Review Summary: To this day Moby Grape's electrifying debut not only stands the test of time, but heads and shoulders above even their most celebrated contemporaries' best albums.
The fact that Moby Grape has been lost to the annals of rock music's history will always be one of its most shameful sins. As a larger rock music community, we are all responsible for this calamity. Moby Grape really had it all: exceptionally talented songwriters, incredible guitar players, a rhythm section on par with any in the world and a unique diversity that spoke volumes in the relatively streamlined San Francisco psychedelic scene of the 1960's. That they fizzled out in anguish, poverty and obscurity is not only tragic, it's damn near criminal. More than any band of that scene, Moby Grape deserved the world, and for a moment, seemed poised to have it in their grasp. Their pop masterpieces spanned multiple musical genres often in one song, something that many contemporaries only half-heartedly attempted with bloated, self-absorbed results. While Jefferson Airplane was busy shedding their most inventive songwriter (original drummer and Moby Grape's very own Alexander "Skip" Spence), trying really hard to shock middle America, getting Jerry Garcia to write their best electric guitar leads and blowing smoke up their own @$$, Moby Grape were crafting indelible masterpieces. While The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service (who also counted "Skip" Spence as an original member) were still trying to catch the lightning of their live improvisations in the bottle of a recording studio session, Moby Grape were laying magic onto tape. While Sly Stone was still assembling what would become the most important rock n' soul band of all time and attempting the move from studio musician to big-time bandleader, Moby Grape came pre-assembled and ready to ignite. Indeed, aside from the criminally overlooked Country Joe and the Fish, no San Francisco band emerged more fully realized than the legendary Grape, and their story is as noteworthy as their classic debut.
In 1966 a long-haired weirdo in a San Francisco coffee shop named "Skip" Spence was approached by award-winning douchebag Matthew Katz. He tells Spence he's the manager for an electric blues band being assembled called the Jefferson Airplane and they need a drummer. Despite the fact that Spence has never touched a drum set in his life, Katz assures him that it's no problem. Spence, he insists, looks like a drummer. Spence, a natural musician, learns fast. Three months into his tenure in the band, Jefferson Airplane lands a record deal (puns!). After recording their debut album, however, Katz reveals that he has other plans for Spence. Knowing that Spence is primarily a guitarist, the shady manager (recently let go by the Airplane) suggests forming a guitar music supergroup with members of Washington garage rock band The Frantics. Before long, Spence and Frantics guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson were joined by Cornells guitarist Peter Lewis and Misfits bassist Bob Mosely (no, not THAT misfits). Thus, Moby Grape is born. With three guitars instead of the typical two, Moby Grape already stood out. A rhythm and lead player was nothing unheard of in the world of electric blues, but THREE interchangeable lead and rhythm players? The revolutionary concept had been in use by Buffalo Springfield, but not to the mind-melting extent it would be explored with Spence, Miller and Lewis. Furthermore, the fact that even the rhythm section played guitars and wrote their own songs cemented Moby Grape as destined to destroy all competition in their path. Within months, the band became the talk of the town and were signed to Columbia records. This, however, was only the beginning of the saga of Moby Grape.
With Grape hype comes great responsibility, something that five dudes who were struggling musicians less than a year earlier were anything but prepared for. Touted as "America's answer to the Beatles", the Grape were flooded with excesses of drugs, groupies, cars and cash. Columbia, in a face-palmingly stupid move, released ten of the albums twelve tracks as five singles with album B-sides simultaneously. Yes, you read right, SIMULTANEOUSLY. The public was confused, to say the least. Then, at the album release party for their debut, some of the band unknowingly "consorted" with some underage girls. This, needless to say, was not good for the band's public image (no John Lydon). As if it could not get any worse, Katz was a notoriously greedy and underhanded manager. Frequently cutting corners off the band's profits into his own pockets, Katz continuously hindered the band's progression. Perhaps no such hinderance is as awe-inspiring as his head-scratchingly evil move regarding the band's exhilarating and epic performance opening for Otis Redding at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, a few weeks after the release of their debut. Aware that a film was being made of the event, the band was eager to both annihilate the crowd and be involved in the now ground breaking project. Widely being praised as one of the most memorable performances of the weekend, the band were set to become one of the most pivotal parts of the film. Katz, however, refused to allow the band to be in the film unless they were paid an outrageous amount of money (I've heard rumors it was upwards of three million in today's money). Sadly, another chance to make an impression had been blown. Yet, despite the bad luck and bad lucy that would later prove to be the band's down fall, their debut shines with a divine light rarely glimpsed in the world of popular music.
The album opens with a roaring country-rock classic "Hey Grandma", an exercise in three guitar brilliance. The song is one of the few indescribable tunes I've ever heard, neither rock, blues, country nor folk but all of the above. Then follows the blues-country classic "Mr. Blues" sung by the soulful Bob Mosley. A unique exercise in electric roots music and angelic harmony, Mosley's bass shines here, easily as fluidic as any lead guitar part on the record, and the tune ends with a groove that would make the Grateful Dead in their prime sound like ambient music. Then comes the Lewis-penned "Fall On You", one of the best examples of vocal harmony I have ever had the privilege of hearing. It doesn't hurt that the lead guitar is aural candy either, as sweet and smooth as any Kaukonen lead with twice the tonal experimentation. Not bad for a band only on their third track! "8:05" follows, an acoustic country-folk Miller tune that must be heard to be understood. It is perfect. Literally. It is the most beautiful song on side one by far, and probably one of the most beautiful songs of all time. "Come in the Morning" is the quintessential example of the San Francisco sound. The vocals are ridiculously well put together and the string interplay is unbelievable. Listen to this on a rainy day and I swear the sun will shine in your mind. Then comes the Spence-penned stand out "Omaha". The musical chemistry on this song is outstanding. The guitars interconnect so vividly and with so much enthusiasm that at times they sound like one guitar. "Naked, If I Want To" is the best one minute song I've ever heard in my life. It's at once beautiful, funny and even a little somber. Miller's guitar and harmonic arrangements shine here, and the song contains some of the best lyrics on the album. I listen to this song every Fourth of July. Check it out and find out why. It is the perfect closer to an amazing first side.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, in comes side two. "Someday" is one of the most foreword-looking tracks on the album and a precursor to the dream pop of our millennium's indie scene. The song's quiet dignity and angelic harmony transitions into a masterful second vocal, one minute faint and whispered, the next soulful and rich. The song ends with an incredible jazz-influenced solo courtesy of the talented Jerry Miller that I desperately wish could have gone on for a few more measures. "Ain't No Use" is a hillbilly country shuffle that excels with a brightness rivaled only by "Come in the Morning". It is a truly catchy work of scintillating joy with a truly groovy lead guitar breakdown. The song then leads into the sullen and lovely Lewis-penned "Sitting by the Window". If any song has ever sounded like the color blue looks, it's this one. Tranquil and inventive, the song yet again showcases not only Lewis' gorgeous sense of tone, but his beautiful voice as well. "Changes" is another rock n' roll foot stomper in the vein of "Hey Grandma" that grooves as it chugs. The guitar interplay, as expected, is nothing short of brilliant and the vocal harmonies are almost as dense as the string arrangements (not to mention the somewhat undermined work of drummer Stevenson). "Lazy Me" is Mosley's masterpiece. The dismal and even somewhat macabre lyrics predate the lyrical formula of punk rock while the music has hints of spanish classical tucked amidst folds of misty folk. If "Sitting by the Window" sounds blue, "Lazy Me" is undoubtedly royal purple. Then comes "Indifference", the second and last Spence-penned masterpiece of the album. There could be no better album closer than this song. Spence is a genius songwriter (see his only solo album "Oar" for further proof) and this song's uproarious take on the electric blues is musical ecstasy at its very core. The lead guitar work is phenomenal and indescribable, with the end of the song culminating in a soft jam that propels the song to its humble end.
Despite this remarkable testimony, Moby Grape gradually splintered and split apart. Spence would later suffer from acute mental disorders exacerbated by excessive drug use that would leave him battling homelessness and addiction for the rest of his life. As if some dark curse hung over the band, Mosley tragically suffered a similar fate. Katz, being the terrible person that he is, continuously ruined chances for the band until he was dismissed as their manager in 1968. However, it was too late. After four more albums (two minus Spence, who by their second album had already begun to lose his mind) that failed to fully recapture the magic of their debut, the Grape was over. Though occasionally rejoining for one-off concerts, all hopes of a full reunion tour were shattered when Spence passed away homeless and unstable in 1995. Despite the tragedy of their untimely demise, Moby Grape still stand tall as one of the most important bands in the history of rock music. Their debut is still considered a classic and musicians from Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant to Beck have paid tribute to the brilliance of the sixties' most overlooked and underrated rock group. To this day, from dream pop to alt-country to the electric blues and everywhere in between, the Grape's influence is still felt. What a difference an album has made!