Sunday, September 24, 2017

Moby Grape

SMiLE (you must know this already, if you read AM) is the greatest unreleased LP of all time. Brian Wilson's drug-addled effort was simply not meant to be. In many respects the same has to be applied to Moby Grape. By far the best of efforts of psychedelic Frisco (with the exception of Surrealistic Pillow – and I’ll entertain all arguments to the contrary), for most it's as if Moby Grape was never released. Armed with three virtuoso guitarists, Moby Grape had the greatest commercial potential of any San Francisco band, the Dead and the Airplane included. They quickly blew it all thanks to internal tensions, the acid-intensified psychological collapse of guitarist Skip Spence and Columbia's hysterical hype, which included releasing five simultaneous singles from the debut. Moby Grape was that good - a pop-smart whirl of blazing white R&B, country twang and psychedelic balladry, mostly cut live in the studio in three weeks for $11,000. They should have indeed been San Fran’s Beatles, or at worst, their Byrds.

David Fricke of Rolling Stone said of the debut, "It's one of the few rock 'n' roll albums of any era that you can say, 'That is a perfect debut album.' The songwriting on it is memorable — you take those songs with you wherever you go. The triple-guitar orchestration... it's not just power chords. Everyone is playing melodies and counter-melodies and rhythms. Very funky, also very country, very punk, very surf. And they were all singers."

San Francisco in 1967 must have been quite the place. Granted the whole scene has been sugar-coated into a nostalgic Neverland, but for one brief, shining moment, Frisco (the timely vernacular) captured rock 'n' roll lightning in a bottle. We all know the usual suspects, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, Big Brother and Janis, Jefferson Airplane, but of them all, Moby Grape could have been the best. So why was no one paying attention? Maybe it was merely an oversight based on a stellar Freshman Class of ’67 that included The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and the Velvet Underground, though The Grape's debut is a record chock full of white blues, acid rock and a tiny touch of country. I love when an album sounds like the time and place it was made. The cheap drum sound, the psych guitar work, all wrapped up with strong songwriting and five lads who knew how to jam.

Indeed, Moby Grape was a rarety – the perfect debut. Issued in June, 1967, two weeks after Sgt. Pepper, Moby Grape was an effervescent synthesis of choirboy folk-rock, clattering garage-rock propulsion and R&B moxie, charged with a love of rock's early roots and a vigorous refusal to be bound by the conventions of genre. Sublime in concept, immaculate in execution, the album was imbued with a contagious, celebratory optimism that was the Spirit of '67. 

The band had been together less than six months, yet their songwriting partnerships, musicianship and pure energy rival bands that had been together far longer. This is straight ahead rock 'n' roll with psych overtones, kept short, sweet and to the point. From the opening notes of "Hey Grandma" to the closing notes of "Indifference", there isn't a bad moment to be found. Also worth mentioning is the great mix of rockers ("Hey Grandma", "Fall on You", "Omaha", "Changes"), laid back jams ("Mr. Blues", "Come in the Morning", "Lazy me", "Indifference") and ballads ("8:05", "Naked, If I Want To", "Ain't No Use", "Sitting by the Window") that really give one a sense of the band's versatility. Some have called Moby Grape "The Byrds with the blues", and many of these songs would definitely support the contention. If you can listen to this album all the way through and not have a satisfied grin on your face at the end, make sure you're still breathing. 

Yet, against all odds, Moby Grape went on to become the most notorious failure in rock 'n' roll, an object lesson in how not to succeed in [music] business. Everything that could go wrong, did: legal nightmares, police busts, stolen equipment, disastrous road and recording experiences, even drug-induced madness.

In 1966, after Skip Spence left Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape was formed with Spence on guitar, drummer Don Stevenson, bassist Bob Mosley, and additional guitarists Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller. The band started by touring around the San Fran club scene before a bidding war between labels. The band finally settled on Columbia Records (according to Lewis, this was because Columbia was the label of The Byrds, a band that Moby Grape admired). At the time, it was supposedly the biggest contract Columbia had given to anyone. Columbia was no fledgling company (as was Warner’s when it came to rock), and so their odd enthusiasm, coupled with misfortune and foolish thinking spelled disaster for a band named after a kid's joke.

Columbia marketing put together a ridiculous album launch party that included "Moby Grape" wine (but failed to provide corkscrews). There were also purple flowers strewn everywhere, which had the same effect as banana peels on the floor. To top it off, the night ended with the band getting into hot water for partying with underage girls.

The next tumble came when Columbia decided to release five singles at once (worked for The Beatles). This left radio programmers confused as to what they should play, and many of them opted for nothing. The absence of radio play hit sales, and the album stalled at #24 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and "Omaha", the only single that charted, stalled at a paltry #88. 

Moby Grape is one of the most criminally forgotten LPs in rock music; not just overlooked (like Love’s Da Capo), but forgotten (more like The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow or The Bee Gees’ Odessa). AM won’t save it; many have tried, but if you, like me, are enamored by forgotten brilliance, here you go.  You're Welcome.