Of all the guitarists from California and the kaleidoscopic array of West Coast bands that state produced, John Cipollina must remain the most enigmatic. Even after Garcia cracked and began to assume the "Superstar" status given to him (albeit justified), Cipollina remained cool, aloof, and somewhat of a mystery figure. His guitar style today is just as pure as it was back in 1966; untainted, pure acid-rock, progression rather than modification, in a world where guitarists drop in and out of favour with embarrassing regularity.
His first obvious public exposure is more than well documented, since Quicksilver Messenger Service must be one of the most wrote about bands ever to come out of the San Francisco boom. Perhaps it's just as well that after the stunning brilliance of their first three albums (counting the "Revolution" soundtrack), the band dropped the greater part of their name, and became just Quicksilver.
However, to re-run the credits Quicksilver started as a concept way back in 1966, when Cipollina, Steve Shuster, Jim Murray, Gary Duncan and Greg Elmore thought of playing as a band. Dave Freiberg was invited to play bass and the band was born. Steve Shuster, unfortunately, left early on, but not before he and Duncan arranged the classic "Silver and Gold' to be heard on their first album. Murray's departure followed a couple of months later, and the true Quicksilver band was formed. A brief period of contemplating the incorporation of Dino Valente into the band was fortunately ended when Dino was busted, and safely removed to jail. The four piece spent a very intensive 18 months of rehearsals and gigs, to assume a charisma that brought the record companies hoofing to their door. It was then that the association with Ron Polte began in earnest. He was both manager and spiritual adviser to the band, and produced a fine deal with Capitol, which got QMS into the studios to record their first album. As I said, Cipollina is somewhat of an enigma. His perfectionism produced a fair rift in the Capitol-Quicksilver relationship, in that their first album was recorded no less than three times, two of which saw Cipollina as the fiery lead guitarist turned producer. His obsession with detail led to him throwing many a grumpy, and erasing tape with wild abandon. Luckily, for us at least, Polte saw fit to get Nick Gravenites, Harvey Brookes[sic] and Pete Welding[sic] to produce the third series of sessions, and the first album was the result. Steve Shuster, in fact, returned to play his horn on "Pride of Man", sort of paying his dues, as it were. Their second album "Happy Trails", will go down in history as the definitive San Francisco sound album. Funnily enough, the only track on the album to cause any friction in the schedule was "Calvary" a truly amazing track, recorded in one take at Pacific High. It is without doubt a Quicksilver classic, yet only the insistence of Cipollina led to it's inclusion.
Quicksilver unfortunately proceeded to regress in that Duncan still felt that Valente was right for the band, yet Cipollina felt otherwise. So Duncan left to join Valente in an ill-fated venture, "The Outlaws", and Quicksilver looked to be finished. Happily, fortune smiled on the band, and Nicky Hopkins arrived to help in the recording of "Shady Grove", a distinct change from the mercurial shimmer of Quicksilver's former glory. Meanwhile, Duncan and Valente were unable to realise their ambitions and so the six-piece Quicksilver was formed.
Yet again, the potential of such a line-up was unfulfilled. Their first album "Just For Love", was a patchy, badly recorded epic, that barely made it. I still feel the fault lay in Valente's desire to bend the band to his way of thinking. Apart from "Cobra" and "Fresh Air ", the album lacked punch, and on the whole reeks of Valente's nasal whine and inferior mix-down technique. The band gigged a fair number of times, in between fighting, and finally staggered into the studios again, to record, "What About Me". I suspect Cipollina saw this as the final indignity, and although he managed to salvage two tracks, the excellent "Local Colour" and "Subway", Valente won, and reduced what could have been a band of apocalyptic proportions into a dismal memory of former brilliance. So Cipollina split, or retired to Mill Valley, to collect his vintage guitars, and plan his next attack.
His next venture was the production of Jim McPherson's album for Capitol, which ran into vast difficulties, and cost Capitol a lot of money. It did, however, spawn the beginning of Copperhead. In between rehearsals, he put down some staggering session work for Brewer and Shipley's "Shake Off The Devil", which proved once and for all that he still had the magic.
Initially, Copperhead was to consist of Cipollina on lead, his half-brother Mario on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Jim Murray on guitar, and Dave Webber on drums. By the time they actually appeared in public, Hopkins was committed to a Stones' tour, Pete Sears replaced him, on piano and bass, alternating with Jim McPherson. Gary Philippet replaced Murray as second guitar, and Mario had moved on to pastures new. At the end of May '71, the band lost Sears to a projected band with Nicky Hopkins, leaving Cipollina, McPherson, Philippet and Webber.
Copperhead had by this time, already attracted fair attention, and their gigs were usually more than popular. As is characterised of Cipollina's professionalism, he arranged with Altec to build them a P.A., which when complete would deliver 2000 watts of pure hi-fi sound. Added to his own personal customised amps and sophisticated electronic wizardry, the result was an alchemical fusion of all that was best on the market. Consequently, their gigs became even more outrageous and the record companies expressed great interest. Late in June 1972, Polte announced they had signed a contract with Mike Laing's Just Sunshine Records, for an advance of $300,000 (for more of information as to the wheelings and dealings, see Fat Angel 10). All was looking rosy, seeing as the band had settled down to a stable line-up of Cipollina, McPherson, Philippet, Webber, and a new bass player, Jim Hutchinson.
Cipollina at the time, was busy doing sessions (or rather finishing off sessions) with Micky Hart and friends, that appeared in October last year as "Rolling Thunder". Suffice to say that this album is a honey, resplendent in some of the most outrageous Cipollina guitar since "Happy Trails". Even Steve Shuster reappeared, to play flute on "Blind John". But no sign of a Copperhead album. Relationships between the band and Laing were still friendly, but both Polte and Laing felt that perhaps the deal was souring. Possibly something to do with the non-appearance of the expected $300,000. Live gigs became somewhat of a rarity, and it looked as if the trip was over. However, a contract release produced new possibilities, to the extent that ace piss artist Clive Davis, of Columbia, offered them somewhat over $1,000,000 in a rather odd deal that appealed to Polte as a business man. So work began in earnest, and by March the album was ready, produced and designed by Cipollina.
Columbia released "Roller Derby Star" as a single, which received the full treatment of half hourly airplays all over the West Coast FM stations, and the band returned to live gigs. The album was finally released in July to large advance sales, and critical acclaim.
As an album it more than lives up to its expectations. From start to finish it is superbly produced rock music, with an air [of] calculated spontaneity, and total involvement. lt could have been so easy for the band to become overindulgent, especially Cipollina yet never once is there a feel of domination by any one person. Totally perfect San Franciscan rock music, at it's very best.
However, it looks as if CBS are unlikely to release it in this country, for reasons put down to difficulty in marketing it. Arguably, they feel that the demand for Copperhead in this country is somewhat limited, and Virgin will have already catered for the minority demand by import sales. As to the band themselves, a marked absence of appearances has been noted, and it looks if Copperhead Mk IV is in preparation. Murray is reported to be replacing Gary Philippet once more, and Mario Cipollina rumoured to be returning as bass player. Sears, who was left stranded when the Hopkins/Harrison band crashed, may be back again by now!
Regardless, Copperhead are a band to be reckoned with, and John Cipollina has again proved himself to be one of the world's most exciting lead guitarists. I can only suggest you buy the album, if you don't already possess it, and then join me in hoping some day to see the band live.
Dave Neale, Supersnazz #1, 1973