Quicksilver Does A Quick Change

On the New Year's Eve separating 1968 and its successor, the Quicksilver Messenger Service played a farewell concert at Fillmore West. Looking back at the occasion, it now seems as if it was not so much a goodbye as a hello, a recognition that the heavy hand of change was upon them and all they could do was blindly follow along in its wake. By the time half the new year had passed, the process seemed to he well on its way.

Gary Duncan, who had been with the group since its inception over three years ago, was happily at work putting together a band with singer-songwriter Dino Valente, while the rest of the group were working on an album with Nicky Hopkins, the British studio musician who had just finished serving some time with the Jeff Beck Group. And by the dawn of 1970, when it looked like everything had just about been completed, the Change followed through and took root. The cycle turned around and was ready to start over. There was a new album out, called Shady Grove reflecting both the new and the old, creating in turn a new Quicksilver which was in many ways far different than the one which had played a farewell concert the previous year. How did all this happen? Well, fans, listen on and I'll tell you.

To understand the Quicksilver Messenger Service, you have to go back to San Francisco, 1966 ó before the mass media suddenly discovered that a Bay Area actually existed, before the city itself became a haven for refugees from a crewcut Amerika, before even the justly-famous and sadly remembered Summer of Love flickered and died. You have to go back to a time when everything seemed a lot smaller, looser, a bit less self-conscious. A time when the Fillmore and Avalon served as social centers where the rag-taggle ends of the San Francisco underground could get together every week for a little party. A time when Haight Street was still bright and colorful, not yet inundated by the wave of head shops and "groovy" clothing stores that would eventually spell its doom. And you have to go back to when the bands were mere collections of friends, nothing set or defined, people who would meet in each other's garages for a little off the cuff jamming, mingling the strange assortments of folk, jazz and blues that seemed to flow in streams through the Golden Gate during the years of the beats and after.

Looking back, it seems almost too casual a beginning for a scene that would eventually have such wide-spread influence. Everything happened in a hit or miss, casual sort of way. The Grateful Dead (at that time called the Warlocks) somehow fell together after being offered equipment by a neighborhood music store. Country Joe and the Fish combined forces when a group was needed to perform two songs for Joe's magazine, Rag Baby. Big Brother and the Holding Company were just a group of friendly jammers who never even heard of Janis Joplin until after they had been performing close to five months.

In itself, this all doesn't seem very unusual. All across the United States, from New York to little towns nestling in the heartlands of Iowa, similar scenes were developing, growing helter-skelter from the Ventures-oriented bands of the early '60s. But in San Francisco, a very important difference was added. "The most distinguished feature of that time," says Ed Denson, manager of Country Joe and the Fish, "was the total casualness and unconscious motion towards becoming a band." In the Bay Area, there was very little of the mad drive for success that characterized other groups in other cities.

It was in an atmosphere of this sort, with people just playing at music because it was fun, where money had to take a back seat to those less definable but easily more rewarding things, that the Quicksilver Messenger Service was born. On one hand, they were the most derivative of the San Francisco bands, the least likely to take the kind of revolutionary evolutionary flights that characterized, say, the Dead; but on the other hand, they seemed to exemplify the Frisco character to the fullest, bringing together all its differing moods and feelings, combining it all into a whole that left little question as to what region of the country they hailed from.

That is a pretty heavy statement, carrying along a lot of responsibility that no band should have to live with, but I think that early Quicksilver could have borne it out on any number of levels, from their first two recorded efforts to the grace and ease which was easily theirs in live performance. Even in the choice of their name, they seemed to have reflected the Wild West quality of San Francisco, that strange mixture of Victorian elegance, Horatio Alger, and Buffalo Bill which has made the city perhaps the last remaining frontier outpost in America.

In the beginning, Quicksilver was just a group of people that somehow fell together and began playing music. David Freiberg, who now plays bass for the band, had been dabbling around folk music for a number of years, doing a sort of vague circuit centered around the Bay Area, dropping in and out of a number of things. John Cipollina, who likes to talk about the guitar he had "made into a hot rod," found Freiberg when they happened to he sharing the same house together. "David was playing folk at the time," he said, "but we never talked music." And then, one night, something clicked and fell into place. "All this time I had been driving around with a guitar and amps in the trunk of my car. One evening I felt like playing so I brought the stuff into the house and everybody said, 'Oh! ah! what's that? does it work?' Murray (another member of the household) said I'll play one and David played and I played and we jammed all night."

In another part of town, guitarist Gary Duncan and drummer Greg Elmore were playing with a local band called the Brogues. Things were not quite right there and when a friend told them about John and David, they went over to check things out. Somehow, in the course of their conversation, they discovered that not only had Duncan and Elmore been born on the same day, but Cipollina and Freiberg also shared the same birthdate. This in turn was compounded by the fact that all four were born under the astrological sign of Virgo. It was one of those Moments. High above, they could feel someone with a knowing touch guiding their every movement, molding each piece carefully so it would click together right at the precise and correct second. Coming on so suddenly, it was enough to make everybody a True Believer.

The rest, as they say, is History. The group played its first job when someone wanted a tape done of the 'Star Spangled Banner' and from there, became a regular attraction of the then-mushrooming dance-concert scene in San Francisco. Playing steadily at the Fillmore, Avalon and Matrix, Quicksilver was able to grow into a strong, mature band, free from many of the pressures that force groups into the recording studio as soon as a fifth member is located and found. Through long hours of playing and living with each other, Quicksilver was able to round off their jagged edges, chip off the rough spots and expand into a tight, extremely together, musically communicative combination.

More importantly the group had the inner strength to hold back in the face of numerous record offers, waiting until they were sure it was the right time to enter the studios and set down their music. Their debut album, simply titled Quicksilver Messenger Service showed this to the fullest. It was one of the finest records to come out of San Francisco since the beginnings of the boom there four years ago. Each cut stood strong and tall, from a powerful opening 'Pride of Man' to the closing orchestral beauty of 'The Fool'. In the latter, you could literally watch Duncan and Cipollina weave their guitars together, each note pinging softly off the next, hearing subliminally what the other was doing and reflecting off that, building easily as the song moved through its varied sections. And though Quicksilver at that time was mainly an instrumental band, though they always used their material as a base on which to build, there was that beautiful moment when David Freiberg halted 'The Fool' and intoned what must be the guiding philosophy of the group: "Life is Love," he said, "Love is Life . . ." and he did it so sweet and natural that you had to sit back and wonder how you could not have known it all along. Somehow, it brought home a little of the old San Francisco in a simple, extremely pretty way.

But like all Bay Area bands, Quicksilver on record was nothing like Quicksilver live. On stage, incarnate ghosts of 1890 Wyoming, they were a true sight to behold. Cipollina stood next to a massive bank of amplifiers, smashing at his guitar, feet braced to receive the cleansing wash of feedback that would inevitably follow. Greg Elmore sat buried beneath a huge assortment of drums, sticks flying at them, attacking first one and then another. Duncan and Freiberg took the left of the stage, stolid and hardy, holding up the platform with the sheer weight of their instruments. Visually, they were a treat, providing an eyeful of accompaniment for the music that poured off the stage like a big powerful express on the rampage. First, a hardcore version of Willie Dixon's 'Who Do You Love,' Duncan at the lead, pushing the song through more variations than humanly possible. They would stop and with a ringing, driving chord, flash into 'Codeine', a Buffy Sainte-Marie classic that would literally roar with its massive, pent-up bursts of energy. And so on, and so on, into 'Mona', Freiberg gutscreaming the vocal, then a staid and pretty 'Dino's Song', followed by others, many others.

You can find Quicksilver live on their second album, Happy Trails, though you might have to hunt for it since it seems to be the most neglected record of 1969. While other groups were working out ages-long guitar solos and calling them jamming, Quicksilver was living up to every nuance of the word, doing a version of 'Who Do You Love' that was nothing short of remarkable for the intricate flow from section to section that they worked into its (seemingly) short twenty minutes. If you could turn the record over after its completion, you could hear an even finer job done with 'Calvary', Quicksilver's own Cecil B. DeMille production of a story that happened close to two thousand years ago which has had a little influence on us in the intervening length of time.

Whatever they did, be it records or live performances, you could always feel the band's Virgo influence strongly at work. Quicksilver's music was, if anything, born of the soil, an earthy mixture of hard rock/blues/semi-jazz that always had a bit of Mercury scooting about on the top. And on New Year's Eve of 1968-69, they called it all to a halt, because those very same stars that had once brought them together now decreed that Change was in the air, and it was time to move on. When it happens, as it eventually must, it simply happens, and whatever the consequences, it all never becomes more difficult than that.

Nicky Hopkins came to the Quicksilver Messenger Service with some mighty impressive credentials. Learning the piano at the age of three, he left school at sixteen to join his first group. In late 1962 and early '63 he found himself playing with his own band at the Marquee Club in London, on the same bill as the then unrecorded Rolling Stones, and breaking all attendance records. "In fact," he remembers, "one night the fire people made the Marquee cut down the number of people by nearly 50% to make it legal!"

In May of 1963 he was taken ill and spent 19 months in the hospital. "I left the hospital Christmas eve of 1964, and in January 1965 I did my first session as an independent musician. Glyn Johns, the Stones' engineer, was at this session, and Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jon Mark (John Mayall's acoustic guitar player) were also on it. After the proper session we did a half-hour jam, the results of which were unearthed this year and released on Blues Anthology Vol. III for Immediate Records."

Still feeling too ill to go on the road, he quickly took Johnís offer up when the latter asked if he'd like to do more session work. "I knew I couldn't join a band and go back on the road again, and all the recording studios were in London, which meant only local traveling. So for nearly four years I did sessions for many people."

This seems like quite an understatement when you consider the "people". Hopkins has appeared on albums and singles by the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles, not to mention the Who, Jeff Beck, Donovan, the Small Faces and a host of others. In the course of that time, he has become probably the world's best known studio musician, bringing the piano back to a place in rock it has not enjoyed since the days when Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard used to pound it to pieces during the course of an average performance.

Hopkins first came in contact with Quicksilver when he went to San Francisco early last year to do an album with Steve Miller. "While I was working on this album at the studio, John and David came up to see me and asked if I'd stay on after Steve's album was finished." He did, and moved into Cipollina's Mill Valley home while the sessions on Quicksilver's album was completed. During the time spent there, he became close friends with the guitarist, and after the work was finished, he decided to stay on, join the band and live in San Francisco. "I was beginning to dread returning to England," he explained.

Hopkins' presence on Shady Grove, Quicksilver's third and newest album for Capitol, seems to have worked an amazing change in the music of the group. In fact, the difference is so deep and profound that it almost appears as if the remaining original members (Freiberg, Elmore and Cipollina) have bowed to Hopkins' direction. Where both Quicksilver Messenger Service and Happy Trails were easily accessible and immediate, this new album seems texturally thick. It takes several listenings to even begin to feel familiar with it, to pick out separate things, recognize and call them friends.

More, the sound of the group itself is not reminiscent of anything we've heard from them in the past. Gone are the flashing Cipollina guitar runs, the intricate instrumental jams, the simple folk/blues songs that were their forte over the past three and more years. In their place is a music that is highly arranged, at times classical in its feelings, with a lot of care taken toward matters concerning lyrics and melodies.

This may seem strange, especially in light of what has gone down from them in the past, but in a sense, what we're dealing with here is not the same Quicksilver Messenger Service that would come out and do all sorts of things with Bo Diddley and other favorites. This is a newer group, carrying an identical name perhaps, but working on a level that the old Quicksilver could never have approached. The addition of Hopkins is only the most obvious reason for the growth; all of the other members of the group have also taken that giant step, and Shady Grove testifies to the fact that things are now being worked on a whole other, higher level.

Taken in that context, the new album is a fine debut. For a while, when I first listened to it, I couldn't relate to it as easily as I wanted. I missed the old Quicksilver, the simplicity, the amazing interaction they had been able to build into the course of a song. But then I realized that part of what I was looking for was the old spirit of San Francisco, that mixture of saloons and mysticism that the Messenger Service had always represented to me. But the San Francisco of that vintage is gone now, transformed into something else which is close, but not quite the same thing. And similarly, Quicksilver has reflected this, growing into a group whose music is somehow more universal than their previous incarnation, moving out of the Golden Gate on into the world, which is, in the end, perhaps how it should be.

An old band died on that New Year's Eve so long ago, one which had gone around in its circle and come back to its beginnings, neatly fulfilled in the classic definition. Shady Grove marks the birth of a new group. This is how it was and this is how it will be.

Lenny Kaye
Circus, Mark 1970

[Thanks to Edgie for transcribing the article.]

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Last updated: 21-Jan-2010