Posts Tagged ‘Skip Spence.’

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There are three versions of the Jefferson Airplane’s debut LP, each with a dedicated mono and stereo mix. The “first” (and rarest) version is the 12-track uncensored version, which was originally released on August 15th, 1966. This version was quickly recalled and the track “Runnin’ Round This World” deleted off side 1 due to the line “the nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips”. Very few of these original copies have survived, and they usually sell for an awful lot of money.

Jefferson Airplane “Takes Off” is the debut studio album by the American rock band Jefferson Airplane, released in August 1966 as RCA Victor LSP-3584 (stereo) and LPM-3584 (mono). The personnel differs from the later “classic” line up: Signe Toly Anderson was iniatally the female vocalist and Skip Spence played drums. But both soon left the group—Spence in May 1966, Anderson in October and were replaced by Spencer Dryden and Grace Slick, respectively.

RCA executives found some of the lyrics too sexually suggestive. They had the band change the lyrics in “Let Me In” from “I gotta get in, you know where” to “You shut your door, now it ain’t fair”, and “Don’t tell me you want money” to “Don’t tell me it’s so funny”. In “Run Around” they had the end of the line “Blinded by colours come flashing from flowers that sway as you lay under me” altered to “…that sway as you stay here by me”. With “Runnin’ ‘Round This World” the executives insisted that “trips” in the line “The nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips” referred to taking LSD, though the band insisted it was merely common slang. Even replacing the word “trips” with a guitar arpeggio did not placate RCA’s concerns with the line’s sexual connotations and refused its inclusion on the album, and the recording remained unreleased for the next eight years.

The “second” version to appear of this album happens to be exactly the same as the first version minus “Runnin’ Round This World”. However, these copies were also soon recalled, and two tracks replaced for the “Third”, final, and most commonly found version of the LP. The two tracks “Let Me In” (with lines “Oh let me in, I wanna be there/I gotta get in you know where” and “Don’t tell me you want money”) and “Run Around” (having “… that sway as you lay under me”) were re-recorded with censored lyrics.

The ”first” US pressing of the debut by Jefferson Airplane has three versions, released in both mono and stereo, the first two of which are extremely rare: 
1) Six tracks on side A, the sixth being ”Runnin’ Round This World”. This contains the original versions of both ”Let Me In” (with the lyric ”Don’t tell me you want money”) and ”Run Around” (with the lyric ”That sway as you lay under me”). The backcover has no caption ”RE” in the top right hand corner.

2) Five tracks on side A, ”Runnin’ Round This World” is deleted. Still, the original versions of ”Let Me In” and ”Run Around” are included. The backcover does have the ”RE” caption.

3) Five tracks on side A. The re-recorded versions of ”Let Me In” and ”Run Around” are included with the offensive lyrics altered. Backcover identical to 2).

This second version has also become somewhat uncommon, and is discernible from the third version only by the etched matrix numbers or by listening to the record itself. Only the “third version” has been fully reissued on CD in both mixes, although a couple mediocre-sounding vinyl-sourced tracks appeared on the most recent remaster.

This transfer is from one of the 2nd version LPs (-12S / -3S) . I definitely prefer this original version, if for no other reason than it is clearly what the band intended to be released before they were censored by RCA Victor.

The album’s release drew little press attention at a time when mainstream newspapers did not normally cover rock releases and the rock press was yet in its infancy. Crawdaddy! magazine highlighted the album on the cover of its January 1967 issue, which included a three-page review by the magazine’s assistant editor, Tim Jurgens, who called the album “faulted” yet “the most important album of American rock” of 1966.

The Band:
Marty Balin – vocals, rhythm guitar
Signe Toly Anderson – vocals, percussion
Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar
Paul Kantner – rhythm guitar, vocals
Jack Casady – bass guitar
Skip Spence – drums
Spencer Dryden – drums (on “Go to Her,” alternate version of “And I Like It,” and alternate version of “Chauffeur Blues”)

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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Quicksilver Messenger Service – 1968 – The original band formed in 1965 featured revered lead guitarist John Cipollina, Gary Duncan (guitar), David Freiberg (bass), Greg Elmore (drums) – (with Jim Murray and Skip Spence added on guitars). Dino Valenti, who may have had a hand in the band’s formation, was arrested on marijuana possession and spent two years in prison. Spence left to drum on Jefferson Airplane’s debut album in 1966 and was co-founder of Moby Grape, and Murray left after the Monterey Pop Festival. Quicksilver Messenger Service was the best Acid Rock dance band of the 60s honing their skills at the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore West.

Quicksilver Messenger Service  eventually signed on with Capitol Records in 1967. The core group made only two albums together, its finest: “Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968), and “Happy Trails,” (1969) with stellar songs such as “Pride of Man,” “Dino’s Song,” “The Fool,” “Who Do You Love,” and “Mona.” Cipollina’s ravishing improvisations on “The Fool,” and “Who Do You Love,” for example, set him apart from most other guitarists of the late 1960s. If you ever saw the band live at the Avalon or Winterland, you know that Cipollina could slay you with his spires of tremolo. He had a unique tone that could not be duplicated… Duncan left in 1969 owing to substance abuse issues and general exhaustion and was replaced by ace British session man Nicky Hopkins who contributed masterful piano work on the band’s third and most successful album” Shady Grove,” (1970). Valenti and Duncan returned in 1970 playing on “Just for Love,” (1970) with Valenti taking lead vocal on Fresh Air,” the group’s biggest hit single, and “What About Me,” (1971).

After Cipollina and Nicky Hopkins departed later in the year, Quicksilver carried on with Duncan, Elmore, Valenti, and Freiberg, adding Mark Naftalin (Freiberg was replaced by Mark Ryan when the former was arrested for illegal possession of marijuana).

There were two less successful albums with this configuration: “Quicksilver,” (1971)) and “Comin’ Thru,” (1972). A reunion album “Solid Silver,” (1975) included Cipollina and Hopkins and a host of other Bay Area musicians. The band made one final appearance at Winterland in late December – Cipollina’s last hurrah with the band he founded. Quicksilver Messenger Service carried on for another four years before disbanding… But the band will be remembered for its first two albums – and the wonderful chemistry sparking Cipollina and Duncan’s sublimely beautiful guitar improvisations.

In 1967 – “Dino’s Song,” Live unreleased version recorded at the Fillmore. One of the finest, achingly beautiful, love songs ever written (by Dino Valenti), Originally on the band’s self-titled 1968 debut, one of the finest of the era. This band had few peers and it’s, always a delight to hear Gary Duncan and john Cipollina play in tandem. But a little sad now with their passing.

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.