CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls a brilliant, betrayed band
All rock musicians carry a strong potential for disaster. On top of their youth and volatility, already a toxic combination, they swim in the notoriously shark-infested waters of showbusiness. Add the proximity of mind-warping drugs, uncomplicated sex and other inducements, and, notwithstanding the example of a few carefully preserved vintage hotrods like the Rolling Stones, it’s possible to see how the spectacular rock-music flameout is the rule, and truly sustained creative or personal fulfillment the exception.
When coming to consider the list of such artists to have been undermined by their own management, the writer finds himself somewhat spoilt for choice. There was the particularly poignant case of Badfinger, for example. Despite being the first signing to the Beatles’ Apple label in 1968 and going on to enjoy four consecutive worldwide hit singles, the Anglo-Welsh combo spent much of their lives locked in a bitter and ultimately unwinnable feud with their New York-based manager Stan Polley, a man apparently only dimly familiar with the concept of paying his clients. Two of the four band members eventually committed suicide.
Badfinger’s contemporaries the Zombies were another case in point. In short order, the group from the north London suburbs scored three hit singles and released an LP, Odessey and Oracle (so spelt) now ranked in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, but who found their audiences understandably perplexed by the fact that two other bands, one hailing from Texas, the other from Michigan, had both appropriated the name ‘Zombies’ (the real band had never trademarked it) and were blithely touring the world playing the group’s original hits.
Or there was Tommy James, who along with his band the Shondells had no fewer than 14 Top 40 smashes between 1964-69, enjoying a vast mainstream success that extended – surely a first in these matters – to having the Vice President of the United States volunteer to write the liner notes to one of his albums. Perhaps the one flaw in James’s otherwise glittering success story was to have signed away his rights to one Morris Levy, a man AllMusic describes as “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties”, and who died in 1990, aged 62, shortly before he was due to report to prison after being convicted of extortion.
The above list is far from exhaustive, and readers may well have their own candidate or candidates in mind for inclusion. Somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of Carlos Santana’s onetime colleague Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, who ended up living under a bridge in suburban San Francisco, where, alerted by a local news station, Santana himself once came by to say hello. The reunion seems not to have done much for Malone’s fortunes, because not long afterwards he was critically injured by an unsecured tyre that flew off a car passing by his makeshift home, and today remains on life support in hospital.
But perhaps no group of musicians suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune, and more specifically of mismanagement, quite as grievously as the Bay Area-based quintet Moby Grape. Named after the punch-line of the absurdist joke about what’s purple and floats in the sea, the band covered the waterfront from folk, blues, country, jazz and pop, with an underlying sense that the five musicians might conceivably have been on terms of some familiarity with the world of hallucinatory drugs. Their 1967 single ‘Omaha’ is surely one of the great psychedelic rock songs of all time. To those both in and out of the music business enlightened by LSD, it seemed all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With acid, the theory went, humanity could “transcend its primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility”, to quote Terry Southern’s script for the 1968 cult sci-fi romp Barbarella, and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia. Nowhere was this touching belief more ingrained than in the San Francisco of the mid- to late-1960s.
That there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, It’s A Beautiful Day’s eponymous first LP, and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, to name but three that in their different ways managed to be both joyful and serious, characterised by their tactical deployment of switched-on lyrics, a propulsive rhythm, and a general spirit of adventurous improvisation epitomised by the ‘cross-talk’ guitar work that led the way to the sort of extended instrumental exchange that stadium audiences still boogie to, echoing out among the plastic cups and soggy programmes, of a ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Layla’.
Even in this illustrious company, Moby Grape’s self-titled first album, released in June 1967, stands supreme as a Summer of Love artefact that manages to be distinctly of its time and yet still with the power to move us today. Far from being self-indulgently diffuse or free-form, the band members brought to their work a tight, if idiosyncratic, sense of structure and a well developed ear for melodic economy. In stark contrast to those of many of their peers, almost all of the band’s songs came in at less than three minutes. All five musicians – Jerry Miller, Skip Spence, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley and Don Stevenson – sang, and no fewer than three of them played variations of lead guitar. The venerable music critic Geoffrey Parr described the ensuing confection as follows:
No rock and roll group has been able to use a front-line guitar trio as effectively as Moby Grape did on Moby Grape. Spence played a distinctive rhythm that really sticks out through the album. Lewis, meanwhile, was a very good player overall, and was excellent at finger-picking … And then there was Miller
equally adept at playing the string-shredding solo as he was an unobtrusive, bluesy rhythm, and still today regularly voted one of the great all-round masters of his craft; ask Eric Clapton what he thinks about the subject.
The way Moby Grape handled their parts and played together on the first album is like nothing else I’ve ever heard in my life … The guitars are like a collage of sound that makes perfect sense
What most strikes the modern listener to Moby Grape’s freshman LP is the sheer variety of the band’s wares. Nowadays we expect our commercially successful pop acts to tick one of the approved stylistic boxes and stick to it. The Grape, by contrast, always shunned the lure of the pigeonhole. As originally released, the band’s first record comprises 13 songs lasting a total of just 31 minutes. There are fast numbers like ‘Hey Grandma’ and ‘Omaha’ that come out of the gate sounding like a revved-up fusion of Hendrix and the Sex Pistols, with added Beach Boys harmonies, if you can imagine such a thing, and slow ones like the plaintive ‘8:05’ and the refined ‘Sitting by the Window’ that bear comparison to some of the all-time great busted-heart country ballads. Like a Swiss Army knife, Moby Grape provides different tools for different needs: there are times when headbanging mayhem comes in handy, and others when a certain introspection does the trick. It’s the evocation of these disparate moods, always executed with the greatest technical skill, and a refreshing absence of self-indulgent noodling – the band members give the clear impression that they were keenly aware at all times of where a song was heading – that gives the whole record its bite. You could do much worse than to buy a copy of it today.
Unfortunately, Moby Grape’s musical acumen was matched only by their truly tragicomic litany of personal misadventures. Their problems began even before the release of their first album, when their manager presented the young musicians with a contract that gave him, not them, ownership of the group’s name. In time this led to the expedient of the band releasing their records under an alias, among various other Spinal Tap-like indignities. For its part, the group’s record company seemed to go from zero to 80, as it were, without levelling out at 40 in between, in its marketing hype. Their decision to release no fewer than five of the band’s songs as singles on the same day was widely thought counterproductive. In due course, the members of Moby Grape became aware that the suits owned the rights to their songs, as well as to their name, and 30 years of intermittent legal wrangling ensued.
Meanwhile, a combination of bad advice, bad breaks and bad behaviour served to further undermine a band that we might otherwise think of today in broadly the same terms as a more musically adept version of the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. One regrettable episode saw Skip Spence forcibly removed from his New York hotel and transported to the criminal ward of a nearby psychiatric hospital. In the 1960s, the available treatment for such issues had barely progressed beyond that afforded the most pitiful inmates of a Victorian lunatic asylum. The prodigiously talented Spence lived most of the rest of his life in a series of mental institutions and died in 1999, aged 52.
Moby Grape’s bassist Bob Mosley also displayed emotional problems. In 1969 he quit the band and, in a notable career move, joined the US Marines. Discharged for medical reasons, he spent several years living on the streets. Peter Lewis (son of the Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young) developed an interest in metaphysics, moved to the upscale wine country of California’s Santa Ynez valley – familiar to viewers of the 2004 film Sideways – and still occasionally plays the guitar. Don Stevenson managed to continue in music while becoming national sales director of a Canadian luxury timeshare concern. Jerry Miller, for his part, returned to his native Pacific Northwest, and – I speak from at least brief personal acquaintance – remains the most natural, modest and unaffected of men, let alone of psychedelic-rock guitar gods, anywhere in the world. Collectively, the band is one of those cautionary tales in rock and roll about exceptional talent being squandered on poor choices (other people’s as much as their own, it should be noted) of which the biographer Jeff Tamarkin writes:
The Grape’s saga is one of lost potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad breaks, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever … They could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, or less
Except, of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. Despite seeming to have been on one long death march from the moment they released their incendiary first album, Moby Grape never truly disbanded in the formal sense of the word. A reunited version of the classic lineup performed for 40,000 fans in their spiritual home of San Francisco as recently as 2007, and the four surviving originals continue to play in various combinations, solo or collective, today.
Moby Grape may still mainly be thought of as precociously talented but commercially underperforming victims of callous management, satirically inept record company marketing and mutual poor judgement, but that’s at best only half the story. There is lasting greatness in several of their albums, but the first one is almost consistently great, and progressively so, an overall experience as thrilling as any that their particular brand of music can provide. I can’t imagine that anyone would listen to it now without at least reflecting on how great rock music’s promise was back in 1967, and how far it’s fallen.
FURTHER INFORMATION Moby Grape’s self-titled first album is still widely available from all the usual outlets. For further information on the band’s guitarist Jerry Miller and his music, contact either Jo Johnson or Arne Nordwall at email@example.com
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD has written biographies of film, music and sports stars. His latest book is The Man Who Conned the World – Victor Lustig (History Press, 2021)