San Francisco’s the Ace Of Cups deserves mention in these pages because the band occupies a singular place in rock history. It wasn’t the first all-female self-contained rock outfit to achieve public recognition; elsewhere on this site you’ll find mention of the Liverbirds, one of several all-girl groups playing their own instruments who came out of Liverpool during the British Beat Boom. But the Ace Of Cups, whose name derives from the eponymous Tarot card, is generally acknowledged as the first female rock band anywhere to truly gain the recognition of its (male) peers, and to share stages and theatres with its top-flight contemporaries. You can see the Ace playing live in the Haight in Jack O’Connell’s quasi-documentary hippie film Revolution (1968); inter alia, they perform alongside Country Joe & The Fish, the Steve Miller Band and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And these are not just five doe-eyed, flaxen-haired hippie chicks doing it wistfully; they’re full-on female Rolling Stones wannabes, sassy, sexy and unashamedly beating seven bells out of their equipment. The excellent liner note of the present CD lists many of their other onstage and offstage companions, most notably Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Ralph Gleason, Jann Wenner, the Sons Of Champlin, Steppenwolf, the Band, the Dead and the Airplane. You didn’t move in much higher company than that in ’68 San Fran.
Onstage the focus was on raw excitement rather than virtuosity and the visual centrepoint was usually diminutive Denise Kaufman, sneeringly intoning the lyrics from behind an enormous Gibson Tal Farlow jazzbox or blowing a blueswailing harp. Musically the strongest areas were the muscular jazz-punk organ work of Marla Hunt – sort of Jimmy Smith meets the Mysterians - and the choral-quality harmony vocals of all five protagonists, stemming from a seam of gospel that ran through their otherwise British Invasion and Stax soul-influenced repertoire. Their recorded legacy rambles from the garage R’n’B of “Glue” – a witty attack on conventional society values – and “Stones” – an unabashed paean to the Rolling Ones – through the five-part acapella “Music” and a rocked-up, organ-dominated cover of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” to the pure funk-rock of “Circles” and the minor-key bluesy soul of “Simplicity”.
Notwwithstanding all of which the present CD, released in 2003, is the first time the sound of the Ace Of Cups has been available on record, and that’s because despite their celebrity around the hotspot that was the late 60’s Bay Area the Ace never managed to visit the inside of a professional recording studio. Several labels showed interest in signing them in the early days but manager Ron Polte insisted in holding out, supposedly to allow the band to develop their sound further before committing to wax, but in reality for better deals. As it turned out, he held out too long. By the time they achieved a really consistent standard around 1969 the offers were still there but at that time an almost universal condition of a contract was an undertaking to tour nationally and heavily to promote the album, and by then some band members had become mothers. The original lineup splintered soon after, quoting reluctance to take their new families on the road and disillusionment with the corruption and decay of the Haight scene. An Ace Of Cups of sorts lingered on until 1972 with revised lineups that included male players. The present CD was assembled by the Big Beat subsidiary of the UK’s estimable Ace Records from sundry demos, rehearsal room tapes and live and TV recordings by the original lineup. It has to be said that because of their sources the sound quality, and indeed the warts-and-all singing and playing, of some of the earlier tracks leaves a lot to be desired, but their historic nature and their intractable energy make them essential listening for students of the golden age of West Coast Rock. Someone out there certainly likes the Ace Of Cups, because you can find several musical photomontages, a scruffy but engaging clip from the Revolution movie and a couple of clips from Gleason’s TV documentary West Pole on YouTube.