Classic Music Review: Moby Grape

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This one is becoming a collector’s item, so click for a little sticker shock.

“What’s big and purple and lives in the ocean?” Moby Grape. Change the color to green and you get Moby Pickle. Change it to yellow and you get Moby Banana. Ha, ha.

In preparing for this review, I had a long discussion with my father about the colloquial humor of the 1960’s. Apparently there was a lot of it.

“Every morning before school you’d gather with your friends and share the latest jokes. There was plenty of ethnic humor, of course, most of which started off as “moron” jokes, then you just changed “moron” to whatever nationality you wanted to make fun of. I remember the first victims were the Italians, then the Polish—and by the time you came around, the same jokes were recycled as blonde jokes.”

“Lucky me.”

“There were all the ‘a guy walks into a bar’ jokes, dirty jokes, and the fad jokes like the Moby series. The biggest craze I remember was Tom Swifties.”

“What’s a Tom Swifty?”

“It’s where you describe something that’s happened and then Tom makes a pun with an adverb.”

“Who’s Tom?”

“I don’t know—he’s the guy in the joke. Like this, ‘I worked in the garden today,’ said Tom, earthily.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah, that’s not one of the best.”

“Let me Google them.” I pulled out my laptop and found a Wikipedia article on Tom Swifties. “Oh, I see. I like this one: ‘I’ll have a martini,’ said Tom, drily.’ This one’s good: ‘Careful with that chainsaw,’ said Tom, offhandedly.’ This was a fad?”

“Oh, yeah. The DJ’s used to tell Tom Swifties in between tracks, there were books of Tom Swifties . . .”

“I see here that Time ran a national contest in 1963. Oh, here’s a period piece: ‘Someone has stolen my movie camera,’ Tom bellowed and howled.’ I like this one, too: ‘I have no flowers,’ said Tom, lackadaisically.”

“Yeah, we used to spend hours trying to come up with good Tom Swifties. You know, it’s kind of sad that people don’t tell jokes any more—the whole politically-correct movement pretty much killed them off.”

“I’ll withhold comment,” said his blonde daughter, unremarkably.

*****

There are several albums in this series that were highly overrated on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Moby Grape was ranked #121, and while it’s a good record, to call it one of the great albums of all time is a stretch, given the fact that producer David Rubinson had no idea how to record rock ‘n ‘ roll and never figured out how to properly channel the multi-dimensional capabilities of the band. The acoustic pieces sound nice, but the rock songs could have been sounded much better with more help from the booth, and the lyrics range from decent to what-the-fuck. Putting all of that aside, I’m delighted to report that I think Moby Grape is one of the best albums to come out of that amorphous movement known as The San Francisco Sound. Even with the so-so recording quality, the sheer talent and power of the band shine through. Moby Grape was a more-than-competent rock band that explored multiple genres; a group where everyone contributed to the vocals and the songwriting. They clearly had the talent, but sometimes talent isn’t enough to make it in the loony world of music.

Everyone knows the story of how the band’s trajectory was limited by the overenthusiastic hype machine at Columbia Records, how everything they touched seemed to turn into a legal hassle and how Skip Spence fell victim to way too much LSD. Few bands have ever had worse luck than Moby Grape, but the “I coulda been a contendah” theme that runs through the stories about Moby Grape is really tiresome. The band showed tremendous potential and did not live up to that potential due to a combination of circumstances, naiveté and listening too much to the experts. Sorry, but you don’t get extra credit for what you could have been: all that counts is what you actually did. What Moby Grape did was release a pretty good début album, nothing more, nothing less.

They certainly introduced themselves to the listening public in fine fettle. “Hey, Grandma” kicks things off in high gear, with guitars flying, drums pounding and the vocal harmonies right on the money. The lyrics range from nonsensical to oh-so-sixties, as it turns out that Grandma has a bit of a drug problem (“Robitussin make me feel so fine/Robitussin and Elderberry wine.”) In a song like this, though, the lyrics don’t matter that much: it fucking sounds good, it feels good and the semi-stop time choruses kick ass. I love The Move, but their version of “Hey Grandma”—a song perfectly designed to play to Roy Wood’s harmonic strengths—sounds clunky and uninspired in comparison to the original.

As I mentioned, Moby Grape played in multiple genres, and Bob Mosley’s contributions on the album fall more on the R&B/Soul side. The problem is that Mosley was a terrible soul singer: a white guy trying way to0 hard to be a black guy and not making it. His vocals are so over-the-top that songs like “Mr. Blues” are nearly unlistenable. The band gets back into gear with the rocker “Fall on You,” with its irresistible riff and fabulous call-and-response vocals. What really makes this song an absolute killer is Jerry Miller’s guitar solo, which bursts out of the background like a sonic rocket, with lick after lick of pure fire over a counterpoint guitar playing the main riff. This is where I really get pissed off about Columbia’s insistence on limiting The Grape to three-minute tracks so they could release five singles simultaneously as part of one of the dumbest marketing efforts in music history. Jerry Miller clearly deserved a second shot on the fade—a good two or three minutes weaving in and out with Skip Spence on rhythm would have elevated this song into one of the greatest guitar songs ever.

There I go—doing what I said I wasn’t going to do—musing on the what-ifs of Moby Grape. I’ll try to restrain myself, but dammit, the first solo forced my fingers to start twiddling my diddle and I didn’t have time to achieve orgasm before the fucking song ended like someone put an ice pack on my lover’s nuts! Harrumph!

Cruelly robbed of a moment’s pleasure, I am soothed by the Miller-Stevenson number “8:05,” one of the prettiest songs to emerge from the general madness of psychedelia. The relative clarity of the recording allows the listener to appreciate the band’s vocal strengths, combining sweet harmonies and an inspired vocal arrangement that allows the voices to separate and meld again without losing the beauty of the melodic flow. The acoustic guitar is simply gorgeous,  providing sympathetic support for the wistful tone of the lyrics. The chord progression masterfully adds the necessary builds with just the right amount of variation from the key structure. Most importantly, the song extends the perceived range of the band, strengthening the entire album with a touch of diversity. Lovely!

“Come in the Morning” falls somewhere between The Temptations and The Turtles: funky, but with a build that’s very similar to The Turtles’ “You Baby.” Mosley is a teensy-bit more restrained but still too animated. What saves the song from total oblivion are the background vocals, which are pretty decent. The only one of the five singles to break into the Billboard Top 100 comes next, Skip Spence’s “Omaha.” The opening is the ultimate ear-grabber, with the guitar feedback and cymbal blur whizzing through your ears through fluid panning, then exploding into a three-part guitar harmony with bass and two six-strings that absolutely sizzles. The guitars fly throughout this song, making the well-executed vocals almost superfluous, and Don Stevenson rips it on the drums. The lyrics make no sense and have no connection to Omaha, and the whole thing sounds terribly rushed as the band tries to get it done under the clock, but “Omaha” is still great garage rock played with maximum intensity.

Jerry Miller’s “Naked If I Want To” is a curious acoustic interlude that seems to start in the middle and vanishes in fifty-five seconds, but for some damned reason I like this little fragment—it serves as sort of a catch-your-breath moment after “Omaha.” It’s followed by the dreamy folk-rock sounds of “Someday,” a song with diverse parts that never quite come together, especially when Mosley drops in with his black guy act in what you think might be the bridge but turns out to be the start of the fade. “Ain’t No Use” picks up the tempo and adds more diversity with its bluegrass feel. The harmonies here are especially good, and I love the unusual chord and rhythmic shifts in the middle, but again, it feels like they’re working under the gun again and have to wrap it up too soon in order to make Columbia happy.

Peter Lewis’ “Sitting by the Window” is clearly the strongest composition on the album. Opening with a guitar duet dominated by mellow arpeggiated chords, the verse remains stuck in E minor, reflecting the lyrics that describe the stuck feeling of a rainy day. When the lyrical tone shifts and opens our eyes to what’s really going on—a virtual stare-down between two lovers waiting for the other to blink and pick up the phone—the key shifts to D major and the chord progression becomes more complex. The transition is effortless; it’s one of those songs where the pattern makes you want to pick up your guitar and figure out the chords. The background harmonies on the chorus and the counterpoint guitar are quite pretty. Another key change occurs in the instrumental passage where the guitar duet has almost a southwest flavor, and again resolves effortlessly back to the root key. I’m surprised that this song didn’t become a popular cover song—it’s a beauty that allows for multiple interpretations and variations.

“Changes” is a Skip Spence call-and-response number designed to pick up the energy, but it doesn’t have the excitement or tightness of “Hey Grandma” or “Omaha” (though it features Mosley’s most energetic bass work). It’s followed by another Mosley soul number, “Lazy Me,” notable only for the line “I’ll just stay here and decay here,” to which I respond, “I’m good with that.” Moby Grape comes to a sudden end with Skip Spence’s rocker, “Indifference.” The opening guitar is fabulous, but the harmonies aren’t as compelling and the song tends to meander and lose focus about a minute into the track.

Although I completely disagree with the Rolling Stone rating, and the three-minute limitation gets to be a drag, Moby Grape is a pretty good record. We can speculate all day on the what-ifs and missed opportunities, and bemoan the fact that although they were better musicians than many of their contemporaries, Moby Grape didn’t get the attention they deserved. What’s past is past, what’s done is done, and frankly, I’m just happy that three albums into the Psychedelic Series I’ve finally found some music that I enjoyed . . . even though it’s the least psychedelic of the three.

“I like Moby Grape, but I remain skeptical on the value of psychedelic music,” she said, acidly.

 GO TO THE NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN BY PINK FLOYD

 

7 responses

  1. Another spot on review there. No, it’s not as psychedelic as many try to imply and it’s not one of the greatest albums ever made but it is enjoyable. As for the management and record company… well… I think the shortness of the songs work in their favour – it ensures they remain direct and to the point. It’s when bands start to ramble on that things tend to get a bit boring and in some ways, this almost qualifies as a potent “power pop” album since some of those songs are so bloody catchy. Listen my friend! You know what I’m talking about! 😉 “Ain’t No Use” is my fave here… no particular reason other than it’s short, sweet, lively, catchy and to the point. It starts… and oh blast, it’s finished before you even know it.

    The production… hmmm… the band fell victim to the idiot producer experimenting with “out of phase” mixing. For instance, if you switch the stereo album into mono, most of the vocals disappear completely thanks to the out of phase trickery. I’ve not heard the mono mix though I suspect that may well be the best way to listen to this (that definitely applies to the next album in this series!) I do think this album might benefit from being remixed, removing the out of phase tricks, give it some more umph and power. It has been alleged that the phase issues may had helped kill the album radio wise since many radio stations had the stereo album and were still broadcasting in mono, so listeners didn’t really hear the songs as intended.

    Definitely a worthy debut and to be brutally honest, this was the bands finest hour. The next album has a handful of fine tracks (notably the eerie “Seeing” – the sound of Skip Spence losing his mind) but was more rambling and everything they did afterwards was average to mediocre. But, for this moment in 1967, Moby Grape hit the spot… and our good friends in Birmingham, England – Roy Wood and The Move were definitely listening (hence their cover of “Hey Grandma” and Robert Plant still cites it as an all time fave to this day. Interesting since it didn’t sell well here in the UK… don’t think Moby Grape ever charted so it was interesting it managed to filter through nevertheless.

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    1. All good points. The changeover to stereo is a development that I find curiously problematic because I grew up in a time of rapid technological change, so my attitude is, “What’s the big deal? Get on with it!”

      I’m now listening to The Dead, so I’m becoming an expert at rambling.

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  2. Here’s a cover of “Omaha” from 1985, with Michael Stipe handling the vocals. I actually saw the tour for this album in Daytona Beach during Spring Break. Jack Bruce also appeared on the album, but was abandoned in Greece for being drunk.

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    1. Fascinating, almost deconstructionist in its approach. I’ve never heard Michael Stipe articulate that well before. What a fascinating bunch of musicians!

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  3. […] Moby Grape, June 6, 1967 […]

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  4. Well young lady, first off, the fact that you had to “Google” what a Tom Swiftie” is tells me you’re young and don’t know much. You dissect the Grape like it was Madonna record. Back then they actually “played” music instead of “creating it” with studio magic. Stereo was new, it was a time of experimentation, the learning curve was steep. Your nit picking, hair splitting on production values is inane plus your remarks about how the record company “insisted” on three minute songs to be able to release five singles. Gezus, girl, that was industry standard, we all made 45 RPM singles so they could get radio air play. Fer cryin’ out loud I hate it when youngsters critic their elders. I bet you never even made a record have you ? And I mean “record”, not “CD”…analog. Whats the biggest shame is that you are actually right on about half your analysis but then totally screw it up by having this self righteous, I know better because I’m modern and hip BS attitude. If you were there in the day, you would be much more gracious and polite about what a great band Moby Grape was. Those that can’t create, become critics. It shows.

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