Moby Grape / The Golden Palominos: “Omaha”
Moby Grape (1967)
The Golden Palominos (1985)
We’re going fairly obscure today on Cover Friday, both with the original and the cover. But don’t let that fool you: it’s a great rock gem that doesn’t need any help from me to make it a worthy discovery in any era.
The original version of the song “Omaha” was recorded by Moby Grape, another of rock’s great, sad hard-luck stories (see Badfinger or The Creation). Hailing from San Francisco, they are known primarily for their incredible 1967 debut album, Moby Grape — it is considered by many to be the best album to come out of the late ’60s San Francisco scene. But don’t let the SF derivation fool you — Moby Grape didn’t let their songs meander, in the vein of the Grateful Dead, nor were they heavily psychedelic in their sound, like Jefferson Airplane. Sadly, their debut was to be their only consistent album, as problems within and without the band caused them to implode creatively and, ultimately, physically. (Well, just to be clear, the band members didn’t collapse in upon themselves — the band just fell apart.) The biggest tragedy of the band was that guitarist/songwriter Skip Spence (also, the drummer on Jefferson Airplane’s debut album) fell heavily into drugs early on and went schizophrenic, at one point attempting to chop down a hotel room door with a fire axe to attempt to murder a bandmate (he didn’t succeed). He was institutionalized, and from there, things only went downhill for the band. (On a side note, Spence afterward released a classic solo album, Oar, in 1969 — not far removed from, although more lucid than, fellow acid case Syd Barrett’s solo album the following year, The Madcap Laughs.)
“Omaha” is one of the best of the best on Moby Grape, a full-ahead guitar riffer with some excellent singing and backing vocals — the sound is a blend of the Beatles, the Byrds (in their country-rock phase), and early Grateful Dead. It’s a song that could easily have become a well-known rock staple if only things hadn’t gone badly from a promotion standpoint along with everything else. Lyrically, it’s a very simple, feel-good, love song, with the very catchy “Listen my friends” refrain — and most notably, never makes any mention of Omaha (or any other town in Nebraska, for that matter). Mysterious.
The Golden Palominos were a loose agglomeration of musicians, begun in 1983 by ex-Feelies drummer Anton Fier, who was basically the one stable link through all versions of the band. In 1985, their second album, Visions of Excess, had an incredible lineup that included no less than Bill Laswell, Michael Stipe, Jack Bruce, John Lydon, Syd Straw, Chris Stamey, Richard Thompson, Henry Kaiser, and Bernie Worrell. It’s an incredibly diverse record, and among the best songs on it are the three that feature Michael Stipe on vocals. Stipe sang more intelligibly than he ever had to that point with R.E.M., and one of those songs was an excellent cover of “Omaha” — done a bit more slowly and artily than Moby Grape’s version, but excellent in its own right. Chris Stamey, by-then-former member of the dB’s, adds some typically out-there guitar soloing — he was never one to approach the guitar in a straightforward manner.
I discovered and first loved “Omaha” (and, hence, Moby Grape) through the Golden Palominos version, but Moby Grape’s version edges out the cover by a hair. I think it’s the ’80s-style drum production on the GP version that loses it a point or two. But that’s what great covers often do best and, I believe, is often the motivation for an artist covering a more obscure song: introduce fans to a song and/or a band that they might have previously missed. A music history lesson cloaked in the guise of “merely” a great song.