[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: Fall On You
Listen: Naked, If I Want To