After the release of 1973’s Wake of the Flood, the Grateful Dead continued to follow the same formula they were used to, tour and tour and tour, spending as little time in the studio as possible. Their prior album would receive decent critical reception but wouldn’t make significant waves for the band in the populous. However, the Grateful Dead’s audience numbers were rapidly rising and in 1974 they would introduce their legendary PA system, The Wall of Sound (we will go more in depth on this once we get to listen to some of these live shows). With heavy focus being placed on providing great shows for the audience, most of the group’s new songs had already been worked out in a live setting before they headed into the studio. Once more the group would exercise their newfound freedom on the second album for their record label, Grateful Dead Records. The album produced, From the Mars Hotel, would be another step in the evolution of the band towards more of a blues-jazz-rock sound.
From the Mars Hotel starts off electrified with the rock and roll romp, “U.S. Blues.” Following in the footsteps of their previous album, the song sets up the album for less of the Bakersfield country sound that defined the group for the last three albums. The guitars, though rocking, take the backseat to Keith Godchaux’s bluesy piano playing. The group continues to feel invigorated from their newest member. Robert Hunter’s lyrics to “U.S. Blues” are wonderfully patriotic but ironic, as the narrator turns out to be the his own twisted version of Uncle Sam. Immediately after, the mood shifts in the next track, “China Doll”. The song is a slow crawl with the melody moving forward via the harpsichord and plucking guitar. The track’s muted quality only seeks to move the lyrics to the forefront. Hunter’s lyrics are a dialogue between two people, one who just committed suicide and the other who wants to know why. The track feels like a downer after “U.S. Blues,” but it serves as a perfect segue into bassist Phil Lesh’s song, “Unbroken Chain.”
Phil Lesh, whose interests before the Grateful Dead where orchestral arrangements and avant-garde music, makes the most of his unique musical approach on “Unbroken Chain”. It’s a whirlwind song with multiple tempo and time changes. It touches on multiple genres, blending elements of jazz, soft rock, easy-listening, and early electronic, culminating in one of Garcia’s finest solos to date. The track is a rare one for the group, it’s a shining moment of their studio abilities and it proved to be near impossible to reproduce live, not appearing in concert until the band’s final tour in 1995. Side one concludes with the Hunter/Garcia track, “Loose Lucy,” a slow moving country rock number. The lyrics are vague, the narrator talking about this dangerous relationship they have with “Loose Lucy,” a lover or perhaps a drug. The chorus, “Singing yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” is infectious, begging for an audience to sing along. The twanging guitars culminate into a fitting send off for the first half of the album.
The second side of From the Mars Hotel begins with one of the most famous songs in the Grateful Dead’s songbook, “Scarlet Begonias.” The song is a bouncy, soft rock song with a melody that is unbelievably catchy. The entire vibe of the song suggests the sound that the Grateful Dead would come to perfect. It’s this perfectly hippy, joyful song that lends itself to the spinners, a subsect of the Deadheads known for their twirling dances. Lyrically “Scarlet Begonias” is about the narrator meeting a stranger and becoming infatuated with her. However he has to “let her pass by,” leaving him with a feeling of déjà vu. The album the twists and turns again as the next song “Pride of Cucamonga” slides in. Once again Phil Lesh’s voice appears, which is a welcome sound to hear on the country tune. The track has gorgeous pedal steel and piano playing, which only accentuate Lesh’s unique voice. In what is becoming classic Lesh fashion, the track has multiple tempo changes, one of which has a brief blues riff and the other a mid-’60s rock riff. The lyrics, penned by Bobby Peterson, are about the narrator’s travels across the U.S. which culminate in the chorus, “oh, oh, pride of Cucamonga.” The significance of the “Pride of Cucamonga” which was a jug wine produced in Rancho Cucamonga, a small town in the Inland Empire of Southern California, is unclear. However, the track does stand out as a wonderful interpretation of the country sound by Lesh.
Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir finally appears as the main vocalist near the end of the album on the track, “Money Money.” The track is a jazzy, blues rocker with a generic chorus. The John Perry Barlow lyrics are just as misogynistic now, as they were then. The lyrics revolve around the narrator’s love with a woman obsessed with money. There’s also the line, “Lord made a lady out of Adam’s rib, next thing you know you got women’s lib” which Bob Weir, now father of two daughters, cannot be too proud of. However, the song leads into the incredible finale to the album, “Ship of Fools.” The song is a gorgeous bluesy track tinged with melancholy and nostalgia. Godchaux’s gospel-like organ and Garcia’s melodic solo are a well-fitting end to the album that has such peaks and valleys. The lyrics tell the story of a sailor on a ship where the leader and their cronies are heading towards inevitable failure. The greater meaning of “Ship of Fools” is what it feels like to be distancing oneself from a group that they once believed in, but now realizes is doomed. This sentiment reaches so many Deadheads, who feel disillusioned with whatever “Ship of Fools” they were previously associated with, whether it be universities, 9-5 jobs, or society as a whole. Using this track The Grateful Dead perfectly wrap up the album, making it clear that they still have meaningful things to say.
Though sonically unique, From the Mars Hotel, feels like another transition album. There are moments that feel like what the band sounded like in 1970, but moments of where they sound like where they would be in 1976. Despite this, the band still would get four songs off the album that remained staples of their live shows for the next 20 years. As the now legendary year 1974 concluded, the band would decide to take an indefinite-hiatus with a send-off like no other.