Psych album of the week: Silver Apples (1968)

Bands like Suicide and later, Stereolab and Portishead, all profess their admiration for Silver Apples and their DIY electronic approach

Silver-Apples

Simeon Coxe's synthesizer was a tinkerer's wet dream. It was capable of generating a huge range of moods from malevolent unease to pastoral bliss. It perfectly suited its operator.

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In the late 1960s, John Lennon hailed Silver Apples as “the next thing”. NYC’s mayor called the band “the sound of New York”. They were also sometimes jam-buddies with Jimi Hendrix. 

The duo released sophisticated and influential electronic pop music with little more than a collection of WWII-era oscillators; a primitive, homemade interface; and an open-minded drummer.

Despite these accolades and high-powered admirers, however, Silver Apples were defunct by 1970. The band’s experimental sound bears part of the blame. More devastating was a lawsuit launched against them by Pan-Am for a controversial album cover that featured their logo.

The Apples later became a good old-fashioned comeback story. They resumed touring and recording activity in 1996, after nearly three decades away from the music industry. 

New York’s underground scene

The band started their live career in front of 30,000 people in Central Park. This happened thanks to a series of events planned to provide an alternative to anti-Vietnam protests that were becoming undesirable for the city. Vocalist/synthesizer operator Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor quickly became a part of New York’s underground scene. They would often play free outdoor concerts hosted by the city.

Until then, most experimental electronic music found an audience among academics and classical audiences. The Apples, however, found themselves more in tune with young rock fans. 

Their self-titled debut opens with the pulsing “Oscillations”, built on a repeating bass register figure and jazzy, tribal drum patterns. Coxe’s vocals celebrate the means by which analogue synthesizers generate their sound as a metaphor for enlightenment. “Spinning, magnetic fluctuations/Waves of waves configurations/That dance between the poles of sound/And bind my world to soul”. 

Simeon Coxe’s “The Thing”

“Program” tunes into random radio stations throughout via “The Simeon”. This was Coxe’s unique synthesizer, also known as “The Thing”. The band sets off on a bouncy cut-time groove that matches the beer-hall accordion-fest tune they found. When performing live the band would ask the audience for the frequency of their favourite local station. They would then integrate whatever was on-air at the time into this number. Coxe explains that “randomly throwing the dial back and forth and hitting the different stations was part of the concept of that song.”

“Velvet Cave” begins with a sequencer-like arpeggiated pattern which Coxe would almost certainly have played live. According to the liner notes, Coxe’s sonic contraption consisted of “nine audio oscillators and 86 manual controls… The lead and rhythm oscillators are played with the hands, elbows and knees and the bass oscillators are played with the feet”. 

“Dust” is a down-beat affair, with low drones, despairing chant-like vocals and cymbal washes. “Dust of love squeezed dry/Hateful fingers strangled joy/Self-made love as bare as bone/Dropped down to dusty morning”.

A record of their flower-power times

The album ends with “Misty Mountain” and its chirpy feel, organ-like blooms, and proto-new age lyrics. “Are you are you, here with me upon this misty mountain?/Gold is dripping from your hair as pearls fall in a fountain/Truth is streaming from your eyes, silver strands of smiles/Are you are you, here with me and did you count the miles?”

If played on conventional keyboard instruments (which, fascinatingly, Coxe never learned to play) the songs on Silver Apples would hold up today as a record of their idealistic, flower-power times. The band had a not-so-secret weapon, though. Namely, the innovative sonic textures conjured from their keystone instrument. 

The synthesizer was a tinkerer’s wet dream. It was capable of generating a huge range of moods from malevolent unease to pastoral bliss. It perfectly suited its operator, though. Faced with such a custom-built instrument, most traditional keyboardists would almost certainly not know where to begin to produce any sound at all.

That Silver Apples were able to craft such forward-looking music with such unusual instrumentation, however, is a credit to their artistry and imagination.

Bands like Suicide and later, Stereolab and Portishead, all profess their admiration for Silver Apples and their DIY electronic approach. Moreover, the Black Angels included Silver Apples in their 2010 and 2013 Austin Psych Fest lineups as proof of their enduring appeal. 

A prank that went astray

Retrospectively discussing the lawsuit that ended the band, Coxe had the following to say: “”That was just a prank that kinda went astray… We didn’t mean any harm by it, but a lot of people were really pissed off. Pan Am wanted their logo on the airplane up front because they thought it would be free publicity for the airline. But on the back it was a picture of a European airplane crash and Pan Am of course felt like we were saying that their airplane had crashed. The whole thing was just misunderstood and misread by everybody.

“They sued us, big‑time. They sued Kapp Records, they sued us as a band, they sued us personally, they sued our management, they got some judge in New York to issue a cease‑and‑desist on us performing. All the records had to be taken off the shelves in all of the record stores. They put some sort of a lien on our equipment and they actually came to a club where we were playing and confiscated Danny’s drums. Fortunately, my stuff wasn’t there. That photograph led to the lawsuit that broke the band up. No record label would touch us from that point on. That was the end of Silver Apples.”

Sonic psych-out

“Seagreen Serenades” begins with a drum part that sounds to modern ears like a sampled and looped break in a hip-hop number. Until, that is, the vocals come in with their vintage vibe. At that point you realize this was a live drummer being recorded playing this part in real time after all. 

Trippiest lyrics

“The jangled snarl of every day/Unwound and fixed upon the board/Where parts and wholes together lash/Component dreams and slabs of light/All fused within the silver globe/That swirls on top of my whirly-bird”  (“Whirly-Bird”)

In their own words

“It’s extremely rewarding as an artist that the documents of activity that I did all those years ago are being thought of as references by other musicians” (Simeon Coxe)

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