Sunday, May 30, 2021

Album Reviews # 82 Moby Grape - Moby Grape

 'The Grape were an ornery bunch who paid respect to NO-ONE.'

Reading Jimmy McDonough's terrific chapter about the formation and buzz around Buffalo Springfield in Shakey has got me to thinking about what a great time and place to be alive it must have been in LA in '66. Almost like the world turning technicolor. Made me feel like listening to Moby Grape's marvellous, eponymous first album.

Moby Grape were actually based in San Francisco, but they definitely have something of Buffalo Springfireld's kinetic, freeform energy and intensity about them. This is the glorious Spring of West Coast love and harmony before the inevitable morning after comedown when you realise you just took too may drugs.

'That album was cut at exactly the right time, man. Sometimes you go for years without hitting on one thing and then it suddenly flows.About every 2 years I guess, I get a flash and a flood of material rushes into my head... and I can express it, play it and sing  it - and that album was cut when everything seemed perfect. San Francisco was like heaven, everyone was stoned and happy and free.' Peter Lewis, Moby Grape.

Grape and Springfield have further common features. Three guitarists, each member at various points lead singers and songwriters, a sound that has a lot of Soul in its veins, plenty of Blues and Folk and R&B, Country and Pop too. A glorious mixture frankly. All shaken up and ready to explode. Both bands have an ability to switch things up and then calm things down and switch up again at will. Also a sense that somehow, good as they both were, they never really fulfilled the potential they showed early on. 

Still, '67's Moby Grape captures that band at their simultaneous dawn and height and is as good a record as any to bottle the energy of the West Coast at the dawn of this age. It's a real taste of freedom. Frazzled but condense guitar duelling, an innate sense that this might not last forever and an urgency to lay things down right now just in case.

Taking their name from the punchline of a gag, 'What's purple and lives in the ocean?' Not perhaps a good gag, but certainly a great name for a bandan. There's a perpetual present tense about the record and it still sounds fresh almost fifty five years on. There are none of the irritating indulgences of the Haight Ashbury scene, interminable solos, inside jokes, drug addled hippy aloofness. Everything is concise, clipped and urgent. Ripe and punchy.

Columbia, the band's record company, sabotaged the album's commercial prospects with a ludicrous stunt of releasing five singles at once to publicise the album. They all stiffed and left an undeserved whiff of hype around the band as a consequence. Nothing does quite sound like a hit single on here but that doesn't make the album any less wonderful. It has a harmony and brevity and sheer fizz that share common DNA with Buffalo, Byrds and actually The Monkees too. The band are all great players. But they don't stand on ceremony.

'(they) could play the classic LSD-soaked celebrated San Francisco sound in the context of three miunte pop songs.'

The Grape played Monterrey, but due to excessive management demands on Friday night when barely anyone had arrived, rather than on Saturday, before Otis Redding's slot. They seemed a band doomed to cripple their own prospects at every turn. 

Things began going off the rails in '68. Guitarist Skip Spence began abusing LSD and behaving erratically, to say the least. He was eventually committed to New York's Bellevue Hospital for six months of psychiatric care. He was never quite the same again. Neither was the band.

Grape reunited with hiim again unsuccessfully, then continued without him and reformed on any number of occasions in succeeding decades. They're best heard here though. At the dawn of things. It's a wonderful, at times magical record. A reminder of a never to be repeated moment in time.

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