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Published: 2001/05/21
by Mick Skidmore

Second Time Around- Quicksilver Messenger Service, On the Wings of Mercury

I just had a dream that it was March 1969 and Id just purchased this phenomenal album called Happy Trails by the San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service. It was a good dream, but like most good things it came to a quick end. The alarm clock went off at 6am and I realized that I was in the year 2001, and shit, I had to go to work, and worse still, they dont make music as intoxicating, original and exciting as this anymore!
Nonetheless, the dream seemed to be telling me something, so on the way to work I played Happy Trails (at an exceedingly loud volume) and all sorts of great memories came rushing back, and then it all fell into place. The fact that the album was recorded over 30 years ago made me think that theres a whole slew of people out there that are not aware of this classic, which represented the pinnacle of the free-flowing jam-based San Francisco era of the late 60s. So, it occurred to me that they really should be enlightened because after all this is great music. Therefore, without further ado, heres some info on the seminal San Francisco masters of improvisational rock, Quicksilver Messenger Service.
QMS were contemporaries of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Despite more than moderate success they never quite scaled the lofty heights of commercial success that the aforementioned achieved. They did, however, leave behind a legacy of great music, which captured that era of free-spirited ideas and musical adventure of the heady 60s. Surprisingly it remains positively relevant and exciting today.
QMS has a long and somewhat convoluted history thats far too involved for me to ramble on about now, but a quick synopsis would tell you that the band had its roots as early as 1965. They played lots of local SF area gigs (getting paid two ounces of marijuana) for its first job, a rock and roll recording of the The Star Spangled Banner. Guitarist John Cippolina, bassist David Freiberg (later of Jefferson Airplane and Starship fame), and drummer Greg Elmore along with guitarist Gary Duncan were the lineup that recorded the bands self-titled debut album released in 1968. Prior to that, vocalist Dino Valente was scheduled to be in the band but was conspicuous in his absence at the onset, due to a drug bust and subsequent jail sentence. He later would become a dominant force in the band around 1970, but thats a whole other story.
The band at one point featured Skip Spence (later of Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape) and vocalist/harmonica player Jim Murray. Murray can be heard on the recently released archive release Lost Gold and Silver and the soundtrack to the hippie movie Revolution.
Unlike the early Dead and Airplane, in its early days Quicksilver was a tight and proficient musical ensemble. They were not particularly good songwriters or vocalists, but they could jam up a storm, and as an ensemble they were exciting and extremely accomplished. Much of their material was blues-rock based with forays into jazz and folk with a heavy emphasis on improvisation.
Listening to early tapes of the band, their musical proficiency seems to dwarf that of their contemporaries. Of special note is the mercurial guitar playing of the late John Cipollina. Cipollina played a Gibson SG with a whammy bar and served up sustain-laden guitar licks that were sinewy and often ferocious and more than anything, totally original in content. Energy and passion were prime components of Cipollinas playing. Counter-pointing Cipollina was the underrated and more melodic guitar work of Gary Duncan, who was so much more than just a second guitarist.

Most people will arguewith a fair amount of meritthat QMS golden years were 1968 and 1969 and after that they declined, but what a couple of years. The band released its debut album in May of 1968. It was a formidable effort, although some people thought that it didnt quite capture the energy of the bands live sets. Nonetheless, 33 years later, the album still sounds remarkably vibrant. If it were recorded with todays technology one can only guess at how good it would sound. The disc (which is still available) opens with a revved-up horn-propelled take of the folk song Pride of Man. Theres a more jazz feel to Light Up Your Windows, while Dinos Song is a strident slice of Byrds-like psychedelic folk-rock. But the albums real gems are the sophisticated instrumental Gold and Silver and the 12-minute The Fool. The former features a loping beat and articulate interplay between Cipollina and Duncan, while the latter is a more elaborately structured piece thats all about atmosphere and texture. Subtle feedback is mixed with almost Eastern raga-like guitar work, while Freiberg adds a backdrop of soaring melodic viola that gives an altogether different feel to the harsh rock tones. The bass and drums push the sonic wah-wah guitars at points, while at times Cipollina and Duncan play off of each other in furious melodic flurries. This is a truly great cut despite the whimsical cosmic lyrics!
For fans who were disappointed that the studio album didnt quite capture the tenacity of the live set, the following years Happy Trails was their consolation. In short, Happy Trails is one of the greatest live rock albums ever released. Recorded mostly at the Fillmore East and West and partly live in the studio, the album represents the epitome of the acid-rock guitar era. The centerpiece of the album is the 25-minute plus take of Bo Diddleys Who Do You Love. Although this is essentially a simplistic two-chord blues riff, QMS took the cut into another dimension with their exploratory and wildly spontaneous interpretation. From the pulsating opening bass riffs, this is magic music. Cipollina and Duncan have a musical empathy that borders on telepathic. The cut weaves its way through grinding rock passages to flowing jazz phrases to more out-there feedback and spacey segments. Theres even an audience participation part where fans clap along to a spacey guitar backdrop.
Bo Diddleys Mona, a similar swampy blues-rock cut, is given a like treatment but is condensed into seven minutes and comes across as a more dynamic song with furious guitar work from Cipollina. The spiraling cacophonic guitar duels of Maiden of the Cancer Moon give way to the exotic and totally exciting Cavalry. The latter is another 12 minutes of majestic guitar work. It begins with a mix of twelve-string acoustic guitar, swirling Eastern patterns and feedback-drenched leads, not to mention odd but effective rhythm tracks before it winds its way through some flowing jazz-rock passages that are both cinematic and dramatic.
The album closes with a tongue-in-cheek rendition of the Dale Evans country song Happy Trails, which was the only song ever sung by drummer Greg Elmore and recorded mostly to fit in with the cowboy theme of the albums artwork.
Ultimately, Happy Trails still retains its charm and musical integrity over 30 years after its initial release. I still get that electric charge that I got the first time I heard the album. In many ways it was years ahead of its time and, ironically, in a time of its own as after this the band changed musical direction.
Anyone into improvised music with a more rock than jazz bias would do well to check this album out. It should be easily available at all your favorite stores, although you might find it in the oldies section in mega stores like Tower (a bizarre fact thats worthy of a story of its own). Likewise, some of todays jambands might learn something from listening to this album. Quicksilver knew how to jam and be spontaneous, but they also managed to have a destination in mind when they set off on their amazing musical excursions. The results were dynamic and as these albums prove, long lasting. Listening to these discs its also fairly evident that John Cipollina was one of the most exciting, original and sadly neglected guitarists of the last three decades.
John died of a long-time respiratory illness in May of 1989. Do yourself a favor and give Quicksilver a listen, especially the aforementioned albums. I have no doubt you will be truly impressed. The rest of the band was also quite formidable and often overlooked in the light of Cipollinas superb guitar work. After these albums, QMS changed a lot and became a more song-oriented band and never again scaled the musical heights of these two albums, although it did experience a fair amount of commercial success with the song Fresh Air. Having said that, most of the Quicksilver albums had some musical merit, but again thats a whole other story.
Cipollina went on to perform with a variety of bands such as Terry and the Pirates, Problem Child, Copperhead, Raven, Fish and Chip, Thunder and Lightnin, Nicksilver, the Dinosaurs and Zero among others. He also jammed with scores of people from the Grateful Dead to Charles Lloyd and Welsh rockers Man to Jimi Hendrix and Jorma Kaukonen. If Cippo were alive today hed be showing up all over the place playing with up-and-coming jambands; it was Johns way. He was a musicians musician and just loved to jam.
Another album worth checking out is the Unreleased Quicksilver Messenger Service-Lost Gold and Silver, a two-disc set on Collectors Choice. It features a disc of live material circa the Happy Trails-era, as well as a disc of studio material including a shortened version of Who Do you Love and an alternate Silver and Gold, properly titled Acapulco Gold and Silver. Cipollina is also fairly prominent on Barry the Fish Meltons The Saloon Years album.
These days Gary Duncan, who has released several albums, carries on the Quicksilver name, the best of his recent releases being the jazzy/soul of Live at Fieldstone. The British label Evangeline is about to re-issue the self-titled album Copperhead (featuring Cipollina) that dates from 1973, and there are plenty of things in the vaults that hopefully will surface some time. Here are some useful websites that might help you discover the music of Quicksilver and especially the late great John Cipollina.


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