Quicksilver Messenger Service

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John Cipollina?
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Utilizing souped-up amps and "hot" guitars, Quicksilver Messenger Service is making rapid headway in the upstream struggle for recognition in the super-abundantly polluted ocean of "groups". Embracing no particular classification of sound as their own, they have often been described as purveyors of San Francisco hard rock.

The unit was assembled three years ago in Mill Valley, California - though QSM [sic] is just now making itself felt on the minds of those who live rock. Unlike many groups who glom onto the first and/or juiciest recording contract that somebody lays on them, the members of QSM [sic] turned down numerous offers in favor of developing a solid musical foundation. If their first album is any indication, the decision was a wise one. Because their album (Capitol ST 2904) is a good one.

The best cut on the LP is Fool, which is on side two and runs slightly over 12 minutes. Most striking are the improvised classical overtones (particularly in the Segovia-like guitar work) that run through the piece. Basically an instrumental but with some vocal thrown in near the end, Fool is greatly enhanced by the use of controlled electronic feedback in a rhythmically harmonic structure, and the judicious use of the wah wah pedal backed up with standard rock-chord bass. In addition, both rhythmic and dissonant harmony are used with John Cipollina and Gary Duncan playing one against the other. QSM [sic] seems to groove on the minor key - which, in the case of Fool, is a very effective tool in conveying the tone of the entire piece. In some instances, it becomes an absolute work of art when played against a transition from minor to major. The only thing that disturbs me about this cut is that I can't decide if the ending is real or if it was a mistake with everyone ending at a different time.

John Cipollina Greg Elmore
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Side one of Quicksilver Messenger Service is a compendium of that which the group does best; namely, adapt many musical modes to conform to a very much above average rock format. Cut one, Pride of Man, makes use of the old House of the Rising Sun chordal themes but within chorale-type vocals draped heavily within a hard folk rock structure. Light Your Windows is mainly just a lazy, bluesy rock tune and Dino's Song (written by Dino Valenti) reminds one of early teeny-bopper Beatles. The fourth and final cut on the first side, entitled Gold & Silver, is an impressive rhythm piece; a Brubeck rondo spiced with baroque.

What about the question of volume?

"Well, volume is a very funny thing, you know. It's so easy to forget what you're doing with it. A lot of the groups now are playing at full volume all the time. Blue Cheer is one of these groups and it's a very popular thing: definitely a true form. We, as a group, don't - even though our equipment is probably as loud as theirs or just about as loud as theirs. All our instruments are hot; they've all been rewired. all our amplifiers have been rewired and everything is heavy duty. Everything is meant to take a lot of constant abuse. We're also using a lot of feed-back.

"Volume is great, and volume really has a place in music. But unless you can go to the other extreme, it's nothing. You can build something up to 110 decibels and drop it to 10 decibels and get terrific contrast, which is something that we're working with now - electro dynamics.

"You can go to an opera house and you can watch Segovia play amd he's playing down here someplace. Now, what happens is, your ears turn up, everybody's quiet and everybody is picking up on him. After 15 minutes of listening to him it sounds like it's high, even though it's really low. You can play loud all night. And you can play way, way up here, and then your ears shut off. Your ears can't take more than 12 minutes and then everything goes down. People yell at you and your ears are turned down all the way. And it makes no difference whether you're playing at ten or five or two. If you establish a straight line, each person's ears will adjust to it and turn it into the volume that those ears can take.

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Isn't such an intense level of volume damaging to the ears?

"Oh, it is. They're damaging everybody's ears. The worst thing is that they lose a little folicle within the ear. The folicles have been vibrated so much, they just fall out. You usually don't lose them in the middle ear, you lose them on one end or the other. Either you lose the low end of hearing or, usually, you lose the high end. It's something we've had to watch with our instruments and our amplifiers. These things are like monsters. Generally, on stage, those horns are way above our heads. Those treble horns are the things that go right through you. We usually have our backs to them. Close feedback is most dangerous because you have to get right next to it to make those sounds. People who are sitting in the front or standing in the back get the horns and the people who are sitting on the floor get the bass. But then again, they don't listen to it every night.

"The average person goes to a dance once a week, but we're subjected to it five days a week. And when we're not rehearsing, we're playing. We're either doing one or the other. Needless to say, we rehearse at the same volume. We have to. You have to use the same amplifiers and you have to use the same volume in order to get a true basis for comparison. Blue Cheer plays pretty loud and they carry a wide feedback range. All I can say for the Blue Cheer is they must have something. They're very popular."

David Freiberg Gary Duncan
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"Also, there is an advantage to having all those drums. You can get a jazz drummer and sit him down with a single set of drums and he'll make just as much noise. But you can tune several drums to low or high. The Cream really made the double drums popular.

"The advantages are the same as having a whole bunch of amplifiers. You have more tone possibilities. It's like having stereo instruments. What that does is make the instrument twice as hot and twice as extreme. In other words, I can get about twice the amount of high frequency sound that a normal instrument can get. Also, I can go twice as low as the guitar was designed to go, because the low section runs into an amplifier that is set up to run just low signals. One side is designed to get the low signals and the other side is designed to get the highs.

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Does it actually give you a much greater range?

"Well, it gives it a greater tone range. In other words, from mellow bass sounds to a very roaring treble high sound."


QSM's [sic] music, generally, is a product of professionalism on their part - proficiency. But, again, unlike many groups, profiency and professionalism for QSM [sic] does not mean volume. Though the album is not a "quiet" recording, the volume is not overpowering; the words can be heard without aural strain. The group's customized equipment serves a dual function: (1) a trained or perceptive listener can note subtle shades of tones not easily captured with conventional assembly line amps and guitars, and (2) there is a clarity and availability of approach which is suited for and exploited by the individual members of the group. Hence, the much sought after possibility of a "new" sound is there.

Stanley Owen
Discoscene (of Southern Maryland), August 1968

[Thanks to Mark Lawton for doing the scans.]

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Last updated: 12-Mar-2004