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Main Category: Psychedelia
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
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APPENDIX: Skip Spence

Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Moby Grape fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Moby Grape fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating =

Not particularly inventive, but sure sounds Good with a big G, and certainly atypical of the San Francisco scene in general.


Track listing: 1) Hey Grandma; 2) Mr Blues; 3) Fall On You; 4) 8:05; 5) Come In The Morning; 6) Omaha; 7) Naked If I Want To; 8) Someday; 9) Ain't No Use; 10) Sitting By The Window; 11) Changes; 12) Lazy Me; 13) Indifference.

This album has stood the test of time better than most of its contemporaries, but it's not the band's collective "genius" that accounts for it - rather it's just the band's collective pool of meticulous, hardworking capacities. At the heart of Moby Grape may have been a mad genius (Skip Spence), but Skip actually only gets two of his songs on here, with all the other band members also songwriters. And this is good, professional songwriting, which eventually gets to you; not a single song is really "misguided" or "fillerish".

One thing I can't quite understand is why this album is often called "psychedelic". Oh sure, it was written by a bunch of free-thinkin' hippie-minded people smack dab in the middle of 1967 smack dab in the middle of San Francisco. I guess that kinda nails it, doesn't it? Wrong. Nothing on this record is psychedelic, except that the guitar tones often remind one of Jefferson Airplane (which doesn't immediately make them psychedelic) and there's a limited amount of weirdness running through the songs, but Frank Zappa was weird, too. No, indeed, in reality Moby Grape's debut is mostly reminiscent of contemporary Buffalo Springfield records, with a little less country influence, mayhaps. It's straightahead pop that often has its roots in traditional American music, no more and no less.

And thus the serious implication: Moby Grape is a record I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anybody who can't stand a single whiff of the psychedelic excesses of bands like the Airplane or QMS or the pre-1970 Grateful Dead. It's an honest, down-to-earth, "authentically moving" record. For me, the problem is that, just like the Springfield, Moby Grape don't much care about instant memorability. The songs are complex enough and they're wonderfully conceived and planned out, but very few equal "pop genius", for me, at least. Upon first listen I could very well say it's one of those albums that I like much more "in theory" than "in practice" - the very idea of an intelligent, provoking, half-rootsy/half-poppy album with songs carefully thought over, coming from a bunch of supposed potheads, appealed to me on a very basic level, but I was somewhat disappointed about the actual realization. Yet the idea it was that actually kept me listening, and you know what? Most of these tunes you get warmed to pretty quickly.

Some people seem to think that in general the Grape were better when it came to softer, more sentimental material, and I think they're right. See, it's not that they really suck at rocking out; it's rather that when they rock out, they do it in the traditional Californian matter, which can be summarized as "I'm rocking harder than Cream or Jimi Hendrix even if I've never heard either". In other words, they take your basic Fifties-level electric guitar soloing and try to make it "tougher" by playing higher notes than usual. That's all very well, but that's definitely below the 1967 standard.

Even so, 'Hey Grandma' is a lot of boogie fun (and was even covered by The Move a year later!), and Peter Lewis' 'Fall On You' is one of the best rockers to come out of the entire Californian scene of the time. The guitars may be thin-sounding, but you can't beat that paranoid 'yes I know it's falling! yes I know it's falling!' harmonizing in the background while we are getting all the bad news in the main lyrical body. Skip's 'Omaha' lacks a centralized hook, but once again the harmonies save it from being a disgrace, and besides, at least these guitars are energetic in places. And 'Changes' boasts a generic, but catchy pop vocal melody. I don't care much for the rest of the rocking numbers - Skip's second contribution, 'Indifference', is perhaps the best indication of the guy's lunatic state of mind at the time, but it's predictably messy and clumsy; and then they go for sort of a soulful R'n'B-ish approach on some of the tracks which just doesn't seem to gel at all. I mean, 'Come In The Morning'? Wouldn't you rather wanna put some Sly & The Family Stone on instead?

But like I said, it's the slower stuff here that really does the trick anyway. All of the ballads are good, and it's a rare thing in my book when a band is able to do their ballads better than their rockers - when a band is able to rock out at all, that is (I mean, naturally the Beach Boys' ballads are better than their "rockers", but the thing is, they don't often do those, and when they do, they almost always suck, so there). '8:05' is a whole load of unpretentious, friendly prettiness, with tasty acoustic flourishes and heart-melting falsetto harmonies. Jerry Miller's hilarious folksy interlude 'Naked If I Want To' is notorious for featuring the question 'can I buy an amplifier on time?'. 'Someday' isn't memorable at all but features a brilliant contrast between the main body of the song (falsetto vocals) and that operatic soaring part at the end. The country-rock ditty 'Ain't No Use', in dire contrast, is one of the album's catchiest numbers (Gram Parsons might have learned a thing or two from these guys, if you don't mind me saying so!).

And finally, 'Sitting By The Window' is just absolutely gorgeous - proving my hypothesis that Lewis was the most accomplished songwriter of the bunch (he wrote the album's best rocker too, remember that). The chorus is pure brilliance, with the slightly crooning vocal intonation on the 'but just the same, I'm playing my game' lines and the atmospheric harmonies whirling around it. I guess you could try to pick the psychedelic influences on that one, with the moody mysterious guitar arpeggios and the way the harmonies are like little angels flying around the main melody... ah well, never mind.

It is, actually, one of those albums where the songwriting is so even it's hard to pick favourites; I know I've pinpointed some songs as great and some as so-so but that may all be vice versa in your opinion. Even the worst material here has something to offer, whereas even the best material on here still couldn't compete with Beatles-quality pop (well, maybe 'Sitting By The Window' could, but geez, it's more Bing Crosby in essence than the Beatles). One thing's for certain - the record really stands out from everything else made in the same environment in the same time period.



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating =

Eclectic AND weird this time, but somewhat spoiled by the eccentric idea that these guys could be America's response to Cream.


Track listing: 1) The Place And The Time; 2) Murder In My Heart For The Judge; 3) Bitter Wind; 4) Can't Be So Bad; 5) He; 6) Motorcycle Irene; 7) Three-Four; 8) Funky Tunk; 9) Rose Colored Eyes; 10) Miller's Blues; 11) Naked If I Want To; 12) Never; 13) Boysenberry Jam; 14) Black Currant Jam; 15) Marmalade.

Moby Grape's second album, and the last one before Skippy got Batty and entered the madhouse, finds the band drifting even further into "unorthodox" territory. Hey, it all consists of songs about each of which you'll either say "Hey! That's genius! How come nobody did anything like that before?" or "Hey! That's awful! Thank God nobody did anything like that afterwards!". And there's hardly any particular tendency to be established here either.

Let's look at the songs, okay? They're all individualistic to the point of repugnancy. 'The Place And The Time' opens the record in 4/4, then in about twenty seconds time continues in 3/4, then reverts to 4/4 adding orchestration and brass, then loses the rhythm section altogether, then suddenly carries you away to psychedelic heaven (or purgatory) in a wild swooooooop motion, then throws in automobile honking and baby cries, and finally is over in two minutes. Now is this a song to be loved, or a song-like sonic collage to be despised? Who can tell, in this rule-deprived world of ours? I like how it works out, but there's certainly something deranged about this, and the weirdest thing is, it wasn't even written by Skippy.

Neither was 'Murder In My Heart For The Judge', one of the more "normal" songs on the record and my personal favourite. A hilarious folk-rocker about being brought down by the judge while debating a parking ticket, it boasts an unbeatable chorus ('that ol' judge wouldn't budge!/Now I got murder in my heart for the judge') and a cooky one-note slidin' riff or something like that to carry the song - and good ol' Mr Mosely belts out his sentiments with total convincibility, even if the song itself is a total spoof. AND a great climactic rush-to-the-end too! Fun stuff!

'Bitter Wind' is also a "normal-sounding" song, once again in the style of early vocal-harmony-based Jefferson Airplane; but it's short, and immediately leads into 'Can't Be So Bad', which starts as a normal brass-enhanced boogie with lotsa stingin' guitar and then, just as you expect the chorus to revert back to the verses, suddenly becomes a... soft moody ballad. Then back to the fast verses, then the balladeering bit again. The transitions are formally seamless, but whether you'll enjoy them or not is, again, a matter of taste.

'He' again reverts us to normal territory, back into the land where nice friendly guitars chuckle in one part of the background and sentimental intimate strings do their stuff in the other part and a gorgeous lead vocal sings an ultimately forgettable vocal melody - Dullsville, in other words. But wait! There's Skippy on the scene! With 'Motorcycle Irene'! A re-write of 'Leader Of The Pack' with lyrics telling the story of a female biker acquaintance of his! Culminating in a real motorcycle crash, brains busted out and all! Well, okay, maybe not a real one, but sure sounds like one. Then, back to country-rock territory with 'Three Four' where the lead vocals sound like a sold out Donald Fagen. Then back to weirdness, with a country-honk jiggy tune appropriately called 'Funky Tunk' (no "funk" in the song) where the vocals are occasionally sped up so that it sounds like some cartoon character speaking. Then, another very very boring piece of sluggy balladeering called 'Rose Colored Eyes', probably psychedelic since the title implies that, but I dunno, I don't like that kind of music too much. Shitty sluggish hookless piece of bore, like something off Sweetheart Of The Rodeo performed by somebody on acid.

And then, all of a sudden, they end the record with a perfectly mainstream piece of "blues-de-luxe" ('Miller's Blues'), replete with the everpresent brass section, soulful vocals, wild half-blues-half-jazz guitar solos and an overall atmosphere that even B. B. King could like. Now that's the kind of music I like! And it's so embarrassingly generic and "proverbial" compared to everything else on here that this fact alone makes it stand out. See, when one generic tune is captured among nine entirely non-generic ones, that kind of jiggles the standard, if you know what I mean.

The original record, by the way, contained another legendary Spence composition, 'Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot', his totally insane take on 20's music, but my CD omits it - maybe at the time of release, they were unsure what to do with that section which had to be played at 78rpm to sound right on your turntable. (It IS, however, present on the Vintage compilation, so supposedly they did resolve that problem.) Instead, they just finish the record with an inferior electric re-recording of 'Naked If I Want To', the dumbasses. The original was so much better anyway.

Result: a couple boring ballads, a bunch of weird, intriguing takes on traditional genres, a few take-'em-or-leave-'em freaky goofs, and a blues-de-luxe. You could say these guys were almost trying to deconstruct roots-rock at the time others were trying to construct it! That's pretty cool, so I can forgive the lethargic ballads. And yeah, that reminds me - I can also forgive the Grape Jam section of the album, which originally came on a separate disc as kind of a "bonus" (an EP, so I'm a-guessin', as it's way too short for a separate LP). I just don't notice 'em much. They're not at all interesting, but at least they're jams, you know, with actual guitars occasionally trying to do something instead of just dingling dangling out there in outer space like on the Airplane's 'Bear Melt'. 'Boysenberry Jam' is pretty stupid, though, the way it hangs on these two endlessly replayed piano notes (on the other hand, it makes me happy - were I there in the studio at the time, I could have participated! I sure could play these two notes on time!). The others are okay. Not your Cream, not your Dominoes, but decent background blues-based muzak. Of course, that still doesn't quite explain what that stuff is doing on there.



Normally, Skip would be deserving his own page - he was only one small part of the original Moby Grape (which was itself just one small, if arguably the best, part of Spence-less Moby Grape), and his one solo record sounds almost nothing like a Moby Grape record. But so as not to encumber anybody with all these huge differentiations, I've decided to put the review of Oar on here anyway. So enjoy!


Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

The greatest album ever made by an American lunatic. There you have it.

Best song: WAR IN PEACE

Track listing: 1) Little Hands; 2) Cripple Creek; 3) Diana; 4) Margaret - Tiger Rug; 5) Weighted Down (The Prison Song); 6) War In Peace; 7) Broken Heart; 8) All Come To Meet Her; 9) Books Of Moses; 10) Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin For Yang); 11) Lawrence Of Euphoria; 12) Grey/Afro; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) This Time He Has Come; 14) It's The Best Thing For You; 15) Keep Everything Under Your Hat; 16) Furry Heroine (Halo Of Gold); 17) Givin' Up Things; 18) If I'm Good; 19) You Know; 20) Doodle; 21) Fountain; 22) I Think You And I.

There's no other record in history that sounds like this. There are records that sound close, and there are people who've had similar fates - Skip Spence hasn't been called the "American Syd Barrett" for nothing. Admit it, the similarities between him and Syd are almost creepy. Both had luxurious plans of stardom and world domination; both put together ambitious bands with the goal of exploring new musical dimensions; both crashed down in a haze of sex'n'drugs; both were eventually kicked out of their own bands (well, Skip wasn't so much kicked out as he just kicked himself out after he'd tried to murder several Moby Grape members with a fire-axe because a witch girlfriend of his convinced him they were evil, and got himself locked in the madhouse for half a year); both had amazingly brief and totally unsuccessful (commercially) solo careers before going down in flames completely.

Yet for some reason, while Syd Barrett's solo career has somehow been preserved over the years and the man himself earned a massive cult following - doubtlessly only due to the huge commercial success of his former bandmates which, in turn, led many to gradually discovering the mad genius of Syd - Skip Spence and his only solo album have vanished into near-complete obscurity, only treasured by Sixties' historians; a fate that was sadly predicted by Greil Marcus in his raving, but pessimistic contemporary review of Oar.

Upon Skippy's death in 1999, Oar has been given a thoughtful and caring re-issue, with a load of bonus tracks all dating from those December 1968 recording sessions in Nashville, and several applauding essays, all of them right on the money but probably few of them making any impact on the potential buyers. I mean, what the heck? What kind of naive idiot would buy a solo album from a Moby Grape member that's more than thirty years old? No, no, I'll rather go and burn my cash on the Beatles' 1s instead. Really!

Know this: Oar is a great album. Well, nearly a great album: as great as could possibly be expected from one single person with so-so playing talents, not much of a singing voice (in the technical sense, at least), and who'd just spent six months in an asylum at that. But as far as albums by mad solo artists go, Oar is one of the best. Similarities can be traced with Barrett's Madcap, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and, maybe most important of all, Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding. Most important, because this is an American album: it's got tons of country and American folk influences all over it, and on some of the tracks, Skip (who, by the way, preferred to go by his proper name of Alexander for the album) really sounds uncannily close to the ol' Zimmerman guy in his JWH mode.

Not that Skip was totally mad while doing the songs or anything. After all, he did play all the instruments - mostly acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but with an occasional weird electric part thrown in, or some eccentric goofy noises added. (And one could say that the cling-clanging dubbed over 'Books Of Moses' precedes the entire industrial genre! Okay, that would be stretching it, but sometimes you need a good stretch to evaluate things as they really are). Also, it's interesting that while I don't think there's one single "bad" track on the original Oar, few of the extra bonus tracks strike me as interesting - which, to me, proves that Skip was very sensitive about which tracks of his could make it onto the album and which ones were better left behind. Unless all the selection was really done by the record company, of course, in which case I pretty much agree with their selections. (Which actually brings me to another point - in what era but the late Sixties would a record company actually allow a lunatic fresh out of the madhouse to get a thousand bucks advance, go to Nashville, and have total artistic freedom in order to record them an album? Those were the days!) Not that it sucks to have these bonus tracks - on the contrary, it's useful to have them in order to put things in context and to actually understand the way in which Skip was composing and recording his stuff on a better level.

So, anyway, I haven't said much about the songs yet, and you probably know why. How easy is it to analyze songs composed by a "repentant madman" while still within the confines of the madhouse? Dang near impossible. Lyrically, Skip is always seeming to communicate something, but it all boils down to a general abstract message in the end. Everything on the guts level. 'Little Hands' - that (instantly memorable!) chorus is so warm and happy and optimistic, it's hard to even notice that one of the lines goes 'how many friends can you call your own?'. At that point, Skippy sure couldn't call that many, and you almost get that feeling of a miserable madman looking out from behind his bars onto a world where "little hands clappin', children are happy, little hands lovin', all around the world".

On 'Cripple Creek', Skippy takes a traditional folksy melody and writes 'traditionally-styled' lyrics: 'A cripple on his deathbed/And a day dream did ride/All past the streams of fire/On a pedal path did glide'. Ring a bell? Not necessarily, but you do get some kind of a general association, especially when it's sung in that morbid, a trifle hoarse, spooky voice. The spooky world-weary voice then makes its reappearance on the hypnotic (or lethargic, whatever) 'Weighted Down (The Prison Song)', a slow, theoretically "generic" and yet utterly unsettling country song; and then even later on on the gorgeous 'Broken Heart', half 'Chimes Of Freedom', half 'I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine' in melody, but "interpreted" in a hundred percent Skip Spence kind of way. When Skippy gets to the final 'I'd rather have no eyes at all/Be blind upon the floor/Then to stand upon the receivin' end/Of the right hand of the Lord' verse, it's catharsis all the way - it might sound dumb here on paper, but I seriously have no idea how he manages to do that. Maybe it's that enigmatic schizophrenic vibe.

In between these half-confessional, half-nonsensic, half-goofy, half-apocalyptic songs Skip places all kinds of other weird shit. 'Diana' might be the most rambling love ballad ever written, but it works because of that - just one more ounce of coherence and it would get boring. 'Margaret - Tiger Rug' is boppy and fun, a good distraction from all the downers around it. 'War In Peace' is Skip's absolute masterpiece, a staggering psychedelic anthem recorded with minimum effort and pretty much beating out all the technologically enhanced "authentic" psychedelic recordings. The way these totally tripped out vocals whirl and swirl around you; the minimalistic guitar solo which is just perfect - not one note to be taken out or added in; the "astral noises" which, to me, just sound like recorded whistling later subjugated to phasing and distortion (distorted whistling? now we're talking!); the lyrics which seem to be related to Dune or something ("good old spice, it's nice to see you last", eh?); and the totally unexplicable appearance of a slightly modified riff to 'Sunshine Of Your Love' at the end - you won't be forgetting the song any time soon once you've given it a chance.

In the end, it all gets wrapped up in the lengthy nine-minute "improvisation" 'Grey/Afro', which is just Skip rambling over a crazy phased drum rhythm and a muffled bass line - normally, I hate stuff like that, but this particular piece is mesmerizing just because I've never heard anything remotely like this. I mean, long uninspired acoustic strums? Sure. Long cliched "gothic" pieces? By all means. But 'Afro' just doesn't fall under any genre I've ever heard of. In a way, it's more bizarre than anything Captain Beefheart ever recorded, just because it's much more simple, yet equally bedazzling.

It's a hard listening experience, of course, and putting this record on for pleasure is not something many people could do, I guess (apart from a few songs with cheery well-defined hooks like 'Little Hands'). But it IS unique, and I sure wish it had a bigger cult following than it already has. In terms of emotional impact, it is actually very varied: it's got a bit of happiness ('Little Hands'), a bit of "anthemicness" ('Broken Heart'), a bit of love-stricken confusion ('Diana'), a bit of despair ('Books Of Moses'), and, of course, lots and lots and lots of uncalculated weirdness and unsimulated madness. And believe you me, some of the songs here are structured in a way I've yet to see other people to structure theirs. Buy it today! And tell a friend!


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