Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Moby Grape - Moby Grape

Moby Grape

Released 1967 on Columbia
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 27/06/2003ce

Moby Grape is not a forgotten band, but they are a band remembered as little more than a footnote: the ultimate answer-to-a-trivia-question band. You may already be familiar with the tale -- Summer of Love, June 1967: Columbia records unleashes a promotional blitz that includes the simultaneous release of FIVE Moby Grape singles (one featuring each member of the group) and landing the band a slot at the Monterrey Pop Festival. But the Heads are turned off by the stench of plastic hype ("The Man Can't Bust Our Music") and Moby Grape is scorned as Monkees-like "crap" (or so the legend goes.) A simpler version of the story focuses on the fact that the original printings of their album had to be withdrawn from stores because of the cover photo where drummer Don Stevenson is extending his middle finger (American slang gesture for "fuck you.")

But whatever the unintended consequences of the marketing strategy*, if you get past the hype & lore and listen to the record you can see why the record company was so gung-ho about Moby Grape's potential as a hit-making machine. They had as good a shot as anyone (The Byrds, The Monkees) of becoming that legendary holy grail of the US record industry in the 60's: "America's Answer To The Beatles"!

Simply put, this was a phenomenally talented band. All five members sang and wrote their own original songs, and with three guitarists they had instrumental muscle to spare. The only Graper who was famous already in 1967 was Skip Spence who had briefly been the drummer for the Jefferson Airplane, and who would leave his Grape gig (where he mainly played rhythm guitar) in 1968 to record a solo album "Oar" and become a musical cult figure (sort of an American version of Twink.)

Of the others, Jerry Miller is perhaps the one who most deserves elevation to some sort of pantheon: you'll never hear his name mentioned in the same breath as Kaukonen, Garcia & Cippolina but you should. Only unlike those shambolic jammers, Miller often takes the "San Francisc-a-delic guitar sound" and puts it in the service of bluesy-country-pop riffettes that recall George Harrison's tasty licks for the Beatles. (Interesting trivia fact: in 1966 Miller played guitar on the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought The Law"!)

Bassist Bob Mosley was the bluesiest singer/songwriter in the band, with a deep yet controlled wail that rarely sank into Doug Ingle territory. Peter Lewis (rhythm guitar) was the crooning baladeer of the group, and a uniquely skilled composer of hook-laden pop songs. And finally there was Miller's longtime songwriting partner, drummer Don Stevenson (who also played guitar and sang.)

For their debut the boys produced 13 totally memorable and varied nuggets of San Fran Acid Pop with Nashville overtones that whiz by in a mere 31 minutes. This concise style is perhaps one of the things that caused the "Hip" to tune out Moby Grape, it being a period when album-side-long tracks and monster drum solos were coming into vogue.

"Hey Grandma" is one of my all-time favorite songs of 1967, and also one of the greatest obscure B-sides ever. Miller spews out a steady stream of wailin', crunchin' smoovely-controlled-feedback lead guitar while the two rhythm guitars lock in on stairstep chord progressions, the rhythm section pulsates like a big glob of coloured oil projected on a screen at an Acid Test, and two or three singers drawl in a semi-ridiculous falsetto harmony: "hey gram-maaaaw, yore so young / yore ole maaaaan is just a boy" -- "everything is upside down, upside down!" Actually the song is about the "granny dresses and glasses" hippy chicks wore in those days -- but it isn't hard to misinterpret it as a psychedelic "Little Old Lady From Pasadena" novelty song.

"Fall On You" (another B-side) is an uptempo country-rocker not far from the sound of the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" or the Byrds' "Younger Than Yesterday" (another unsung landmark released the same year as Moby Grape's debut) but with less jingle-jangle and more brrrrranngg!! than either of those groups. Like all of Lewis' tunes this one is crammed to bursting with hooks, and it also features the most sizzling rawk lead guitar break on the whole LP.

Bob Mosley's spotlight single A-side is the Cali-rockin' ray of sunshine "Come In The Morning" (dunno if the title is meant to be dirty but heh, wouldn't surprise me.) I bet the granola munchers were swingin' and swayin' when they played this one at the Fillmore.

"Omaha" was their highest-charting single, peaking at a pathetic #88. It begins with a series of !!cosmic!~~!brainflashes!! that are among the most memorable "psychedelic sounds" of the whole 60's (an audio effect created by feedback and cymbal crashes played backwards and wildly panned between stereo channels.) The tune that follows the atttention-grabbing opening noise lives up to the promise, a sort of acid cowboy gallop with complex rhythm changes (you can tell it was written by a drummer.) The overall effect is something like Love's classic single "7 And 7 Is" only less "apocalypse" and more "spaghetti western." When trying to describe Skip Spence songs adjectives like "inscrutable" and "indecipherable" come to mind. This song has nothing to do with the city in Nebraska, from the chorus you'd guess the song was called "Listen My Friends".

"Sitting By The Window" is the standout contribution by Peter Lewis on this LP, and his A-side single feature. Looooove the guitar arrangement here: one plays spidery lead raga arpeggios, another does a chunka-chink laid back rhythm, and the third sprays a fine mist of tremelo & reverb over the whole thing. Sweeet! Wonderful production touches subtly using echo on a sung word or guitar lick here and there -- a song that absolutely reeks of patchouli, incense and "exotic smokables" in the best possible way.

"Lazy Me" is one of the few songs on the album NOT released on a single, and way too brief at 1:40 in length. A complex and melodramatic "uptempo bluesrock ballad" by Mosley, it features an unforgettable heartbreaker of a vocal hook: "I'll just lay here . . . and decay here." Shivers!

The final track "Indifference" is another inscrutable Skip Spence Acid Cowboy Tapdancin' Boogie. The chorus: "what a difference a day has made / what a difference and more of the same!" And another line that sticks in your head: "what once brought you up now brings you down." (Sounds more like a sentiment from 1970.) By far the longest track on the album at over 4 minutes in length, at the end they bring it way down and then build back up with interlocking guitar ragas, launching the kind of jam that the Airplane would have kept playing for a good 5 minutes (the Dead for at least 20) -- but having proven that they can jam if they want to, the Grape lets it melt away into the ether in under a minute.

SEE ALSO the accompanying review of the 2 CD compilation "The Vintage Years" (1993) which includes every song from this album, plus outtakes and demos and material from their later albums.

* In fact "Moby Grape" peaked at #24 on the US album charts, making it the 2nd best-selling record by a San Fran band in 1967 (behind only "Surrealistic Pillow.") They handily outsold the debuts by Big Brother and the Dead, their class of '67 peers.

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