Quicksilver Messenger Service was one of the greatest bands ever, or, at least, aspects of it were. Actually, there were three different performing aggregations:
1. The original group, comprising John Cipollina; Gary Duncan; David Freiberg; and Greg Elmore. It recorded several tracks for the soundtrack album “Revolution,” including a version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (later made popular by Led Zeppelin), and “Codeine” by Buffy Sainte-Marie. It then went on to record an eponymous debut album; and then, “Happy Trails.”
2. The next version, led by the piano player Nicky Hopkins, which recorded the album “Shady Grove.”
3. The last version, led by the singer Dino Valente, which recorded “Just for Love” and “What About Me?”
The original iteration is amazing. I saw them several times in San Francisco. The musicianship was of the highest caliber. The songs were structured, like a concerto. I’m thinking in particular of “Happy Trails,” which unfolds like a sonic movie. The song “Cavalry,” for example, evocatively recreates a confrontation between same and Indians, in the milieu of the Wild West. Contrary to some reports, the songs were not improvisational. Rather, they were carefully rehearsed, and flawlessly executed. They were a live quartet, a genuine band, and they synchronized with each other intuitively and empathetically.
John Cipollina was a brilliant guitarist, maybe one of the best who ever lived. He had a rare combination of technique and interesting musical ideas. Gary Duncan was a great singer, and has been underrated over the passage of time.
The records sparkle with a crystalline clarity. The two guitarists used Gibson SGs through Fender Twin amplifiers. Cipollina had an odd horn system on top of his speaker cabinet, enhancing this impression. He eschewed the gimmicky effects of the day, such as fuzz pedals. The one exception to this is that he sometimes used a wah pedal, and what sounds like a Vox Repeat Percussion, to get a unique “rattlesnake” sound. I never had heard this before, and haven’t since (although I have duplicated it successfully using the above two devices). He also judiciously deployed the “tremolo” circuit, found on many pre-CBS Fender amps.
From an engineering standpoint, their oeuvre was masterfully produced. The sound is dry, with only a barely-detectable trace of reverb. There is minimal overdubbing – perhaps a lead solo, or a bit of acoustic guitar, to enhance a strummed percussive effect. The bass is aggressive, but understated, and the drums never are intrusive. The guitars are widely separated in the mix, and there is no difficulty in differentiating them. The sound of the guitars, in combination, best can be described as “crunchy.” For me, at least, it defines the style of an entire genre, and may be the best guitar sound ever recorded. Whoever produced the records did the best possible thing, which is, to stay out of the way and simply let the band play.
The second version of the group is the one that recorded “Shady Grove.” It’s a completely different band, with a completely different sound. I don’t even know why they called it by the same name. It’s dominated by Nicky Hopkins. Hopkins is an extraordinary musician, but his piano playing doesn’t mesh, either aurally or conceptually, with the rest of the band. Cipollina has vanished, or has been mixed down to the level where he’s inaudible. There are parts of “Shady Grove” that are not unenjoyable. However, on the whole, it’s not a success. The songs aren’t memorable, and the mix is dense and sludge-like.
The third version of the group was led by Dino Valente. It recorded two records, “Just for Love” and “What About Me?” These records are unlistenable. Valente’s songs feature his annoying nasally singing, and meaningless hippy-dippy lyrics. It is frightening to think Valente evidently once was, or was considered to be, a member of the original group. Latin percussion adds to the incongruity. The mix is soaked with reverb. The playing is uninspired. Even the cover art is crappy. These records lend credence to the concept that music can be “objectively bad.” The one possible exception to this is Cipollina’s song “Cobra,” on “Just for Love,” that retains a slight vestige of the promise of the original group.
In conclusion, the first version of the band is immortal, surely one of the finest groups that ever existed. The rest is dispensable. The Dino Valente records are awful. What is particularly grating is the dissonance of the transition between them, and the original band. The original band was so good, and these records are so bad. While of course I make such a recommendation reluctantly, Capitol seriously should consider destroying the master tapes. They can be safely extirpated from the canons of recorded music.