Posts Tagged ‘Skip Spence.’

More Oar - A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album (Black Friday 2019)

Robert Plant, Beck, Tom Waits, Skip! celebrating its 20th anniversary, modern harmonic presents the first ever vinyl edition of More Oar ‘ a Tribute to the Skip Spence album.

in addition to the full album’which features covers from Robert Plant, Beck, Mudhoney, and others’this edition features the wild skeletal recording of ‘Little Hands’ by the Flaming Lips that was originally intended as a collaboration with Robert Plant.

Great version of Skip’s amazing song…Plant praised Spence’s solo album OAR, thus the reason he agreed to contribute to the tribute album “More Oar”. Skip made magnificent song writing contributions to Moby Grape percussion to Jefferson Airplane and guitar riffs with Quicksilver Messenger Service but had a tragic life battling mental illness and was homeless in the last stage of his life dying way too young of lung cancer at 52.

A double LP pressed at Third Man, this set also includes liner notes from the original album’s producer.

Tracks: Robert Plant – Little Hands / Mark Lanegan – Cripple Creek / Alejandro Escovedo – Diana / The Durocs – Margaret Tiger-Rug / Jay Farrar & The Sir Omaha Quintet – Weighted Down (The Prison Song) / Mudhoney – War In Peace / Robyn Hitchcock – Broken Heart / Diesel Park West – All Come To Meet Her / Tom Waits – Books Of Moses / Greg Dulli – Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin for Yang) / The Ophelias – Lawrence Of Euphoria / Flying Saucer Attack = Grey – Afro / Alastair Galbraith – This Time He Has Come / Engine 54 – It’s The Best Thing For You / Outrageous Cherry – Keep Everything Under Your Hat / Beck – Furry Heroine (Halo Of Gold) / The Minus 5 – Givin’ Up Things / Skip Spence – Land Of The Sun / The Flaming Lips – Little Hands

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The Grateful Dead and a group of other rock bands of the times including the Jefferson Airplane, took a lease out on the old Carousel Ballroom on Market Street in San Francisco (formerly the El Patio) back in 1968 which only lasted for several short months. During that time however there were many great shows and dance/concerts that took place.  Moby Grape: They could have been the biggest and best band in the world, some contended back in the ‘60s, but something happened. The series of bad luck, misfortunes and critical misfires that derailed most of their career.

It was a Saturday night 47 years ago on this day back in 1968 that Moby Grape, along with It’s a Beautiful Day and Sweet Rush finished up their two night engagement there at the Carousel Ballroom. Back in 1966, amid the ferment of San Francisco’s active music scene, five disparate musicians were brought together in a new band. Heavily laden with talent, the group cut a 1967 debut album,  that is still ranked among the finest, most assured bows in rock history. Almost instantly, they were tabbed as the act to beat. Moby Grape’s name is synonymous among rock connoisseurs with tragedy, failure, unfulfilled promise, and chaos. The story of how what appeared to be rock’s Perfect Beast became a rolling catastrophe is one of the all-time cautionary tales in the annals of music and the music business.

Looking back at Moby Grape and wonders, “How could they fail?” Among performing units of their era, they were seemingly rivaled solely by their Los Angeles contemporaries Buffalo Springfield, whose glittering lineup included the mighty singer-songwriter-guitarist triumvirate of Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay.

Moby Grape trumped the Springfield’s three-pronged attack. All five members of the group sang, and they forged a deftly blended choral attack unique among bands of the day. All five musicians also wrote, with consistent brilliance and economy. Their three-guitar front line could blow any outfit unlucky enough to share a stage with them right off the boards, and their powerful rhythm section was unmatched by any on the Haight-Ashbury scene.

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The seeds of the band’s disorder may have been sown in its founding. In late 1966, its five members were brought together by an ambitious manager seeking a new act to work, as major label A&R men began poking around for acts that were playing in San Francisco’s burgeoning rock ballroom scene. The magnetic linchpin of the new band was singer-songwriter-guitarist Skip Spence. The Canadian musician had served as the drummer for Jefferson Airplane and had played on the group’s debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. . However, feeling marginalized creatively in the Airplane, he abruptly quit the band for a sojourn in Mexico. On his return to the Bay Area, he linked up with the Airplane’s erstwhile manager to make a fresh start.

Spence’s band mates were all well-traveled journeyman rockers who landed in San Francisco to flex their considerable chops. One arrived with a Hollywood pedigree: singer-guitarist Peter Lewis was the son of movie star Loretta Young, and a veteran of the surf band the Cornells and his own outfit Peter and the Wolves. Bassist-vocalist Bob Mosley, a white soul man to the bone, had recorded with San Diego’s Misfits. Lead guitarist-singer Jerry Miller—who had served for a time in Texas band‘ Bobby Fuller Four—and drummer Don Stevenson had both performed in the Frantics, part of Seattle’s vibrant ’60s scene.

The resultant quintet, while it keyed off Spence’s formidable onstage energy, was the most cooperative unit imaginable, with each member contributing notable songs to the Moby Grape repertoire. Their layered singing and instrumental puissance immediately made them a force to be reckoned with in the SF ballrooms, and they were rewarded with a contract from Columbia Records in early 1967.

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Helmed by staff producer David Rubinson, ‘Moby Grape’ could scarcely have been bettered as a debut album. Released at the height of the Summer of Love in June 1967, it was everything one could ask for in a rock record. Its songs were exciting and tightly constructed, blending elements of hard rock, blues, soul, folk, and country into its alternately stormy and lilting mix. The playing, sparked by Miller’s fiery guitar work, was equally focused, and eschewed the indulgences that would soon overwhelm rock record-makers. Plus the band’s massed harmonies presented a sound matched only by the Byrds‘ contemporaneous work.

The remainder of the band’s story can be told through a series of horrific bullet points. What brought down this almost impossibly gifted and commercially alluring group? Well, for starters there was…

On June 6th, 1967, Moby Grape celebrated the release of their self-titled album with a splashy party and performance at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom . Early the next morning, Miller, Spence, and Lewis were popped in Marin County after police discovered them cavorting with three underage girls. The three men were charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors, and Miller was also charged with possession of marijuana.

All charges were later dropped, but the incident could not have added any luster to Moby Grape’s rep in the eyes of the Columbia executives who had just spent a small fortune launching their brand-new act. And that launch would itself become problematic for the band, who were instantly the victims of…Moby Grape’s Avalon appearance was a record-company saturnalia of the first magnitude. Janis Joplin with her own star on the rise as a member of Big Brother & the Holding Company made a guest appearance with the group; orchid petals were dropped from the ceiling of the venue during the band’s set; and invitees were presented with a velvet-covered box that included press materials, glossy photos of the band, and copies of ‘Moby Grape”s first five singles.

That’s right: five singles. In their infinite wisdom, Columbia’s marketing executives had decided to issue 10 of the 13 tracks on ‘Moby Grape’ simultaneously on 45s with identical picture sleeves. If there was ever a tactic guaranteed to put the noses of suspicious music critics, over-burdened radio programmers, and confused retailers out of joint, that was it.

Somewhat miraculously, ‘Moby Grape’ managed to perform decently in spite of Columbia’s miscalculations. The LP reached number 24 on Billboard’s album chart, where it spent six months; it reportedly sold 200,000 copies. The damage done by the label’s strategy at radio was apparently irreversible, however: Spence’s “Omaha”  became the band’s only chart single, peaking at number 88 during a two-week stay. The writing was on the wall, and the next step in Moby Grape’s career witnessed…

By the time the band entered the studio with Rubinson in the fall of 1967 to begin work on a new record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released, and every musician on the planet was cocking an ear to the Beatles’ opulently recorded collection. The members of Moby Grape were in that number, and they were demonstrably led astray by the Fab Four’s example during the making of their second album, Wow.
Wow lacks the rev-it-up spirit of Moby Grape’s masterpiece, but Peter Lewis, Jerry Miller, and Skip Spence’s guitar work is just as impressive and richly layered, and the group’s harmonies and songwriting chops are still in solid shape. While the unobtrusive production on Moby Grape showcased the group’s many virtues, those attributes are visible on Wow despite the layers of studio excess, which sapped the momentum and charm of this band without snuffing them out altogether.
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The band seemed to misunderstand its own strengths. In contrast to the lean, diamond-hard originals on ‘Moby Grape’, the second album bore unfocused tunes that were not enhanced by the overbearing and needless presence of strings and horns. Even a tuff little rocker like “Can’t Be So Bad” was dressed up with 20 reed and brass pieces. The album reached its nadir with “Just Like Gene Autry: A Fox Trot,” a trivial spoof of ’20s crooning introduced by ex-vaudevillian Arthur Godfrey; that track was pressed at 78 rpm, and owners of the original LP will recall the annoyance of getting up to change turntable speeds to listen to the number—an event that likely occurred only once in most cases.

Compounding the irritation, Columbia marketed ‘Wow’ with a “bonus album,” ‘Grape Jam’, which featured four listless improvisations with guest stars Mike Bloomfield (inexplicably abandoning his guitar for piano) and Al Kooper, both soon to ring up sales with their own similarly styled Super Session, Hawked at a two-for-one-price, the two-LP package rose to number 20 nationally. For many, the bloom was off the rose, but the group was already being wracked by larger problems, including…

Moby Grape also probably the only band to ever boast two diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics among its members. Skip Spence, was never a stable character to begin with, became an early LSD casualty; by 1967 he was, in the words of writer Jeff Tamarkin, “gobbling tabs of acid like Pez.” During the band’s stay in New York to record ‘Wow’, Spence attempted to attack Don Stevenson with a fire axe, and was committed to Bellevue Hospital. On his release, he hopped on a motorcycle and rode to Nashville; there, without the assistance of sidemen, he recorded the self-penned, self-produced solo classic album “Oar” under his given name, Alexander Spence. This disquieting, sometimes beautiful record has become a cherished classic of underground psycho-rock.

Spence, whose material was later recorded by his erstwhile band in his absence, returned sporadically to the Grape fold during a long period of homelessness and institutionalization; thanks to medication, his life stabilized to some extent before his death from cancer in 1999.

With Spence’s precipitous exit, Moby Grape carried on, recording Moby Grape ’69 as a foursome. The album was a solid return to form, and it was highlighted by three exceptionally strong Bob Mosley contributions, the ballad It’s a Beautiful Day Today and the hard rockers Hoochie and Trucking Man. Despite good reviews in the rock press, ”69′ sustained a meager chart peak of number 133. By the time the set was released, Mosley had one foot out the door: He suddenly bolted for a stint in the U.S. Marines, leaving Moby Grape to wrap its obligations to Columbia as a trio; late 1969’s thoroughly lackluster Truly Fine Citizen was cut with session man Bob Moore standing in for Mosley. Moby Grape ’69 is concise enough — most of the songs are under three minutes and the whole thing clocks in at a shade under a half-hour — and the high points come close to recapturing the electric magic of the group’s nearly flawless debut, especially the gritty groove of “Hoochie,” the doo wop influenced boogie of “Ooh Mama Ooh,” the beatific joy of “It’s a Beautiful Day Today,” the raucous celebration of one “Trucking Man,” and the folk-tinged wisdom of “If You Can’t Learn from My Mistakes.” However, even though these sessions found guitarists Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller, bassist Bob Mosley and drummer Don Stevensonplaying and singing at the top of their game and writing fine songs, the absence of Skip Spence, who left the band after Wow, robs Moby Grape ’69 of a significant share of the energy and drive that was the hallmark of their finest studio work.

It’s significant that the album’s most striking cut, the closer “Seeing,” was written by Spence during the Wow sessions.
Mosley ultimately returned to Moby Grape for a lone effort for Reprise Records, 1971’s sadly overlooked and underrated ’20 Granite Creek’ (which also featured an instrumental contribution from the largely sidelined Spence) and a well-written self-titled 1972 solo album that was marred by uncertain playing and production. But he was not a well man: He too was intermittently hospitalized and homeless through the ’90s. He returned to play, quite magnificently, with latter-day incarnations of the band,

Given the fondness of Moby Grape’s onetime manager for launching combative litigation, K. handled Moby Grape from its 1966 founding, which he midwifed, through August 1967, when he was dismissed by the band. Prior to that time, he had managed Jefferson Airplane; after he was fired in 1966, his dispute with the Airplane’s members over their contract dragged through the courts for nearly 20 years, tying up $2 million in royalties and interest, most of which were ultimately awarded to the band. A similar contract conflict with another San Francisco bandIt’s a Beautiful Day, of “White Bird” fame, effectively put the group in deep freeze for two decades.

In 1968, K. sued Moby Grape, claiming his contracts gave him ownership of the band’s name and music publishing. This action remained on the docket for 38 years. During that time, K. assembled various groups to perform under the Moby Grape handle, and released CD editions of ‘Moby Grape’ and ‘Wow’ on his own label, using needle-drops off vinyl pressings of the original LPs as his “masters.” In 2003, K. sued the band again after they issued an excellent album, first released on cassette in 1989 by “the Melvilles,” on CD under the handle ‘Legendary Grape’.

Finally, in 2006, a California appellate court ruled that the members of Moby Grape owned their name and their songs. For most litigants, this would be the end of things. However, in 2007, after an independent label licensed the band’s Columbia catalog from Sony for classily packaged and augmented editions, another suit landed at the band’s feet; this time, K. claimed he owned the artwork for ‘Moby Grape’, ‘Wow’, and ‘Grape Jam’.

Realizing that it would be pointless and impossibly expensive to fight this vindictive new action for miniscule returns, Sony asked that the albums be taken off the market. Thus, to date, nearly half of Moby Grape’s studio work, including its classic debut, is unavailable in fully authorized form. Few rock bands in history have been served a platter of misfortune piled as high as the one placed before Moby Grape. The group’s music—at its best the equal of any made in its time—remains elusive to this day, but it’s worth hunting for.

More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album is a 1999 tribute album completed shortly before and released shortly after the death of the original Moby Grape founding member Skip Spence. The album contains cover versions by various artists of Spence’s music from his only release the Oar album, released in 1969, presented in the same order as on the original album. The album also contains a hidden bonus track of Spence’s last known recording, “Land of the Sun”, which was originally commissioned for the X-Files soundtrack, Songs in the Key of X, but not used.

The album was planned and produced by Bill Bentley, a music industry executive then associated with Warner Bros. Records, who had previously produced Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson. 

More Oar has been described as a “heartfelt, eclectic homage” that “pays tribute to one of psychedelia’s brightest lights, In relation to the inclusion of Spence’s “Land of the Sun” as a hidden bonus track, critic Raoul Hernandez commented as follows:

…(i)t’s Spence himself, who died at the age of 52…who saves the back end of More Oar with the mumbled, spacey, bongo madness of “Land of the Sun.” A hidden bonus track deemed unworthy for X-Files spinoff, 

Critic Rob Brunner views the more successful covers as being those by artists with a particular appreciation of Spence’s spirit:

The best contributions come from artists who realize that Spence’s work is as much about atmosphere as words and chords. Robert Plant moans over ghostly vibes on “Little Hands”; Alejandro Escovedo offers an appropriately bleary “Diana”, Spence’s darkest song; and Flying Saucer Attack out-space the ultra-spaced-out Spence. Not everyone gets it, though. The Dūrocs and the Ophelias mistakenly believe that weird songs call for wacky performances, resulting in a sort of contrived lunacy that’s at odds with Spence’s unself-conscious outpourings. And Engine 54 contribute a puzzling ska track that’s unrelated to both Spence and everything else on More Oar. Still, more often than not, More taps into the spirit of the original Oar — no easy feat.