Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1: Moby Grape, "Omaha"

Artist: Moby Grape
Song: "Omaha"
Album: Moby Grape
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

As the psychedelic movement began to overtake seemingly every possible musical genre in the latter part of the 1960's, a few cities became hotbeds for up and coming bands.  While there was no question that New York City was producing what one can see as the slightly darker, more progressive sounds of rock and roll, there are few cities more closely associated with the psychedelic movement than San Francisco, California.  Largely due to the handful of bands that emerged from that music scene, as well as the general aura that the city radiates, the lighter, more upbeat sounds of that era remain almost synonymous with that town.  However, when one looks for the definitive band from the "San Francisco sound," to properly represent such a statement one must look past commercial realities and inspect the music itself.  When one takes this more honest and accurate approach, there is no question that the quintessential San Francisco psychedelic band is none other than Moby Grape.  While the band was plagued with countless problems that largely stifled their ability to reach their full commercial potential, the music that they released stands as some of the most impressive and innovate of the entire decade, and it is their self-titled 1967 debut that remains largely unparalleled to this day.  Filled with many of the bands' finest moments, there are few songs more important to the development of rock music than Moby Grape's brilliant 1967 track, "Omaha."

From the moment that "Omaha" begins, it is clear that there are a number of elements of the song that were well ahead of their time, and much of this comes from the amazing guitar work from the trio of Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Skip Spence.  Even the fact that they have layered the guitars in this "tripled" manner is in itself a completely new take on musical forms, and one can hear this influence throughout many of the finer moments of the heavy metal era that followed.  Furthermore, there is an attitude and drive within the guitars on "Omaha" that are far more aggressive and almost jarring than anything else being created at the time, and there is no question that one can directly tie this sound to the rise of punk rock a decade later.  However, even with the music that it would spawn in later years, "Omaha" retains a uniquely irresistible appeal, and there is no arguing the perfectly deployed pop hooks at every turn.  Yet it is also the way that bassist Bob Mosley works in the mix, as his sound is far more forward than most others at the time, and it makes the songs' infectious groove far more prominent and gives "Omaha" a unique sound and feel.  Both the speed and progression he plays are unique, and it is also how this sound locks in perfectly with drummer Don Stevenson that pushes "Omaha" to such a unique place in music history.  The sound of Stevenson has an almost nervous tension that runs throughout, and the overall energy found within "Omaha" is far beyond that of almost any other song of the era.

Working perfectly with both the tone and feel of the music over which he sings, the vocals from Skip Spence.  While it is well known that every member of Moby Grape handled lead vocals at different points on their debut record, one can easily make the case that it is the high-energy, more driven style that Spence presents which stands out above the other contributions.  There is an urgency and passion within the brief vocal sections on "Omaha," and the moment that Spence begins singing, it becomes rather apparent why the song caught on as quickly as it did.  At every turn, the vocals burst with youthful energy, and in many ways, one can argue "Omaha" as being the definitive song of the late 1960's culture, as there are few others that convey such a vigor and spirit.  There is also an almost communal feel to the words which Spence sings, and after hearing the song only once, it is nearly impossible to not sing along.  This is largely due to the bright, direct manner with which he sings, but one cannot overlook that the lyrics themselves are equally simple, and yet contain all they need to inject the proper mood into the song.  In many ways, this economical usage of words is another area in which Moby Grape can be seen as having a clear impact on the later punk rock movement, and this is cemented by the somewhat off-kilter, far more aggressively styled vocals that Spence brings to every moment of "Omaha."

Whether it is due to the more assertive, somewhat distorted guitars or the absolutely amazing swing and shake provided by the rhythm section, there is simply no escaping the allure that explodes from Moby Grape's classic song, "Omaha."  While many may assume that because of this louder, almost forceful nature that the group was from the scene of New York City, the reality is that they were birthed from the same music world as some of the most well known "hippie" bands of the era.  Yet the fact that they were so distinctive in every manner, whilst never losing sight of the psychedelic sound is what makes it rather easy to argue Moby Grape as the definitive San Francisco band.  While they may not present the stereotypes of that city in as clear a manner as some of their peers, the reality is that they brought a style of rock and roll that was completely unique at the time, and the impact of their music can still be felt to this day.  It is the perfectly constructed musical arrangements and unforgettable vocals that run throughout "Omaha" which have made the song so iconic, and it has been rerecorded a number of times over the years, including a fantastic cover by The Golden Palominos, which features none other than Michael Stipe on vocals.  Yet the original version easily stands on its own, and there has simply never been another song that had a similar amount of instant and continuing impact as one finds in Moby Grape's superb 1967 single, "Omaha."

No comments: