Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November 7-8-9-10, 1969: Quicksilver Messenger Service/Grateful Dead/Linn County Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA

The cover to Quicksilver Messenger Service's Capitol album Happy Trails (March 1969)
Live albums are often the records that cement a band's reputation. A band that has been around for a little while has figured out how to play their best songs, and a live album usually offers a chance to include their best songs while providing new material. There's enough room for changed arrangements to make it a new album for old fans while providing a nice introduction for new fans. It's also an excuse to play some cover versions without seeming bereft of new material. Often, however, the most memorable live albums present a very different picture than the actual band itself.

From mid-1969 onwards, one of the staples of FM radio, college dormitories and late night grooving was the Happy Trails album by Quicksilver Messenger Service, released on Capitol Records in about March 1969.  This was Quicksilver's second album, and save for a jokey version of the title track--Roy Rogers' theme song--it was all recorded live at the Fillmore East and Fillmore West on consecutive weekends in November 1968. San Francisco "acid-rock" was popular in the 1960s, but it wasn't universally acclaimed. The Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and The Fish and Big Brother and The Holding Company were all kind of acquired tastes. As for the Grateful Dead, while their adherents are dedicated beyond those of other fans, those fans in particular had a well-deserved reputation for driving everybody else nuts.

Quicksilver Messenger Service seemed to be the exception to the rule. While all psychedelic rockers had put Quicksilver at the top of the tree from the beginning, even fans and critics who were uneasy about Grace or Jerry were quick to acknowledge Quicksilver's ability to be "psychedelic" while still keeping their groove on. Happy Trails was most famous for two tracks, both written by Chicago rocker Bo Diddley, a hero from a previous decade. Somehow, Quicksilver took Bo's "shave-and-haircut-two-bits" rhythm and slowed it down to create room for some magical exploration. A lengthy version of "Mona" was only topped by the 20-minute version of "Who Do You Love," which took up all of side one. Gary Duncan's guitar and vocals were true to Bo's tale of sexual longing, and Duncan, bassist David Freiberg and drummer Greg Elmore kept the pulse going, wherever the music went. John Cipollina added his magical vibrato and feedback that gave the songs an unearthly twist, and the interplay between Duncan and Cipollina's guitars was as good as rock music could be in late 1968.

Great as Happy Trails was and is, the reality of Quicksilver live in late 1968 was somewhat different than the album would make it appear. This post will look at where Quicksilver Messenger Service stood on November 8, 1968, when they appeared at the Fillmore West. It's unknown to me precisely which pieces of the November 1 and 2 Fillmore East and November 7 thru 10 Fillmore West shows, but they were all part of the ingredients of the Happy Trails album. And a good thing, too--the classic four piece Quicksilver broke up a few weeks later, and although they reformed, they never returned to the configuration that made them legendary. So the first two weeks of November were really the end of a great band, fortunately preserved by the magic of recording tape.

Quicksilver Messenger Service 1966-68
Quicksilver Messenger Service was formed in San Francisco in late 1965, aspiring hippie musicians whose other bands had been decimated by drug busts or the draft. The original group was
  • John Cipollina-lead guitar
  • Jim Murray-guitar, harmonica, vocals
  • Gary Duncan-guitar, bass, vocals
  • David Frieberg-bass, vocals
  • Greg Elmore-drums
Quicksilver were charter members of the San Francisco underground, and they were relatively experienced musicians, so they stood out compared to the general run of converted folkies. By the end of 1966, they were already headlining the Fillmore and making a living, pretty remarkable for a band with no whiff of a record contract, much less an actual record. Early tapes that circulate (such as on Wolfgang's Vault) show us that many of the pieces of the Quicksilver recipe were already in place: the push-and-pull rhythms, the dueling guitars, the jolting shiver of Cipollina's whammy bar.

Quicksilver had a shrewd manager, a former Chicago labor organizer named Ron Polte, and unlike some City bands Quicksilver held out until they could get a good contract. Quicksilver finally signed with Capitol in Fall, 1967, and soon after that Jim Murray departed, apparently afraid of committing himself to the required effort. The remaining quartet started working on their debut album, long after contemporaries like the Airplane and The Dead had already released theirs. The self-titled debut album took a couple of tries, so it wasn't released until May 1968. It was a fine album, but there were only seven songs, and only three were originals.

No matter. FM rock radio had started in San Francisco on KMPX in February, 1967, and by early 1968 most major cities had an FM station playing rock music 24/7. The Quicksilver Messenger Service album got played by djs all over the country. Popular tracks were the band's reworking of Hamilton Camp's "Pride Of Man," with great ringing guitar from Cippolina, or the awesome take on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," called "Gold And Silver" (the band called it "Acapulco Gold And Silver," but that was apparently too risque). Quicksilver started to tour the country in the middle of 1968, and their best album tracks were being played in every city. True rock stardom seemed just around the bend.

The back cover to Happy Trails
Quicksilver Messenger Service, November 1968
By the end of 1968, Quicksilver Messenger Service was receiving glowing reviews throughout the country. Great instrumentals like "Gold And Silver" were mixed in with extended versions of classic R&B covers like "Mona" or 'Back Door Man." Even fans who were not convinced by the "San Francisco Sound" thought that Quicksilver were the best of the lot. And as for the people who loved the Dead, the Airplane and Big Brother already, Quicksilver seemed to be as good as it got, with the dueling guitars of Cipollina and Duncan riding on top of Freiberg and Elmore's steady beat. It was weird and spacey, like the Fillmore was supposed to be, but with some real Chicago-style drive. Quicksilver's late 1968 sound was immortalized on the Happy Trails album, released in March 1969, much of it recorded live, albeit edited together from different shows.

Quicksilver Messenger Service was indeed San Francisco's best live band by the time they got to the Fillmore West to play a four night stand from Thursday thru Sunday, November 7-10, co-headlining with their buddies the Grateful Dead. Thus it's no surprise that Happy Trails is a 60s rock classic. The only problem was, Quicksilver Messenger Service was pretty much finished as a band. The four members had played together none stop for three years, with no break, and the pressure of road, recording and the usual temptations of stardom had completely stalled any new creative juices. As a result, the band just played the same twelve songs or so night after night.

Now, Quicksilver played those dozen songs really, really well. Since much of their touring was now outside of Northern California, fans hearing the Quick tear up "Pride Of Man" and "Smokestack Lightning" for the first time must have been floored. But for San Francisco fans, who'd been hearing the same arrangements of the same songs since 1966, it was the same old stuff. Sure, Quicksilver didn't play things over note for note, but they weren't that different anymore. The band hadn't a new song since the end of the previous year, and they hadn't even added a new cover version since then. Wolfgang's Vault has some early '67 tapes from the old Fillmore, and there are all sorts of new pieces they are working on, all of which seemed to get dropped.

By November 1968, Quicksilver had played their concert set so many times it wasn't new anymore. They were musician enough to know it, and they broke up the band shortly after the Fillmore concerts, as they had a few more dates. Strictly speaking, what happened was that Gary Duncan quit the band, but that left the group high and dry. So the November 1968 Fillmore West concerts were the last stand of one of the great 60s rock bands, who had captured the San Francisco ballroom sound to perfection, and walked away while it was still great. Sic Transit Gloria Pyschedelia.

Aftermath
The original iteration of Quicksilver Messenger Service gave up at the end of 1968, playing New Year's Eve at Winterland with the Grateful Dead, after which Gary Duncan quit the band. At that point, Quicksilver only existed as a name, since Cipollina, Freiberg and Elmore didn't really constitute an entire band. Capitol released Happy Trails in March of '69, however, and it got massive play on FM radio all over the country. The remaining trio got Nicky Hopkins on board, and borrowed a few songs from their friends and made the unsatisfying Shady Grove album. At the end of 1969, Duncan returned, along with his friend Dino Valenti. Valenti was a real character, but at least he had songs, so the 1970 version of Quick was the quartet plus Valenti on vocals and Hopkins on piano.

The afterglow of Happy Trails made Quicksilver a successful concert attraction for years to come. But Valenti's nasally vocals weren't to everyone's taste, and the flowery elegance of the 1968 quartet was never equaled, so QMS declined over the next few years and finally broke up. In fact, they had peaked long before they had broken up the first time, but at least a reasonable facsimile had been preserved before they were gone.

3 comments:

  1. "save for a jokey version of the title track--Roy Rogers' theme song--it was all recorded live at the Fillmore East and Fillmore West on consecutive weekends in November 1968"

    I don't think that's true. I think Maiden of the Cancer Moon (possibly) and Calvary (almost certainly) were done in studio.

    Happy Trails changed my life dramatically, so I am struggling against the premise that this was a tired format by November 1968. I know the history and it bears out your premise, and I know the setlists and they bear out your premise, but I need to adjust to it, or figure out how to argue against it. In the latter vein, I'd look to the development of the Calvary piece as something really, really interesting. Gold and Silver also got much longer as the year progressed. The November tapes themselves reveal a rather impromptu-sounding Jam > Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, which is a bit contra your premise.

    So, overall, I need to reflect more on what you have said. I am not sure I buy they were tired of their set after two straight years. In fact, as the GD at the Fillmore West (former Carousel) in February-March 1969, I think QMS at the Fillmores ca. late 1968 is a real peak. I have always thought that it was aborted not for artistic reasons, but because of the weird Gary-Dino thing and the personality issues of the band.

    Oh, for some tape of the Quick sets from the Quick and the Dead tour of February 1968 to turn up. The band was a fire-breathing monster throughout 1968.

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  2. I, too, think that Happy Trails is one of the great sixties albums. However, although the main tracks were recorded live, QMS was more like a 'regular' rock band than like the Dead. They played the same set night after night, with few variations, and while their arrangements weren't written, they didn't change much either.

    If we had been lucky enough to see the Quick in their prime, we would have been blown away. But if we had seen a few nights in a row in November 68, by the end we would be more impressed by the Dead and less by Quicksilver.

    One reason that so many non-San Franciscans liked QMS in the sixties was that you could get it all from a single concert or from Happy Trails. However, that makes them like Procol Harum or The Doors, rather than the Dead or Kaleidoscope.

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  3. I went to one of the Fillmore West shows. probably the Friday night, and remember having to call my mom in suburban Hayward because there was a jam session that went on after the show ended. Bill Graham said something about it now being a private party. I think Jorma and/or Jack may have played.

    I do remember that Quicksilver totally outshined the Dead on that night. They were on fire.

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