As the late great Bill Graham once said about The Grateful Dead; “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones who do what they do.” When I read that many years ago, I thought it to be one of the most pertinent summations of one of the most iconic bands of their generation. Over the years The Dead became one of the biggest non-corporate institutions of the music business, not just through selling albums but also via T-Shirts, paraphernalia, even sportswear, and whatever other merchandise you can think of. In fact I’m surprised they haven’t marketed their own genus of marijuana and launched it on the stock market. But putting commercial enterprise to one side, the group has managed to attract and sustain a loyal following, the likes of which many a rock band would happily sell its soul for. How they achieved this I have no idea. Maybe it was all those communal vibes, where attending a Dead concert was probably the 1970’s equivalent of RSVP, only with a few illicit drugs thrown in. Though to be fair, I’m sure the music must have also played its part.
On the outside we have the weird, science fiction inspired album cover, with the lonesome hotel dominating an alien landscape, with the strange lettering above it, which makes no sense until you hold the LP up against a mirror so it can then be read back to front (who would have thought?). Some of the band’s long-time favourite numbers can be heard on this album, which opens with “U.S. Blues”, a quintessential Dead tune if there was ever one, at least in terms of style and sentiment. The lyrics may seem a little ambiguous to the modern listener, but to anyone living in the time of Nixon and the whole Watergate scandal, this song would have been immediately identifiable. Jerry Garcia may not have had the best voice in the business, but it was certainly one of the most distinctive. On “China Doll” Garcia plaintively communicates the narrative while the semi-cinematic guitars and harpsichord play quietly around him. Sounds like something recorded for an avant-garde spaghetti western.
“Unbroken Chain” is another delicate piece, with soft, harmonising vocals, lovely piano, and more of that psycho-tropic jazz guitar from Garcia, which he is famous for. Definitely one of those songs which The Dead could have jammed on for hours and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they did. “Loose Lucy” is both infectious and catchy, and reminds me somewhat of Little Feat, around the same time this album was made. “Scarlet Begonias” has a commercial aspect to it unusual for the Dead, but who cares when it’s such a good song. Garcia’s voice may strain at times, yet there can be no denying the energy and enthusiasm everyone is putting into it. The country infused “Pride of Cucamonga” is not really my cup of tea, except at around 2:12 when the band breaks out into an extremely brief and I do mean brief, bluesy jam. The pedal steel is all sweet and friendly, while the piano is just fine and dandy, however if this keeps going for much longer I think I’ll need to put on some Weather Report just to clear my head and reactivate all those neurons I am sure are falling asleep while I’m listening to it. “Money Money” has the group in commercial mode, and while not a bad song in itself, it’s emblematic of what I find problematic with The Dead, in that everything is superbly played and entertaining in its own way, except for one thing; the song writing sucks. Not so the beautiful “Ship of Fools”, which closes the album. Garcia’s voice is as engaging and fragile as ever, drawing the listener in as he tells his painful story. There are remnants of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s harmonisation not heard since American Beauty. To me the song seems to fade out all too soon, making it one of the shortest ‘epics’ I think I’ve heard them do.
Despite the odd disparaging comment, this is still a highly enjoyable and articulate record. From the Mars Hotel may not be their greatest album, though to be honest I wouldn’t have a clue as to what their finest album actually is, simply because there are too many to choose from. And let’s not even think about Dick’s Picks, a library of releases so vast that it would try the patience of even the most stoical of medieval monks. The Grateful Dead were an odd bunch, who could take you on a journey through the cosmos and back, then have you running away with the Devil in the Utah hills while being chased by a multitude of hounds. Why I listen to them I have no idea, I guess it all comes down to imagination and where it ultimately takes you.