What a short, strange trip it was. And what a long, strange trip it turned into anyway.
Two Seattle bar-band honchos and two aspiring L.A. pros shoring up speedy psychedelic wonder boy Skip Spence, Moby Grape were assembled by hustler Matthew Katz in San Francisco in 1966 and recorded one magnificent album before Spence’s paranoid schizophrenia got the better of him in 1968. That’s the short part. The long part isn’t the rest of this insanely overduereissue — their spotty post-debut output on Columbia, a done deal by September 1969. It’s that they’ve pursued their legend, and their career, ever since. They were still fighting Katz for their name forty years after they formed.
Unloosed on the world with famously failed five-singles-at-once hoopla in May 1967, Moby Grape comprises thirteen songs lasting an astonishing thirty-one minutes — just like the Ramones, only Moby Grape is, shall we say, more varied. Everybody wrote — the Northwest team of guitar whiz Jerry Miller and tub-thumper Don Stevenson have six tracks (one with Spence), R&B-style San Diego shouter Bob Mosley has three, Loretta Young’s son Peter Lewis and Spence two each. Harmonies run from sweet to intense, guitars likewise. Fast ones like the begin-with-a-bang “Hey Grandma” and Spence’s anthemic “Omaha” rock as hard as the grungiest garage classics. Yet slow ones like the beseeching “8:05” and the resigned “Sitting by the Window” stand alongside the loveliest tunes in the country-rock canon this album initiated.
And then came — not quite nada, but close. Wow had one of the worst cases of Pepper-itis on record — creditable material like the jumpy “Can’t Be So Bad” and the ticket-protesting “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” undermined by needless horns and strings, stereo separations, even musique contracte. Moby Grape ’69 errs in the other direction — rather than hinting at country rock, it is the very beast, songwriting honorable and presentation flat. Cut in Nashville, Truly Fine Citizen is the same without the songs. The hippie self-indulgence of Grape Jam‘s wooden groove instrumentals originally occupied a Wow bonus disc.
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What killed Moby Grape? Management nightmares, the implosion of the catalytic Spence, and the bummer of cutting a debut album as America’s Beatles and watching it flop. That album remains, however — still a flash of youth so exhilarating that its surviving creators, all past sixty, cannot let it go.