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Quicksilver Messenger Service

+ {Gary Duncan Quicksilver}

Around at a time when psychedelic folk music was beginning to take shape in San Francisco, QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE had, in fact, formed a matter of months before neighbours JEFFERSON AIRPLANE and The GRATEFUL DEAD. Although never quite reaching the heady heights of their acid rock compadres, at least commercially, QMS were quintessentially West Coast and, showcasing the twin fretwork of lead guitar legends, John Cipollina and Gary Duncan, a touring spectacle of the era.
Formed late 1964, the Dino Valenti-led band went through a couple of initial teething problems before they really got underway, not least when their main songwriter was banged up on drug possession charges. This left the remaining Cipollina and a few others to pick up the pieces as the band began properly rehearsing. Over the course of 1965, guitarist Skip Spence was unceremoniously poached by JEFFERSON AIRPLANE (as their drummer!), while QMS’s original sticksman Casey Sobonan (a jazz man soon off to India), was ousted for MARTY BALIN recommendation, Greg Elmore, who brought with him, guitarist/singer Gary Duncan from The Brogues. In the meantime, the QMS quintet had also saw additions courtesy of Jim Murray (guitar/vocals) and David Freiberg (bass/vocals); their moniker stems from connections to the astrological charts: messenger of the gods, star-signs, etc.
Two years later, the band received a great reception at the Monterey International Pop Festival, although Murray duly bailed, and was not immediately replaced just as they signed to Capitol Records. This was the line-up that recorded two tracks: `Codine’ and `Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’, for the subsequent United Artists soundtrack album, “Revolution”, a documentary that also featured the STEVE MILLER BAND and MOTHER EARTH.
Produced by Nick Gravenites and Harvey Brooks (of ELECTRIC FLAG), the quintet’s inaugural album, QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE (1968) {*7}, created a minor stir within the psychedelic community and, amid much anticipation, reached the Top 75. Not forgetting their jailbird buddy Valenti, his `Dino’s Song’ was among the top tracks on board, and also a B-side to a re-tread of HAMILTON CAMP’s `Pride Of Man’. The set was characterised by a trio of Duncan-Freiberg numbers, namely the pastoral `Light Your Windows’, the DAVE BRUBECK-esque `Gold And Silver’ and the epic, 12-minute curtain call of `The Fool’.
QMS’s sophomore set, HAPPY TRAILS (1969) {*8} – featuring a side-long/25-minute improv-esque suite of BO DIDDLEY’s `Who Do You Love’ – gate-crashed the Top 30.
Apparently as close an appropriation of what it was actually like to have your ears massaged/assaulted in the San Francisco ballrooms as you’re likely to hear, the part-live album nevertheless sounded like The DOORS without JimMo. The flip side also contained a DIDDLEY dirge in `Mona’, while the spacey road trip of `Calvary’ (another 13 minutes of jam) and `Maiden Of The Cancer Moon’, were equal parts songwriter Duncan, to twin-lead guitar compadre, Cipollina.
Although Englishman Nicky Hopkins (keyboards) impressed with The ROLLING STONES and the STEVE MILLER BAND, his addition to the QUICKSILVER line-up for SHADY GROVE (1969) {*5}, didn’t create the musical spark the band intended. The absence of Duncan proved that the group were on a sticky wicket, although the set did have its moments through Cipollina’s boogie-infused `Three Or Four Feet From Home’ and the guitarist’s Gravenites collaboration, `Joseph’s Coat’; the latter procured for BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY.
With both founder Valenti and Duncan back in the fold after respective stints in sing-sing, things took on a transitional aspect for QUICKSILVER’s fourth album, JUST FOR LOVE (1970) {*6}. As the pseudonymous Jesse Oris Farrow, Dino came to dominate the band’s output over their first accessible Top 30 record; but for JP’s `Cobra’, all the numbers were down to Dino, even down to surprise Top 50 entry, `Fresh Air’.
His rather average material was dulling the spontaneity that had characterised QUICKSILVER’s earlier work and effecting a transformation in their sound from psychedelic rock to workmanlike rock’n’roll. Although WHAT ABOUT ME (also 1970) {*5} registered another Top 30 slot (their last to do so), the record was more of the same in lightweight acid-rock; Mark Naftalin was drafted in as Hopkins was increasingly waylaid by other outside activities.
Prior to the delivery of album number six, QUICKSILVER (1971) {*5}, Cipollina, Freiberg and Hopkins had set out on happier trails, while Valenti, Duncan and Elmore had found Chuck Steaks (keyboards) and Mark Ryan (bass). COMIN’ THRU (1972) {*4} – their second LP to only bubble outside the Top 100 – was bog-standard, poor-man’s BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS.
With Cipollina and Freiberg back in the fray (Hopkins and fellow anglophile, Pete Sears were additional alumni) , QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE eased the pain on their Top 100 “comeback” set, SOLID SILVER (1975) {*6}. Very much borrowing from the psych-to-country-rock’n’roll of the ‘Dead and leaning to ‘Airplane splinter, STARSHIP, there was definitely merit in Valenti’s `Witches’ Moon’ and `Cowboy On The Run’.
It was then inevitable that the talents of Cipollina and Freiberg were always wanted elsewhere; the former had played his part in clone-ite Welsh outfit, MAN (he performed on their excellent `Maximum Darkness” set), while the latter took the JEFFERSON AIRPLANE splinter, STARSHIP, on to further musical missions. Sadly, after several years in and out of acts, from Copperhead to Terry And The Pirates, Cipollina died on May 29, 1989, of chronic emphysema.
Gary Duncan had continued utilizing the QUICKSILVER name, although PEACE BY PIECE (1986) {*1}, was a poor reflection of the once-great combo; several albums into their subsequent lifespan, SHAPE SHIFTER (1997) and LIVE AT FIELD STONE (2000) could hardly be described as bona fide QMS. Remnants of the real band – including Duncan and Freiberg, but minus Dino, who died in 1994 – served its purpose on a live REUNION (2009) {*5} double-set; recorded from 2006.
Gary Duncan had kept the fires burning with his own version of QUICKSILVER (plus “Snake Language” with Crawfish Of Love”), though there was little than fanclub support for albums, SIX-STRING VOODOO (2008) {*4}, THE HERMIT (2010) {*5} and STRANGE TRIM (2010) {*6}; the latter recorded back in 2006. Sadly, Gary passed away on June 29, 2019 after suffering a seizure and falling into a coma.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD / rev-up MCS Jul2013-Jun2019

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