larger body of work, From The Mars Hotel is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live on a desert island with this as your only Dead disc. In fact, the whole living-on-a-desert-island thing is probably just a bad idea.

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Original LP Version

A1. U.S. Blues (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia) (4:37)
A2. China Doll (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia) (4:09)
A3. Unbroken Chain (Phil Lesh/Robert Peterson) (6:45)
A4. Loose Lucy (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia) (3:23)
B1. Scarlet Begonias (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia) (4:19)
B2. Pride of Cucamonga (Phil Lesh/Robert Peterson) (4:16)
B3. Money Money (Bob Weir/John Barlow) (4:21)
B4. Ship of Fools (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia) (5:22)

Expanded CD bonus tracks
9. Loose Lucy (studio outtake)
10. Scarlet Begonias (live)
11. Money Money (live)
12. Wave That Flag (live)
13. Let It Rock (live)
14. Pride of Cucamonga (acoustic demo)
15. Unbroken Chain (acoustic demo)

The Players

Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals), Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals), Keith Godchaux (keyboards, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Phil Lesh (bass guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (guitar, vocals) with Ned Lagin (synthesizers), John McFee (pedal steel guitar). Produced by Grateful Dead.

The Plastic

Released on elpee on June 27, 1974 in the US (Grateful Dead and United Artists, GD 102), the UK (Grateful Dead, K 59302), Colombia (Atlantic, WEA-10532) and Japan (United Artists, GP-571); reached #16 on the US charts and #47 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-packaged with Wake of the Flood on 2-for-1 2LP in the UK (United Artists, UDM-103/4).
  2. Re-released on remastered elpee in 1984 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, MFSL-1-172).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc and cassette in 1989 in the US (Grateful Dead, GDCD/GDC-4007).
  4. Re-issued on remastered compact disc in the US (Mobile Fidelity, MFCD 830).
  5. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc on March 7, 2006 in the US (Rhino, 73277-2) with 7 bonus tracks.
  6. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2012 in the US (Friday Music).
  7. Re-issued on remastered elpee in 2018 in the US (Rhino, 018227932152).

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