Song of the Week – War in Peace, Alexander “Skip” Spence


It seems like every rock music critic/writer has put together a list of “the best albums you’ve never heard.” And one of the albums that is on just about everyone’s list is Oar by Alexander “Skip” Spence.

Spence was the drummer in the original Jefferson Airplane and one of the founders of San Francisco’s Moby Grape. In 1968, after he left the group (after attempting to go all Lizzy Borden on a couple of his bandmates), ended up in New York’s Bellvue Hospital for about 6 months. There he wrote the songs for Oar that he recorded in Nashville, playing all of the instruments himself – about a year before Paul McCartney pulled the same trick on his own debut solo album.

Oar is emotionally raw and can be very depressing at times. But it is also one of the most authentic records I’ve ever heard and that’s what ultimately give it its legs.

The SotW is “War in Peace.”

I discovered a website called Julian Cope’s Head Heritage that has a feature called The Book of Seth. Several times a year Seth writes a review of an Unsung album or 45. In February 2004 he featured Oar. Here’s what he had to say about today’s SotW:

“The weightless “War In Peace” is an emanation from eternity’s echo chamber. Spence’s electric lead guitar bursts in midway — chipped, fragmentary and falling like glittering silt as echoed whispering and whistling crisscross the patch of snapped tight hit-hats and bass lines like posts demarcating an unswerving boundary into the distance. By the time the electric guitar solo arrives, the infamously shattered “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff is already stumbling down a ravine in slow motion hitting branches, bouncing off rocks and causing landslides while atomic particles just collect and disperse in its wake until finally breaking down into a cosmic freefall beyond their once dimensional limitations.”

There’s not much I can add to that!

Wikipedia reports that the album was the lowest selling record in the Columbia Records catalog, deleted and relegated to the cut out bins in less than a year. I’d love to have one of those copies!

Enjoy… until next week.

7 thoughts on “Song of the Week – War in Peace, Alexander “Skip” Spence

  1. Nothing I can add but plenty I can subtract from that writing. I might start with “unswerving boundary into the distance,” proceed to “infamously shattered” and delete the whole last sentence. Sheesh. You’d think the guy just discovered the Lost Chord. As for the song, it strikes me that a real band could do a lot with it. Spence creates a landscape, a good band would add dimensions. The perils of solo albums.

  2. Funny Gene, I was gonna write the following before I read your comment – honest:

    “The song is neither here nor there for me, but that Julian Cope review? The best advertisement for ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ I’ve read in a long time.”

    On a related note on pretentiousness, over the holidays my pastor girlfriend and I agreed “Hallelujah” is the most overrated song ever. Whatever good Leonard Cohen did, he flushed it all down the shitter birthing that albatross.

  3. Just checked out the album reviews on that website. Always my vote for “best album you’ve never heard” – Masters Of Reality’s debut – is reviewed, so Cope’s entire venture jumps to at least B+ in my book. Pretension forgiven.

    As with Leonard Cohen, a single thing can make or break the rest if it’s strong enough.

  4. Well, I certainly have my moments of pretension, and I do indeed admire a killer assemblage of words. But shit…

    I have the early Airplane stuff on which Spence played, and Moby Grape surely made my essentials list. It is probably the best of all the l wave of psychedelic SF albums, and that includes Santanas first, Cheap Thrills, American Beauty et al. Even Surrealistic Pillow which is also a killer.

    I am sort of ambivalent about Cohen, but I do like the use of the song in the movie Shrek (which is among the most creative movies ever made).

  5. Lots of angles here. Oar has lots of interesting sounds, but is tainted by the questions that arise from a mentally, um, challenged artist. Spence was a contributor and I’m happy to consider his more deranged ideas/sounds for what they are. But I’m not sure what to make of them. If they’re deranged, maybe they’re interesting, but valuable in an accidental way.

    Or maybe they tap some secret human core.

    I’m skeptical about the latter, but I’m also sure we shouldn’t shut guys like Spence out. He was a talent, for sure, and in his illness became something of a savant. I like his tunes, I like what Beck made of them, too, and yet it’s hard to see importance. This is interesting history, compelling psychobiography, and excellent trivia.

    And music I’m glad I heard, but really, no big deal.

  6. I really struggle with people here commenting like they are school professors marking someone’s end-of-term paper. Why not just accept the post as it was intended – an honest and lovely reflection on a song that the writer loves. That’s it. No more. No less. Peace.

  7. “Oar” is a psychotic breakdown with some unpolished gems, shards of burned-out genius, buried in the madness. I have no idea what Columbia was thinking when they issued it (BTW it’s the second-worst selling album – Bruce Hampton and his stoked-out crew was the first worst with a reported 14 sold) but I’m glad they did. I forget the CD’s title, but several years ago a number of contemporary musicians redid “Oar” song by song in a more accessible manner. The majestic “All Come to Meet Her” is my standout in both versions, and Spence’s original “Weighted Down” is still “waiting down by the river for” a deserving remake “to come.”

    I still have my original LP with the promo sticker on the cover.

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