Quicksilver Messenger Service, ‘Happy Trails’ (05/03/69)

On the cover of what is presumably Quicksilver’s last album is a delightful picture that might remind one of the old Frederic Remington paintings of the Wild West; the lettering is done in pure Thirties World’s Fair script; on the back are the members of the band in pen-and-ink, their cowboy portraits matching their sound; there are even little pictures of Coit Tower and the Statue of Liberty. It’s Quicksilver’s version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, on tour from sea to shining sea.

It begins with an entire side dedicated to Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” superbly recorded at the Fillmores East and West. Quicksilver has been doing this number for some years. Now they have taken Bo Diddley’s horror story and come back with one of the best rock and roll recordings to emerge from San Francisco, a performance that captures all the excitement and grandeur of the great days of the scene in a way that is almost too fine to be real. If rock and roll really will stand, as the Showmen sang, it will be music like this that makes it that way.

Quicksilver goes into it at full speed, John Cipollina’s guitar alternately harsh and sweet, clashing with Gary Duncan’s rhythm, Greg Elmore’s drumming simple and solid, never an iota of sloppiness, not a note missed. They use the infamous Bo Diddley rhythm not as a crutch, not as something for the rhythm section to play with while the lead takes it; Quicksilver finds dimensions of that “bump buddy bump bump—bump bump” beat that no one has even suggested before, as they stretch it, bend it, move around it, as a motif or a bridge, as an idea rather than as a pattern.

The vocals are wild and screaming, like on the first Moby Grape album, but with the singing constantly jerked in like a zipper pulled hard. This combination of vocal anarchy and almost vicious timing pushes everything just past that point where one thought the limits were.

Describing this song is almost like trying to explain the plot of a movie by Godard; it opens with some of the finest hard rock ever recorded, then moves fast through a Bloomfield-like solo by Gary Duncan (but with an edge on it), then into an interlude of yelling and shouting by the audience, the participation of the listeners almost like a “found object” out of Dada, a beautiful example of the kind of communication rock and roll is all about. Cipollina takes over again, the excitement flashes, and finally David Friberg and his bass slowly take it apart and put it back together, with the chilling words whispered and hissed out to the audience—“graveyard mind… don’t mind dyin'”—the tension builds and they hit it all at once, guitars harder and harder. Elmore pounding, voices screaming; everything working. By the time the band yells “Bye!” to the audience it’s just not to be believed.

There is another side to this record: “Mona” comes off very well, as do two compositions by Gary Duncan which closely resemble “The Fool.” Happy Trails closes with Dale Evans’s “Happy Trails,” which was a nice idea. But it took me two hours to even get to the other side.

Rolling Stone, May 3, 1969

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