INTERSTING READING: I was a kid in middle school when I stopped in at Osco Drug and bought Quicksilver Messenger Service's "Happy Trails" album, mostly because I liked the cover painting of a fair damsel waving goodbye to a galloping horseman... and because the guys pictured on the back of the sleeve had really long hair (the year was 1968 and these guys looked more like wild Indians* than the Beatles). A couple of years later I took up the guitar, and when I had attained a modicum of proficiency I began to deconstruct the guitar solos of QMS's ace axemen John Cipollina and Gary Duncan. It was not easy going. As a matter of fact, I am still at it today--although I like to think I could take a pretty good stab at playing in a Quicksilver tribute band. I would certainly recommend the project to any of my fellow guitarists, since learning this stuff is infinitely broadening and introduces one to a vastly expanded tonal and modal pallette.
Cipollina and Duncan were both heavily influenced by jazz, although they came at it in different directions. Cipollina had been equally impressed by the work of psychedelic contemporaries like Jorma Kaukonen and Jerry Garcia, and it shows in his shrieking soloing. Duncan was more traditional, his angular melodic constructs showing a dense knowledge of jazz scales and non-blues-based modalities. Put them together and it made for guitar pyrotechnics unlike anything that has been heard before or since... and certainly far, far ahead of its time.
But most people have forgotten Quicksilver Messenger Service, if they ever knew of them at all. And only the band's congnoscenti know the strange story of Quicksilver's total sound overhaul beginning with their fourth album, "Just For Love." Turns out that the band recorded their first three albums (the ones most fans consider their masterpieces) while erstwhile band leader Dino Valente did time in prison for marijuana possession. As luck would have it, both bassist David Freiberg (he of later Jefferson Starship fame) and Gary Duncan were good singers. All four "surviving" members of the band were first-rate musicians as well. And they were under contract to Capitol Records, so they couldn't just twiddle their thumbs waiting for Valente to get out of prison.
The guitar-driven, jazzy output that fans came to know as classic Quicksilver came screeching to a halt when Valente was released and "reclaimed" (many fans say "hijacked") his old band. Best known as the author of the hippie anthem "Let's Get Together" (the Youngbloods, Jefferson Airplane), Valente wasn't much for lengthy guitar explorations--or, for that matter, jazz, since he was a hardcore folkie. Although there is no doubt that he could write good songs, his nasal, affected singing was definitely an acquired taste. I'm still getting used to it 40 years after the fact. He may have been a "singer-songwriter," but as far as singing goes both Freiberg and Duncan could have handed him his ass.
After Valente's return, there was still some brilliant guitar work if you listened for it (I especially like Duncan's dreamy interplay with pianist Nicky Hopkins on the spectral ballad "Gone Again," or Cipollina's psychedelic stomp on "Cobra"--one of the most fun songs a guitarist can play with a whammy bar). But the days of listening to Cipollina run through hundreds of jazz chords while Duncan explored everything from Indian raga to heavy metal on "When You Love"--a live performance, yet--were gone.
Well, to get to our subject, I unearthed a couple of fascinating pieces on Quicksilver's guitar aces: Gary Duncan (who never liked to talk) on his hard-bitten life, and the late John Cipollina, who battled health problems all his life and died at the age of 45 in 1989. Enjoy.
Who Do You Love Suite (from "Happy Trails") recorded live.
("When You Love," Duncan's extended outing, is the second movement.)
"Gold and Silver," from Quicksilver's first album. Written by Duncan. Check out the jazz structure and the fiery interplay between the two guitarists.
"Gone Again," from the Dino Valente era (that's Dino on lead vocals).
Finally, "Cobra"--the late, great John Cipollina shakes it loose.]
*As I learned yesterday in my readings, Gary Duncan actually IS 3/4 Native American.
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