It's a long time since the tag 'San Francisco Sound' was used to sell a band, but during the heyday of the SF era, every record company in America was desperate to get its hands on anything they could proclaim as being part of it. Simply because, as an entity, the 'San Francisco Sound' was a valid conception, and was accepted as such by the record buying heads; it was musically strong and innovative for the most part and was certain, because of the wide media coverage, to be commercially successful. (For amplification of this, see Zigzag 4). Subsequent similar campaigns didn't make it - the 'Boston Sound' for instance, failed because there was no Boston sound, but merely a bunch of groups who happened to be working out of the Boston Cambridge area. But the San Francisco sound was more than just a geographical thing. There was a cohesion.... several factors common to all the bands of the time. Each developed in the same spirit and the same influences, and there was the common thread of a community feeling, which had evolved long before the papers discovered the city and spread flowerpower all over America's breakfast tables.
In an article he wrote several months before he started 'Rolling Stone', Jan Wenner wrote an explanatory article on just what was happening in his city, for the benefit of Music Maker readers. The bands there, he contended, were characterised by their preference to stay at home and play to familiar audiences rather than do concert hall circuits, and by their refusal to get involved in the commercial end of the pop business, letting record companies and promoters treat them as investments rather than artistes. In short, they did not think twice about relative obscurity and lack of bread. It was all tied up with enjoyment and a kind of San Franciscan integrity if you like.
As Paul Williams wrote in Crawdaddy in August 1967, "There is a geography of rock; San Francisco is different from New York musically, different because the music made by the Grateful Dead would be different if they had developed in New York, playing the Night Owl, trying to get a master sold, living on East 7th Street, and maybe dealing meth for rent money (see later), padlocking their front door and freezing in winter, and worrying about the air and not having children until they can afford the suburbs, reading the New York Times, never considering that they might find a manager who wasn't just an adversary, never ever thinking there was much more to it than making the charts.... maybe hating each other after a while and wondering why people shat on them for doing just what everyone else does". "New York is New York, and it's very good for some things. The energy it generates is second to none; nowhere in the world is there as much activity to dive into every time you turn around. Some people thrive on that. I do, much of the time, and that's why I stay here; but I don't think it's a place to make music. San Francisco is".
And so, the SF sound grew out of the indigenous lifestyle, and was shaped by the energy Bill Graham and the Family Dog put into running their ballrooms, Ralph Gleason's journalism and enthusiasm, the acid explosion, and so on, and was firmly established long before the weekend hippies started rolling in to Haight Ashbury.
When Williams explored San Francisco (summer 67), Quicksilver Messenger Service were unrecorded. "Quicksilver" he said, "are a fine example of a group that would have gone nowhere, were it not for the Fillmore/Avalon audience egging them on".
Indeed they were one of the last of the big Frisco bands to get tied up with a record company, and when they eventually did, people thought that they had left it too late and missed the boat. Gary Duncan, one of their lead guitarists, emphasised that they had merely been waiting until the time was right.... "playing live" he said, "a song changes in performance. In a studio you attack things intellectually; onstage it's all emotion". The feeling was common to most Bay area bands - scorning the studio-first-live-afterwards approach of the Los Angeles bands. "LA hurts our eyes".
Quicksilver had started up in 1965 in Mill Valley, just outside San Francisco, and had become almost residents at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms (they played a total of 75 evenings at the latter) after the very small beginnings of gigs in clubs and coffee houses in SF's North Beach. Gary Duncan (guitar) and Greg Elmore (drums) had been in an unsuccessful band called the Brogues, which they disbanded in the hope of finding other musicians who shared their concepts of rock. Eventually they found John Cipollina (guitar) and David Freiberg (bass), and a singing harp player called Jim Murray, who didn't stay with them for long.
David Freiberg was working as a railway clerk but quit in 1963 because he found he could make as much bread by doing weekend folk club work. "I was pretty deadbeat in those days" he recalls. "I took a load of pills and nobody liked me. I teamed up with a chick and we called ourselves David and Michaela, doing traditional folk stuff until she stopped smoking dope, married an engineer and it all ended. I got busted and went to jail for 60 days, and when I came out I found myself a group".
"I'll tell you how Quicksilver started", said Cipollina. "We were together as a group of people for eight months before we ever played together... Jim Murray, David and I were living in this funky house. David was playing folk music then, but we never really talked about music till one day we asked each other what we could do besides deal to make a living".
"I had a job as [a] real estate salesman at the time and went to work each day getting flippy. I was taking a lot of LSD and sat in the office all day doodling. All this time I'd been driving around with a guitar, a bass and amps in the trunk of my car. One evening I felt like playing so I brought everything into the house and the guys flipped. We jammed all night and decided to be a band. I quit the real estate business - I had a little money behind me because I'd managed to sell one thing by accident. The day I quit, I went to work tripping and flipped out. The office manager said 'Take two weeks holiday, you're working too hard' and I haven't been back since."
"Then I worked in a bar for a while, and when I got home we'd play all night in that crazy house on the hill. We thought we'd like to play with Dino Valente and arranged a rehearsal, but the car with our equipment got lost and the next night we couldn't find Dino. He'd been busted."
"We hung around for 1 1/2 years waiting for Dino to get out of jail and meanwhile we played all the time and found Gary and Greg. By the time Dino finally got out, we were pretty much together as we were. We could hang together better than any other band in town.... we were a unit, all the time".
All four of them are Virgos (Cipollina and Freiberg were born on Aug 24, and Duncan and Elmore were born on Sept 4) and have always been into astrology, from which they took their name. All Virgos are ruled by Mercury, which is also called Hermes, and Hermes is the messenger of the gods. Quicksilver is the metal that is influenced by the planet Mercury. (Murray, the original singer, wasn't a Virgo but a Gemini, and they are ruled by Mercury too)
They remained unrecorded for two years, but in early 1968 signed with Capitol on their own terms.... artistic control, good percentages, and $50,000 advance. In other words they waited until they got just what they wanted. As a quartet they released their first album in 1968. It consisted of material they'd been playing for years and, with the minimum direction from producers Nick Gravenites and Pete Welding, they succeeded in capturing a lot of the vitality of a live performance. But considering that most of their potential audience had only heard about them (they hadn't performed away from the West coast), the album didn't sell as well as Capitol had anticipated. When they did get to New York in late 1968, Annie Fisher of the Village Voice saw them and wrote this about them; "The group raises images of white Spanish missions with red tile roofs in old California, of Wells Fargo, of 1865 San Francisco corruption and of 1965 San Francisco purity still intact. In person, Quicksilver is a musical mental movie of the history of the West". She really dug them, which is more than can be said about Barret Hansen, who, in his account of the Monterey Festival in Down Beat, thought that their material and arrangements were pretty uninspired, but thought that they were "very good at the psychedelic crescendos that are a SF hallmark". What? Then in Spring 1969, 'Happy Trails' was released. This, except for one cut, was live material recorded at the Fillmores, and was one of the best and certainly the most exciting rock albums ever made. If the first was good (and it was), this was beautiful, and included the 'Who do you love suite', which, though spliced from more than one performance, typifies their music. "We just jam for as long as it works".
The whole album, including the sleeve by Michael Ferguson of Globe Propaganda (and formerly of the Charlatans), was intended to capture part of the feeling of the West. We never got to see the Roy Rogers shows on TV over here (thankfully) but 'Happy Trails To You' was its signature tune.
A lot of people thought that this would be the last Quicksilver LP because Gary Duncan left the group to join Dino Valente in a projected rock band called the Outlaws, but late last year Nicky Hopkins, who had been working on their new album since leaving Jeff Beck and who had become a good friend of Cipollina's, decided to join the band full time.
Hopkins played in Cyril Davies' R&B band for a few months in 1962, but then became ill. "In May 1963 I was taken seriously ill and spent the next 19 months in hospital, and in January 1964, while I was still laid up, Cyril Davies died, at the age of 32, from pleurisy".
"I left hospital on Christmas Eve 1964, and in January 1965 I did my first recording session as an independent musician. Glyn Johns was at the session, and Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Jon Mark were all on it too. After the session we did a half hour jam and they kept the tape running. The results were unearthed last year and released on Immediate's Anthology of British Blues Vol 3. Following the session, Glyn asked me if I'd like to do more studio work, and this suited me fine because I knew I couldn't join a band and go on the road for some time. All the studios were in London so it meant only local travelling."
"So for nearly four years I did sessions. I did three Stones albums, four with the Kinks, an album with the Who, a Dusty Springfield album, lots of other album tracks and singles with people like Donovan, the Beatles, Jackie Lomax, and so on".
In October 1968, he was fit for the road once more and joined the Jeff Beck Group, but quit the following June after various incompatibilities. "Soon after, I left to work on a Steve Miller album which Glyn was producing in San Francisco. That was one of the most interesting and enjoyable albums I've ever worked on. Whilst we were making it, John and David came up to see me and asked if I'd stay on to do some work on the third Quicksilver album. So I did".
The album, 'Shady Grove', was subsequently released and showed Hopkins' influence and how they had been changed by his arrival. A lot of people disliked the piano domination and compared it unfavourably with the brilliance of 'Happy Trails'. On the other hand, there are few pianists to equal Hopkins, and he's certainly given Quicksilver another dimension.
Then in February of this year, Gary Duncan returned, bringing with him Dino Valente. When Valente had arrived in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, he'd become one of the most copied performers on the folk scene. His songs (like 'Hey Joe', 'Birdses' and 'Get Together') were recorded by all manner of East coast artistes, but he apparently disappeared disenchanted, and went to the Bay area, living the life of a semi recluse.
His joining the band has given them yet another change of direction. Their tightness is still very evident, but Valente has taken over as vocalist on most numbers, and as well as introducing his strange nasal voice, a lot more of his songs with their rambling melodies and crammed lyrics have been taken into their repertoire. By all accounts the new 6 piece Quicksilver is a remarkable thing, and if their reputation is reflected on their next album, it will be a cracker. Meanwhile, why the hell hasn't anyone brought them to England yet? Why?
'Revolution' (2 tracks) UAS 29069
'Quicksilver Mess Service' ST 2904
'Happy Trails' ST 120
'Shady Grove' ST 391
'Dino Valente' CBS 63443
(with special thanks to Roger St Pierre of Record Buyer for permission to use part of his interview).
ZigZag 12, May 1970
[Thanks to Keith Hunter for doing the original scan & OCR, and giving permission for me to add the article to my site. Keith's site has articles from many issues of Dark Star, Strange Things Are Happening, and Zigzag.]