Monday, 13 July 2009

Favourites on the Fillmore Auditorium/Avalon Ballroom circuit, Quicksilver Messenger Service produced a string of albums of varying interest, but this guitar extravaganza deserves a place in any discerning record collection.

Rear View: Quicksilver Messenger Service "Happy Trails"

Happy Trails

It was a chance encounter with a copy of Rolling Stone that led me to one of my all-time favourite albums. A glance at the list of favourites won’t show Happy Trails by the Quicksilver Messenger Service, but it’s certainly bubbling under my top five other albums.

Back in 1968 Rolling Stone had only been in existence for a year or so, and like most of the underground or hippie alternative music media wasn’t widely distributed in Australia and when copies made it as far as Townsville they were almost immediately snapped up by whoever happened to spot them first.

Now, there’s every chance that I would have eventually run across Happy Trails if I hadn’t read Greil Marcus’ review in RS #32 (3 May 1969). After all we’re talking one of the second tier San Francisco bands, and I managed to run across Mother Earth and the Steve Miller Band, as Rear Views around this one prove.

But with my copy of the issue in question being scrutinised with an intense scrute from cover to cover Marcus’ glowing review was always going to add the album to Hughesy’s must hear at the earliest opportunity list.

Quicksilver Messenger Service was one of the leading acts on San Francisco's psychedelic scene in the mid-to-late 1960s, played a significant part in the development of California psychedelic rock and typified the style, attitude and sound of that era. John Cipollina’s heavily tremoloed guitar work made the band hugely popular in the Bay Area but Quicksilver's popularity waned as the decade ended, and they never managed the same high profile as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead or even Country Joe & The Fish.

The earliest line-up, which lasted until mid-1965 comprised guitarists John Cipollina (an ex-real estate agent) and Skip Spence, David Freiberg on bass, Casey Sonoban on drums and vocalist Jim Murray. Freiberg had been in a band with Paul Kantner and David Crosby but had just been released after a spell behind bars for possession of marijuana.

Greenwich Village folk-singer Dino Valenti (writing credits as Chester A. Powers for Hey Joe and the Youngbloods’ Get Together) was originally pencilled in on guitar and vocals but a drugs bust removed him from the scene for 18 months.

They rehearsed at the Matrix (3138 Fillmore Street), the club opened by Marty Balin as a place for the Jefferson Airplane to play. Balin’s search for a drummer for the Airplane led him to persuade Spence to switch instruments and groups, ending the earliest of many incarnations of QMS. By mid-1965 Spence and Sonoban had been replaced, at Balin’s suggestion, by guitarist Gary Duncan and drummer Greg Elmore from San Jose acid/punk band The Brogues.

The still-nameless band made its debut in December 1965, playing for the Christmas party for a comedy troupe called The Committee. The need for a name prompted some head-scratching before they realised all the members of the band were Virgos and Geminis, signs ruled by the planet Mercury. Mercury is Quicksilver, and doubles as the messenger of the Gods. Virgo is the servant, hence Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Like, cosmic, man....

This twin guitar line-up became huge players on the West Coast scene though they were a largely unheard legend everywhere else. The band featured on star-studded bills at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West, hung off from signing a record deal until late 1967 but eventually signed to Capitol Records, one of the last San Francisco bands to sign with a major label.

Since Capitol had failed to sign any of the San Francisco hippie bands during the height of the flower power era, Quicksilver managed to negotiate a better deal than many of their peers, as did the Steve Miller Band, with whom Quicksilver appeared on the Revolution soundtrack album.

Soon after their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, Murray left to study the sitar and Quicksilver were a quartet when they recorded their first album in December 1967. Released in May 1968, it was a tidy debut and towards the end of that year the band cut the follow-up, Happy Trails, largely recorded live at Fillmores East and West. At least one of the live tracks was augmented with studio overdubs and Calvary and Maiden of the Cancer Moon, recorded in the studio just before Gary Duncan left.

Duncan’s departure was officially ascribed to being pretty burned out, though according to David Freiberg there were escalating drug problems. His farewell performances with the band were the studio recordings on Happy Trails and a live show on New Year's Eve 1969.

In January 1969 Valenti persuaded Duncan to move to New York and form a group with him; Duncan’s replacement was British pianist Nicky Hopkins, fresh from stints with Jeff Beck and Steve Miller. Hopkins had played on albums and singles by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who and his virtuoso piano boogie featured prominently on Shady Grove. By early 1970 Duncan was back, bringing Valenti with him. The new sextet issued Just for Love, and Fresh Air from the album gave them a Top 50 U.S. hit in 1970.

Hopkins left just before the release of What About Me, replaced by Mark Naftalin, formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Mother Earth. Cipollina also left in October 1970 to form Copperhead with Jim Murray on vocals. A drug bust in 1971 took Freiberg out, and once he was released he did session work then joining Jefferson Starship in August 1972.

The remaining Quicksilver trio of Valenti, Duncan, and Elmore hired replacements and persevered through two more albums, Quicksilver and Comin’ Thru. Though the band didn’t break up, it was largely inactive from 1972 to 1975, when Valenti, Duncan, and Elmore recorded Solid Silver with cameos from Cipollina and Freiberg, whereupon Quicksilver more or less disbanded. Duncan put together another configuration in 1987 to record Peace by Piece, but the album went nowhere, and the band called it a day again.

John Cipollina continued to perform with a number of bands, including Welsh group Man and the Dinosaurs before he died from emphysema in 1989, aged 45. Valenti died in 1994 after surgery. Duncan returned again in the mid-’90s with yet another incarnation of Quicksilver.

But it’s the first two Quicksilver albums recorded by the quartet of Cipollina, Duncan, Elmore and Freiberg that are the high point of the group's career. The albums have a distinctive sound, based around extended arrangements and twin leads of Cipollina and Duncan. Cipollina plays in a highly melodic style, sparking off Gary Duncan's driving rhythm, a jazzier sound than the heavily amplified and overdriven sound of some of their contemporaries.

The first album, Quicksilver Messenger Service, featuring jams like the 12-minute The Fool and 6:43 of Gold and Silver. The rest of the album was shorter. Hamilton Camp’s Pride Of Man, mid-sixties folk-rock apocalyptic visions with a tasty solo, the Duncan/Freiberg Light Your Windows is tasty psych-pop, very Summer of Love and Valenti’s Dino’s Song are all pleasant enough without giving much indication of the heights the band was capable of scaling.

Gold and Silver and album closer The Fool display the band's highly planned jam sound. There’s not much difference between the studio versions, the longer out-takes on Unreleased Quicksilver Messenger Service: Lost Gold And Silver and bootleg recordings of live performances apart from the lengths of the various tracks.

One suspects that once they’d worked up something that worked, the band were loath to vary it too much, a factor that may have contributed to some of Steve Miller’s fairly dismissive comments about his contemporaries’ instrumental abilities.

Gold and Silver starts off as Brubeck’s Take Five, then goes for a little wander through the park for a couple of minutes. The Fool, which took up the bulk of Side Two has some tasty interplay between Cipollina and Duncan, and there’s a particularly tasty growling guitar sequence leading into some fairly hippy-dippy lyrics. There are plenty of little tempo changes in the twelve minutes and it’s the longer tracks that are the album’s strengths.

Such considerations may have come into play when they were looking at a follow-up, but a limited repertoire and Duncan’s imminent departure probably wasn’t going to deliver much new material, but Happy Trails delivers all that the first album’s longer tracks promised.

Starting off with a fairly standard reading of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love, with a fairly healthy growl in vocals that are better than most of the offerings on the first album, things flow pretty smoothly into a guitar solo (When You Love) that has some tasty moments before a fairly standard Quicksilver transition turns into Where You Love with some pleasantly spacy interplay between guitar, bass and drums.

Remembering we’re talking a live performance, there’s remarkably little audience noise in the quieter passages until the handclaps come in around the four-minute mark and remove any doubts.

The clapping gathers pace and suddenly they’re into a restatement of the main instrumental theme for How You Love, basically a guitar solo before Freiberg’s bass steps in to take over for Which Do You Love, a bass and drums groove that leads into a low-key atmospheric vocal repeat of the first verse of the Bo Diddley original, dropping right down before the band kicks back into the main theme again on Who Do You Love to round out about twenty-four minutes of classy stuff.

While the average listener might be inclined to second thoughts when faced with that length of time devoted to what is, in essence, an extended workout of a single track it’s worth spending the time just so you can appreciate the majesty of Side Two.

It’s back to Bo Diddley territory for Mona, with someone announcing this here next one’s rock’n’roll over a thudding beat as Cipollina’s guitar comes in again floating over the riff in much the same manner as before. The vocal, when it arrives has a sort of gruff intent as that guitar bubbles away underneath it, bursting to the front again at the end of the verse while the drums thud away down below.

At around seven minutes, Mona explores the same territory as Who Do You Love, but after a second verse a neat little tempo change leads into Maiden of the Cancer Moon, the drums busier behind the floating guitar before some warped flamenco takes the listener into Calvary, a soundscape that has elements of the sound you heard on the live cuts, but a good deal more light and shade, something like a soundtrack to some old-style western movie, the same sort of soundscape that turns up later on the Allman Brothers’ Les Brers In A Minor.

It’s music that seems to have been crafted with sensory enhancement in mind, and while I don’t indulge in that sort of thing myself, the extended suite on Side Two works just as well at volume late at night in a dark room with a bottle of Liqueur Muscat at hand, in much the same way as, say, the post-Barrett pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd (Echoes or Atom Heart Mother, for example).

After the soundscapes, a minute and a half of the old Roy Rogers theme song Happy Trails brings proceedings to a satisfactory close. A pleasant way to round things off.

With cover art by George Hunter and his Globe Propaganda company featuring a painting that’s straight out of the old Wild West, Happy Trails is undoubtedly their greatest work, with a spark that later incarnations of the band failed to recapture, at least not on anything I’ve managed to track down.

An album which deserves a spot in the collection of any aficionado of loud electric guitar.

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