QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE – ” The Albums “

Posted: July 5, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Mention the San Francisco rock scene of the 1960s and most people think of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company. But, for anyone who either took part in that scene or paid it any heed, a fourth name holds equal sway: Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Quicksilver Messenger Service never achieved the same level of fame as the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, the definitive San Francisco bands, but their late-decade run is equally distinctive. The most lauded of the band’s three ’60s LPs is 1968’s ‘Happy Trails,’ which draws from heavy guitar jamming (25-minute opener “Who Do You Love Suite”), symphonic-scale psychedelia (“Calvary”) and atmospheric blues (“Mona”).

Like the Dead and the Airplane—and nearly a year before Janis joined her band Quicksilver devised a sound in late 1965 that established the new San Francisco esthetic. Anchored on guitar-driven jams, the San Francisco sound refracted blues, folk, and jazz through the trippy lens of psychedelia.

The abstraction, duration, and explorative nature of the music offered a kaleidoscopic soundtrack to a new culture—one which Quicksilver represented more purely than any band on the scene save The Dead. Quicksilver made instrumental work their raison d’etre. For them, playing was the thing, making them more a live band than a studio-driven one. If that focus gave them spontaneity and rarity, it also helps explain why they ended up the least commercially successful of the top San Francisco bands. They sold far fewer records, and had a much lower media profile than their peers, let alone that of the biggest Bay Area bands. Quicksilver never had a great singer, though they did manage to hire a divisive one, Dino Valenti. To make matters more challenging, they changed their line-up with the speed of their name-sake, losing key members, while gaining new ones who strongly affected their direction.

While all the band members boasted admirable chops, the most prized player had to be guitarist John Cipollina. He got a shivering, quavering sound out of his instrument that was wholly his own. To achieve it, he employed an eccentric arrangement of amplifiers and equipped his Gibson SG with special effects, allowing him to achieve a tremolo as singular as a human timbre. On the low end, he hammered his strings hard while, on the high, he could make them shudder or sting. Better, Cipollina found a powerful foil in Quicksilver’s other axe man, Gary Duncan. Their one-two punch paved the way for all the double lead guitar acts that came in their wake.

‘Quicksilver’

Despite Quicksilver’s instrumental concentration, they also crafted some important studio recordings, including FM staples like their bold cover of Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man,” Nicky Hopkins’ piano masterpiece “Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder” and Dino Valenti’s political anthem, “What About Me” later covered, to perfection, by Richie Havens. To boot, they scored a pop hit with their stoner-anthem “Fresh Air” and finessed four of their albums into The American Billboard’s Top 30. Though Quicksilver hasn’t had the staying power in the public consciousness that they deserved, they had a strong impact on more progressive rock listeners of the day. And they were hugely respected within the San Francisco underground they helped found.
The group’s genesis began towards the end of 1965 with a casual conversation between Cipollina and Valenti (ne Chet Powers). The latter already had a career as a singer/songwriter on the Greenwich Village folk scene. An early song he wrote, “Get Together” was later recorded by everyone from The Kingston Trio and the Dave Clark Five to San Francisco acts like the Airplane and The Youngbloods, whose 1967 version became a classic.
Unfortunately, one day after Valenti and Cipollina talked about playing together, the singer was busted for marijuana possession, resulting in a two-year jail term. In the meantime, Cipollina started a band with bassist/singer David Freiberg (who previously played in a group with David Crosby and Paul Kantner), and guitarist Skip Spence (who would soon switch to drums and ditch the proto-Quicksilver configuration to join Kantner in the just forming Airplane). As a result, Cipollina and Freiberg hooked up with drummer Greg Elmore and guitarist Gary Duncan, who’d played together in a local group named The Brogues. Rounding out the first incarnation of Quicksilver was Jim Murray as third guitarist and singer.In their five-man incarnation Quicksilver became a regular draw at San Francisco’s hippest new venue, the Avalon Ballroom during 1966. Yet, by the next June, Murray quit, an unfortunate move considering the band had just played the history-making Monterey Pop Festival. (Luckily, Murray’s fleeting time with the group is captured for posterity in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about the storied festival). Monterey energized the major labels to sign nearly anyone in the Bay Area with a guitar, but RCA beat everyone to the punch by inking the Airplane in the year before. By ’67, Warner Brothers signed The Dead and Big Brother made a rotten, though brief, pact with Mainstream Records. Inspired by the excitement at Monterey, Columbia Records swept in to give Janis’ band a far better deal, resulting in her stardom.

That left Quicksilver as the last major SF band to sign a contract, theirs with Capitol Records in 1968. That May, their self-titled debut appeared, by which time the Airplane had already released three albums, including their Top Five smash, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’. Quicksilver’s debut turned out to be a less commercial affair, though they did make some musical concessions. Taking their cue from main vocalist, Freiberg, they leaned towards folk-rock, most effectively in “Pride of Man,” an apocalyptic warning that culminated in an apt shiver on Cipollina’s guitar. Cipollina put his vibrato to even more poignant use in “Light Your Windows,” stitching fine pings around its graceful melody. Though Valenti was incarcerated at the time, he appeared by proxy in a cover of his sashaying piece “Dino’s Song.”

Another notable track, “Gold and Silver” borrowed its composition from Dave Brubeck, without credit. The song’s main riff translated Brubeck’s piano part in “Take 5” to electric guitars. Still, the purest representation of Quicksilver’s axe work came in “The Fool,” a twelve-minute instrumental epic. The guitars at the start imitated the quaver of a sitar, leading to a melody that showed-off Freiberg’s classical background via his august viola work. As the song progressed, the guitarists supported each other and sparred, culminating in a Cipollina solo so pure.

‘Happy Trails’

If “The Fool” captured Quicksilver instrumental focus, the band took that all the way on ‘Happy Trails’,” their second release. This time, jamming ruled, but with a purpose. Though the album cover promised a spontaneous document, “recorded live at the Fillmore East and West,” much of it was actually scripted and overhauled in the studio. That bait-and-switch approach mirrored a similar move by Big Brother on ‘Cheap Thrills’, which likewise claimed, erroneously, to be cut entirely in concert. Regardless, ‘Happy Trails’ nailed the verve of a live Quicksilver show, especially in the 25-minute take on Bo Diddley’s’ “Who Do You Love.” Divided into six parts, this side-long track featured showcases for each guitarist in separate sections, providing the ultimate game of compare and contrast. Duncan demonstrated his approach in a section titled “When You Love,” with a long, jazz-influenced lead as methodical as it was melodic.

For over five minutes, he wove a series of blues licks, jazz lilts, psychedelic filigrees and hard rocking riffs into a fluid story. Meanwhile, the “How You Love” section demonstrated the wilder style of Cipollina. Drawing on the highest end of his tremolo, his guitar sounded like a flock of mad birds cackling in air. Bassist Freiberg’s got his own, jaunty solo stint in “Which Do You Love,” while the “Where You Love” section operated as an abstract center piece, suggesting Quicksilver’s answer to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” Together, “Love” represented as potent an acid-rock document as The Dead’s “Dark Star,” though it never received parallel awe.

For another run at Bo Diddley, the band opened side two with a spacey cover of “Mona,” before moving into two instrumentals blended into a fifteen-minute suite. The first, “Maiden of the Cancer Moon” bounced Duncan’s trenchant fingerings off Cipollina’s cackling cries, while “Calvary” drew on everything from classical music to proto-metal to boleros, cementing a psychedelic classic. While ‘Happy Trails’ sold well, going gold.

‘Shady Grove’

Exhausted by the pressures of impending success, Duncan abruptly quit and, instead of hiring another guitarist to replace him, Quicksilver brought in celebrated piano wiz Nicky Hopkins, fresh from a stint in the Jeff Beck Group. The result radically altered the band’s direction, evidenced by their highly uneven third album, ‘Shady Grove’, which came out in 1969. It drew on more country music and psychedelic-pop, often unconvincingly. Freiberg struggled to sing the oddly conceived songs, leaving the album’s highlights in Cipollina’s all-too-brief guitar parts and Hopkins’ commanding piano. In places, it seemed like Quicksilver had become Hopkins‘ backing band, especially the title track, which was driven by his rippling keyboard, or the nine-minute showcase, “Edward.” A mix of classical, boogie-woogie, and psychedelia, “Edward” stands as one of most exciting, piano-led instrumentals in rock history.

‘Just For Love’

If the jarring shift in style threw some fans, they had to endure another big one in 1970. A newly sprung Valenti was finally free to join the band as frontman, changing their essential dynamic. The wayward Duncan also returned to the fold. Together, the moves definitely had some positive results. They restored the band’s double guitar draw and added a strong songwriter in Valenti, who wrote under the pseudonym Jessie Oris Farrow. At the same time, Valenti proved an eccentric, sometimes irritating, front-man, over-singing in many sections, an effect worsened by the heavy echo they threw around his voice. By all accounts, the sessions for the band’s next two albums, ‘Just for Love’ and ‘What About Me’, couldn’t have been less disciplined, with no firm producer in sight. The albums, both drawn from the same sessions, were released within six months of each other during the latter half of 1970.

But, despite their flaws, they make one very good album together. Stand outs from ‘Just for Love’ included the instrumentals, “Wolf Run,” which featured Valenti’s haunting flute, and “Cobra,” which boasted a fiery run from Cipollina. The album also featured “Fresh Air,” known for its invitation to “take another hit,” a druggy encouragement Quicksilver fans hardly needed.

Besides the killer melody, ”Air” introduced roiling Latin music to the band. Better, it featured stoked solos from both guitarists—a stuttering one from Duncan, and a high-flying one from Cipollina—with an extended piano break from Hopkins as a bridge between. The ‘What About Me’ album boasted its own striking instrumentals—Cipollina’s “Local Color,” which showcased his slide-guitar work for the first time, and Hopkins’ “Spindrifter,” as lovely a piano instrumental as rock has produced. Despite such draws, the band was already in the process of falling apart again. Hopkins left during the sessions, replaced by Marc Naftalin of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on half the cuts, and Cipollina split soon after recording was completed to form his own group, Copperhead.

‘Quicksilver’

Given so much tumult, it’s remarkable how well the band rebounded for their next album, simply titled ‘Quicksilver’, in 1971. Their hardest rocking record to date, it boasted consistently catchy songs, mostly penned by Valenti. The frontman even managed to keep his undisciplined singing in check. Better, Duncan proved capable of handling all the guitar parts himself, offering sterling double leads on the folk-rock marvel “Hope,” and the country-blues-rocker “I Found Love.” Despite its many strengths, ‘Quicksilver’ was the band’s first release to miss the Top 30. The disappointment helped inspire another change for their follow-up album, ‘Comin’ Thru’, in ’72. It introduced a charging horn section, a la Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Electric Flag. An under-rated, and highly energetic, effort, ‘Comin’ Thru’ still failed to click with critics or fans, leading to an extended hiatus for the band.

‘Solid Silver’

It took a full three years for Quicksilver to return, but this time with an added draw. ‘Solid Silver’, released in 1975, reunited every one of the core members, including Cipollina, Duncan, Elmore, Freiberg, and Valenti. It even featured guest work from Hopkins. Ten years into their career, the reconstituted band sounded more in synch than they had since the start. Nearly all the members contributed to the singing and the writing. More, they added a soul element, amplified by the backup vocals of Kathi McDonald. Nearly all the songs were upbeat, from the R&B rocker “Gypsy Lights,” penned by Duncan, to Valenti’s county-tinged “Cowboy on The Run,” which sounded like a lost Gram Parsons song. A blues-rock barn-burner, “Worryin’ Shoes,” found both guitarists playing so swiftly, it suggested the Allman Brothers on speed. Sadly, the neo-psych-rock sound wasn’t a big commercial draw amid the soft-rock world of 1975, so the album tanked, taking the reunion with it.

‘Not Quite The End Live at the Winterland Ballroom – December 1, 1973’

If that failure brought the active era of Quicksilver to an end, Duncan took it upon himself to keep the name alive for decades after. He issued many albums under their banner, though they were, essentially, solo works. More encouragingly, he oversaw the release of scores of great live recordings from the vintage period. No fewer than twenty-two are currently available on streaming. Of those, three stand out most. The first, ‘Live at the Fillmore June 7th, 1968′ (cut one year after Monterey) captured the band in their ‘Happy Trails’ prime. It’s a pure live document of what ‘Happy Trails’ had earlier simulated. Cut two years later, the ‘Live at Winterland Ballroom 1970’ album captured the band’s rapport with Hopkins. It’s amazing how well his piano integrated with the two guitars. More, the set boasted a nearly half hour version of “Who Do You Love” that features guitar pyrotechnics from Cipollina right before he left the band for the first time. Even more exciting is “Live at Winterland December 1, 1973,” cut on a special night. Though Cipollina had left the group three years earlier, his band, Copperhead, were the opening act for that show, so he agreed to play with the mother act as well. Freiberg, who had left in ’71, came back for the ride too. By adding a Latin percussionist and a surging organ, Quicksilver ended up sounding a bit like their fellow SF band Santana. The feverish new arrangements put a fire behind the two guitarists, who avoided their most trippy forays to center on hardcore blues-rock. It’s an air-guitar player’s dream come true.

Over the years, documents like these have gained greater meaning for a sad reason: Most of the band’s key members have died. The losses began with Cipollina, in 1989 at just 45, followed by Hopkins and Valenti, both felled in 1994, and Duncan, just this past June. With their passing went a sound as fast, and uncontainable, as Quicksilver itself, leaving a legacy that richly deserves a fresh hit of attention.

John Cippolina was a founding member and the lead guitarist of this prominent San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service. After leaving Quicksilver he formed the band Copperhead and then later played with numerous other bands, and is considered one of the fathers of the San Francisco psychedelic rock sound. He had a unique guitar sound all his own, mixing solid state and valve amplifiers as early as 1965. His one of a kind massive amplifier stack was loaned, along with one of his customized Gibson SG guitars, and effects pedals, for display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1995.

John Cippolina passed away on 29th of May 1989 the age of 45 after a career in music that spanned twenty five years. Quicksilver Messenger Service fans and countless friends paid tribute to him the following month in San Francisco at an all-star concert at the Fillmore Auditorium which featured Nicky Hopkins, David Freiberg, John’s brother Mario, and a host of others.

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