Moby Grape were launched in a blaze of publicity by Columbia Records in May 1967 when Alexander “Skip” Spence (ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer) played rhythm guitar with them, and no fewer than five singles and one album (Moby Grape) were released on the same day.
The singles were not hits and the album was fairly run-of-the-mill West Coast music (it was cut in three weeks for $11,000), but Moby Grape’s snappy pop songs refitted folk, blues, country and blue-eyed soul for FM radio-loving Woodstock kids.
Unfortunately – after an outrageously lavish mishap-laden album launch at the Avalon Ballroom – Jerry Miller, Spence and Peter Lewis (the son of actress Loretta Young) were arrested in Marin County on marijuana charges and for alleged corruption of underage girls.
Though charges were dropped, the mud stuck. With a calamitous tour cut short – and the album peaking at #24 – the band were rushed into the studio two months later to record a follow-up.
Relocated to Manhattan after CBS expressed concern about the amount of partying the band were doing, Moby Grape imploded under the weight, culminating in the volatile Spence threatening drummer Don Stevenson with a fire axe. Spence was incarcerated in New York’s notorious Bellevue Hospital for six months.
The second album that emerged was Wow – a double album (released as a single album in the UK) with a fine, surreal cover painting, a track that played at 78 RPM and the first of the recorded jams which featured the group playing with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, as well as much-improved songs (notably Murder In My Heart For The Judge).
After a couple of further albums (including Moby Grape ’69) the group disbanded in Spring 1969. Both Spence and bassist Bob Mosley were subsequently diagnosed as schizophrenic.
While on release from a New York mental hospital in 1969, Spence took Columbia’s $1000 advance, bought a motorcycle and headed to Nashville to record the songs bursting from his head.
Cut at ultra-low volume, Oar – intimate, droll, bawdy, beautiful and almost unbearably fragile in places – sounded like nothing before or since. In short, the sound of a man trapped in inner space.
Spence eventually died of lung cancer in 1999.
The intervening years have seen numerous Moby Grape reunions.