If the Monkees were an American-issue, made-for-TV Beatles, then Moby Grape was a tragically misconceived attempt to personify the San Francisco Sound. Initially imagined as a star vehicle for former Jefferson Airplane drummer/future acid casualty Skip Spence, the quintet was thrust into the spotlight by label executives at Columbia, who decided to release 10 of Moby Grape’s 13 songs as five simultaneous singles in 1967. But the kids smelled oil burning inside the hype machine, and all of them flopped. That said, 40 years beyond the so-called Summer of Love, Moby Grape is arguably the finest album from the Bay Area’s psychedelic scene. The surprise is that for a supposed artifact of the Haight-Ashbury era, there’s not a Dead-length jam to be found here, just track after track of short, sharp roots variants, from pleasantly bouncing boogie (“Come In The Morning,” “Changes”) to loping, stoned odes to carefree times (“Naked, If I Want To”) and Bakersfield twang that gives the Flying Burrito Brothers a run for their money (“Ain’t No Use”).
Moby Grape ultimately fell apart as quickly as it was assembled. Three of its members landed in the legal penalty box for consorting with underage females, Spence cooked his brain on LSD during the recording of the group’s sophomore record and attempted to murder his bandmates with an axe before being committed to an asylum. Perhaps Moby Grape’s most definitive statement can be found on its debut’s artwork: That’s drummer Don Stevenson flipping the bird to the camera on the cover, summarizing the band’s brief, frustrating experience with the music business in the most succinct manner possible. [www.sundazed.com]