Posts Tagged ‘Columbia Records’

Masterpiece: Moby Grape

16 July 2010

[Today: Moby Grape sinks…]

“What’s eight tons, purple and floats in the sea?” In 1967, Moby Grape dropped one of the greatest debut albums of all-time, and then were savaged by every form of bad luck known to hit a rock band, save having their drummer burst into flames. They suffered through poor management, idiotic promotion, personnel issues (a nice euphemism for insanity and drug abuse), and a string of under-appreciated albums, each not quite as good as the one before, that finally sunk their battleship.

The Grape featured five songwriters who could sing, three of whom were solid guitarists, and harmonies that sounded like the product of years of practice. In truth, the band was a hasty assemblage of diverse musical parts. Guitarist Skip Spence had previously been the drummer in Jefferson Airplane, guitarist Jerry Miller had roots in country music, guitarist Peter Lewis and bassist Bob Mosley played in surf bands, and drummer Don Stevenson and Miller played together in garage bands around Seattle. But they instantly clicked, and their live shows were powerful enough that within two months of their formation, Columbia Records awarded them what was then the largest contract in that company’s storied history.

Contrary to their San Francisco brethren, Moby Grape made melodic, three-minute songs that didn’t feature a drop of psychedelic nonsense. Instead, their sound was an easy blend of country, folk and rock, with hard-charging guitars when the mood called for them. No spacey jams or endless noodling solos, just one great tune after another. Their debut was so chock full o’ goodness that Columbia smothered them in kindness, making the monumental misjudgment of releasing ten of the album’s songs on five singles, all at the same time.

‘8:05’ and ‘Omaha’ are songs for the ages, but confused disc jockeys had no idea which of the five singles to play, and consequently all of them tanked (‘Omaha’ somehow managed to reach #88 on the charts). With one grave misstep, Columbia Records killed Moby Grape’s momentum and made the rest of their career an uphill climb. But that was small potatoes compared to what came next: when Spence broke down Stevenson’s hotel room door with a fire ax and earned six months in the psych ward, The Grape were effectively done. Against all odds, they would go on to release several more very good albums (including the massively underrated 20 Granite Creek, and guitar showcase Grape Jam), but none reached the level of their debut. Even more tragic, Mosley and Spence ended up schizophrenic and homeless, while Moby Grape’s sleazy ex-manager blocked both reunions and reissues by invoking his ownership of the band’s name.

The original cover art of Moby Grape (pictured above) featured Stevenson staring daggers and flipping the bird. Their cursed fates deserved nothing less than two middle fingers…

Listen: 8:05

Listen: Omaha

Listen: Fall On You

Listen: Naked, If I Want To

Masterpiece: Kristofferson

3 June 2010

[Today: The Buddha of Nashville…]

The solitary figure at the center of most country music is the heartbroken man, the outlaw on the run, the misunderstood, unforgiven outcast. The character at the center of Kris Kristofferson’s music is a seeker – of wine, women and the wisdom that comes with good times and hangovers alike. But unlike most Nashville musicians, Kristofferson wrote songs that radiated an almost Buddhist philosophy. He made music that reflected on the fleeting nature of possessions, chastised over-eager policemen and social critics, and celebrated free love. Each of his songs, in their own way, looked into the darkness and found light.

If Kristofferson wrote songs that were unlike his Nashville contemporaries, it was probably because nobody like him had set foot in that city before. A Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford, he joined the Army after college, where he attained the rank of Captain and completed Ranger school. After leaving the Army, he turned down a position as professor of literature at West Point so that he could pursue songwriting. He moved to Nashville and was literally sweeping the floors at Columbia Studios while Bob Dylan was recording Blonde On Blonde there. Kristofferson’s music came to the attention of Johnny Cash, who helped the not-so-young man find his footing in the industry.

Speaking of his early struggles in Nashville, he said “It was such a creative experience for me; it never seemed as hard on me as it was, I’m sure, on my family and friends who thought I’d gone straight to the devil. Thought I’d lost my mind and gone to Nashville to be a country writer.” After his song ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was covered by Roger Miller, Kristofferson played the Newport Folk Festival and his career gained enough momentum that he was able to record his self-titled debut.

Kristofferson is certainly unlike anything else that Nashville was cooking up in 1970. It opens with ‘Blame It On The Stones’, a sly re-write of ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ that takes aim at those who blast the youth for being young. ‘To Beat The Devil’ is the tale of a struggling songwriter that is dedicated to “John and June”, ‘The Law Is For The Protection Of The People’ compares aggressive cops to those who hung Jesus on the cross, and ‘The Best Of All Possible Worlds’ is, like most of Kristofferson’s music, incredibly alive to the beauty of the moment.

But Kristofferson’s debut is best known for two songs – ‘Me And Bobby McGee’, a great song of love lost and bittersweet blues that has made his name, and ‘Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down’. A hangover can provide very constructive wisdom, but few songwriters have captured its poetry as well as Kris Kristofferson. “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth,” wrote the Buddha Siddarta, “not going all the way, and not starting.” Kristofferson’s debut goes all the way, and relishes every bump in the road…

Listen: Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down

Listen: Me And Bobby McGee

Listen: Best Of All Possible Worlds

Listen: Blame It On The Stones

Doubleshot Tuesday: Kind Of Blue/Foggy Mountain Banjo

8 September 2009

[Today: Songs in the key of nature…]

Miles Davis | Kind Of Blue
Flatt & Scruggs | Foggy Mountain Banjo

On the surface, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Banjo would appear to have absolutely nothing to do with one another. But these albums have a number of things in common, not least of which is that they were both released on Columbia Records. Kind Of Blue was released in 1959, FMB followed two years later, and both albums represented artists who stood at the absolute peak of their genres (Jazz and Bluegrass, respectively). Miles Davis sounds like an upscale New York City nightclub, while Flatt & Scruggs sound like a back porch in the farthest reaches of the country, but both artists made music that is totally at home in nature.

I know this because The P and I have a getaway spot near the Russian River (about 90 minutes north of San Francisco) and I’ve been taking a portable record player and a small pile of LPs along for ambience on our trips up there. While we sit on the deck and gaze at the massive redwoods, drinks in hand, we spin different albums and talk about nothing in particular. Foggy Mountain Banjo reminds me of the dragonflies that swirl like little helicopters around the plants in the garden – always in rapid motion, veering left and right but staying on course, and definitely heading somewhere. Kind Of Blue, on the other hand, is the musical equivalent of the wind whispering through the trees – a free-flowing, infinitely flexible phenomenon that comes and goes without reason or warning.

Kind Of Blue also reminds me of the Russian River itself. It’s always in languid motion, but you have to pay attention to detect which direction the current’s headed. This weekend The P and I discovered a public trail down to a perfect swimming hole, and we put it to use over and over. From the river, not a single house was visible, and standing shoulder deep in the water while the ducks flew by and the cormorants posed on driftwood like Gene Simmons, it wasn’t my sins that got washed away, but all the grit and grime of everyday life…

Listen: So What [Miles Davis]

Listen: Ground Speed [Flatt & Scruggs]