Friday, 28 May 2021

Silver Apples ‎– Silver Apples (1968)

Style: Psychedelic Rock, Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Kapp Records, Rotorelief

01.   Oscillations
02.   Seagreen Serenades
03.   Lovefingers
04.   Program
05.   Velvet Cave
06.   Whirlybird
07.   Dust
08.   Dancing Gods
09.   Misty Mountain
10.   Fractal Flow

Electronics, Banjo, Vocals – Simeon
Percussion – Dan Taylor
Remastered By – Silver Apples

At the start of 1969, Silver Apples had the world at their feet. The New York duo of Simeon Coxe and Danny Taylor had released a pioneering debut album, collaborated with Jimi Hendrix and played Central Park to tens of thousands of people. Their second LP was due imminently. Yet weeks later, the album was pulled, they were banned from performing and found themselves ousted and ostracised from the music industry.

“It ruined us,” recalls Coxe, now 80, from his Alabama home. “It was heartbreaking.”

To understand just what happened involves taking a trip right back to the beginning. Before Silver Apples, Coxe and Taylor had both been members of another rock group, the Overland Stage Electric Band, but when Coxe incorporated the sounds of an oscillator into what they were playing, it didn’t go down well with bandmates. “They hated it,” says Coxe. “When the venue manager said we should play more oscillator it pissed them all off so much they quit. Except Danny.”

Their manager Barry Bryant loaned them his loft space and they locked themselves away for months, fiddling with bits of semi-broken electrical equipment. They combined the unpredictable bleeps produced with Taylor’s deeply hypnotic, looping drumbeats and Coxe’s fragile vocals. The result was an innovative blend of psychedelic-tinged electronic rock.

Without realising, Coxe had built his own eccentric synthesiser. This idiosyncratic set-up soon mutated into a machine nicknamed “the Simeon”, which grew to consist of nine audio oscillators with 86 manual controls – including telegraph keys – to control lead, rhythm and bass pulses with the user’s hands, feet and elbows. It also included radio parts, lab gear and a variety of secondhand electrical items. “I had heard the word synthesiser, but I had no idea what it was,” Coxe says. “We were dirt poor and used what we had, which was often discarded world war two gear.” Coxe’s creation was so outlandish that Moog creator Robert Moog came to the studio one day to investigate.

Bryant was a hustler and a schmoozer. He directed a stream of A&R people to his loft to hear this new electronic space-rock that echoed from it night and day. “Most ran out with their hands over their ears,” Coxe says. For their first gig, Bryant scored them a slot playing in Central Park to 30,000 people. “I was scared to death,” Coxe remembers. “Every time I look at that picture I shudder. We had no idea if our equipment was going to work and the audience were just staring at us.”

Soon, an A&R from Kapp records liked them enough to sign them and a self-titled debut was released in 1968. It predates Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach and White Noise’s An Electrical Storm, two watershed moments for electronic music, and sounds like a Can album, even though the krautrock pioneers had yet to put a record out at that point. “It never sounded weird to me,” Coxe reflects. “We weren’t intending to be futuristic. We were just kids playing and making pop music.”

During the recording of their second album, Contact, they found themselves sharing studio space with Jimi Hendrix, who Taylor used to play with. Both were due to perform versions of the Star Spangled Banner for Fourth of July shows, so they jammed and recorded their own trippy version.

For Contact, Kapp’s advertising agency had the idea of combining two clients: Pan Am, the airline, and Silver Apples. The band would get free access to aircraft for a photoshoot and Pan Am’s logo could be displayed – a win-win scenario. Except that it would sink the band. The front cover shows the pair in the cockpit with drug paraphernalia while in the reverse image they sit among the wreckage of a plane crash. “Somebody at Pan Am took offence even though it was all signed off,” Coxe says. “They said, ‘This isn’t free publicity, it’s damaging.’”

A judge ordered an injunction to have the records pulled from shelves. Kapp suffered financially and had to fire staff, and as part of the injunction the band were forbidden to perform as it was classified as promoting the album. “The whole operation was shut down,” Coxe recalls. At one show, city marshals showed up and covered the stage in police tape. “We freaked out and packed up my equipment but they got wise and confiscated Danny’s drums.”

The band had already recorded a third album on spec, but found they were personae non gratae. “The labels treated us like we had leprosy,” Coxe says. “We couldn’t get anyone to even listen to it. The big, bad evil legal gremlin had got in and destroyed an art form.”

A dispirited Coxe packed up and headed to Alabama, where his family lived. In just a few months he had gone from being a signed and touring musician to driving an ice-cream truck. “I thought, if I can’t be a Silver Apple then I don’t want to play music. Coxe buried Silver Apples deep into the dark corners of his memory. “I pretty much forgot about it,” he says. “I figured it was a failed experiment that would never be resurrected.”

Almost 20 years later he got a call. A friend in New York heard his CD in an art gallery. “What CD?” asked Coxe. A German bootleg copy, it turned out. Silver Apples’ mythical story and otherworldly music had developed a cult following. That same year, 1996, a tribute album was released and Coxe even had to deal with an imposter. A musician in San Francisco was performing his songs, with oscillators on the street, as Silver Apples. “It was a very strange time,” he recalls. “I was signing autographs on bootlegs of my own music.”

Coxe and Taylor began playing and releasing music as Silver Apples again, although Coxe had to rebuild the Simeon after he lost most of it in Hurricane Frederic in 1979. The unreleased third album, The Garden, finally saw the light of day in 1998 but, just as the duo’s good luck seemed to be gaining momentum, a dose of the bad struck again. Their tour van was forced off the road and Coxe broke his neck in the accident. “I was told I would never walk again,” he says. “I rejected that mentally and went into all the programmes available and got my physical strength back. It took two years before I could feel my feet again.”

Just when Coxe had recovered enough to re-enter Silver Apples’ world, his musical partner Taylor died in 2005. Coxe pressed on regardless and built a new set-up that worked around his diminished mobility. He chose to sample Taylor’s drums rather than replace him.

By this stage, the world had finally caught up. Silver Apples were loved by, and had influenced, countless bands including Stereolab, Spiritualized and Portishead. Sean Lennon even informed Coxe his father, John, had been a big fan. Portishead invited them to play the ATP festival they curated in 2007 and their 2008 album, Third, featured We Carry On, an unashamed homage to the band. Portishead’s Adrian Utley had discovered them years earlier. “He said: ‘you have to check this out’,” remembers Geoff Barrow of the group. “And I was like: ‘Fucking hell, this is amazing.’ For people like us, they are the perfect band. Silver Apples were a pathway to Portishead. They should definitely be up there with the pioneers of electronic music.”

Coxe continues to perform and tour as Silver Apples. He released a new album in 2016, and a release for Record Store Day on 13 April is due next month. Despite a lifetime of turbulence and rotten luck, he insists the good times far outweigh the bad. Even 50 years on from the moment that sent his career into the wilderness for nearly two decades, he refuses to have any regrets. “No,” he says. “Not one.” 

 Daniel Dylan Wray / The Guardian

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