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Moby Grape

San Francisco, California was the hub of the burgeoning psychedelic scene, a scene that had already unveiled its greatest progenitors, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE. In fact one of MOBY GRAPE’s kinfolk, Canadian-born guitarist Alexander Skip Spence, had cut his teeth as that band’s drummer; manager Matthew Katz had also jumped ship from this legendary act. The summer of ’67 and an over-hyped Top 30 LP looked to have shaped a hot tamale to match their flighty cousins. However, subsequent self-indulgence, on every level, left the ‘Grape high and dry.
Formed in September 1966, aforesaid self-styled scenester Katz, and his prize protégé, Skip Spence, roped in relatively unknown musicians from mainly fledgling acts to sign up; these comprised lead guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson (from The Frantics; and son of actress Loretta Young), rhythm guitarist Peter Lewis (from The Cornells) and bassist Bob Mosley (ex-Misfits). They apparently took their name from a (pathetic) joke doing the rounds at the time: “What’s purple and lives at the bottom of the ocean?” (who said Americans didn’t have an ironic sense of humour?!). Katz himself wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute; allegedly harassing the band into signing an outrageous contract that gave him complete control over its personnel, as well as their moniker.
After signing to Columbia Records, the quintet released their MOBY GRAPE {*8} debut just as the “summer of love” was fermenting. The psychedelic country-rock LP showcased the distinctive guitar triumvirate of Spence, Lewis and Miller, a soft-rock sound that enhanced the fertile songwriting and close-knit harmonies. So confident were the record company in the band’s profit-making potential, they dropped five singles simultaneously. All of them could’ve been hits in their own right, but this foolhardy gesture was seen as a blatant attempt to hype the band, the result being a severe dent in their credibility and a lowly No.88 highest place for the classic `Omaha’ (b/w `Someday’). The remaining four attendant singles stiffed; they’re worth mentioning because they all including B-sides from the set: `Fall On You’ (b/w `Changes’), `Sitting By The Window’ (b/w `Indifference’), `8:05’ (b/w ` Mister Blues’) and the excellent `Hey Grandma’ (b/w `Come In The Morning’). It didn’t help matters when three of the band were caught consorting with underage girls on the night of the album launch. The charges were duly dropped.
The sessions for the unfortunately-titled follow-up, WOW (1968) {*6}, were beset with problems, not least Skip running amok with an axe and being carted off to hospital in a straitjacket. Unsurprisingly, the record was a patchy affair bolstered with gimmicks like the “Grape Jam” disc, given away free with the Top 20 album. One official single was chosen this time around, though `Can’t Be So Bad’ probably answered its critics in one fell swoop. The funked-up and bluesy `Murder In My Heart For The Judge’ was on the polar-opposite to the folksy `He’, `Bitter Wind’ and `Rose Colored Eyes’; or for that matter the GRATEFUL DEAD-esque `Motorcycle Irene’. One had to watch out too for the wacky/wonky old-timey `Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot’ (featuring Arthur Godfrey / Lou Waxman & His Orchestra), which spun at 78 rpm, and impossible to play on most modern turntables.
With acid casualty ALEXANDER SPENCE out of the picture (he’d duly unfetter his one and only LP, “Oar”), the rest of the band released another couple of quick-fire albums that mined a rootsier seam, MOBY GRAPE ’69 {*6} and TRULY FINE CITIZEN (also 1969) {*5}. The absence of their leader’s incendiary genius was glaringly apparent. The first of these sets was another smorgasbord of styles, from rock’n’roll, folk, country and boogie; `Trucking Man’, `Hoochie’, `Ooh Mama Ooh’ and the lovely `It’s A Beautiful Day Today’ were underrated during their troubled times, though cool on reflection.
It was a case of then-they-were-three when undiagnosed schizophrenic Mosley joined the US Marines; he was replaced by session bassist Bob Moore for the latter aforesaid LP. In their wisdom, Columbia decided a switch of producers from David Rubinson to Nashville-based Bob Johnston was a necessary evil; legal disputes were still pending. However, the ‘Grape trio didn’t warm to this arrangement, especially when their new studio affiliate wanted the record done and dusted in three days. He even took his name off the credits and allowed road manager Tom Dell’ara to sign it off. At a time when country-rock was rife, what we had here was a failure to communicate, although once again history and hindsight was their saviour on `Right Before My Eyes’, `Now I Know High’ and the title track.
Splitting up was the only option for the seedless ‘Grape trio. As it turned out this wasn’t the last we’d heard of the band. Peter Lewis was still working with Rubinson on a solo album, when it was decided late on in the day to rope in the other original members to join him at a commune in the Santa Cruz mountains, for what turned out to be, an intriguing bona-fide MOBY GRAPE reunion LP, 20 GRANITE CREEK (1971) {*7}. For country-rock acolytes, they could feast on `Gypsy Wedding’, `Goin’ Down To Texas’ and Skip’s lone-star turn, `Chinese Song’.
Due to the dodginess of their aforementioned management contract, Katz retained the MOBY GRAPE nom de plume and set up his own “fake” version of the band in the early 70s; all very confusing. They comprised Frank Recard (vocals, guitar), Tommy Spurlock (guitar), Danny Timms (keyboards), Bob Newkirk (drums).
In the meantime, Mosley had gone solo by releasing an eponymous album for Warner Bros, whilst the “real” MOBY GRAPE stood up again by late 1973 – spring ’75; Lewis, Miller and Mosley were joined by guitarist Jeff Blackburn and drummer John Craviotta. With Katz’s hold over the group’s progress and with no new record deal in sight, they broke up again. Lewis, Miller, Craviotta and guitarist Michael Bean (ex-H.P. LOVECRAFT) formed FINE WINE, who issued one eponymous album in Germany around mid’75; alongside NEIL YOUNG, Mosley, Craviotta and Blackburn subsequently formed the short-lived Ducks.
MOBY GRAPE re-formed once again; this time with Lewis, Miller and Spence, plus newbies Cornelius Bumpus (keyboards/sax), Christian Powell (bass) and John Oxendine, or indeed, Daniel Spencer (drums). To avoid legal retribution from Katz, concert appearances were down to “the Grape” or “the Original Grape”, but everyone at the Shady Grove, San Francisco and/or The Inn Of The Beginning, Cotali, Ca. (between July ’77 and March ’78) – where they recorded LIVE GRAPE – knew exactly who they were, even if re-treads of BILL DOGGETT’s `Honky Tonk’ and JOHNNY “GUITAR” WATSON’s `Cuttin’ In’, seemed a cosmic distance away from their “summer of ‘67” debut set.
A compromise of sorts led to a pact between producer Katz and the country-rockers (bar Spence) for MOBY GRAPE ’84 (1984) {*5}, but fans, at least, saw through this easy-listening charade. As they did for the Mosley Grape” disguise on 1989’s LIVE AT INDIGO RANCH {*4}, and the pseudonymous/eponymous THE MELVILLES (1990) {*6} cassette; re-issued later as “Legendary Grape”. Miller, Lewis, Mosley and Stevenson dropped Spence and roped in Dan Abernathy (guitar) and Kirt Tuttle (drums). In 1993, Jerry Miller issued the cassette, `Now I See’, for Herman Records.
All in all, it was yet another case of what might’ve been for MOBY GRAPE, had not drugs, bad luck and even worse deals not prematurely snuffed out their talent. Sadly, years of living on the streets of Santa Cruz (while attending the local Dominican hospital) took its toll on ALEXANDER “SKIP” SPENCE, when he died of lung cancer on April 18, 1999, leaving behind four children; like Mosley, he was diagnosed a schizophrenic.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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