Moby Grape Biography

The legend that continues to grow and grow around this memorable late 60s San Francisco, California, USA band is mainly based on their magnificent debut album, which fans vainly willed them to repeat. This iconoclastic but sometimes shambling unit was formed in September 1966, with the seminal line-up of Alexander ‘ Skip’ Spence (18 April 1946, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, d. 16 April 1999, Santa Cruz, California, USA; guitar/vocals), Jerry Miller (b. 10 July 1943, Tacoma, Washington, USA; guitar/vocals), Bob Mosley (b. 4 December 1942, Paradise Valley, California, USA; bass/vocals), Don Stevenson (b. 15 October 1942, Seattle, Washington, USA; drums), and Peter Lewis (b. 15 July 1945, Los Angeles, California, USA; guitar/vocals).

A number of record companies were queuing up to sign Moby Grape, but they decided to go with CBS Records and became marketing guinea pigs for an unprecedented campaign, whereupon 10 tracks (five singles plus b-sides) were released simultaneously. Not even the Beatles could have lived up to that kind of launch. Only one of the records dented the US chart, with ‘Omaha’ reaching a dismal number 88. Had the singles been released in normal sequence, they might all have been hits, as the quality of each song was outstanding. The band fell into immediate disarray, unable to cope with the pressure and hype. The resulting debut, Moby Grape, contained all these 10 tracks plus an additional three. The album deservedly reached the US Top 30 album charts, and is now recognized as a classic. The short, brilliantly structured, guitar-based rock songs with fine harmonies still sound fresh over 30 years later.

The follow-up album was a lesser work but managed to reach the US Top 20. As with their debut, CBS continued with their ruthless marketing campaign, determined to see a return on their investment, as the band had originally held out for a considerable advance. Wow sported a beautiful surrealistic painting/collage by Bob Cato, depicting a huge bunch of grapes mixed with an eighteenth-century beach scene, and came with a free album, Grape Jam. Additionally, one of the tracks was recorded at 78 rpm, forcing the listener to get up and change the speed only to hear a spoof item played by Lou Waxman And His Orchestra. Amidst this spurious package were some of their finest songs, including Spence’s ‘Motorcycle Irene’, Miller’s ‘Miller’s Blues’, Mosley’s ‘Murder In My Heart For The Judge’, and arguably their best track, ‘Can’t Be So Bad’. Penned by Miller and featuring his stinging guitar solo, this furiously paced heavy rock item is suddenly slowed down and sweetened by an outstanding five-part style harmony. The song failed to chart anywhere.

Spence had departed with drug and mental problems by the time of Moby Grape ’69, although his ethereal composition ‘Seeing’ was one of the highlights of an apologetic and occasionally brilliant album (the hype of the past was disclaimed by the ‘sincere’ sleeve notes). Other notable tracks included Lewis’ hymn-like ‘I Am Not Willing’, ’It’s A Beautiful Day’ and the straightforward rocker ‘Truck Driving Man’. A disastrous European tour was arranged, during which the band was constantly overshadowed by the support act Group Therapy. Mosley left on their return to the USA, and allegedly joined the marines. Spence released the extraordinary Oar, an album that reflected his condition as a paranoid schizophrenic and subsequently became a cult classic. The rest of the band were forced to fulfil their contract by making a fourth album. The poor-selling and lacklustre Truly Fine Citizen was badly received, with most critics having already given up on them.

The band disintegrated, unable to use the name which was owned by their manager, Matthew Katz (b. 1929, Massachusetts, USA). The remaining members appeared as Maby Grope, Mosley Grape, Grape Escape, Fine Wine, the Melvills, the Grape, the Hermans and the Legendary Grape. During one of their many attempts at re-formation, Mosley and Miller actually released a record as Fine Wine. The original five reunited for an undistinguished album in 1971, 20 Granite Creek. Out of the mire, only Mosley’s ‘Gypsy Wedding’ showed some promise. Skip Spence delivered the quirky ‘Chinese Song’, played on a koto, and the silk-voiced Lewis produced ‘Horse Out In The Rain’ with its unusual timing and extraordinary booming bass.

A live album in 1978 delighted fans, and various re-formations took place over the subsequent decade. The original band reunited in 1990 and released a cassette under the Legendary Grape moniker (an expanded version was released on CD in 2003). Their appearance at Wetlands, New York, on 6 August 1997 was also a delightful surprise. Some of the band still play together in small clubs and bars, but the magical reunion of the five (just like the five Byrds) can now no longer happen following Spence’s death from lung cancer in 1999. Mosley, Miller and Lewis have performed as Moby Grape with ex-Big Brother And The Holding Company member Sam Andrew replacing Spence and Randy Guzman replacing Stevenson.

The myth surrounding Moby Grape continues to grow as more (outrageous) stories come to light. There is an active fanbase on the Internet. Their debut album is one of the true rock classics of the past 40 years (along with Love’s Forever Changes), and their influence is immense. The ‘grape sound’ has shown up in many bands over the past 20 years including the Doobie Brothers, R.E.M. , the Smithereens, Teenage Fanclub and Weezer. Robert Plant is a long-term fan who continues to endorse their greatness. Moby Grape were, more than any other band from the Bay Area in 1967/8, the true embodiment of the music (but not the culture).

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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