Here’s how it’s supposed to happen: You make a great album. Your label gives you full support. The critics are enraptured. The audiences are, too. Boom. You’re a rock star. Welcome to immortality.
In 1967, that’s exactly how it played out for Moby Grape—except for the rock star part. More than 50 years later, while plenty of their contemporaries have assumed the mantle of rock gods, nobody talks about this once-promising band that blossomed out of the same San Francisco psychedelic scene that produced the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Ask anyone under Social Security age about Moby Grape, and they’ll assume you’re referring to the newest flavor of La Croix.
In the lore of rock & roll, Moby Grape is the rocket that failed to launch. In a year that saw the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, and now classic debut albums from the Dead, Pink Floyd, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, some of the most rapturous reviews were reserved for Moby Grape’s first album.
So, what the hell happened?
Canadian journalist Cam Cobb tells the band’s story in his new book, What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean?: The Moby Grape Story (Jawbone Press). True to its subject, Cobb’s book is itself something of a psychedelic experience, its history told through a kaleidoscope of first-person narrative, oral history, even speculative fiction and dream sequences.
“They could have been a huge, huge band,” says Cobb from his home in Windsor, Ontario. “If you listen to that first album, they could have had hit after hit.”
Instead, by the end of the next year, the band was reeling from a series of bizarre music-biz mishaps and the full-on psycho-emotional meltdown of its charismatic frontman Skip Spence.
Through interviews with many of the surviving members of the band—Spence died in 1999—Cobb spends much of the book’s first half chronicling the group’s attempt at a comeback in the early 1970s. Only later does he backtrack and document the band’s crazy highs and lows, which took place mostly in ’67.
If Moby Grape had produced a masterpiece rock album that was sunk because of record industry indifference, that’s a familiar story. In fact, Columbia crippled the project by being too enthusiastic about the band. On the release of the band’s self-titled debut album, Columbia took the unprecedented (and mystifying) step of unleashing five singles from the album, all at the same time. Radio jocks were so confused, they essentially played none of them.
The release of the album—still considered a gem by many fans—coincided with what Cobb in his book calls “The Time of the Three Punches,” all occurring in the same month. The first “punch” was Columbia’s absurdly lavish launch party for the album which cost more than $100,000 (a lot of money in 1967). The party was way out of step with the hippie ethic of the time and created the impression that Columbia was hyping a Monkees-style fake band.
That same night, three of the band members were arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” (being with underage girls late at night), which created bad press.
The third punch came a couple of weeks later when Moby Grape played the fabled Monterey Pop Festival. A disagreement between the festival’s organizers and the band’s infamously incompetent manager resulted in not only the band losing its coveted Sunday night slot alongside The Who and Hendrix, but also in its performance being entirely left out of the film and soundtrack of the festival.
That no-good-very-bad month was followed by Spence’s breakdown, which resulted in six months in Bellevue Hospital; and an insane situation in which the remaining band members had to compete against another band calling themselves Moby Grape (thanks to the band’s break with its incompetent manager).
Together, these strange blunders and missteps constituted a huge wipeout for a band that showed by the brilliance of their first album that they could have been giants.
“I call them tragic heroes,” Cobb says. “In literature, a tragic hero is someone who is capable of greatness and achieves a degree of it, but is stopped short by bad choices. That’s Moby Grape.”
What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean?: The Moby Grape Story