Album no. 173/1001
Alexander Spence was a founding member of the 1967 band with a joke for a name – Moby Grape! – with this album being his only solo release after the band folded.
Before recording the album, Alexander spent 6 months in Bellevue psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The album was only released because the produced BEGGED the record company to release it – and at the time it was the lowest ever selling album from Columbia.
It’s gone on to become a bit of a cult success – spawning a tribute album in 1999 called Moar Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album with artists like Beck, Tom Waits and Robert Plant contributing covers.
Have you listened to this album before?
NK: I certainly haven’t. All I know about this is that sometimes he’s called ‘Skip’ Spence.
CL: Well. We all know how I felt about Moby Grape – which was pretty non-plussed. So I don’t have particularly high hopes about this.
NK: Well, it’s way more interesting than Moby Grape, I’ll give him that.
CL: This is such a bizarre collections of songs. It also doesn’t help that he looks like he’s been photographed after coming off a psychiatric ward. The combination of those two things sort of made for a pretty uncomfortable listening experience. I think the only song I actually liked was the 9 minute ‘Grey/Afro’ – which sounds like it could’ve come out about 20 years later in the late 80s and be right at home.
NK: I thought ‘Grey/Afro’ sounded like a Pink Floyd outtake from the post Syd Barrett era when they were churning out eight minute jams built around two chords. That said, I didn’t mind it! I quite liked the weirdness and variety on this! It’s got loads of different stuff on it, but it still sounds like an album. ‘Weighted Down (The Prison Song) is like a half-speed Johnny Cash, but that rolls straight into ‘War In Peace’ which is completely different, all echoing falsetto singing with weird chord changes and the riff from ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. This is a strange album! ‘Weighted Down’ is my standout.
When would be the best time to listen to this?
NK: Mate, I have no idea. You can hear this as groundbreaking avant-garde experimental folk, or just a guy experiencing a drug breakdown into a microphone.
CL: Look, I personally wouldn’t really recommend it. There’s a really fascinating long-read from 2009 when the album turned 40 that provides a bit more history and context around it’s recording. It probably helps to read this before listening I reckon.
NK: I went back and listened to it again after reading that. It sort of helps, pointing out things to look for. There are definitely some interesting lyrics I missed the first time, but I am not convinced it’s a classic.
Why has this album been included on the list?
NK: It’s pretty weird! It’s also pretty unpleasant (I think) if you know the circumstances it was produced under. Poor old Skip.
CL: This is a really good question. It’s a really confusing listen – and it really does sound like someone with mental illness recorded it. I suppose from that perspective it’s an important musical document, but I don’t think it’s an enjoyable listen.
NK: I didn’t mind it! It’s pretty strange, but some of the songs have weird little melodic moments (‘All Come To Meet Her) or out of nowhere sound effects (‘Books Of Moses’) strange turns of phrase in the lyrics (Dixie Peach Promenade). For the most part this album has a deceptively simple sound to it, acoustic country-folk, but the lyrics and production are really strange. I quite liked this!
Will you be listening again?
NK: Very possibly! Parts of this reminded me of Johnny Cash, other parts reminded me of Guided By Voices, this was very strange. But coming after Moby Grape this was a very pleasant surprise!
CL: Not to the whole thing, no way. But I’m calling ‘Grey/Afro’ one of the best songs I’ve heard for a while.