Moby Grape must have looked great on paper. Here was a band of five extraordinarily talented musicians who all sang and wrote songs that merged Folk, Country, Blues and Jazz. Top it off, the frontman/rhythm guitarist was the Jefferson Airplane's original drummer, Skip Spence. How could they miss? Well, here's how.
Formed in '66, the San Francisco based group released their self-titled debut a year later. Columbia Records, still rather new to the whole Rock n' Roll biz decided to implement the same marketing ploy Capitol Records used to introduce The Beatles to the U.S. They simultaneously released five singles. In '64 you could get away with that (and it was The Beatles after all) but in '67 things were more 'real', something the suits at Columbia didn't grasp. Aside from confusing DJs about which single to play, the group was accused of being over-hyped. Not cool, man.
The single "Omaha," known for some great guitar work and the refrain "listen my friends" was the group's best charting single, although it didn't do all that well. The album, which also featured the Country-Rock "8:05," would eventually get its due (though too little, too late), it was a blunder from which the group would never recover.
Moby Grape took another step backward at the Monterey Pop Festival. Due to legal and managerial disputes their performance was kept out of the D.A Pennebaker documentary on the legendary festival. Every time Monterey Pop was shown on T.V. or re-issued to theaters it boosted the catalog of Jimi Hendrix, The Who and other bands who appeared in the film. Moby Grape's concert recordings and footage remained on the shelf for decades. Missed opportunity.
OK, '67 was a rocky. Now it's '68. New year - fresh start. Right? Nope. "Wow/Grape Jam," a double album was both a critical and commercial disappointment. The set was sold as "two albums for the price of one." Even that marketing gambit failed to move the album beyond the lower reaches of Billboard's Top 20 Album Chart.
"Wow" was close to the bands debut but it also stretched to incorporate string and horn arrangements. "Grape Jam" was just that - long studio improvisations.
Maybe the band just needed to get out of the Bay Area. A run in New York would set it right. Hardly. Spence went sideways on drugs wielding an axe at NY's Albert Hotel. That little escapade landed him in Bellevue Hospital. On the day of his release, Spence, dressed only in his pajamas, drove a motorcycle to Nashville and recorded his solo album, "Oar."
Well, that was odd but perhaps now things will finally get on track. Not a chance. The four remaining members released "Moby Grape '69" before Mosley packed it in. Down to a trio, Moby Grape issued "Truly Fine Citizen" later that year.
The original line-up (all five of them) got together in '71 for "20 Granite Creek" but Spence was soon AOL again. Various reunions and such have occurred, and more often not occurred.
Guess sometimes, it's just not meant to be. It was only in '06 that the group successfully sued their former manager, Matthew Katz, and won back the legal ownership of their name, which they had lost in '67. But that piece of good news was too late for Spence. Homeless and suffering from long-term mental illness and numerous ailments, he died in Santa Cruz, CA, in '99.
To be honest, their record label screwed them over big time but the fact remains that despite the talent, Moby Grape never lived up to expectations - probably not even their own. Unlike their Fillmore Ballroom contemporaries, they veer away from psychedelic and stay lodged in the Folk, Country and R&B vein. What could be eclectic (see Buffalo Springfield) becomes schizophrenic -especially later on.
Moby Grape's best shot at immortality is their debut. With strong vocal harmonies, Moby Grape show off their Folk ("Someday") and Country ("8:05") roots. It's easy to imagine Glenn Frey and Don Henley using this record (and others) to map out the Eagles sound. "The rollicking "Hey Grandma," "Fall On You" and "Omaha" make the band a contender.
"Wow/Gape Jam" fails to fulfill the promise. "Can't Be So Band" is a James Brown type Soul romp but nobody in the band is even close to Brown's league. Nice try though. "Murder In My Heart For The Judge" is solid Blues but the Folk-Country excursions are forgettable. The extended jams have their moments but that's about all. On both this album and its predecessor, Moby Grape does a song in a style of early Airplane - figures given the connection. Here it's the serviceable "Rose Colored Glasses." Thankfully, "Motorcycle Irene" cuts through with some welcome energy and drive.
"Moby Grape '69" is a return to form. They still lean heavily on Country ("Ain't That A Shame" - no it's not the Fats Domino song - and "Captain Nemo"). The excellent "Soul Stew," "If You Can't Learn From My Mistakes," "Truckin' Man" and "Going Nowhere" make this set worthwhile.
Sadly, re-issues have been plagued by shoddy sound quality, haphazard packaging or the seemingly inevitable legal hassles. Albums released by San Francisco Sound Recordings should be avoided.