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The Story of the Grateful Dead’s Uncharacteristic ‘From the Mars Hotel’

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When the Grateful Dead released their seventh studio album From the Mars Hotel on June 27, 1974, it was taken as something of an anomaly in the band’s catalog. Compared to their previous album – 1973’s breezy, carefree Wake of the Flood – it sounded extremely taut and strangely disciplined.

It’s also the first Dead record with no real cohesive song cycle. Pile-driving rockers such as “U.S. Blues” or “Money Money” were followed by delicate Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter compositions like “China Doll” and “Ship of Fools,” making it to be something of a jarring listen if taken in one sitting. Even the band’s biographer Dennis McNally stated in his book, A Long, Strange Trip, that From the Mars Hotel was a “slick sounding album of stand-alone songs. It was highly professional, but not inspired Grateful Dead’.

But if picked apart and dealt with one-by-one, it’s obvious the tracks that make up the album stand as some of the best moments in the Dead’s canon. The aforementioned “U.S Blues,” with its juxtaposition of good-time shuffle and scathing commentary on America in the time of Watergate, might be one of the most confounding and rollicking tunes the band holds. The song closed many a set in the Dead’s tour runs from the ’80s and left the audience pumped and ready for whatever the rest of the evening had in store.

The tender Phil Lesh-penned “Unbroken Chain” is another gem from the album that springs to mind.  It’s a song the band considered so distinct and delicate that they didn’t premiere it live until 1995. And we cannot forget the good-time groove of “Scarlet Begonias.” Although the song cuts off a little after the four-minute mark on the album, the tune was continuously stretched out in the live setting and led the band into uncharted territories of improvisation.

From the Mars Hotel might give off a more inert vibe than previous Dead albums, but there’s no denying the tunes  have the feel only they could produce from the universe they had carved out for themselves. If anything, the record represented a new chapter in the band’s existence. It showed they were ready to get down to business both literally and figuratively.

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