Hearing about Bo Diddley’s death got me thinking about this album, since his songs comprise more than half of it. The Quicksilver Messenger Service were one of the founding groups of the mid-sixties San Francisco psychedelic scene, although they never achieved the acclaim or sales enjoyed by contemporaries Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Like the Dead, QMS were first and foremost a jam band. It was accepted practice in jazz circles to take a well-known standard and use it as a melodic and rhythmic launchpad for flights of improvisation. But the technique had never really been applied to rock before. Cover versions tended to be pretty faithful to the source material, bar a tweak to the tempo, or a glossier arrangement. Happy Trails’ takes on two Bo Diddley classics totally ripped up the rule book.
The band started out in 1965, but were one of the last of the SF bands to sign a contract. Not that they’d been without offers, as the world was going San Francisco mad in 1967. They eventually penned a deal with Capitol and released their eponymous debut the following May. It was brief (six songs in just over half an hour) but showed the band’s potential: particularly their secret weapon – the twin guitars of John Cipollina and Gary Duncan.
Much of the follow-up was recorded live. It is dominated by two Diddley tunes. Side one is an extended riff on “Who Do You Love”, split into six sections and running for around 25 minutes. This is really just an excuse for Cipollina and Duncan to go off on flights of guitar fancy. Side two is much stronger. The version of “Mona”, at seven minutes, is more focused. It still allows the guitarists full rein to do their thing, but is much tighter and free from the meandering that mars the first side. The real highlights of the record are “Maiden Of The Cancer Moon” and “Calvary”. These run together as a two-part instrumental suite that soars to heights that even the best Grateful Dead material of the era struggles to match. The album closes with “Happy Trails”, a song associated with Roy Rogers’ television programme, and a sweet, slightly corny way to end things.
Gary Duncan left the group shortly after Happy Trails. The Quicksilver Messenger Service subsequently moved to a more song-based sound, but the spark had gone. Happy Trails is actually generally accepted as part of the ‘rock canon’ in America, and is a favourite of the venerable (ie old) generation of rock writers. But it’s not well known in Britain, so I think it’s justified describing it as a cult album. It’s available on CD. If you want a compilation, then the two disc Sons Of Mercury is the only one worth having. The others are full of single edits and are dominated by tracks from the post-Duncan era.
A1 Who Do You Love, Part. 1 3:32
A2 When You Love 5:15
A3 Where You Love 6:07
A4 How You Love 2:45
A5 Which Do You Love 4:38
A6 Who Do You Love, Part. 2 3:05
B1 Mona 7:01
B2 Maiden of the Cancer Moon 2:54
B3 Calvary 13:31
B4 Happy Trails 1:29
Originally issued as Capitol ST-120 in March 1969.
Trebly sound, but a good take on the QMS doing “Mona” at some hippie gathering in 1969.