Lost Tuneage: Moby Grape
Collectively, Moby Grape probably was one of the most talented bands to come out of San Francisco area during the golden age of hippiedom. Formed in 1966 by drummer Skip Spence and manager Matthew Katz (both of whom had just been fired from Jefferson Airplane), the lineup included Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Spence on guitars, Bob Mosley on bass and Don Stevenson on drums. As all members sang lead and backup and contributed to songwriting, they were a Hydra of talent, easily switching between rock, country, and psychedelia.
The band took its name from an in-joke ("What's big and purple and lives in the ocean?"). 1967 debut Moby Grape featured outstanding material like up-tempo rhythm-rockers "Hey Grandma" and "Omaha," along with mellower stuff like "8:05" and the buoyant pop of "Come in the Morning."
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Oh Christ, where to start? Talk about bad-luck bands. First, Columbia Records decided to issue five singles simultaneously from the debut, flooding the market and giving MG an image of being "over-hyped." Their free-form genre-crossing (much of it fast-paced rock) seemed a bit out of step with the hippy-dippy blues-based or protest music of SF breakthrough artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin.
Then, manager Katz (who would have a tumultuous relationship with the band) refused to allow filmmakers to shoot footage of its performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, demanding a reported $1 million. Of course, the film's exposure went on to make huge nationwide superstars of other acts. Double-album second release Wow/Grape Jam was deemed too sprawling and unfocused.
But things really started to unravel when Spence became an LSD head case a la Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green, landing him in a psych ward before leaving the group. After Moby Grape '69, Mosley left (joining the Marines!), while the other three finished with Truly Fine Citizen. Quality of the material in these years varied (standout post-debut tracks include "Murder in My Heart for the Judge," "Bitter Wind," "Can't Be So Bad," "Ooh Mama Ooh," and "What's to Choose") and the somewhat anonymous nature of the band didn't help.
The original five had a one-off reunion to record for 1971's 20 Granite Creek, but then members began to come and go again, and lawsuits against and from Katz (who owned the band's name and signed away the band's rights to its own material) flew back and forth, keeping the band in legal limbo for decades. By the early '70s, the Grape had been stomped.
Why Should I Care?
Lynyrd Skynyrd gets credit for having a "three guitar army," but Moby Grape did it earlier, dubbing the musical interactions (often fast, stinging peals and runs) between the three axemen "crosstalk." And in retrospect, while the band did have too many cooks in the kitchen (or tinkers in the woodshed), when it came to songwriting thus diluting a cohesive style or identity, there's no denying the amount of talent.
Moby Grape was the band a lot of fellow SF musicians would have figured to hit it big. However, they've garnered something of an intense following over the years, counting lots of music critics as fans.
Where Are They Now?
Spence recorded a cult-favorite solo record, Oar (on which he played all the instruments), but spent years in poor health, suffering from mental illness, and alcoholism. He died in 1999. Miller still performs with the Jerry Miller Band; Lewis and Mosley hit the stage less often. But all three have released records and reunited occasionally to record and perform as Moby Grape or (during Katz litigation) names like Fine Wine, Maybe Grape, Original Grape and Legendary Grape.
Mosley, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, also spent time homeless. Stevenson found a career in real estate, but still plays the infrequent Grape gig. Spence and Miller's sons also are known to join them. But things have ended on a high note for these MG's. In 2006, the band won the rights to its name and songs back from Katz, along with back royalties (though the lawsuits and counterclaims continue).
The four surviving members reunited to play San Francisco at the "Summer of Love 40th Anniversary Concert" in 2007. That same year, all five of the classic lineup's albums were finally reissued, all with generous bonus tracks.
Essential Listening, Reading
Moby Grape (1967, but get the 2007 reissue with bonus tracks)
Listen My Friends: The Best of Moby Grape (2007, single CD compilation)
Excerpt from Jeff Tamarkin's book on Jefferson Airplane, Got a Revolution: "Skip Spence and the Sad Saga of Moby Grape"
Summer of Love by Joel Selvin
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