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‘From The Mars Hotel’: An Out-Of-This-World Classic From Grateful Dead
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘From The Mars Hotel’: An Out-Of-This-World Classic From Grateful Dead

A mid-70s high point for Grateful Dead, the ‘From The Mars Hotel’ album gifted the band some future live favourites.

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To the casual observer, the release of Grateful Dead’s seventh studio album, 1974’s From The Mars Hotel, suggested the band were properly back in business. It was released just eight months after Wake Of The Flood,, a lightning-quick follow-up considering the studio album before that was 1970’s American Beauty.

From The Mars Hotel also came at a point when mainstream interest in the band was higher than ever, thanks in part to the release of Skeletons In The Closet, a best-of covering the group’s Warner Bros era. And, just months before the release of their new album, the Dead had unveiled a state-of-the-art PA system, dubbed the “Wall Of Sound”, which put them ahead of the pack when it came to live shows.

Listen to the 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of ‘From The Mars Hotel’ here.

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When did Grateful Dead use the “Wall Of Sound”?

First unveiled in March 1974, Grateful Dead used the “Wall Of Sound” until October 1974. However, the cost of that pioneering PA, in terms of building materials, technology and manpower, had gone through the roof (audio engineer Dan Healey estimated that the system cost $350,000 to build, let alone maintain and update), not to mention the logistics of transporting it across the country for each gig.

As ever with the Dead, beneath the relative prolificacy, success and innovation, an undercurrent of chaos was threatening to take hold. Tour manager Sam Cutler, an integral part of the group’s organisation since the early 70s, had been fired. And then there was the admin of running their fledging record label, Grateful Dead Records, along with maintaining payroll for an estimated 300-plus employees. Frontman Jerry Garcia picked up some of the slack by recording his second solo album, the covers set Compliments, in February 1974, but to keep the Dead circus on the road, a new studio album was needed.

Where was ‘From The Mars Hotel’ recorded?

Grateful Dead began recording From The Mars Hotel on 30 March 1974, at CBS Studios, in San Francisco. The album had the punning working title “Ugly Roomers”, and, as a nod to that early name, the words “Ugly Rumours” are written in mirrored text on the album’s front cover, underneath the record’s eventual title. The name From The Mars Hotel referred to a decaying San Francisco flophouse that had somehow escaped the gentrification gripping the city and, legend has it, once counted Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac among its boarders.

Throughout the recording sessions, the Dead would meet each afternoon at Studio Instrument Rehearsals, handily situated across the road from CBS Studios, and run through the material they planned to record that evening. Later, they’d effectively have lavish dinner parties at the studio – Phil Lesh provided the fine wine – before recording late into the night.

The songs: Graceful and profound

The unconventional recording process certainly worked for the group. Released on 27 June 1974, From The Mars Hotel features some of the band’s most beloved material, with a clutch of its songs becoming live staples.

Opening track US Blues was a case in point: Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter’s update of Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes was played live over 300 times by the band, often as a show’s closing encore. Although the Dead’s songs rarely pointed fingers, the group were, by dint of their position in the counterculture, a political band. As the song took shape in 1973 (first as a song titled Wave That Flag), the Watergate crisis gripped the country, and North America was pulling troops out of Vietnam. US Blues, with its knowing digs at all-American iconography, could be seen as a reaction to the tumultuous times.

Jerry Garcia talked politics with Los Angeles DJs Jim Ladd and Tom Yates in January 1974: “We have the basic distrust of all political happenings,” he said. “We don’t have any confidence in statements… We’re not trying to be right, and we’re not trying to tell anybody anything. But we are into stirring up any activity we can.”

In stark comparison, Garcia and Hunter’s China Doll was a delicate, baroque ballad with one of the guitarist’s most exquisite melodies. Despite the song’s gossamer-light beauty, it has a haunting power, thanks to a lyric that could be interpreted as a dialogue between a person dying of suicide and the person discovering them. It’s another song the Dead would often return to on stage, notably in an acoustic version performed during a 1980 show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre, released on the 1981 live album Reckoner.

Phil Lesh and poet Robert Peterson contributed another fan favourite with Unbroken Chain. One of the most musically complex songs in the band’s back catalogue, it had originally been attempted for Wake Of The Flood. Surprisingly, the song didn’t get played live until 1995, as Lesh was unsatisfied with the studio version, believing his vocals were not up to scratch – something that says more about the bassist’s perfectionism than the song itself.

One of the best Grateful Dead songs of the era, Unbroken Chain would later become the first Dead track to be sampled, when the group allowed Animal Collective to use a looped fragment in their 2009 psychedelic opus, What Would I Want? Sky. Lesh and Peterson also contributed the relatively slight but enjoyable Tex-Mex country rocker Pride Of Cucamonga to From The Mars Hotel. Although this song would never be performed live by the band during Jerry Garcia’s lifetime, it entered the setlists of later incarnations of the group, after being debuted at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, in Colorado, on 15 June 2004.

The highlights from side two of the original album both came from Garcia and Hunter. Scarlet Begonias was an all-time Dead classic and another that the group revisited hundreds of times in concert, often as part of a medley with Shakedown Street’s Fire On The Mountain (a transcendent version features on Cornell 5/8/77, officially released in 2017).

Hunter has revealed that the lyrics were inspired by times spent visiting his future wife in England; they reference Grosvenor Square, The Wind In The Willows and the nursery rhyme Ride A Cock Horse To Banbury Cross. The Caribbean-tinged track is a fantastic example of the interplay between guitarists Garcia and Bob Weir, which can be heard more clearly on the instrumental take, recently released as part of The Angel’s Share outtakes collection.

From The Mars Hotel’s stately closing track, Ship Of Fools, is another song that could be seen as a response to current events – or, equally, as a comment from Hunter on the increasingly out-of-control scene surrounding the band. Either way, it ends the album on a graceful and profound note.

Buy the 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of ‘From The Mars Hotel’.

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