Quicksilver Messenger Service

TrackAlbum
Babe I'm Gonna Leave YouRevolution OST
CalvaryHappy Trails
CodineRevolution OST
The FoolQuicksilver Messenger Service
It's Been Too LongQuicksilver Messenger Service
Joseph's CoatShady Grove
Pride Of ManQuicksilver Messenger Service
Too FarShady Grove
Who Do You LoveHappy Trails
Wolf RunJust For Love

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Contributor: Rob Millis

In late sixties San Francisco, a city full of bands with guitarists fond of the extended jamming so in tune with the times, there was one easy way of standing out from the crowd. Have two of them. And that’s what Quicksilver Messenger Service did.

In fact, they already stood out: most West Coast bands were folkies that bought amplifiers. Not Quicksilver – guitarists John Cipollina and Gary Duncan were true rock and rollers. Drummer Greg Elmore came with Duncan from a group called The Brogues (minor hit I Ain’t No Miracle Worker). David Freiberg was the only folkie of the four that cut the debut LP, but he was playing bass, not your average folk musician’s choice.

The band had started in 1965 and settled into the above quartet by mid-late 1967. Skip Spence had been a member, then went on to Jefferson Airplane and thence Moby Grape. Jim Murray, a rhythm guitarist and blues harp player was in, but left before the first LP was recorded. And Dino Valenti – who was a folkie, and a songwriter by trade under various pen names (Hey Joe, Let’s Get Together) – was supposed to be in the band but got busted and jailed, and shut out of the picture.

Quicksilver held off signing a record deal willy-nilly and release of their debut was late compared to their peers: 1968, nearly two years after the first Jefferson Airplane record and a year after that of the Dead, when the hippie scene was already over according to some. But they’d recorded: with Steve Miller and Mother Earth, they appeared in the hippie flick Revolution and the accompanying soundtrack album in 1967, playing Codine (the Buffy Sainte-Marie song) and the folk tune Babe I’m Gonna Leave You revved up a gear with fine guitar breaks.

Their eponymous debut, sporting that iconic black cover with red lettering (I’m wearing the T-shirt as I type), was stunning. Beginning with Pride Of Man (Hamilton Camp folk turned acid rock masterpiece) via the poppier Dino’s Song (by Valenti, of course) to lengthier tracks Gold & Silver, a jazzy guitar tour de force where Duncan shines and finally The Fool – the psychedelic masterpiece. At one point Cipollina’s guitar literally growls, a technique he’d invented and became known for. Ah, sod it: the album is so good, let’s mention Light Your Windows and It’s Been Too Long – blessed with Cipollina’s call and response solo (with himself via stereo panning!) to boot.

Like any good Haight-Ashbury act, their improvisational concert style delighted the local crowds from ballroom to ballroom. Some 1968 dates at the Fillmore(s) were taped, edited and put out on Happy Trails, their second LP. It wasn’t simply a live album, although their trademark extended Bo Diddley reworkings of Who Do You Love (all of the first side) and Mona are (or at least sound to be) largely untampered with, aside from editing. However, Maiden Of The Cancer Moon and Calvary are studio recordings from early 1969 (despite side-long suite presentation on either side of the LP), as is the closing brief verse of the old country chestnut that titled the album. For any guitarist, Happy Trails is – and I hate the word, usually – an awesome treat; a tour-de-force. If a little sullied by the fact that around the time of release, a burnt out Gary Duncan left the band for the rest of the year on sabbatical.

He was not replaced directly. The 1969 studio LP, Shady Grove, featured the remaining trio and that respected British-born session man Nicky Hopkins on piano. He dominated more than Cipollina, but this different direction was far preferable to the one they eventually took. The title track was the old folk standard given the Quicksilver treatment with some success; Cipollina contributed Three Or Four Feet From Home, a rocker. Edward, The Mad Shirt Grinder was Hopkins’ lengthy party piece; for your author, Joseph’s Coat – co-written by Nick Gravenites and Freiberg, with good violin from the latter – is strong, so too is the (sort of Band-like) Too Far with Hopkins playing some beautiful piano. Shady Grove is not an easy listen at first but a slow-burning grower.

Now … Gary Duncan came back in 1970, but Dino Valenti re-entered the picture, too. He’d been out of prison some while and made a solo LP for CBS (his name spelt Valente) on the cover, but when this wasn’t a success joined Quicksilver. So they got their errant guitarist back (Freiberg often says QMS simply didn’t work without Duncan; I think he sells Shady Grove a little short) and their old friend Valenti who was going to be in the band from the beginning anyway; on paper all seemed well.

In 1970 and 1971 Quicksilver released the albums Just For Love and What About Me. I lump them together with reason: Quicksilver were all but dominated by Valenti; they became little more than backing for his pedestrian crooning. 1970 was a key year for the San Francisco set. Psychedelia was old hat, and the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band led the way with a return to structured songs. The sixties were over in every sense. The Grateful Dead, of course, rose to the occasion with Workingman’s Dead and Jefferson Airplane spawned Hot Tuna. Country Joe and the Fish, conversely, knew they were a product of dying times and quit. Quicksilver took a new direction, yes, but Shady Grove had hinted that they’d ride the times on their own terms and stay afloat; too bad we never saw what might have been.

To be fair to Valenti (or Jesse Oris Farrow as the credits call him) 1970’s Fresh Air was their first bona fide hit and both Just For Love and What About Me scored Top 30 places. But the sound of the band was a travesty (listen to Don’t Cry My Lady Love): syrupy, as Hawaiian as the recording venue – and moreover worlds apart from that mercurial (excuse the pun on the band name) guitar act that delighted San Francisco. Criminally, Freiberg’s wonderful vocals were all but gone too. The more R&B based songs like Subway weren’t so bad and older fans were well served in Cobra and Wolf Run – an instrumental apiece from the two albums – but that these core fans were catered for on cuts alien to the bulk of the material should have rung alarm bells. Well, maybe it did: Hopkins and Cipollina respectively exited after each LP. Hopkins was replaced (by ex-Paul Butterfield pianist Mark Naftalin). Cipollina wasn’t.

Late in 1971 Freiberg was busted for grass; in some ways really the last nail in the coffin. But curiously the Quicksilver LP of that year wasn’t quite as syrupy – the production wasn’t as stifling, no extra brass/woodwind was employed and the opening notes of Hope almost had the old sound again, despite Cipollina’s absence. In fact, Gary Duncan (who can arguably be said to have been overshadowed by Cipollina; now the sole gunslinger and able to show his mettle) plays well throughout – for instance, have a listen to I Found Love – but that sodding voice still holds court!

Comin’ Thru limped out in 1972, their last LP for a while. This ranges from typical Valenti fodder (like Changes) to lumpen R&B (most of side two) and reeks of a band running out of ideas. Naftalin was gone; new organist Chuck Steaks’ spirited Hammond at least gave Duncan a foil, but too little too late. The brass and wind extras were back for much of the LP. Doin’ Time In the USA opened in a sub-Santana fashion; I’ll admit I quite like California State Correctional Facility Blues for the guitar and organ work.

The band went on without recording until 1975 when the 1970 line-up reunited for Solid Silver. The cover said it all: on a yacht, that shift from sixties idealism to the business-led seventies sludge – a far cry from those lovely old covers that graced the earlier LPs. Reuniting was not a success and stayed a one off.

Gary Duncan first revived the Quicksilver name in 1987 with the LP Peace by Piece; he currently leads a version with David Freiberg. Freiberg after his 1971 bust went into the dying embers of Jefferson Airplane roughly replacing Marty Balin (he wasn’t on Long John Silver but with Slick/Kantner had cut Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun) and then into Jefferson Starship, alternating bass and keyboards with Pete Sears. His voice is still a joy and a key draw in Kantner’s current Jefferson Starship.

Cipollina died in 1989. After Quicksilver he’d formed Copperhead, Raven and – with Elmore and Frisco giants Barry Melton (Country Joe and the Fish), Peter Albin (Big Brother and the Holding Company) and Merl Saunders (R&B organist often in collaboration with Jerry Garcia) – The Dinosaurs. He’d also been a guest member of Terry and the Pirates, the Welsh band Man (for a UK tour in 1975; his distinctive customized Gibson SG graces the sleeve of Maximum Darkness) and formed the Nick Gravenites/John Cipollina Band with the former Electric Flag singer – their bluesy live album is an unchallenging listen but enjoyable nevertheless.

You might wonder if I honestly like Quicksilver after the latter half of this piece! That the first three LPs and the Revolution soundtrack* are so fantastic is the reason for my criticism of the later releases. Similarly, take The Band: considered peerless for Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright then pilloried for Cahoots. Valenti-era Quicksilver was lots of Cahoots, and Solid Silver was no Northern Lights/Southern Cross return by a long chalk. I don’t even think that a 1975 reunion without Valenti would have worked: like all the acid rock royalty, Quicksilver were of their time – albeit from 1966-70 an exceptionally fine example – and having been denied the chance to find a natural direction, went off at a tangent that left them unrecognizable from their former selves.

*Footnote: Revolution OST is a terrific record, featuring early recordings by Tracy Nelson’s Mother Earth as well as the two Quicksilver tracks mentioned in this piece. If that is not enough, the three tracks from the Steve Miller Band are worth buying the LP for alone!

Quicksilver Messenger Service biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #68

2 Comments

  1. Dana
    Mar 9, 2014

    One of my all time favorite bands … harmonies, sounds, guitar players, lyrics … one of america’s best rock bands ever. John was a genius in his playing style and the sounds he ripped from his SG Gibsons. Way under appreciated, except by those of us who loved QMS. What a time for rock and roll … what a great band!!!

  2. Shawn M. Clarke
    Apr 18, 2019

    Doctor Clarke. Just for Love is the fourth album by American psychedelic rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service. Released in August 1970, it marks the culmination of a transition from the extended, blues- and jazz-inspired improvisations of their first two albums to a more traditional rock sound. Founding member Dino Valenti (NO PATRICK CLARKE) was largely responsible for the new sound. Valenti’s influence is readily apparent throughout; he composed eight of the album’s nine tracks under the pen name Jesse Oris Farrow. Despite the marked change in the band’s sound, it was their third straight album to reach the Top 30 on the Billboard charts, peaking at number 27. The only single culled from the album, “Fresh Air”, became the band’s biggest hit, reaching number 49.

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