Saturday, 30 October 2010

Silver Apples: a very special market-oriented sound

Silver Apples (electronics wizard Simeon Coxe and ace drummer Danny Taylor) deserve to be remembered as one of the handful of generally groundbreaking acts in late 60s American rock. The New York-based duo’s June 1968 debut was perhaps the earliest album to incorporate breakbeats, found sounds and atonal noise into (more-or-less) conventional song structures, and at its best their beat-heavy electronic music still sounds dazzling and other-worldly. Their achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the sheer logistical complications (and frequent electric shocks) involved in mobilising their battery of oscillators, generators and synthesisers. Their two albums are uneven, but both contain astounding music, with flourishes that may be mainstream now, but must have sounded completely out-there at the time. As with most visionaries, they were little appreciated while in business, and not much original press concerning them exists.  Here’s what I have.

Silver Apples signed to the small, mainstream-oriented Kapp label in April 1968. Their debut album was released that June, and came with a silver foil sleeve (which is a nightmare to photograph). It also came with a surprisingly lavish fold-out colour insert, from which the pictures above are taken (they are posing in sensible sweaters with cats: the electronic rock look for 1968). Here's the whole thing:

On June 7th the tremendous Go magazine (America's only pop weekly of the 1960s, distributed via radio stations - ) ran the following article:

The LP was launched at a reception held on the roof of the Manhattan building in which Coxe and Taylor lived and rehearsed. This article appeared in Go on June 14th:

And here's a picture of the launch party, taken from Billboard of June 22nd:

White-label mono copies were sent out as promos to the press and radio stations. Here's the hilarious press release that came with those, penned by one Tony Martell (who gives the strong impression that he'd rather be writing about a crooner):

Billboard covered the album in the same issue in which they wrote about the launch party. Billboard reviews tend to be bland, but this one contains the memorable comparison of the duo's music to 'the mating calls of two IBM machines':

The only other review I've encountered from the time was in Hi-Fi / Stereo Review's October 1968 issue, which dismissed it as 'moderately compelling' (though the reviewer does at least have the grace to concede that 'when it comes to the kinds and degrees of acidity, all I’ve got is Johnny Walker and heartburn, so I am probably not the best judge of such things’). On July 5th, Go ran this odd article, which gave as much attention to the duo's A&R man at Kapp, John Walsh, as to them:

(Walsh, incidentally, is thanked on the back of both their albums, with his Contact credit citing him as 'our Kapp contact and our local contact for...'). The same issue of Go contained an advert for the album, claiming that 'Silver Apples marry time to space through sound', as well as repeating the dumb instruction from the album's back cover to 'play twice before listening':

Coxe and Taylor played gigs on both coasts to support the record, as well as wasting no time in recording a follow-up. Contact appeared a mere five months later, in November, and advance copies were again accompanied by promotional material - but this time the PR wasn't handled by Kapp, but by Anonymous Arts, the hip company run by their manager Barry Bryant. First up was a general introduction to the new album, printed on pink paper:

Next came a biography of 'the simeon' (the name Coxe gave to the terrifying contraption he coaxed his electronic sounds from), printed on blue paper:

Third was a three-page biography of Coxe, printed on yellow paper:

And finally, having almost exhausted the colour options available at the time, there was a biography of Taylor on green paper:

On December 3rd the duo launched Contact with a week of gigs at New York's Cafe Au-Go-Go (supported by Pacific Gas & Electric, of all people). Billboard ran the following review in its December 14th issue:

and then offered these insights on December 28th:

General response was mixed. On January 3rd 1969, Go likened the LP to 'a wild jet plane ride' , while High Fidelity groused in April that it was 'full of interesting effects that are repeated endlessly, and would have been far more interesting if the liner notes had provided technical information. Still, at this point I’m ready to applaud anyone who can come up with even one new noise.' Stereo Review was even less fulsome in June, writing that 'Silver Apples jet into the nether-nether land of psychedelic, electronic-inspired musical tricks of tomorrow', adding that 'you need to be on a trip to get the most out of it. Stone cold sober and without the benefit of even an antihistamine tablet, it’s a bit puzzling', before concluding that 'you can’t listen to Silver Apples without experiencing an overwhelming impulse to break the record into several thousand pieces' and that 'Silver Apples drives cats and dogs bananas - so if you have pets, don’t play the record unless you want them to be unhappy.’ And that's as good an epitaph for them as I could ever devise.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Jimmy Page: the summer '68 interviews

Jimmy Page relaxing in his lovely home
As is often the way, it was only after I'd finished my Led Zeppelin book that I uncovered some of the most interesting material about them, especially concerning their early days. I thought I'd share two especially rare articles here, which I don't think have ever been reproduced since they first appeared. But first, some history...

Jimmy Page  had joined The Yardbirds in June 1966, initially playing bass to Jeff Beck's lead guitar. It quickly became obvious that this was a waste, so rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja switched to bass, in order for Beck and Page to share lead guitar duties. After releasing the fine Happenings Ten Years Time Ago / Psycho Daisies 45 in October (a chart flop), appearing in Michel Antonioni's Blow Up and undertaking a short UK tour supporting the Stones, the band set off for a gruelling and unglamorous American tour as part of Dick Clark's so-called 'Caravan Of Stars'. The band was fast losing its appeal for Beck, who started missing shows, and quit in December (after another trek around the US). In his short-lived Beat Instrumental column of January 1967, however, he was clear about the fact that Page was the one thing about The Yardbirds he still liked.

His former bandmates decided to remain a quartet, and gigged hard throughout 1967. Peter Grant took over their management from Simon Napier-Bell that April, the same month that another flop 45 appeared - Little Games / Puzzles. They may have been a spent force as far as the top 40 was concerned, but they were still a popular live attraction, and Grant quickly set up further tours (of France, Japan and the US). The Little Games LP appeared in the US in July, but not in the UK. It was another poor seller, but pointed the way towards Led Zeppelin with the folky White Summer, and guitar-bowing Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor and Glimpses. Further 45s bombed, but the US live circuit remained lucrative, and they continued to tour relentlessly. Cracks were appearing, however, with Page embracing experimentation, Keith Relf and Jim McCarty heading in a folkier direction, and Dreja wanting to leave the business altogether. After a low-selling final 45 in March 1968, Goodnight Sweet Josephine / Think About It (whose UK issue was cancelled), the band ran out of juice in June 1968. Page tried hard to keep them together, but when the split became inevitable, he immediately set about forming a new band, both to fulfil existing live bookings and to continue innovating musically. 

This article is taken from Go, America's best (and almost only) 1960s music weekly, which was distributed via local radio stations and is a goldmine of arcane information about the late 60s pop scene. Published on June 21st 1968, it finds Page happily planning his next band, and excited at the prospect of using Mellotron as a lead instrument in it:

As it happens, the band still had some bookings in the UK to honour, so their final gig took place on Sunday, July 7th 1968 at Luton Technical College in Bedfordshire. After it, Relf and McCarty formed the short-lived Together, while Page and Dreja agreed to fulfil some outstanding dates in Scandinavia that autumn. Go magazine in the US reported the following on August 2nd:

A month or so later, Page gave another interview to Hit Parader (which was, confusingly, dated three months in arrears, so the December issue was actually on newsstands in September). In it he both analyses The Yardbirds' split, and explains the progress he has made towards forming a new band. It's also worth nothing that the magazine uses the phrase 'New Yardbirds' in its headline: that is the  name under which Led Zeppelin supposedly performed in September and October 1968, but no hard evidence of them having done so has ever surfaced. Did the rumours start here?

There are several interesting things about the piece, not least of all how single-minded Page's vision for Led Zeppelin was from the start. He also mentions his boathouse in Pangbourne (where he famously had Robert Plant to stay shortly after the interview was given), and is intriguingly cynical about the process of making pop records, indicating his intention to synthesize existing ideas. Finally, and fittingly, he announces his main ambition: "to bring the guitar into a new level."

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ernie Graham: Ireland, chicks & dope

Ernest Harold Graham was born in Belfast on June 14th 1946. Having served his apprenticeship with Tony & The Telstars and The People, he became guitarist with the appallingly-named Irish psychedelic pop-rockers Eire Apparent. Their sole album, Sunrise, was produced by Jimi Hendrix, with whom they'd toured America for most of 1968 (along with The Soft Machine). Sunrise appeared in May 1969, rather late for music of its sort. It's pretty good, though, with some especially inventive guitar playing - but when it flopped, the band folded. Like many reformed acid rockers, Graham decided to eschew all psychedelic trappings (except drugs) and adopt a more personal and straightforward approach. Eire Apparent had been managed by Dave Robinson, who'd since established Down Home Productions, with Brinsley Schwarz and Help Yourself on its roster. 
Help Yourself and Graham played a gig together in January 1971, as this Melody Maker ad shows:

Having befriended Help Yourself's ace singer and songwriter Malcolm Morley, Graham invited the band (and members of Brinsley Schwarz) to back him on his solo album, which was recorded early in 1971 and issued that April.

It's a laid-back, good-natured collection, reminiscent (unsurprisingly) of both Brinsley Schwarz and Help Yourself, and features a few classics, such as the touching 'Sebastian' and 'Sea Fever', and the tough 'Blues For Snowy' and 'Belfast'. As original copies are rare, it has attracted a fair amount of attention from collectors, but remains unknown to many people who would probably enjoy it a lot. So (as an addendum to my Help Yourself post) I thought I'd put up a few odds and ends relating to it.

This is the original press release sent out with promo copies in April 1971:

Here's the half-page advert that appeared in the music press in April 1971, designed by 'Jeff Of 'Ello Mum':

And here's an interview that appeared in Beat Instrumental's June 1971 issue:

The album was moderately well-received but sold poorly, prompting Graham to join Help Yourself for a few months (he can be heard on their second album, Strange Affair, released in May 1972, though he'd left them at the end of 1971). On August 7th Sounds ran a piece investigating what was wrong with the Irish music scene, to which Ernie contributed a few thoughts:

He went on to form pub-rockers Clancy in mid-1973. They released a couple of LPs on Warner Bros. before he went solo again, though he only managed one 45, a cover of Phil Lynott's 'Romeo & The Lonely Girl', for Robinson's Stiff Records, in 1978. I've read that he worked as a railwayman thereafter, and was training as a counsellor when he drank himself to death in April 2001.

Help Yourself: pioneers of the West in the head

It's puzzling that Help Yourself aren’t better-known. In Malcolm Morley they had one of the UK’s better songwriters, and in Richard Treece one of its best and least showy guitarists. At a time when progressive excess and trashy glam ruled the charts, they consistently produced melodic, thoughtful and unpretentious music, yet to this day they are sadly under-appreciated. 

They got together towards the end of 1970, and were gigging by January 1971, when the live ad above appeared in Melody Maker. Between 1971 and 1973 they issued four fine albums (five, if you count Happy Days, the bonus disc that came with their last LP). Their debut was released in the UK only in April 1971, and is more West Coast-inspired than most British recordings of its era. Here's the appealing sleeve, designed by the mysterious 'Jeff of Ello Mum':

Despite a clear Neil Young influence, the album shows no desire to be hip or trendy, which accounts for a large part of why it stands up so well today. Their subsequent records have more prominent rock / jamming elements, but here the emphasis is on good-natured pop and ballads, and I like it very much. Here's the press release Liberty sent out with promo copies:

And here's the accompanying biography of the band itself:

A single was extracted from the album, but must have sold very poorly, as the copy I own is the only one I've ever heard of. Both sides, incidentally, are the same as the album versions:

A lovely half-page advert was taken out for the album in the music press, designed by the same artist who drew the front cover, credited only as 'Jeff Of 'Ello Mum':

On May 15th Record Mirror reviewed a gig at the Roundhouse, which found them supporting (of all people) Deep Purple:

Barely any reviews seem to have appeared, though Melody Maker did run an interview with the band in their May 29th 1971 issue:

Record Mirror also ran a short piece on May 29th:

ZigZag magazine was a champion of Help Yourself from the start, and as such they ran a lengthy profile of them in their May 1971 issue, which I hope no one will mind if I reproduce here:

Help Yourself also backed Ernie Graham on his fine album, which was released in April 1971 too, and about which I have put some similar material in another post.