Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Moby Grape
The Vintage Years

Released 1993 on Columbia/Legacy
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 27/06/2003ce

"The Vintage Years" collects all of Moby Grape's debut album, the bulk of their 2nd and 3rd albums, two cuts from the 4th and final album, and various live/unreleased/demo/outtake material. It's an almost inpeccable collection -- their 4 albums average barely 30 minutes apiece, so you can easily fit all "the good stuff" on to 2 CD's with room to spare.

I've already posted a separate review of the first Moby Grape album with basic band history & bio, so we'll just pick up the story with the second LP in 1968:

Moby Grape's 2nd album was about as successful as their debut, rising to #20 on the US album charts. It follows the same "parade of short catchy songs" template as the debut, but is comprised of about equal parts: A) songs that reach the glorious highs of the debut LP, B) good songs ruined by overstuffed Moody Blues/Bee Gees style "orchestral" production, and C) filler and crap.

Highlights include the Southern-rock blueprint "Murder In My Heart For The Judge" with it's swaggering vocals and flaming slide guitars (Skynyrd shoulda covered this one); Peter Lewis' "He" is another one of his amazingly melodic hook-a-thons, and the rare case on this album where adding a string section actually enhanced the tune; and Bob Mosley's "Rose Colored Eyes," one of Moby's finest "psychedelic" moments with echo-drenched vocal harmonies, gentle backwards guitar filligree and a trippy acoustic raga jam for a bridge.

Unfortunately bad production decisions ruined the hippy anthem "The Place And The Time", as well as Mosley's heartbreaker "Bitter Wind". The good news is that "The Vintage Years" includes the original/alternate mixes of both of these songs without the overdubbed gobbledygook, revealing them for the gems that they are.

But the most disappointing thing about "Wow" is Skip Spence's tunes: "Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot" is a 20's style crooner-jazz period piece that is "meant to be played at 78rpm" which means it's mastered at less than half-speed on the 33rpm LP (and almost unlistenable.) "Funky-Tunk" is a country snoozer made "interesting" (though not "good") by some of Skip's vocals being sped up to sound like a munchkin! Spence's best contribution is the slight but charming "Motorcycle Irene" which begins with cheesy revving motorcycle sounds, and ends with screeching tires and a crash!

Once again the record company came up with a promotional gimmick: instead of releasing 5 singles at once, this time they included a "free bonus LP" called "Grape Jam" with "Wow". Unfortunately "Grape Jam" is your basic Supper Sessions blues-snooze studio jam with guest musicians (Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, of course!) None of this material is included on the "Vintage" compilation, which was a good decision.

The third LP "Moby Grape '69" is perhaps the most unsung album in the Grape discography -- it's not as good as their first album but it is more consistent that their second. The "parade of short catchy songs" formula is still in effect but styllisticly the "Nashville" in their sound is much more to the fore as "psychedelic" tendencies recede (perhaps having to do with the departure of weirdo Skip Spence?)

Bob Mosley brings the hard stuff on "69" with his overamped fuzzbass blues "Hoochie" (their "heaviest" moment, tho not exactly Led Zeppelin) and the single "Trucking Man" with it's harmonized lead guitar riffs (shades of Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy, BOC . . .) Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" is deconstructed from a Loozyana boogie to a tumbleweed two-step. The album's closer "Seeing" is their last song composed by the departed Skip Spence: musically dramatic with typically inscrutable lyrics, it lurches back and forth between gentle psych-pop and thrashing San Francisc-a-delic rock-outs reminiscent of the debut album. (A demo version of "Seeing" that includes Skip Spence is also included as a bonus track on "Vintage.")

By the time of the fourth and final album "Truly Fine Citizen" (1969) Bob Mosley was also gone (rumour is he joined the Marines!) and the remaining three Grapes hired session musicians to record a contractual obligation album. The result lacks the consistency of their other records, and it's country-fied sound veers awfully close to "soft rock". The title track (a mere 1:50 in length) is the closest thing to the energetic rock of their earlier records here, and also pretty much the only decent Miller/Stevenson song. Peter Lewis' tunes are the ones that stand out though they aren't his best work: "Right Before My Eyes" is a nice folky finger-pickin' 70's lite rock tune that Dan Fogelberg or John Denver could have written, and is the only other track from this LP included on "Vintage." (Lewis' "Looper" also originally appeared on this LP, but for "Vintage" they wisely included a far superior 1967 demo version of the song instead.)

My one serious beef with the "Vintage" compilation is that for "verite purposes" they have included some studio chatter in between the songs on the first album that was not part of the original release. IMHO, hearing the producer cuss out the band during the recording sessions adds nothing to the listening experience, in fact it really slows down the wham-bam, one-gem-after-another momentum that is that particular album's great strength.

So what relevance hath Moby Grape down through the ages? Well, writing material with a Nashville Honky Tonk / Memphis Soul vibe and dressing it up with some psychedelic flourishes (as they did from their very first record, though they got less psychedelic as time went on) was a whole musical Movement that began in the late 60's, and Moby Grape seems to have been on the forefront of that Movement (which reached its wretched pinnacle with The Eagles in the mid-1970's.)

There were stylistic precedents for this: The Byrds certainly (tho Grape's first LP was released about the same time as the Byrds' seminal longhairs-go-Nashville LP "Younger Than Yesterday".) Also the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" and even some of the acoustic stuff on "A Hard Day's Night," although unlike a Moby Grape or "American Beauty"-era Grateful Dead, the Fabs always seemed to be playing "with" American roots-music traditions, not "within" them.

And so Moby Grape's influence on later groups can be seen most readily in that most American of all musical genres, so-called "Southern Rock." Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas and Molly Hatchet all featured three guitar front lines and tightly arranged riffs similar to the Grape -- as did Blue Oyster Cult for that matter (their first album from 1972, with it's thin "sixties" production, has always reminded me of Moby Grape!)

It is also true that Led Zeppelin were avowed Moby Grape fans, though what influence there may have been is harder to pinpoint. A psychedelic pop-country tune like "Tangerine" seems the most obvious place to look, though I think you could argue that the general approaches of both bands were similar even if the results came out sounding quite different: namely "taking honky-tonkin' rockabilly music and cranking it UP!" The biggest difference is Zep cranked up not just tempo and volume but also song lengths, solo wankage, and everything else.

For vinyl hounds, you can't go wrong with the '67 debut LP ("Wow" and "69" are pretty good too.) But for CD lovers, "The Vintage Years" will likely be the only Moby Grape record you'll ever need to own.

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