Thursday 12 May 2011

Grateful Dead "From The Mars Hotel" (1974) (Revised Review 2015)

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Grateful Dead “From The Mars Hotel” (1974)

U.S.Blues/China Doll/Unbroken Chain/Loose Lucy//Scarlet Begonias/Pride Of Cucamonga/Money Money/Ship Of Fools

A report from ‘Live Earth’ 1974: Peace brothers, sisters, belobrats and clandusprods! Welcome to ‘Live Earth’, the benefit show in aid of humans! Dear reader, please excuse the wavy writing but I am currently writing this in hyperspace, on my way back from one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, well the best gig I’ve seen on on Mars anyway, and the Martian spaceships do tend to jiggle a bit even if the seats are a lot comfier than ours (that's habridistic stuffing is really good after all). Why is your humble scribe and companion top-hatted dog included on the trip? Well, apparently due to confusing timey-wimey stuff only a timelord would understand it’s due to something I do in my future life (something about the AAA’s involvement in the coalition riots we reported on our April Fool’s Day issue in 2025 last month in 2011 perhaps - time is confusing like that). It was a bit embarrassing actually having an alien spaceship land on your roof  but who cares what the neighbours think - I was only being invited to become Earth Musical Ambassador at an intergalactic benefit concert held in the Earth’s honour! Wow! And as if that wasn’t enough by a quirk of time the actual concert was taking place 37 years in the past in 1974, eight years before I was born! Goodness those time travel machines don’t half hurt, but never mind most of me seems to have re-materialised (I'm just waiting for my left foot at the moment - I never really used it anyway so I'm not that fussed, I'll just send a lost luggage claimform in the morning) so I'd better get on with writing everything I saw done.

Oh boy was the journey worth it! Such a catalogue of guest stars it was like being inside an Alan's Album Archives review, with all those legends taken out of respectively relevant times in their timestreams to play as Earth's representatives in the world galactic song contest.  We did rather well too, losing only to the great Zigorous Three All-Stars and The Giant Bardon And His Amazing Nose-Flute while playing  to a veritable catalogue of aliens of all shapes, sizes, colours and species (all of which, by the way, were warned not to talk about the concert until this very article came to light in 2011!) And it was all for such a good cause – the rebuilding of the Earth in the 21st century after the Coalition wars! Quadrohabits, Quargs, Minets, dollars and pounds all round! How lucky then that the great intergalactic organisers happen to hear about Earth bands thanks to the Grateful Dead's 'From The Mars Hotel' album, which due to a misprint in the 27th century edition the organisers really did think was recorded live from Mars! How fitting too that the first ever intergalatic contest held in our solar system should come from Mars, which has really lovely acoustics since being terra-formed and converted into a factory for Mars Bars. What a great set the Dead played too, reformed with their full line-up thanks to ghost technology that had Pigpen back on the keys and Jerry back on guitar where they both belonged, playing 'Dark Star' to the backdrop of a real dark star while China Cat Sunflowers (how did they know they were the Belobrat's favourite flowers eh? Spooky!) danced in Mars' breezes and what a moving version of 'Turn Off Your Ghost Light' it was the end when old friends had to say goodbye. Anyway, as Earth publicist in charge of such things as trying to explain who the Grateful Dead actually were (not easy) and the fact that they weren't actually dead at the time they made their albums I had quite a busy time of it, liaising between species (thank goodness for them good ol' babel fish, eh?) During the run-up to the gig itself I got chatting to Catalunia The Third, special ambassador from the Zigorous galaxy and she was asking me all sorts of questions about her species' favourite album 'From The Mars Hotel' by that very night's guest artists The Grateful Dead. Apparently in her era it's a classic the universe over, beloved by quadzillions, so she was a bit surprised that more people didn't know it in my humble corner of the galaxy.

To be honest so am I - while not quite as pioneering and groundbreaking as the best of the Dead's earlier work, 'From The Mars Hotel' is one of those albums that I always felt deserved another throw of the dice. Writing this review seems particularly apt given that at the time I met them the Dead were just about to make this album. Remember when the Dead split up in 1974 for a ‘hiatus’ shortly after the release of this album and then got back together again just 18 months later? We all wondered at the time - what was all that really about? The Dead couldn't stop - they didn';t know how! Now at last, after nearly four decades, I can tell you – the start of the Dead’s first intergalactic tour! To be honest ‘Mars Hotel’ didn’t sell that well on Earth, in part because a low key understated set of lyrical songs about the mess humans are making in the world was exactly the sort of album that wouldn’t sell in 1974 when epicness and virtuosity were the key words of the day. But it was a huge seller on the outer planets, especially Mars where the intergalactic ‘Mars Hotel’ played it for 32 hours a day in their lobbies! The Dead went down a storm (except on Belobrat, when they accidentally arrived during one) before their 18 months were up and they were back on Earth making the unexpectedly jazzy ‘Blues For Allah’ album (Inspired by the Mars Mongolian noseflute they heard on tour - or so I’m told by a fellow time-traveller). All that’s in the future, though – at this point, in 1974, the Dead are playing their debut gig in outer space and already the band are settling into their climate well, far more than they ever did on Earth to be truthful, with Jerry Garcia debating the art of hypochronicity with a passing Venusian as I pass through the lobby. Well, the Dead were always a little bit cosmic weren’t they?

The Mars Hotel itself was a disappointment. I was expecting a place that was big, flashy, bold, something distinctly alien. I should have known better because, apparently, the design was based on a typical humanoid structure as we were on ‘Human World’ (the crystal maze was filmed in the region too apparently, but ‘Human World’ never did join ‘Industrial World’ ‘Aztec World’ or ‘Medieval World’ on screen sadly, though Richard O’Brien still lives on at his home on Mars). By a process of Martian time technology our hosts did somehow manage to alter our Earthling time-streams to include a picture of said hotel on the album cover, complete with landscape, so you too will be able to see what it looks like - but even in these surroundings it doesn’t look alien so much as woefully human. The cover and hotel were both based, I hear, on a real hotel for down-and-outs run by the San Francisco Government and was demolished in 1977 (not because it was an eyesore, as has been reported, but because one of the delegates from Pluto accidentally left his Quadrahillion walking stick behind and it would have caused death and destruction to any humans coming across it). Even before I knew the truth behind it there always seemed something wrong about the cover though – it shrieks of everything that’s wrong with humanity, those flat grey concrete lines criss-crossing each other in lines of hopelessness and blandness. Even in such an alien landscape, with a peculiar green dome on the horizon (actually the concert hall) and two artificial globe satellites beaming the concert to five other planets, the hotel itself manages to be the weirdest and least acceptable part of the picture. San Francisco’s unwanted society drop-outs and the unfortunates whose luck failed and hard work let them down are the ‘aliens’ in our society, the Dead seem to be saying on this record, with one of the Dead’s stronger moral messages spread across this record about being ‘different’ and ‘standing out’.

Talking of standing out, that’s the Dead in the local alien costume on the back cover, gathered round an archaic television set specially brought in by alien delegates to make them feel at home, watching back a showing of their performance for their comments. Everyone there dressed in this style - I was particularly fond of the flippers and the 'Donald Duck' feet Billy was given to wear (apparently the aliens first found out about Earth thanks to our television, with Disney cartoons particularly popular, although it took some translating to tell them that our news reports were not meant to be funny and that, no, David Cameron really is real and not a cartoon villain, even during the time when he infamously attacked Nick Clegg with a foam pie). As you can tell if you own the record the band all look very at home, well apart from a distinctly grumpy looking Phil Lesh in the middle anyway (he hated the alien acoustics apparently) and that’s an alien lizard from the planet Neptune walking down the pane of glass at the back of the shot, trying to get an autograph (before you ask where Pigpen – reconstituted by alien ghost technology - was, he was off partying with the ghost of Janis Joplin; that pair were gone awol for hours until they were rediscovered the next morning in the belobrat bar, a bottle of Southern Comfort under each arm - and yes, all planets do have a South!) What a shame about the Martian joke of ‘Ugly Roomers’ though on the back which rather falls flat  – in case you hadn't notcied it, this is the writing you can see under the album title if you hold it up to a mirror. Seeing as the joke is about me and my fellow earthlings and our supposedly unusual biped form I object! (For years the rumour went round it was about how the penniless inhabitants of the Mars Hotel were seen as undesirable by society – but now we know better! Oh and I still get called ‘two eyes’ by the citizens of Jupiter where the average being has sixteen!) Anyway, suffice to tell you it was a great gig, the Dead really loved their new surroundings and the rather sniffy inhabitants of the galaxy were shown just how big, brave, emotional and moving humans can be at their best (yes, even the species without noses were sniffling by the end of things!)

Onto the music now, as my Martian hosts have asked me to write about this album directly in my normal style. I’ve never understood why this perfectly fine and moving Dead album always gets such short shrift from reviewers. Is it the short running time (only eight tracks after all and a 35 minute running time)? Is it the similarity to the Dead’s previous excellent LP ‘Wake Of The Flood’ which nobody else but me seemed to like either? Is it the album’s lack of any decent Bob Weir songs? Is it just a case of bad timing? Certainly in 1974 yet another album of pastorally lovely ballads and the odd flimsy rock  number probably wasn’t what the band’s fans were after in 1974 and it most certainly wasn’t what the world at large was listening to in 1974. The Dead after all had an uncanny ability to move with their times in all their previous eras and seem unusually stuck on one place across this album. But then the Dead have never really followed what anybody else was up to at any particular time in their evolution – they’ve always gone their own way, often in the face of what the world was doing at the time (has there ever been a less punk album than ‘Terrapin Station’? – see news and views no 72 – released in 1977, the punk ‘year zero’). But heard now – in 2011, unless you’re reading this in the future and/or via alien time travel technology – it sounds mighty fine and far more timeless than other records made the same year. There’s a warmness about it that other Dead records don’t possess quite so deeply, with some real heartfelt lyrics from Robert Hunter on exceptional form across the album giving the album an emotional weight and emotion few other Dead records can match ('China Doll', a tale of suicide, is about as serious as the free-wheeling Dead ever get, with 'Unbroken Chain' not far behind). But there’s also humour too, a tongue-in-cheekness that suggests the band aren’t taking themselves too seriously with their ‘big’ messages here, something else that’s lacking from other albums of the day (has there ever been a funnier Dead song than the wise-cracking face-pulling 'Us Blues' or as delightfully daft as 'Loose Lucy'?)

Jerry is at the end of his last great run of Dead originals before the drugs and the lifestyle of being a rebellious underground champion truly got to him (although his last great moment, the title track of ‘Terrapin Station’ is still to come) and plays some of his career best ever guitar on these tracks (that goes for the live versions added to the 2006 re-issue too). Phil Lesh is back on form, with no less than two credits to his name – his first in some four years with the band – and they’re very welcome, with his new collaboration with folk guitarist Robert Petersen hitting a rich seam of literary and poetic ballads. How strange that Lesh should suddenly become the second most prolific member of the band - his last co-credit on a Dead album was in 1972 and his last non-Garcia song as long ago as 'American Beauty'! Regular rhythm devil Billy Kreutzmann has really found a groove on this album, the de facto Dead sound of rock and pop crossed with modern jazz and these recordings have a swing any adventure playground would be proud to own, even if he is still missing his ‘brother in arms’ Micky Hart by this time. New members Keith and Donna Godchaux, on only their second album with the band, don’t get much to do but Keith’s piano tinkling is already offering a good foil to Jerry’s meatier moments, loosening the tension just when it’s getting too heavy. Donna, in the background here (she'd recently become a mother, as can be seen by the 'alien baby' she's holding on the back sleeve), adds another dimension to the chorus harmonies across this record too and many fans prefer her this way to the Dead’s later years when she starts taking vocals of her own and duetting with Bob or Jerry (although Terrapin’s ‘Sunrise’ remains her greatest moment with the band by far). Only Bob Weir sounds less than himself on this album, contributing just one track which is generally agreed to be his worst – an attempt at comedy that comes off sounding misogynist, sexist and – much worse for the Dead - capitalist. But his rhythm guitar work is solid and often spectacular and without Pigpen in the band (on the record at least) he’s really filling the keyboardist’s shoes as second-in-command foil in this period.

Like many other Dead records there’s a kind of half theme going across this record. In fact, in a very Dead manner, there are two, criss-crossing each other. One is the idea of travelling, very fitting for a band who are about to play on Mars, with new experiences and truths being found out after going somewhere near. We start the album in America, with a jokey song about the mess the country is in and a spoof patriotic message from a band that clearly feels there’s nothing to be patriotic about any more. We travel via Britain and Cucamonga, two lighter stops on our journey that are the happiest on the album – especially the former where lyricist Hunter’s delight at being in the country of his favourite authors and poets unlocks one of the most upbeat Dead lyrics of them all. Meanwhile the mistakes of America are heard in depth – madness and suicide in the second and third tracks, underage sex in the fourth, capitalism and greed in the seventh. No wonder the band seem to have escaped all this by appearing in an 'alien' world (though by contrast rarely have they sounded so 'human'). We then end the album on a much deeper return to ‘US Blues’ with ‘Ship Of Fools’, a scary message about being taken for a ride by leaders who should know better. But there’s a second theme, too, of escape: the narrator of the first escapes the ‘American’ trap by ‘rocking the boat' and laughing at the absurdity of it all, the narrator attempts suicide in the second before finding there is no escape and that everybody falls; the only way out on the third track is to ‘break the chain’ expected of you by society; the fourth track’s narrator has a ‘real good time’ even though he knows what he’s doing is wrong; he travels in tracks five and six, finding escape in love or at least infatuation during 'Scarlet Begonias' on a sunny day in London when everything seems to be going right before moving to 'Cucamunga', a country-rock tale of cars and deserts and 'growing olives in the sun'; the narrator then goes money and power mad in track seven and then realises his mistakes and what he is running from in track eight, damning his previous egotism by pouring scorn on anyone who tries to take power. Travel broadens the mind is the theme of this album, with escape often the only way out from a restrictive society. What a long strange trip - and how very Grateful Dead!

So is 'Mars Hotel' an album that deserved to be forgotten and overshadowed by the louder albums around it? Or the greatest pinnacle of human achievement as it's held to be by my recent hosts? (I would play them 'Anthem Of The Sun' just to prove what else the band could do, but during a test playback one of the listeners from Bloddick Minor's ears fell off in shock!) In truth, the answer is - all together now - somewhere in between. 'Mars Hotel' isn't a classic, it doesn't have that same sense of uncovering some great truth or being presented with something no other band could possibly do as per other greater Dead albums. Coming straight after the rich emotional understanding of 'Wake Of The Flood' half of the songs here sound shallow and silly (not just 'Money Money', generally recognised as the record's biggest mistake, but 'Loose Lucy' and even 'Ship Of Fools' don't have the depth that makes the Dead great in any era). In many ways you can see the hiatus was a necessary step for the band to re-charge their batteries and get them excited about making records again - the recordings are solid rather than spectacular and only 'Scarlet Begonias' and 'Unbroken Chain' show off that alarming telepathy the Dead have that no other band can touch. All that said, something clearly isn't right when an album with at least three all-time classics (the two songs above plus 'China Doll') fail to be recognised as some of the greatest music being made in the mid-70s. 'Begonias' is gloriously deliriously happy in a way that we don't often hear, with a great riff and a right-at-ya Garcia vocal. 'China Doll' is clever and poignant, a song about trying to pick up the pieces after a suicide fails and full of some of the best vocal work of the band's career. And then there's 'Unbroken Chain', a fascinating angular confusing tale of life in the 1970s that fizzes and sparks with wild abandon and one of the all-time classic from the Phil Lesh side of the stage. Yes there are only eight songs and this is the shortest running Dead album since the sixties, but this song alone features more than enough ideas for one album. In short, 'Mars Hotel' is the kind of place you wouldn't want to live - but you would be more than happy to stay with for at least half of its allotted time, with a welcome vibrancy and alertness compared the laidback mellow groove of 'Wake Of The Flood' and a far more polished sound than the album cover would suggest. All we can say is book your holidays now and you won't be disappointed (well, not until the Dead start singing about 'Money Money' but what holiday experience wasn't brought down by being asked for the bill?)

The Songs:

First track ‘U.S.Blues’ took some explaining to the Martian hordes, I can tell you. They really don’t get the concept of America at all – talk about peace and unity and brotherhood and then centuries of actions showing exactly the opposite in the ‘Disunited States’. Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter seemed to think the same in 1974 too, writing a hilarious diatribe about the state of America in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate and various other questionable policies (indeed Nixon was impeached barely a month after this album’s original release). Other bands would have made the song self-congratulatory, a we-told-you-so aimed directly at the man who’d attempted to squash underground musicians and left-wing liberals alike, but this song is more of a riotous good time, with Garcia clearly relishing Hunter’s most pun-filled lyric of his career, a series of one liners that would be hilariously funny if the whole situation wasn’t so serious. The song started out as ‘Wave That Flag’ – a prototype can be heard in concert as long ago as 1973 in amongst the ‘Wake Of The Flood’ material – and was originally written by Hunter to the tune of Bob Weir’s solo song ‘One More Saturday Night’ (from his album ‘Ace’; it can also be heard on the Dead’s ‘Europe ‘72’) before being passed over and given to Gracia to write a song around. Certainly it makes far more sense in the troubled year of 1974 when America really did seem to be changing and growing wiser than 1973 when Nixon was still adamant he was ‘not a crook’. The idea of Uncle Sam, the figure of America, not being in the White House or politics at all but ‘hiding out in a rock and roll band’ waiting to come to power again is a classic Dead opening line, turning conventions on their heads about what the real spirit of America is and was. The lines about ‘wave that flag wide and high’ sound at first like the dying embers of patriotism, but when heard in context with that fantastic opening line it sounds more like the youth of the day reclaiming America for their own (it’s not been that long since Jimi Hendrix was doing his own feedback-drenched version of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in concert). The best line, though, is the hilarious diatribe about Vietnam: ‘Gimme 5! I’m still alive! Ain’t no luck – I learned to duck!’, a couplet that says everything about the luck rather than skill needed in an ‘unwinnable war’ and the missing patriotism from the thousands of Americans conscripted into military service who questioned whether doing what a lying scheming paranoid mania in charge wanted them to do was actually to America’s benefit. No wonder Hunter is left to comment about the end of the Hippie Dream and American innocence with the sighing chorus line ‘summer time’s come and gone, my oh my’. ‘US Blues’ is funny, witty and impressive, but it’s true to say it lacks the depth of Hunter-Garcia’s best songs about the state of America and, alas, this many decades on with two Bushes and a Reagan to add to the list of dodgy politicians we know that American policy is probably not going to go the way of peace any time soon. As a moment in time, though, it’s great and Garcia’s distinctly rockabilly backing is the perfect match for a song about youthful exuberance and idealism, a song of the people and the young wanting to see a difference. No wonder it went down such a storm on Mars! Live Performances: 324

‘China Doll’ is the other side of Hunter-Garcia’s writing, deeply sad and emotional with a depth like few other writes and it’s among my favourites in the whole of their catalogue, second only to ‘Wharf Rat’. It’s a moving song about suicide and somehow manages to be both despairing and supportive, wishing good things round the corner but knowing that they may never materialise. The song starts in the third person, describing a ‘pistol shot at 5 O’clock’ and a ringing bell in heaven alerting them to another unexpected arrival, with the despairing narrator offering the scolding lyrics ‘tell me what you done it for?’ It’s clear where Hunter was going at this point, with a lyric that tries to find the brightness in life as an argument for carrying on, but Garcia again brings out the best in his lyric by being more sad than scolding, offering up a slowed down funeral-paced tune and a world-weary vocal that sounds like a man whose seen and done everything and it all let him down. The ice-cold acoustic guitar with a melted-in-the-mix feedback drenched guitar is enough to put shills down your back, while an accompanying harpsichord – not heard on a Dead song since 1968, makes the whole piece sound distinctly haunting and fragile. It’s the second verse that switches the song round though: ‘Yesterday I begged you before I hit the ground’- now Garcia’s narrator is the dead body, blaming the world and it’s lack of kindness for his demise, with suicide the only way off ‘this hurdy gurdy plane’. The narrator isn’t even that repentant: ‘stranger thoughts have come before me, before they flew away..’  - he’s clearly been crying out for help for some time and nobody was listening to him. There’s also a line where the body shrugs off his worldly possessions, claiming they never gave him the ‘answers’ to life he was looking for so doesn’t care who has them now (‘All I leave behind me is only what I’ve found’). The narrative then switches back to the third person with the line ‘I would not condemn you, but nor would I deny...’ Even withstanding their name, death seemed to follow the Dead about a lot (they lost three keyboardists to overdoses, liver failure and car crashes in just 30 years as well as Jerry to a heart attack in 1995, not to mention Jerry’s brother in a drowning accident when the guitarist was still a teenager, a key incident in his life) and it’s easy to see where this spooky song came from, even if the suicide angle is a unique one in Hunter and Garcia’s back catalogue.  The Dead can’t bear to end such an unhappy song there, though, so we get what is a half-upbeat chorus about picking up yourself up and mending your fragile state because it can be repaired – not easily, not perfectly, but repaired all the same. Whether the narrator wants to be repaired, whether they’re suffering from irreparable damage, whether or not they pulled the trigger or really are just having a down day is left up to the listener in an amazingly powerful piece of songwriting that few other writers can compare to.  Only one part of the song doesn’t work for me, the song’s final la-la-la-la-la-la-la chorus after a final weary repeat of the chorus, which makes the whole thing sound like a safe sing-along rather than one of the most chilling experiences of the whole of the Dead’s canon. Still, this is a magic, important song that deserves to be better known by fans then and now. Live Performances: 113

‘Unbroken Chain’ is the only song that could possibly follow ‘China Doll’ without ruining the mood, another deep and troubled song from Phil Lesh, a much missed songwriting presence on the Dead’s past three records. This is a song all about the ‘chain’ that runs throughout our livers wherever we are – the expectations others have of us and those we are expected to have for ourselves. Many Deadheads also see a religious link here, with the ‘chain’ a symbol of both oppression and togetherness throughout the bible, shackling salves to their work whilst also offering up a unity and brotherhood between sects. Robert Petersen’s narrator is certainly looking for more in his life – like the narrator of ‘China Doll’ – but he can’t find it where he looks, with everyone else seemingly enjoying a ‘whole’ chained life that he can’t get to grips with at all. The problem is that the things he is being taught – that forgiveness is the ‘key’ to ‘every door’ and that we should look after our ‘brothers’ – is in great contrast to what he sees and experiences from everyone else. Nobody seems to believe their own philosophy, which leaves him wondering whether the philosophy is at fault or the people. After several couplets looking for answers in nature he then finds this inner turmoil breaking through, with a pretty scary musical passage that turns the song’s lightness of touch on it’s head with a very Dead-ish jazzy passage that turns on a sudden switch to the minor key, with shadows lurking behind every corner. It’s an exhilarating ride, although sadly some idiot with a synthesiser had to come in and spoil the effect with some weird noises that sound like water dripping down a drain (it was even worse on the original vinyl LP though thankfully the engineers have mixed it lower for CD). Thankfully the song then turns back full circle where it began, with the narrator still asking questions, although this timer the unbroken chain is much more personal, sung to a partner as an unbroken chain of ‘you and me’ which manages to be both happy and sad at the same time. Another of the Dead’s most unfairly under-rated songs, with a complex theme and an irregular instrumental section only the Dead on a really good day could ever pull off. Best of all, though, we get to hear Phil Lesh singing solo for the first time in years – and, barring this album’s other Lesh contribution, the last time in his entire 30 years history with the band. Lesh has a wonderfully deep, sonorous voice that really gets to grips with this complex song’s themes of confusion, grief and terror. Amazingly, Lesh always reported his unhappiness at the way the song turned out and that it helped put him off songwriting after hearing the record, something that might also explain why this 1974-era song wasn’t heard on stage until Spring 1995, just a few months before Jerry’s death and the end of the band. Live Performances: 10, all in the band's final year

‘Loose Lucy’ is another Hunter-Garcia song that’s not as successful as the other songs on this record. It’s not that it’s bad so much as it’s a song that really doesn’t suit the Dead, a sappy pop song about having fun with an underage girl before finding out what her real age is. The tightly-taught playing, with the song bubbling along on a frantic keyboard riff throughout with guitars and bass joining in at times, is unique in the Dead’s canon, as thankfully is Garcia’s rather strained attempt at falsetto pop singing. The song is clearly meant as light relief after an unusually heavy start to the album, but after two such complex and delightful songs, it pales whiter than the girls’ complexion in this song. Jerry’s narrator’s hurt at being cheated on is somehow unconvincing and his obsession with thanking his girl for a ‘real good time’ even though she’s obviously upset him sounds like mascochism to me (even if the Deadheads always loved the line, shouting it at concerts and waving it on placards – something that hasn’t changed on Mars I’m pleased to report). Hunter’s lyrics is unusually basic, too, although there are two points worthy of note: one is the famous warning ending about ‘don’t shake the tree when the fruit ain’t ripe’ (no wonder this song gets compared to the early Dead cover of ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’ a lot!) and the other is the chorus of ‘round and round and round’, a boring and unoriginal trick on its own but here it refers to first the girl’s dancing, then the narrator’s spinning head after a few too many drinks and then to the rumours about the pair that are flying all over town! Good but, compared to most of the other tracks on this album, distinctly underwhelming (it did sound better live though, both in 1974 and – via time travel – 2011!) Live Performances: 97

 There’s no such troubles with side two opener ‘Scarlet Begonias’, though, another classic Dead song best heard in a live medley with 1979’s ‘Fire On The Mountain’, although that song’s a long way away from here of course. It’s kind of ‘Loose Lucy’ part two, with another woman all over the narrator from the minute he steps onto English shores and giving the song a pulse and excitement that makes this one of the Dead’s better rock songs. In fact if the rhythm sounds a bit familiar to more general AAA readers, that’s because Garcia later revealed he was trying to work in a new style like those of Cat Stevens and Paul Simon records of the time (you can certainly hear the influences of ‘Sitting’ and ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’# respectively on this song, which are similarly sexually charged). Everything gets better for the narrator now that he’s in love or at any rate besotted with his mysterious girl – strangers shake strangers by the hand, while the sun and the sky switch places with each other, the first blue and the second yellow. It’s as if he’s so thrilled by the sudden enjoyment that’s come his way that the girl has blinded his senses, robbing him of perspective and realism. Indeed, not for nothing is this mysterious creature introduced as if she comes from a fairy tale, with ‘rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes’, not to mention the scarlet begonias she wore on her clothes. Unlike ‘Lucy’, though, there’s a story to go with the tension too, with some classic Hunter couplets about finding ‘the light’ in the ‘strangest of places’ just when you are least expecting it and yet, when it comes down to actually making love to the exotic creature whose got him in a bit of a twist, the mysterious lady doesn’t want to know in yet another Dead card-playing analogy (‘she was too cool to open and too pat to bluff’). Again, this is another song that will sound much better in concert than it does on record (well, it does on the versions that Donna Godchaux doesn’t warble through!), but even here in this early version ‘Begonias’ has a delightful, seductive bounce that will stay in your head till long after hearing the record, with Garcia’s boyish enthusiasm and Keith Godchaux’s swirly hypnotic organ the stand-out stars of the record. Oh and listen out too for the closing line ‘everyone was playing in the heart of gold’ band, a line meaning friendship and kindness among humans that was later taken up as the name for the Godchaux’s post-Dead band.  Live Performances: 317

‘Pride of Cucamonga’ is the second Phil Lesh song on the record and, while not quite up to the first, still has its plus points. Alas, the country style isn’t one of them, with Garcia’s first pedal steel playing in years not a patch on his work on Dead and CSNY albums of the early 70s. Like ‘Chain’ this song has a tricky, stop-start quality that allows it to quickly switch through many different sections without taking breathe, but unlike ‘Chain’ and its take of ‘breaking through’ there’s no real thematic need for it on a lyrically simple tale of travelling. The sudden switches to bluesy rock are a first for the Dead though and deserved to become a song in its own right (it’s certainly more interesting that yet more full-blown country!) Cucamonga itself is a brief sojourn from the narrator’s darker trips, with a sunny warm climate where certain illicit substances grow plentifully, the vineyards are always full and the women are always, erm, welcoming. It’s not entirely clear from the lyrics who or what the ‘pride of Cucamonga’ is though – is the vegetables, the drugs, the women or a bit of all three? (and things get more confusing in verse three where a suddenly happy narrator declares himself as the ‘pride of Cucamonga’, in contrast to all the other lyrics here)- or where the ‘Muskrat Flats’ are meant to be (lyricist Robert Peterson seems to have made them up, although Cucamonga is in California so I’m reliably told!) The best part of the song for me is yet another dig at Western Capitalist greed – a definite theme of this album – ‘learning a lesson’ by simply standing and watching nature on the one hand and on the other all the people busy in a city that ‘stinks of greed’. Actually no I take it back I do know what this song means – Cucamonga is the last safe haven of the American Dream and it should be celebrated as the pride of the country, not a worn out old vegetable patch as it seems to be in this song. Again, the Dead’s fairly lengthy rehearsal period for this song pays off, with the band playing well together here (especially Keith Godchaux again, this album’s hidden star) although Lesh’s tune isn’t one of his best and the country twinges are often painful. This song was never played live

‘Money Money’ is kind of a spoof of what the narrator of ‘Cucamonga’ sees from the road, a parable of what greed will do to people, making them become inhuman and willing to do whatever it takes whatever that costs other people. This oddball Weir song is generally regarded as the album’s biggest mistake and while I can see and take the joke more than some Deadheads, it’s clear this song is not up to other Weir songs like ‘Weather Report Suite’ or ‘The Other One’. For a kick off it’s not that original: the band have already covered this song’s tale of love blinding the narrator into stealing for her in Aoxomoxoa’s ‘Dupree Diamond’s Blues’ and this song adds little you can’t learn there. In addition, the band performance on this one is poor – the band playa against each other rather than with each other and the multi-dubbed Donna chorus sounds so un-Dead like it’s hard to believe those Lancashire pixies haven’t just swiped my record in mid-play again (they haven’t – I’ve checked!) The one thing that does work is Bob’s vocal – by most accounts the only member of the band who ‘got’ this song and lyricist John Barlow’s off centre lyric - half-sarcastic, half brainwashed, as he sings a neat steal from classic Beatles cover ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. Only this time, of course, Barrett Strong’s message about needing money to buy freedom is subverted, as the more money the narrator steals for his missus the less power he has over her. There’s an uncomfortable moment too when this generally free-thinking and open minded band start dissing women’s lib (there are men just after money and power at all costs you  – including the president back in 1974), but admittedly I’ve heard far worse on other records of the era. Barlow, who’d asked Weir to come up with a Mose Allison-type backing to his lyrics, was reportedly so furious with this recording that he refused to write for the band again for a very long time and even the ever loyal Deadheads started campaigning for the band to pull this song from their concerts. This song is no classic or even a lost minor gem but all that does seem a bit over-the-top for a song that isn’t truly mind-numbingly awful, just a little uninspired. Live Performances: 3

The album then ends on the dreamy Garcia-Hunter ballad ‘Ship Of Fools’. By contrast, everyone else seems to love this track while I’ve never been that keen on it – it’s kind of a slowed down version of ‘US Blues’ without the humour, played by the Dead at half speed in a style that suited most of ‘Wake Of The Flood’ but just sounds awful here. Garcia’s vocal wanders off key alarmingly without any real backing to hold him into place, Keith Godchaux seems to have gone all ‘churchy’ with his piano and organ work and Kreutzmann has never sounded as bored as he does here, with barely a few drum fills to fit round the most obstinately one-tempoed song the band ever did. Hunter’s lyrics are better than the tune, but even they’re not on top form, with a tale of a country where the leaders don’t know where they’re going another morality play that sounds almost like his world by numbers, even if some lines stick out (such as his warning to the public not to offer blind faith to phony leaders, definitely an anti-Nixon life). In fact there’s a lot in this song about trust and faith, all of which seems to be broken which makes me wonder whether it’s all about Nixon, with blind ‘sheep’ following leaders without question, although chances are it’s just meant as an everyman warning to each generation about those in power getting carried away by it. Curiously Jerry always reckoned it to be one of his best and most rounded songs and certainly both his vocal and expressive guitar solo on the fade are nicely committed, but compared to the best of his work I don’t feel anything like the same level of depth or emotion I usually hear and unusually for this period there are no twists or turns to keep the listener on their toes.  Ah well, the crowd on Mars seemed to like it – and apparently it’s the theme song of the anti-coalition forces in the years to come, so we’ll be hearing a lot more about it then! Live Performances: 222

Overall, then, ‘From The Mars Hotel’ is an epic pretending to be humble, a modern parable with enough good humour to laugh at itself when it comes up short and a timeless musical feel that could have been released in any era from the 1960s to now without anyone batting an eyelid. Things go badly wrong on side two but the one-two-three punch of the beginning, plus ‘Scarlet Begonias’, is as a good a run of songs as you’ll find on any Dead album (or any album full stop). Alien and human, full of mysterious promise and betrayed caution, it manages to take in everything about modern day human life including death, unity, sarcasm, greed, escapism, drugs, women, wine and song and everything in between. No wonder the Martians liked it so much, or why they chose to reunite the Dead to play the whole thing during the galaxy’s first intergalactic benefit concert, because it does sum up human frailties and needs better than most albums. Plus fewer bands have had a better writing partnership than Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter – heck most would give up anything for the work of occasional writer Phil Lesh – and their work during this period is for the most part gorgeous, lyrical without being obtuse and accessible without being boring. The Dead may be dead and buried, some (gulp!) 16 years as I write this, but their music lives on, here and on other planets where it is rightly held as a pinnacle for all others to follow. No wonder the band’s performance went down so well! And off the Dead go on their intergalactic tour – see you in 1975 guys! 

Other Dead related articles you might be interested in reading:

‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases

Essay: Why The ‘Dead’ Made Fans Feel So ‘Alive’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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