Listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service…..

Specifically, I’ve been listening again to what are sometimes referred to as QMS’s two ‘Hawaiian’ albums from 1970 – ‘Just for love’ and ‘What about me?’. These two albums do, I suppose, have some kind of resonance for me as they provided a musical backdrop to the first ‘grande affaire’ of my life.  Ah well, better than Brian Poole & the Tremeloes, I guess….

Quicksilver were always one of the most obscure of the Bay Area bands.  They were the last of the ‘founding fathers’  of the whole Fillmore West/Haight-Ashbury heavyweights – following the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane – to sign up with a major record company. This proved to be something that worked to their advantage; Capitol Records, having missed out on the Dead & the Airplane, were desperate to sign up a trophy San Francisco band and QMS were out there and still unsigned.  This helped QMS to negotiate a better deal and more creative largesse when they did get into the studio.

It’s actually impossible to discuss Quicksilver without referring to the late Dino Valente, whose shadow hung over the band for years before he actually joined them at the end of the decade.  Valente’s origins lie in the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York City and he was a regular performer there in the early 1960’s, playing alongside the likes of Fred Neil and a fresh-faced Bob Dylan.  In some respects, Valente’s career was defined by his brushes with the law.  Unable to renew his ‘cabaret licence’ in New York due to an unspecified infraction of the law, Valente decided to head for the West Coast, arriving in Los Angeles some time in 1963.  It was during this period that he wrote his best-known song, ‘Get together’, which encapsulated the philosophies of the nascent counter-culture in a few verses and quickly became a folk-circuit standard.  Joni Mitchell incorporated the song into her repertoire around 1967 and Jefferson Airplane also played it, but it was The Youngbloods who turned it into a gold record when they released it as a single in 1967.

Valente moved to San Francisco and began to assemble  a band to showcase his songs. By 1965,  he had recruited friends like David Freiberg, Jim Murray and John Cipollina, but was then promptly arrested for possession of marijuana, then re-arrested almost immediately for possession of amphetamines.  He was to spend much of the next 2 years in jail.  Cipollina and Freiberg continued rehearsing with Skip Spence, though he soon departed to Jefferson Airplane, poached by Airplane singer Marty Balin.  Perhaps feeling a trifle guilty, Balin recommended guitarist Gary Duncan and drummer Greg Elmore from another local band and it was this line-up of Cipollina (guitar/vocals), Freiberg (bass/vocals), Duncan (guitar/vocals), Murray(harmonica and vocals) and Elmore (drums) that began playing as QMS around the end of 1965.

Over the next couple of years, QMS built a reputation as a powerful live act, yet resisted the lure of a recording contract.  Their sets were built around lengthy Duncan/Cipollina guitar jams, using blues standards like ‘Mona’,  ‘Who do you love?‘ and ‘Smokestack Lightning’ as starting/finishing points.  Their stature was such that they, along with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, were invited to appear at the seminal Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, though their performance failed to make it into D.A. Pennebaker’s movie document of the Festival.

Handbill for an early gig at The Matrix

Jim Murray left the band shortly afterwards and it was the quartet of Freiberg, Cipollina, Duncan and Elmore that convened to record the band’s eponymous 1968 debut album.  By any reckoning, this album, only a little over half an hour long, has to be seen as one of the high-water marks of the ‘San Francisco Sound’.  Although Cipollina’s distinctive vibrato guitar sound saw him elevated to the ranks of guitar heroes, Duncan’s role was equally significant.  Production values were high and the original material – ‘Gold and Silver’, ‘Light all your windows’ and ‘The Fool’ – the lattermost a 12 minute slice of Spanish-influenced psychedelic whimsy – was of a quality to match.  Even here, though, the spectre of Valente looked on – the band including his ‘Dino’s Song’ on the album and in their live sets of the time.

The first album was swiftly followed by ‘Happy Trails’, which was a hybrid live/studio affair.  The album was dominated by a side-long rendition of ‘Who do you love?’ and Gary Duncan’s lengthy ‘Calvary’, allegedly recorded in the studio whilst most participants were under the influence of LSD.  In the UK, ‘Happy Trails’ seemed to be one of those albums that everyone had heard of but few people had actually heard.  Its critical status was out of all proportion to its sales.  Heard then, it seemed every bit as  vital as the Grateful Dead’s ‘Live/Dead’ or Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Bless its pointed little head’ (both released around the same time), but time has been less kind to it.  In 1983, a double album of a 1968 Quicksilver gig from the Fillmore East  appeared on a British label as ‘Maiden of the Cancer Moon’.   There were strong rumours that Cipollina had sold the tapes of this gig to the record company without the consent of either Capitol or his band-mates.  Whatever the case, ‘MotCM’ knocks spots off ‘Happy Trails’ as a live document and the fact that many more QMS live recordings from this era have now become widely available leaves ‘Happy Trails’ looking like a bit of a curiosity.

A publicity shot of the 1968 quartet: (L-R) Duncan, Cipollina, Elmore, Freiberg

Valente was released from jail shortly after ‘Happy Trails’ was released and he soon spirited  an unravelling Gary Duncan off to New York to participate in what proved to be a stillborn project (‘The Outlaws’).  The rest of the band carried on, recruiting English session pianist Nicky Hopkins to replace Duncan.  This line-up produced the disappointing  ‘Shady Grove’ (1969) and David Freiberg has since said that Duncan was the band’s engine and things just weren’t the same without him.

Duncan returned from his travels with Valente in tow and – finally – some 5 years after he began to put the band together, Valente became a full member.  The new six-piece QMS temporarily relocated to Hawaii and generated enough material for their next 2 albums – ‘Just for love’ and ‘What about me?‘ – released within a few months of one another in the autumn and winter of 1970.

I would suggest that if you played the first QMS album back to back with ‘Just for love’ to someone who had never heard QMS before, they would conclude that this is the work of two different bands.  The extended ‘jams’  and Spanish flourishes of the original QMS are now completely gone and the two 1970 albums sound like far more conventional singer/songwriter fare.  Indeed, Valente, writing under one of his many ‘noms de plume’ as ‘Jesse Oris Farrow’ (?) was responsible for all but one of the tracks on ‘Just for love’ and has a hand in three-quarters of  the songs on ‘What about me?’

 On stage in 1970 – (L-R) Freiberg, Duncan, Valente

There were worse singers than Dino Valente, but I think it would be fair to describe his echo-laden and  slightly strangulated  tenor as an acquired taste.  Even so, after three albums and only moderate sales, Capitol were more interested in results than aesthetics.  With this in mind, they would have been encouraged by the amount of radio play the new material got, particularly the eco-driven  ‘Fresh Air’, which gave QMS the closest thing they ever had to a hit single. The title track from ‘What about me?‘ was another counter-culture anthem about the ‘man in the street’ and another high-point was Nicky Hopkins’ elegaic instrumental, ‘Spindrifter’. 

‘What about me?’ also featured a substantial horn section, especially on the title track and on ‘Call on me’ as the band looked to broaden its sound.  Even so, QMS had taken a giant leap away from the sound and the style that had informed their first two albums and  brought them critical acclaim and sales were again a disappointment.  If you wanted to be cruel, you could argue that they had simply turned into Dino Valente’s backing band.  Seen in this light, Valente’s qualities as a songwriter are thrown into a sharper focus and it has to be said that much of his material is fairly forgettable.

Three members of the band called it quits after the two ‘Hawaiian’ albums – Cipollina went on to Copperhead, Freiberg fetched up in Jefferson Starship and Nicky Hopkins returned to session work.  Elmore, Valente and Duncan continued with new recruits and produced a half-way decent sixth album in 1971 (‘Quicksilver’), but the moment had passed for QMS and they were never again to achieve the prominence they had enjoyed in 1968-9.

In a way, it’s a pity that the band threw in their lot with Valente so readily.  The Grateful Dead prospered during this era, despite the fact that they,too, abandoned the style that defined their early recordings in favour of a more folk and country based approach.  Comparisons are often invidious but it should be noted that whilst the late Jerry Garcia had few peers as a guitarist, Duncan and Cipollina could have given him a run for his money in the late 60’s.  Where the Dead  really won out in such comparisons was that they featured a number of strong songwriters (Lesh, Garcia, Weir) working with outside contributors like Robert Hunter and John Barlow to produce original songs.  Unfortunately for QMS, they put all their eggs in Dino Valente’s basket and it just didn’t work out.  Also, on stage, the Dead were prepared to incorporate their older material – notably ‘Dark Star’ – with the newer ‘Workingman’s Dead’/’American Beauty’  songs.  Once Valente was on board, QMS largely turned their back on their older stuff in favour of his songs – and they had no other songwriter producing songs in similar abundance to offer any meaningful contrast.

Valente, Hopkins and Cipollina are no longer with us but Gary Duncan and David Freiberg still keep the Quicksilver name alive after a fashion.  A few years ago I heard what passed for QMS in the late 90’s  playing a 20-minute version of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’……it’s jazz, Jim, just not as we know it……



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