“Columbia Records is devoting prime promotion time to the buildup of a new rock ‘n’ roll group from San Francisco called the Moby Grape,” reported Billboard on June 6, 1967. “The campaign got under way last week with the unprecedented simultaneous release of five singles and one album.” In retrospect the announcement reads like an optimistic forecast for the doomed Hindenburg zeppelin, because Columbia’s full-scale hype contributed to the band’s premature burnout.
After releasing a debut album that critics in the ensuing decades have come to regard as a classic, Moby Grape fizzled out and seemed destined to appear as a mere footnote to rock history. Yet critical respect and an enduring following among musicians and other fans kept their reputation alive, and the 1993 release of Vintage, a CD boxed set, promised to teach a new generation of listeners what all the hoopla was about.
“The Grape’s sound was an ahead-of-its-time aural stew of blues and country and soul and rock and jazz and psychedelia dished out with a breathless ensemble approach that was almost proto-punk in its intensity and with high-lonesome neo-Everly Brothers vocals on top,” wrote Steve Simels of Stereo Review. David Fricke, in the liner notes accompanying Vintage, deemed the group “the kind of do-it-all combo that comes along only once or twice in a rock & roll generation.”
Yet if they were a band that “had it all,” as Simels claimed, they were also a band that lost it all. The loss of the legal rights to the name Moby Grape and to their recordings—not to mention two members’ affliction with severe mental problems—hampered most efforts at reconstruction; several reunions featuring various founding members under a variety of names have transpired over the years. Yet the spirit that animated the Grape’s debut album still burned in its founders well into the 1990s.
The group formed in San Francisco in 1966. It consisted of guitarist Peter Lewis, the son of film star Loretta Young and alumnus of the band Peter and the Wolves; bassist Bob Mosley, formerly of San Diego; lead guitar veteran Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson, refugees from Washington state who’d played with Mosley in their transplanted San Francisco group the Frantics; and Canadian-born guitarist Alexander “Skip” Spence, who’d played drums with the Jefferson Airplane, a band later to become one of the region’s best-known musical exports.
For the Record…
Members include Peter Lewis (born July 15, 1945, in Los Angeles, CA), guitar and vocals; Jerry Miller (born July 10,1943, in Tacoma, WA), guitar and vocals; Bob Mosley (born December 4, 1942, in Paradise Valley, CA; left band 1969 and rejoined in 1971), bass and vocals; Alexander “Skip” Spence (born April 18, 1946, in Windsor, Canada; left group 1968 and rejoined periodically), guitar and vocals; and Don Stevenson (born October 15, 1942, in Seattle, WA), drums and vocals.
Group formed in San Francisco, 1966; signed with Columbia Records and released debut, 1967; Spence diagnosed as schizophrenic and hospitalized after breakdown, 1968; Spence recorded solo album, Oar, 1969; Mosley left band to join Marine Corps, 1969; group broke up in 1969 and re-formed without Spence for 20 Granite Creek, Reprise; lost rights to name and royalties, 1973; re-formed in various combinations and under various names for independent labels, including 1990 cassette release The Melvilles.
Addresses: Record company —Herman Records, P.O. Box 1947, Cave Junction, OR 97523.
While they were all talented players and songwriters, Spence radiated a special quality that seemed to lie behind his brilliant, offbeat compositions as well as his later disintegration. “Skippy was always ‘high’ on this other level,” Lewis told Fricke. “His mind was always churning over with stuff. It was hard for him to sit and talk. He didn’t deal in words, but in ideas. Yet he was an inspiration, always able to get people going on his trip.” Lewis added that Spence “was the most unique songwriter I’d ever heard.” He had a lot of competition in his own band, however, and with Mosley’s ferocious, bluesy singing, Miller’s stinging lead guitar, and the whole group’s evanescent harmonies—not to mention good looks—Moby Grape seemed destined for super-stardom.
Mosley came up with the name, which served as the punchline to a popular absurdist joke, “What’s purple and swims in the ocean?” The grim resonances of Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s novel about an obsessed sea captain’s pursuit of the white whale that eventually sinks his ship, would not make themselves apparent until later. The quintet set up in a Sausalito, California, club called the Ark and began rehearsing on a regular work-week schedule. After a while, Fricke wrote, Moby Grape “went from being an extraordinary collision of strangers to the tightest, most talked-about band in San Francisco.”
At a time when onstage diffidence, spacey, ponderous compositions, and an open contempt for “show business” were expected on the rock scene, they played carefully honed and energetic pop. As Simels of Stereo Review reflected years later, “the Grape differed from the rest of the Bay Area bands by playing mostly concise, singles-oriented rock-and-roll and openly aspiring to pop stardom, neither tendency exactly PC [politically correct].”
Moby Grape’s marathon rehearsals drew other local musicians, many of whom jammed with the group, and a growing number of music industry representatives. The band’s obvious potential led to a bidding war won by Columbia Records. The agent of their signing—and, inadvertently, their near-destruction—was producer David Rubinson, who worked for the company. “I came out to San Francisco in December 1966, a month before [counterculture milestone] the Human Be-ln,” he told the authors of Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. “The best band out here then was Moby Grape. Bar none.”The Vintage booklet cites Rubinson’s hopes for the quintet: “When I first saw them play, I knew that this was a band that could go around the country, around the world, and really kill.”
After signing Moby Grape in 1967, Rubinson brought them into the studio. He oversaw the album-making process carefully, focusing on potential singles at the expense of the members’ more experimental side. Yet he helped capture the effervescence and invention of the group, and the result was, in Fricke’s words, “that rarest of rock artifacts, the Perfect Debut Album.” Simels insisted in 1978 that “no collection of American music, let alone rock-and-roll, is complete without it.”
With songs like Mosley’s barnburning “Mr. Blues,” Lewis’s melancholy “Sitting By the Window,” and Spence’s “Omaha,” it reflected the talents of each player and formed a coherent document. Fricke dubbed the latter song “arguably Moby Grape’s finest two-and-a-half minutes on record, the absolute distillation of everything that made them great, and should have made them famous.” He added that the song “was the Beatles on speed, at once demonic, ravishing and irresistible.”
Rubinson sold Columbia’s promotional machine on the album only too well. The label released five singles at once, giving radio programmers too much to choose from and diluting the focus that usually characterizes an aggressive album promotion. A small furor erupted when Columbia discovered belatedly that Stevenson was sticking up his middle finger in the cover photo; subsequent airbrushing failed to suppress the controversy. Other disasters followed, most notably a release party at the Avalon Ballroom. Ten thousand purple orchids were dropped from the ceiling and had roughly the same effect as banana peels on the floor. Bottles of wine with “Moby Grape” labels sat unopened because someone forgot the corkscrews.
To top things off, Miller, Lewis, and Spence were arrested after the party for marijuana possession and for contributing to the delinquency of minors. Though Moby Grape retained some momentum, it was clear that things were happening too fast; they were expected to be superstars together without having come up together. As Stevenson remarked to Fricke, “It was like the bell that signalled us out of the gate was the death knell.”
Moby Grape’s jinxed beginning was soon followed by more trouble. Wow, released in 1968, featured one track—Spence’s trippily nostalgic “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot”—that could only be played at 78 r.p.m. and a bonus album of lengthy improvisations called Grape Jam. It fared poorly. Skip Spence, meanwhile, had become seriously unbalanced and was briefly institutionalized; Rolling Stone translated Stevenson’s phrase “psychological breakdown” as “a freak-out.” Spence left the group that year to record his solo opus Oar, which Mike Mettler of Guitar Player called “a textbook example of how to record the disintegration of a mind.”
Moby Grape continued as a quartet; after an exceptional performance at a Philadelphia pop festival they knew they could survive as a band. They bought houses near one another in Boulder Creek, California, rehearsing on Stevenson’s porch. Thus the four got to become friends more naturally, and wrote the material for Moby Grape ’69. The album represented a partial recovery, but as Miller told Fricke, “the magic didn’t happen.”
The same was true, only more so, for Truly Fine Citizen, recorded without Mosley, who quit the group to join the Marine Corps. Lamented Rolling Stone’s Ben Gibson, a huge fan of the debut, “I couldn’t believe my ears. I hadn’t heard in months a more complacent, pathetic LP.” The review ended by suggesting that perhaps the time had come for the band “to call it a day.” And they did, breaking up just after its release.
The first Moby Grape “reunion” came with 1971’s 20 Granite Creek, which marked the return of Mosley and—for one instrumental track—Spence. It earned the approval of Rolling Stone, but wasn’t a harbinger of great things to come: the group broke up again. Another reunion was planned but in 1974 the group found out that former manager Matthew Katz owned the rights to the name.
To add insult to injury, Katz assembled a group of unknowns that performed and even recorded as Moby Grape. The original members therefore performed under names like Maby Grope, Legendary Grape, and the Melvilles and released a cassette-only album in 1990 that Fricke considered “the closest thing to a real second album as the band has ever made.” Miller’s band continued to play, occasionally with Lewis and Stevenson, but Spence and Mosley suffered recurrences of their problems—both had been diagnosed as schizophrenic—and were, as Guitar Player’s Mettler explained, “at best regretfully described as ‘itinerant.’”
Though the 1993 release of Vintage was described by Siméis as “the rock reissue of the year,” Entertainment Weekly reported that the boxed set would provide no royalties for the members since “the rights to their songs and even their name were signed away in a 1973 settlement without the band’s knowledge,” as a lawsuit filed on their behalf against Sony Music claimed. The article ended with Spence, who’d been under supervision in Northern California, hoping to “get Mosley and bring him in”; the bassist was reportedly living without shelter in San Diego. As Spence said in a 1968 Jazz& Pop interview before his breakdown, “All we have is each other, really—that’s the nitty gritty basics. The rest of it goes, comes and goes—that’s all we have, and that’s the key.”
The music, meanwhile, had finally achieved the recognition that had been forestalled the by the group’s career woes. Celebrated musicians like Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and the Doobie Brothers had praised them publicly, and Michael Stipe, lead singer of alternative heroes-turned-superstars R.E.M. covered “Omaha” with the group the Golden Palominos.
Chrissie Hynde, whose group the Pretenders served up a mix of raw energy, pop smarts, and soul akin to the Grape’s, told Rolling Stone in 1994 that she listened to their debut “a couple of hundred times in 1969, but when I heard it again [recently], it blew my mind. I realize[d] how very influenced I was by it. It’s been in my subconscious the whole time.” As Siméis observed of the boxed set, “It’s hard to imagine anybody hearing it without concluding that this was a very major band indeed. Not to mention a quintessentially American one.”
On Columbia, unless otherwise noted
Moby Grape (includes “Hey Grandma,” “Mr. Blues,” “Sitting By the Window,” “Indifference” and “Omaha”), 1967.
Wow (includes Grape Jam and “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot”), 1968.
Moby Grape ’69, 1969.
Truly Fine Citizen, 1969.
20 Granite Creek, Reprise, 1971.
Live Grape, Escape, 1978.
Legendary Grape (cassette only), Herman Records, 1990.
Vintage: The Very Best of Moby Grape, Sony, 1993.
Solo and other recordings
Skip Spence, Oar, 1969.
Bob Mosley, Bob Mosley, Reprise, 1972.
Mosley and Jerry Miller, Fine Wine (released in Germany only), 1975.
Graham, Bill, and Robert Greenfield, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, Doubleday, 1992.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Campton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Billboard, June 17, 1967; October 26, 1968.
Entertainment Weekly, March 4, 1994.
Guitar Player, January 1994.
Jazz & Pop, May 1968.
L.A. Weekly, March 25, 1994.
People, June 21, 1993.
Rolling Stone, June 28,1969; October 18,1969; October 14, 1971; November 15, 1990; January 27, 1994. Stereo Review, December 1972; April 1978; May 1993.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the liner notes to Vintage, written by David Fricke, 1993.
"Moby Grape." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/moby-grape
"Moby Grape." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/moby-grape
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