If there was a subsection in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame for unlucky bands, Moby Grape would have a prominent place in it.
A couple months ago, Sundazed reissued their first five records, which first came out on Columbia in the late 60s. Not long after, though, they withdrew the first three (_Moby Grape_, Wow and Grape Jam the only ones in the batch to feature the full original lineup) with a statement on their website indicating that the actions of a third party, presumably the manager whos dogged the band all these decades, made this necessary.
And so these three albums have joined the far-too-long list of music you wont hear if you arent in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, I grabbed two of the three in vinyl form prior to these abortive reissues Moby Grape with the middle-finger cover (although without the American flag or poster) and Wow with its 78 RPM track which I can use on my record player to demonstrate that a 78 RPM track sounds very odd played back at 33 or 45. Grape Jam didnt seem worth the trouble.
Moby Grape were San Franciscos could-have-been contenders. Five guys (including former Jefferson Airplane member and future acid casualty and Beck influence Skip Spence) who could all sing and write, they cut a debut album that remains a critics favorite, apparently because its more concise and song-oriented than most of the 1967 competition. If I ran things, we would be seeing Anthem Of The Sun more often in those early-psychedelic-peak lists, but it may well be true that Moby Grape has the most consistent songwriting of any of that first wave of albums by bands with silly names.
The album that I tend to go back to, though, is Wow. Combined with Spences breakdown and the first albums overhype, this album crippled the band. Admittedly, it has its flaws. A couple of songs near the end (Three-Four and Millers Blues) are as generic as the titles suggest, and the album concludes anticlimactically with an unnecessary remake of the debuts Naked, If I Want To.
However, its fun, in a this-could-have-only-happened-in-1968 way. Some have called the first album the work of a potential American Beatles if so, Wow is their White Album, in that its the work of band members who are rarely in the same room and thus arent censoring one anothers output. Peter Lewis and Bob Mosley favor quiet, haunted songs, Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson alternate between white r&b and ornate pop, and Spence offers fractured folk-rock. With the long wave of single-frontman rock bands meaning that buying a CD these days means spending an hour with Bono, Jeff Tweedy or whoever, its refreshing to find such an assemblage attempting to share space.
There are plenty of successful tracks the lumbering Murder In My Heart For The Judge, the pensive He and Rose-Colored Eyes, the wacked-out Motorcycle Irene. However, a couple of the failed cuts summarize a lot about the album. The Place And The Time brings in an orchestra and bicycle and car horns for a spectacular vision that never comes into focus. And the struggle of Bitter Winds pretty first half against the shrill Day In The Life-style ending is an apt metaphor for what happened to the band, and many of its compatriots in and out of music.
A few of the weird bands succeeded in, as Hunter Thompson put it, turning pro. Others buried their promise in the wreckage. Wow, like Moby Grape and Grape Jam, has lost another chance to get the distribution it deserves. If you look in the right places, though, it is not gone altogether.