Moby Grape is an American rock group from the 1960s, known for having all five members contribute to singing and songwriting and that collectively merged elements of folk music, blues, country, and jazz together with rock and psychedelic music. Due to the strength of their debut album, several critics consider Moby Grape to be the best rock band to emerge from the San Francisco music scene in the late sixties. The group continues to perform occasionally. As described by Jeff Tamarkin, "The Grape's saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco. Moby Grape could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, and less."
The group was formed in late 1966 in San Francisco, at the instigation of Skip Spence and Matthew Katz. Both had been previously associated with Jefferson Airplane, Spence as the band's first drummer, playing on their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and Katz as the band's manager, but both had been dismissed by the group. Katz encouraged Spence to form a band similar to Jefferson Airplane, with varied songwriting and vocal work by several group members, and with Katz as the manager. According to Peter Lewis, "Matthew (Katz) brought the spirit of conflict into the band. He didn't want it to be an equal partnership. He wanted it all."
The band name, judicially determined to have been chosen by Bob Mosley and Spence, came from the punch line of the joke "What's big and purple and lives in the ocean?". Lead guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson (both formerly of The Frantics, originally based in Seattle) joined guitarist (and son of actress Loretta Young) Peter Lewis (of The Cornells), bassist Bob Mosley (of The Misfits, based in San Diego) and Spence, now on guitar instead of drums. Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson had moved The Frantics from Seattle to San Francisco after a 1965 meeting with Jerry Garcia, then playing with The Warlocks at a bar in Belmont, California. Garcia encouraged them to move to San Francisco. Once The Frantics were settled in San Francisco, Mosley joined the band.
While Jerry Miller was the principal lead guitarist, all three guitarists played lead at various points, often playing off against each other, in a guitar form associated with Moby Grape as "crosstalk". The other major three-guitar band at the time was Buffalo Springfield. Moby Grape's music has been described by Geoffrey Parr as follows: "No rock and roll group has been able to use a guitar trio as effectively as Moby Grape did on Moby Grape. Spence played a distinctive rhythm guitar that really sticks out throughout the album. Lewis, meanwhile, was a very good guitar player overall and was excellent at finger picking, as is evident in several songs. And then there is Miller. … The way they crafted their parts and played together on Moby Grape is like nothing else I've ever heard in my life. The guitars are like a collage of sound that makes perfect sense."
All band members wrote songs and sang lead and backup vocals for their debut album Moby Grape (1967). Mosley, Lewis, and Spence generally wrote alone, while Miller and Stevenson generally wrote together. In 2003, Moby Grape was ranked as number 121 in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". Noted rock critic Robert Christgau listed it as one of The 40 Essential Albums of 1967. In 2008, Skip Spence's song "Omaha", from the first Moby Grape album, was listed as number 95 in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". The song was described as follows: "On their best single, Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Skip Spence compete in a three-way guitar battle for two and a quarter red-hot minutes, each of them charging at Spence's song from different angles, no one yielding to anyone else."
In a marketing stunt, Columbia Records immediately released five singles at once, and the band was perceived as being over-hyped. This was during a period in which mainstream record labels were giving previously unheard-of levels of promotion to what was then considered countercultural music genres. Nonetheless, the record was critically acclaimed and fairly successful commercially, with The Move covering the album's "Hey Grandma" (a Miller-Stevenson composition) on their eponymous first album. More recently, "Hey Grandma" was included in the soundtrack to the 2005 Sean Penn-Nicole Kidman film, The Interpreter, as well as being covered in 2009 by the Black Crowes, on Warpaint Live. Spence's "Omaha" was the only one of the five singles to chart, reaching number 88 in 1967. Miller-Stevenson's "8:05" became a country rock standard (covered by Robert Plant, Guy Burlage, and others).
One of Moby Grape's earliest major onstage performances was the Mantra-Rock Dance—a musical event held on January 29, 1967 at the Avalon Ballroom by the San Francisco Hare Krishna temple. At the event Moby Grape performed along with the Hare Krishna founder Bhaktivedanta Swami, Allen Ginsberg, The Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, donating proceeds to the temple. In mid-June 1967, Moby Grape appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival. Due to legal and managerial disputes, the group was not included in the D.A. Pennebaker-produced film of the event, Monterey Pop. Moby Grape's Monterey recordings and film remain unreleased, allegedly because Matthew Katz demanded one million dollars for the rights. According to Peter Lewis, "[Katz] told Lou Adler they had to pay us a million bucks to film us at the Monterey Pop Festival. So instead of putting us on Saturday night right before Otis Redding, they wound up putting us on at sunset on Friday when there was nobody in the place." The Moby Grape footage was shown in 2007 as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the film. Jerry Miller recalls that Laura Nyro was given Moby Grape's original position opening for Otis Redding, "because everybody was arguing. Nobody wanted to play first and I said that would be fine for me." In addition to the marketing backlash, band members found themselves in legal trouble for charges (later dropped) of consorting with underage females, and the band's relationship with their manager rapidly deteriorated.
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