What’s big and purple and lives in the Ocean? Moby Grape of course. The joke is as old as the hills, but it is literally where the band got it’s name. The same year (1967) that the band “Touch” was making their eponymous masterpiece in L.A., Moby Grape was making their eponymous debut album in San Francisco. Moby Grape should have been a huge success. In many ways they were, but they were ultimately overshadowed by their fellow San Francisco based pals The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. While L.A. was embarking on the exploration of Progressive Rock, San Francisco was on the cutting edge of Psychedelic rock. This album by Moby Grape is one of the finest LP’s to come out of the 1960’s San Francisco rock scene. I don’t think the Jefferson Airplane or a lot of other bands ever made an album as good as this one. Alas, fate doomed Moby Grape almost from it’s Genesis…
Moby Grape was formed in 1966 by Skip Spence and Mathew Katz. Katz had been the manager of Jefferson Airplane and Spence was their first drummer. Skip Spence even wrote some songs that Jefferson Airplane performed.
Both were booted out of the Jefferson Airplane after the first album. The proof of the wisdom in that decision is obvious based on the fame the Airplane achieved verses the obscurity of Moby Grape. Katz was nothing but trouble for the Airplane. He was considered unreliable and over-controlling. Skip was also unreliable. Shortly after the release of the Airplane’s first album Spence bolted to Mexico with a couple of girls and didn’t tell any of the band members. Erratic and unreliable behavior would eventually become Skip Spence’s legacy.
Katz wanted Spence to form a band that had multiple lead singers and song writers just like the Jefferson Airplane had. Spence had played drums for Jefferson Airplane but with Moby Grape he moved back to his primary instrument, the Guitar. He was a powerful, energetic, and charismatic rhythm guitar player. These atributes would be his primary gifts that he would bestow on their debut album. The energy and excitement of the performances are amazing.
The group was formed from a wide range of musical influences. Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson were from Seattle Washington. They were in a band called “The Frantics”. They came down to San Francisco and met Jerry Garcia. Jerry encouraged them to relocate to San Francisco. Once Miller and Stevenson relocated, they met and added Bob Mosley to the group. Mosley was from San Diego and had been in a surfer band called “The Misfits”. Peter Lewis also joined “The Frantics”. He was from southern California too. He had also been in a surfer band called “The Cornells”. So, the surfer sound joined with the sound of Seattle, and combined with the psychedelic americana sound of San Francisco to create a brand new sound; a sound that really never got repeated. This is a very unique album that blends all of the above into a powerful rock & roll statement. It is replete with great 3 guitar rock. At times all three players are dueling it out in an amazing wall of sound. Even Buffalo Springfield, (the other great 3 guitar band of the times) must have been envious.
I have no idea how”The Frantics” hooked up with Spence and Katz. One could assume that Jerry Garcia may have played a role in putting Katz and Spence together with the rest of the guys. If anyone knows please add your comments. Neither Spence or Katz revealed that they had been kicked out of The Jefferson Airplane. The new band signed with Katz and unfortunately gave him all the rights to their name and their albums. The seeds of destruction had been sown.
The original cover of this album featured Don Stevenson “giving the finger”. The photo was taken by the famous rock & roll photographer Jim Marshall . “The finger” was discovered and airbrushed out on later album covers. The album also contained a poster of the album cover. As the air-brushers caught up to the offensive finger, some albums had the finger on the poster and not on the cover and vice-versa. Unfortunately my copy does not have the original uncensored cover. It is also missing the poster. Otherwise it is in very good condition. Naturally, the “finger” cover and poster are highly collectible.
While the rest of the San Francisco rock scene was getting caught up in extended jam sessions that attempted to replicate an acid trip, Moby Grape was focusing on short, tightly focused rock songs.
They began to attract enormous attention because of their powerful live shows. Al Kooper said they were the only band he really liked that came out of the San Francisco rock scene. He eventually recorded with the band on “Grape Jam”. Their tight interwoven guitar sound attracted even more attention. Buffalo Springfield and Janis Joplin started showing up for rehearsals. Just like in the case of Touch, record company exec’s started showing up too. A bidding war ensued. Columbia won.
This album is about as good as debut albums get. Columbia spared no expense in the making of this record. There’s not a weak song on the record. It is unique to establish a band where every member is a great singer and great musician. Stevenson was one of the pioneers of drummers who also sang lead vocal and simultaneously played drums. So take a listen to one of the great hidden treasures of rock & roll. Ladies and Gentlemen: MOBY GRAPE!
The album opens with this great rocker written by Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson. It’s a great example of their powerful, energetic performances and the competing 3 guitar sound.
This sounds like Steven Stills from his Buffalo Springfield days. Hear we hear Moby Grape out Buffalo the Buffalo Springfield. Is this a reply to “Mr. Soul”? This song was written by Bob Mosley.
Fall On You
This song was written by Peter Lewis. Another strong song featuring great guitar, great lyrics, and great harmonies. I am very impressed by the lead guitar of Jerry Miller. All in all they have guitar riffs that don’t sound like anyone else.
The first acoustic Americana sounding cut on the album. This song was also written by Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson. It’s a beautiful song. Great harmonies.
Come In The Morning
This song was written by Bob Mosley. This song sounds like it should have been a hit song. Great vocals, melody, production. What a shame not many people know it.
This song was written by Skip Spence. All I could say after hearing this song was WOW! An awesome three guitar battle. Great music and a very intense performance. The energy and power is about to blow the speakers apart. This is the best example of the powerful performance energy that Skip Spence brought to “Live” performances.
Naked If I Want To
This short little acoustic number is a real charmer and makes me smile. I really Like the last line about trying to buy an amplifier on credit…
Side two opens with this quiet beautiful song written by Jerry Miller, Skip Spence, and Don Stevenson. Great harmonies and awesome vocals at the break. The value of having multiple lead singers allows you to change up the vocal texture and add emotion. There is a great piece of guitar playing at the end of the song as it fades out. I believe that is Jerry Miller again on lead guitar. They fade the song out a little to quick.
Ain’t No Use
This song is written by Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson. This is the most country rock sounding song on the record. Very Grateful Dead sounding. I bet Jerry Garcia wished he had written this one.
Sitting By The Window
This song was written by Peter Lewis. It is magic. What a great song. Beautiful guitar work. Very unique sound.
This song was written by Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson. This sounds like it should have been a hit too. It has all the hallmarks. I like the ending of this song.
This song was written by Bob Mosley. Now they out Jefferson The Jefferson Airplane. The vocals and harmonies sound like the Airplane. The only problem with this song is that it’s too short.
The album ends with this song by Skip Spence. It is a very strong closing song. This song also has some Airplane influences. I love the emotion in the vocals. The guitar work and harmonies are awesome. This is one of the earliest examples I know of where a song fades out and then fades back in. The song ends as it started. But then it kind of fizzles out. Real life can be so ironic…
So what happened to this band? How did so much good go so wrong? First of all Columbia mishandled their launch. When they signed Moby Grape they proclaimed them “The Beatles of San Francisco.” The record company over-hyped them in a time when hype was suspect. This turned a lot of music fans off. Next Columbia threw a giant party for the album release. Purple was everywhere. Unfortunately a few of the band members were arrested for smoking marijuana with minor females. OOPS! This generated some bad press. Next, the record company released 5 singles from the album simultaneously. Can you believe that shit??? 10 of the 13 cuts were released as singles. As a result the songs canceled each other out and none of them ever made the top 40. De-Jay’s were put off by the number of singles and all the hype. There was a backlash. Sales of the album were less than stellar.
Because the band members were all new to each other, there was no leader, no center. The band began to bicker among themselves.
Katz screwed up the band’s appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. He wanted $1,000,000 for the rights to release the video for the film. Because of Katz demands Moby Grape went on stage Friday at sunset instead of in the evening right before the headliner, Otis Redding… Valuable exposure was wasted. Katz still has the video locked up in court. By the time they got to New York the band was coming apart. Skip Spence was really starting to get strange.
Skip met some strange people in New York City and he started using more serious drugs. He eventually flipped out and attacked Stevenson’s hotel door with a fire axe. This landed him in the criminal ward at Bellevue Mental Institution. He spent most of the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions. After he was released from Bellevue he left Moby Grape, went to Nashville and made a solo album called “Oar”. I would love to find this record. It is supposed to be a great “Acid-folk” album. It was released in 1968. Spence never produced any other meaningful work after that. Sadly he died in California of cancer in 1999. Skip Spence was a causality of the fast lane.
Bob Mosley left the band next. He was frustrated by the infighting in the group. Inexplicably, he joined the Marine Corp in 1969. The Military quickly diagnosed Bob Mosley with Schizophrenia and he was medically discharged. He ended up homeless for years. After the members of Moby Grape won their 39 year court battle with Katz for the rights to their songs and name, Peter Lewis went looking for Bob Mosley. He found him living under a highway overpass in San Diego. Peter dusted Bob off and they went back to work in the music business.
Jerry Miller is still alive and kicking and has had a great music career through this entire time period.
Peter Lewis is also doing well and still performing with the remaining members of Moby Grape as well as other music projects.
Don Stevenson is still performing with Moby Grape as well as solo projects.
Matthew Katz tied up Jefferson Airplane, It’s A Beautiful Day, and Moby Grape in court battles for over 30 years. He ultimately lost his battles. He is still around and trying to cause legal trouble to the members of Moby Grape. But the Grape finally owns their work again.
So this is not the end of tale. Maybe Moby Grape can have a renaissance and finally gain the recognition they deserve. Some of the members recently performed together at South By Southwest in Austin Texas. I hope so. They may be the greatest band you never heard…