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Wednesday, March 30, 2005
When considering the original Summer of Love, and the bands that were active in the San Francisco Bay area at the time, the list of influential musicians to emerge from the scene is fairly long and impressive: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Steve Miller Band, Big Brother & The Holding Co. (featuring Janis Joplin), Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service...
There were dozens of other bands active at the time too, now known only to record collectors and elderly hippies; one band well-known to both, but largely unknown to the public at large was Moby Grape. Any Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane fan would like them; 90's jam-band fans engaging in anthropological research should dig them up, too. Their history is also an interesting one.
Their sound shared many similarities with the other Haight Ashbury groups, but they also displayed a versatility that perhaps only the Dead could match; they were adept at combining folk, blues, country, and 50's rock 'n' roll. They also had the requisite acid-rock vibe, and were ambitious in their arrangements. All of it came together best on their 1967 debut, Moby Grape, but there's more to their story than that.
The band's very formation was somewhat unusual. Jefferson Airplane manager Matthew Katz wanted to build a group around Jefferson Airplane drummer Skip Spence. Spence's first instrument was guitar, but was recruited into Jefferson Airplane by founder Marty Balin because he looked like a drummer. Spence was a colorful and sometimes outrageous Canadian with an oddball charisma; he seemed a good choice as a frontman.
Spence resumed playing guitar and songwriting in Moby Grape. Guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson played in a bar band called the Frantics in the Pacific Northwest and were brought in to augment Spence; surf-band guitarist Peter Lewis and bassist Bob Mosley completed the 5-man lineup.
Despite the fact that Moby Grape was assembled piece by piece, rather than grown organically like most other bands of the scene, they (at first) worked well together; all five members contribute to the songwriting on the first album, which brought together all of their diverse influences in a remarkably concise, thoroughly enjoyable Moby Grape, an album that has aged reasonably well, and resembles Surrealistic Pillow in its combination of acid sentiment and pop sense.
The songs on this album are tight; no superlong jams, no over-the-top hippyisms. At its heart lay the interwoven guitar work of Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, and Skip Spence. All five band members contributed bright harmonies, with an emphasis on melody; many of the songs were uptempo, exciting numbers that captured some of the manic energy of the place and time, the band conducted subtle experiments in stereo mixing, and many of the tunes, in particular "8:05" "Hey Grandma" and "Omaha", sound like hits.
Unfortunately, Columbia Records nearly killed the band with hype right out the door. For reasons known only to Columbia execs of yesterday, a decision was made to release five singles from the debut album simultaneously; as a result, airplay was severely diluted for each, the sales for all of them were poor. "Omaha" did the best, making #88, and the album charted at #24. However, given the quality of the music, the local popularity of Spence, and the enormous commercial success of Jefferson Airplane, the numbers looked disappointing.
A serious problem also cropped up when three bandmembers were arrested for an incident with underaged girls. The charges were dropped, but the episode required a drawn-out legal process that kept the band's attentions away from the music. Their relationship with manager Katz also began to suffer around this time.
Still, Moby Grape had gotten enough notice that their 1968 follow-up, Wow/Grape Jam, was eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, the disc was almost universally panned upon its release. A double album, with one live and one studio disc, the album did manage to reach #20 on the charts, the band's best showing, but showed little staying power, slipping off quickly.
Much of the criticism heaped on this record is valid; the live jam disc is long and unfocused and had few supporters even among fans. Many subsequent re-releases of the album have dropped the live disc altogether. Its best moments are Bob Mosley's slow blues "Never" (which Led Zeppelin may have borrowed, or stolen, as a basis for "Black Current Jam"), and guest pianist Al Kooper's piano playing. "Lake" is an experimental poetry accompanied by sound-effects montage; it's pretty hard to take. The 13-minute "Marmalade" is a long road to nowhere, too.
The studio disc is actually a lot better than was recognized at the time. One standout is "Murder In My Heart For The Judge" which has a great, soulful Mosley vocal over Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller's wailing guitars. Lewis also gives a great guitar performance on "He". Meanwhile, Spence's contributions included one good tune, "Motorcycle Irene" and the particularly annoying "Just Like Gene Autry"; pressed at 78 RPM, it required you to actually get up and adjust the turntable speed to hear it.
Spence, in fact, was on the verge of a mental breakdown that would persist to varying degrees for the rest of his life. Between sessions for the Wow album, he chopped down a hotel door and went after Stevenson and Miller with a fire axe like he meant business; the fortunate (and shaken) Stevenson and Miller were unharmed, but Spence was commited to New York's Bellevue Hospital soon after.
Spence would eventually pull himself together enough to be released and record a single solo disc, the remarkable Oar, released in 1969. Recorded in Nashville in a 2-week bluster, Spence plays all of the instruments himself, and sings all the tunes in a throaty, hoarse whisper of a voice, reminiscent of Fred Neil at times, nearly inaudible at others. In many respects, this album is one of the clearest musical documents of a very real slide into schizophrenia; in other respects it is a noble attempt at a masterpiece. In reality, it's a little of both; and it makes for compelling listening. It's full of very bizarre chord structures and punning, double-entendre laden lyrics. "Broken Heart" and "Cripple Creek" are among the more conventional songs on the album; both are possibly better than anything Spence had recorded before. "War in Peace" and "Grey/Afro" teeter on the brink of sanity. Syd Barrett fans ought to check this album out; a tribute album, More Oar was released in 1999. Spence was never heard from on record again except for token, barely-there contributions to a number of reunions; in and out of mental institutions the rest of his life, he died in 1998.
Meanwhile, Moby Grape soldiered on. As a four-piece, they released Moby Grape '69 in 1969, which peaked at a disappointing #113 on the Billboard chart. While Spence is missed, the other band members are in good form, with guitarist Peter Lewis particularly strong. "I Am Not Willing" and "If You Can't Learn From My Mistakes" are songs in an early country-rock vein and feature his delicate picking. Mosley contributes a tough rocker, "Hoochie" and a folkie-pop ballad "It's a Beautiful Day Today". Even Spence has a ghostly presence, in the form of his dark, foreboding "Seeing", recorded partially before his exit, and one of his and Moby Grape's finest songs.
The next blow for the band came when Bob Mosley, who had become a key member through his songwriting and strong vocal presence, decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. WIth little choice but to fulfill their contractual obligations, the band, now the trio of Lewis, Stevenson, and Miller cut and released Truly Fine Citizen in late 1969. Recorded in Nashville in two days flat with sessionmen, it is a better album than could be expected under the circumstances; "Right Before My Eyes" is a good country rock tune, and "Truly Fine Citizen" is a rocker that recalls their early work. Much of the rest is competent country/rock. While none of this is on par with Moby Grape, it does suggest new avenues the band might have taken had they kept going. It didn't sell very well, peaking at #157.
The band disbanded at this point, but in 1971 the original lineup reunited for 20 Granite Creek Spence's participation was minimal; the mystical-sounding instrumental "Chinese Song" on which he plays a koto (actually a Japanese instrument). Much of the rest of the album is pretty good; with hard rocking moments, and an even more explicitly country-rock flavor. While country-rock was big at the time, and Moby Grape came by it organically, the album barely entered the charts at #177.
One more serious attempt was made to revive the group in 1977; the group (Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller, with occasional help from Mosley and even Spence) played dates throughout the year, mostly around Santa Cruz. A document of this exists as Live Grape, released in 1978 (not including any nights Mosley played), and features a number of new songs. Manager Matthew Katz, who owned the name "Moby Grape" refused to let the band use it; instead they performed as The Grape, Original Grape, and Maby Grope. "That Lost Horizon" and "Your Rider" are good new Lewis songs, and Miller contributes the country "Here I Sit" and bluesy "I Love You So Much" Only diehards need to bother with it, but it is a pleasant listen.
Two more reunion discs followed, both with the original lineup, the very country-rock Moby Grape '84, and the 1990 cassette-only Legendary Grape, which gained a CD release with bonus cuts in 2003. Spence gets half a songwriting credit on the former, and one full credit "All My Life" on the latter. Neither were serious stabs at reviving the bands' fortunes; with some exceptions, the original material was fairly weak, and neither release was distributed very widely.
The surviving members still get together for the occasional show now and then. Given their convoluted history, the fact that they were assembled in the first place, and their failure to generate a lot of revenue, it's a credit that they've managed to work together, however sporadically, for so long.
For those who are curious, and want to explore the band further, you could do worse than start with the excellent Moby Grape; now remastered with better sound than it ever had on vinyl. For a deeper and broader overview, the 48-track Vintage: The Very Best of Moby Grape, which includes the entire first album, the best moments from '67-'69, and a generous supply of outtakes and live recordings, is a great place to start.
No, they weren't Jefferson Airplane, or Grateful Dead. But they deserve to be remembered; they really were unique during their brief peak, and remained fairly interesting afterwards.