Monday, October 22, 2018

Now Reading: What's Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? The Moby Grape Story by Cam Cobb

What's Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean?One of the premier San Francisco bands during the '60s was Moby Grape: 4 guitars (including bass) and drums, in which all 5 members of the band wrote original music and sang on one another's songs. One of the tightest, rocking bands in the entire San Francisco scene. They should have been big -- HUGE, in fact -- but the universe conspired against them. Of course, the immaturity of the band members themselves and the idiocy of the Columbia Records PR department didn't help any, either....

The band was originally formed by manager/promoter Matthew Katz and musician Alexander "Skip" Spence, both previously associated with the Jefferson Airplane.

When the band finally signed with Katz, they should have read the fine print in the contract. And they also should have consulted a lawyer. (Not that any bands did in the '60s....) Katz had gotten them regular gigs at The Ark club in the Bay Area, and they were satisfied with his efforts and just happy to be performing regularly, so they signed the agreement without hesitation. But when they signed that agreement, unbeknownst to them, they also signed away ownership of the name "Moby Grape" to Katz. That clause would come back to bite them in the ass big time.

The entire history of Moby Grape has been thoughtfully written by Cam Cobb in his book What's Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? (Jawbone Press, 2018). Cobb has interviewed the surviving band members, plus he has pulled together previous interviews from other sources, and he has placed the events surrounding Moby Grape within the history of that time and place.

For the cover of their first Columbia Records album, simply titled Moby Grape, the band drove around various Bay Area locales for hours, with their photographer, trying to find just the right setting. And by the time they finally did find that perfect setting, Don Stevenson was so burnt out and pissed off, that he gave "the finger" during the photo shoot. In addition, the band selected an American flag as a prop in the scene, but given that this was 1967, the era of the Vietnam War, the Columbia Records execs got skittish and painted the flag in orange so that it wouldn't stand out. Later, after the album was released, and these very same execs saw "the finger" on the cover, they had the finger air brushed out on future cover printings. The original release also came with a fold-out 22-inch x 28-inch poster of the front cover, with Don Stevenson's "finger" in all its. glory.

The album was released on June 6, 1967, in both mono (CL 2698) and stereo (CS 9498); Sundazed Music reissued the album on both CD and LP (in mono) in 2007, but both reissues are currently out of print as well.

Author Cam Cobb on that first Grape album:
....It isn't simply an album of contrasts, however. It's a dialogue. The songs unfold in a sequence that represents a lyrical and stylistic conversation. The singers dialogue with one another from song to song, and within the songs themselves. As the album charges forward, it's filled with sharp, unexpected turns in speed and style, jumping from one genre to another, blending genres, changing tempo, changing key, and all the while holding everything together. It's an album of alchemy and exuberance. Moby Grape is an album made by five musical alchemists–six if we include producer David Rubinson. It's also an album of joyful exuberance, from the first note played on the guitar, and the first moment the band starts to sing. This is one of those rare albums that's both of its time and timeless.
But back to Columbia Records and 1967: At the time, the Beatles were dominating the singles chart simply because their songs were so strong, so popular, that they remained in the Top Ten for many weeks. Columbia's PR idiots thought that they could duplicate this phenomena by releasing five singles off the Moby Grape album simultaneously (that's ten of the album's twelve songs), thus being able to dominate the charts. The problem they didn't anticipate is that radio stations, receiving five singles at once, didn't know which one to play, and some stations chose not to play any Grape singles at all. Does the word "overhyped" come to mind? The singles essentially bombed, and the overhype resulted in the album receiving a number of undeserved mediocre reviews.

Rock critic Paul Williams [1], editor of Crawdaddy magazine, wrote the following in the June 1967 issue:
Well, it took me a long time, but I finally figured out who Moby Grape remind me of: The Everly Brothers. Also Buddy Holly, Buffalo Springfield, middle-Beatles, Byrds, New Lost City Ramblers, The Weavers, Youngbloods, Daily Flash, and everybody else. Above all, the Grape give off this very pleasant sense of déjà vu. Rock has become so eclectic you can't even pick out influences–you just sense their presence. I don't really know why the Grape remind me of The Everly Brothers. But it's a nice feeling. Moby Grape is one of those beautifully inextricable groups with four guitarists (including bass), five vocalists, five songwriters, and about twelve distinct personalities (Skip Spence alone accounts for five of them). The Grape is unusual for an SF group in that it does not have an overall, easily identifiable personality from song to song. Their music is always unified; it's their album as a whole that's schizoid. In fact, much as I like it, I enjoy the songs even more one at a time (for your convenience, Columbia has issued almost the entire album on singles–which is particularly nice because the mono mix is far better than the stereo, which must have been done too fast).
Ten days after the release of Moby Grape, the band arrived at the Monterey International Pop Festival, having been invited earlier to perform that weekend. This is the festival that introduced the world to Otis Redding, The Who, Janis Joplin, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. The Grape had one of the coveted Sunday slots until, that is, their manager Matthew Katz had words with two of the promoters of the festival, record producer Lou Adler and John Phillips (of The Mamas & The Papas). Katz wanted over a million dollars for Moby Grape's appearance in the film that the promoters were shooting during the festival. Not only did he and the band not get their million, but the promoters got so pissed at Katz they demoted the band to the opening slot of the entire festival, when attendees were still being seated, etc. And not only did the band not appear in the film, but their set wasn't including in the official audio release of the festival either. In fact, it wasn't until 2010 that some of the songs from the band's Monterey performance finally appeared on a "Live" compilation release from Sundazed Music.

This misstep by Matthew Katz, along with other ongoing issues, finally led the band to sever its relationship with their manager. The problem, however, was the ownership of the band's name as previously mentioned. Within a few months, Katz was managing -- and promoting -- another band by the name of "Moby Grape."

Venues were booking this bogus "Moby Grape" thinking it was the original band. Lots of confusion and frustration ensued for the band, for promoters, for venues. The situation got so bad that some venues started advertising the original Moby Grape as the "Columbia Records Recording Sensation" as a way of convincing ticket buyers that this was the "real" band.

Cam Cobb actually begins the first chapter of What's Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? with a discussion of Moby Grape's first reunion album, 20 Granite Creek [2], which was released by Reprise Records (the band was no longer with Columbia Records) in 1971. Sort of a jump forward before starting at the beginning of the band.

During one of Cobb's many interviews with Grape guitarist Jerry Miller, Miller had this to say about the band:
See, what we had with the Grape, the whole idea–I never had the idea of playing with three guitars before Moby Grape. And then, if you've got three blues guitars, it doesn't work. But we had Peter, who played the nice flngerpicking beautiful stuff. And Skippy would lay down this awesome rhythm. He put the palm of his right hand on the strings back by the bridge, and when he'd play it would give kind of a popping sound. They used to do that a lot in Texas. It gives a good percussion effect.

Bob and Don were tight with the drums and bass. Then Skippy would build the next rhythm level. Then Pete would play some pretty flngerpicking stuff, and I'd figure out how to glue them all together. With some little hot licks, some blues licks, and a few little jazz licks. You couldn't put three blues guitar players together and make it that easy. But it was easy, because nobody stepped on each other's toes.


[1] Paul Williams, a personal acquaintance of mine, passed away on March 27, 2013. I did a relatively brief memorial blog post on April 16 of that year, in which I link to some major newspaper obits. Paul was an amazing individual, and if you're not aware of all that he accomplished in his too-short life, please check out this post.

[2] 20 Granite Creek -- a century-old mansion -- was the address in the Santa Cruz (California) mountains where Moby Grape holed up to record the album of the same name. The front cover of the album was designed to look like a postage stamp, with the band name and album title in the cancellation mark.