Quicksilver Messenger Service was one of San Francisco’s original psychedelic bands of the late 1960s.
Essentially a jam band, their early albums and live shows contributed to some of the best instrumental jams of the period. They were popular around the Bay Area but did not reach the national popularity achieved by their San Francisco contemporaries, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and others. Their first album charted at 63 and their next four albums charted in the top 30 of the billboard Pop Albums charts.
The original band members were John Cipollina (guitar), Gary Duncan (guitar, vocals), David Freiberg (bass guitar, vocals and viola), Greg Elmore (drums), and Jim Murray (vocals, guitar and harmonica), although Murray left before the band recorded.
There is some confusion as to whether or not the group was formed around Dino Valente. According to Cipollina:
“ It was Valente who organized the group. I can remember everything Dino said. We were all going to have wireless guitars. We were going to have leather jackets made with hooks that we could hook these wireless instruments right into. And we were gonna have these chicks, backup rhythm sections that were gonna dress like American Indians with real short little dresses on and they were gonna have tambourines and the clappers in the tambourines were going to be silver coins. And I’m sitting there going, « This guy is gonna happen and we’re gonna set the world on its ear. »
The next day, Valente was arrested for possession of marijuana, and spent the better part of the next two years in jail. But Gary Duncan notes:
“ That’s the story Cipollina told everybody. But according to Dino, that wasn’t the case at all. When he’d been looking for a band, he’d talked to Cipollina, and everybody somehow put two and two together. He actually lived with us when he got out of prison, and while we played some music together and wrote songs, he had no interest in playing in Quicksilver; he wanted to start his own career. Well, when his own career didn’t do so well, he had more interest in playing in Quicksilver! ”
Nevertheless, whether Quicksilver Messenger Service was what Valenti had in mind, it appears from Duncan’s recollections that he had at least talked with Cipollina about forming a band; Cipollina remembered that:
“ I was recommended to Dino, probably because I was the only guy playing an electric guitar, let alone lead, at the time … We talked about rehearsing one night and planned to rehearse the following night but it never happened. The next day Dino got busted.
The band comes together
At the same time, David Freiberg, a folk-guitarist friend of Valente’s, who had been in a band with Paul Kantner and David Crosby, had been released from jail. « We were to take care of this guy Freiberg », Cipollina recalled, and though they had never met before, Freiberg was added to the group.
The band also added Skip Spence on guitar and began to rehearse at Marty Balin’s club, the Matrix. Balin, in search of a drummer for the band he was organizing, soon to be called Jefferson Airplane, convinced Spence to switch instruments and groups.
To make up for his theft of Spence, Balin suggested that they contact drummer Greg Elmore and guitarist-singer Gary Duncan, who had played together in a group called ‘the Brogues’. This new version of the band had its first paying gig in December 1965, playing for the Christmas party of the comedy troupe the Committee.
It was a band without a name, Cipollina recalled:
“ Jim Murray and David Freiberg came up with the name. Me and Freiberg were born on the same day, and Gary and Greg were born on the same day, we were all Virgos and Murray was a Gemini. And Virgos and Geminis are all ruled by the planet Mercury. Another name for Mercury is Quicksilver. And then, Quicksilver is the messenger of the Gods, and Virgo is the servant, so Freiberg says « Oh, Quicksilver Messenger Service
First three albums
Having split company with Murray, the band began a period of heavy touring on the West Coast of the United States. They held back from signing a record deal but eventually signed to Capitol Records in 1967. Capitol had failed to pick up a San Francisco hippie band during the first rush of record company interest and so Quicksilver managed to negotiate a better deal than many of their peers. At the same time, Capitol signed the Steve Miller band, with whom Quicksilver had appeared on the movie and soundtrack Revolution.
Quicksilver released Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1968, followed by Happy Trails the following year. These two albums define a classic period in Quicksilver’s career and are most strongly associated with their unique sound, emphasising extended arrangements. Cipolina’s highly melodic, individualistic lead guitar style combined with Gary Duncan’s driving guitar work showcased a jazzy rock style unparalleled in its day.
Archetypal Quicksilver songs include an elongated, multiply re-titled suite of Bo Diddley’s « Who Do You Love? ».
Duncan left after the recording of Happy Trails. « Well, let’s put it this way, » says he, remembering back 18 full years, « at the end of 1968, I was pretty burned out. We’d been on the road for, really, the first time in our lives. I just left for a year. I didn’t want to have anything to do with music at all. And I left for a year and rode motorcycles and lived in New York and L.A. and just kind of went crazy for about a year.
Freiberg later recalled that « the engine » of the band had been removed. Nevertheless, Duncan was replaced by the English piano jouneyman Nicky Hopkins, who had played on albums by The Rolling Stones, The Who and Steve Miller, among many others. This version of Quicksilver released 1970’s Shady Grove, dominated by Hopkins’s virtuouso piano boogie.
Valente Takes Control
In the meantime, Duncan had teamed up with Valente, and when Duncan was asked to return, Valente followed. Quicksilver recorded the two « Hawaiian Albums » under Valente’s control (Just for Love) and What About Me?) during a period staying in Hawaii. Glimpses of the old Quicksilver can be heard on occasional songs on these albums (where it appears Cipollina has taken the helm). However, in the main this marked a turning point in the story of Quicksilver. From this point on, the band would be a vehicle for Valente’s folky singer-songwriter fare.
Hopkins and Cipollina quit following these sessions. A series of personnel changes followed until the original band reunited briefly in 1975 for the album Solid Silver but this was short-lived. Valente, Duncan and Elmore continued performing with various players until 1979.
Cipollina went on to play with a series of bands such as Copperhead, which resembled Quicksilver updated for the 1970s, and Raven, which resembled Copperhead. He guested on Quicksilver-idolising Welsh progressive rockers Man’s 1975 album Maximum Darkness. He died at the age of 45 from emphysema.
Freiberg went on to join Jefferson Airplane, staying with them throughout their mutations into Jefferson Starship. Hopkins continued his journeyman career, including playing with Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock.
Gary Duncan resurrected the name and released the albums Peace by Piece in 1986, Shapeshifter Vols. 1&2 in 1996, Shapeshifter Vol 3&4, and Strange Trim in 2006, along with several live albums and a website, quicksilvermessengerservice.com.
Gary Duncan and David Freiberg launched a 40th-anniversary Quicksilver celebration tour in 2006.
Quicksilver Messenger Service Original band:
Revolution (movie soundtrack) (1968)
Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968)
Happy Trails (1969)
With Nicky Hopkins:
Shady Grove (1969)
Just For Love (1970)
What About Me? (1970)
Quicksilver Under Dino Valente:
Comin’ Thru (1972)
Solid Silver (1975)
Gary Duncan’s revival:
Peace By Piece (1986)
Live at Fieldstone
Listen QuickSilver Messenger Service on 121 web Radio !