Silver Apples

Discography -- Silver Apples1994 Silver Apples/Contact (TRC)1969 Contact (Kapp)1968 Silver Apples (Kapp)It's difficult to conceive that a group such as New York's Silver Apples ever existed, let alone charted albums in Billboard and inspired portraits by Andy Warhol.Decades before Richard James considered making Aphex Twin records with rewired household appliances and years before engineer Walter/Wendy Carlos fully realized the electronic music-making potential of Robert Moog's synthesizer, the do-it-yourself Silver Apples were busily jumping their place in the historical queue with a drum kit and a bafflingly bizarre homemade noise-generating behemoth that shrieked like nothing else on earth.Today, the two eerily squelching Silver Apples studio artifacts, 1968's Silver Apples (Kapp) and 69's Contact (Kapp) - currently available only as pirate copies -- stand as the cornerstones of contemporary space rock as delineated by groups like Spectrum, Jessamine, Fuxa, Flowchart and Amp.But the scope of the Silver Apples' influence clearly reaches beyond this whirring clique to include artists as diverse as Suicide, Big Black, Laika, U.N.K.L.E., Scientists, Happy Flowers, Stereolab, Lou Barlow and the Beastie Boys. In fact, Beastie Mike Diamond is currently working to secure the rights to reissue the Silver Apples' albums legitimately on his Grand Royal label.Yet for all their crucial inspiration, the actual story of the Silver Apples has been shrouded in mystery. Who where they? Where were they from? How was their extraordinary electronic device, known as The Simeon, built? Why the mystical musings about Velvet Caves and Whirly-Birds?Some people just assumed that since band members Simeon and Danny Taylor vanished without a trace some time in 1970 and hadn't been heard from since, they must be dead. Or at least that's what Simeon discovered when he recently resurfaced in New York to find that an international cult had sprouted up in his absence."Evidently a lot of people thought I was dead," laughs Simeon in his first-ever formal interview, from a recording studio in Atlanta prior to appearing as part of the Tora Tora Tora music festival. "When I called the people at the Enraptured label, who assembled the Silver Apples tribute album Electronic Evocations, and left a message saying how appreciative I was to have my work so honoured, I got a fax the next day from the label owner saying how happy he was to hear I was alive. He was going to call the album a memorial tribute! "Until I met Xtian Hawkins from the group Moebius Strip by chance at an art show, who filled me in on all the cover bands, bootleg recordings and tribute albums, I really had no idea there was all this interest in the Silver Apples. At the time the group broke up there was so much negativity -- I mean every musician I knew hated what we did and labels didn't want anything to do with us -- that I just left The Simeon in pieces underneath a house in Mobile, Alabama, and went back to being a painter full-time. "All my early education was centred around fine art, specifically painting and sculpture. When I ran away from my New Orleans home around 1962 and came to New York, my whole idea was to be a famous painter. Of course, there were about a million artists already in New York with the exact same idea."Recognizing a surefire meal ticket when he heard it, Simeon befriended a Juilliard-schooled composer, Hal Rogers, who was earning money on the side by slumming it as a folksinger. This was the time of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Greenwich Village coffeehouse folk boom, so Simeon joined Rogers with percussion, harmony singing and hat-passing.DRUNKEN OSCILLATIONSAs it turns out, not only did Rogers steer Simeon to a career in music, but he's also responsible for turning him on to the whooping, warbling wonders of the audio oscillator on which The Simeon device is based."Hal would get bombed on vodka and grass, then tune into different radio stations and try to follow the music with his oscillator. After seeing how much fun he was having, I got loaded on grass and alcohol and we'd take turns fooling around with that oscillator."By then, Random Concept, the electrified bluegrass band I'd been singing with, had broken up, and our agent had found me a new gig as the lead vocalist in the Overland Stage Electric Band, who had a residency at Cafe Wha? They figured they were doing just fine without me, but their manager insisted because he could score them more lucrative bookings with the right front person."It wasn't a harmonious situation to begin with and it got a lot worse the night I plugged in the oscillator and started messing around with different noises in the middle of a blues jam. They just about threw me off the stage. To them it was the 'worst piece of shit sound' they'd ever heard and they wanted no part of it."At the end of the night, the club owner came by and said, 'I was just about to fire you, but that electronic stuff is great. I'll keep you on if you continue doing that.' Well, the guys really freaked then. Two members quit on the spot and the bass player followed shortly after, which left me and the drummer, Danny Taylor. That was the start of the Silver Apples."So you see," Simeon continues, "it wasn't some grand plan to be electronic music visionaries -- our bandmates quit on us and we had to do something. In retrospect, we were fortunate to fall into a crack where, in 1967 at least, no one else was working." To be honest, they didn't exactly fall. There was a great deal of thrust behind them from an awesome electronic monstrosity that was The Simeon -- a mad assortment of fat knobs, relay switches, levers, needle-jiggling meters, foot pedals and telegraph keys that Simeon could slap, kick and punch to manually control the current flow through his haphazardly soldered network of screaming oscillators. An electronic wizard? Simeon is the first to admit he doesn't have a clue what a resistor does."Everything I learned was through experimentation. I would go down to Canal Street, where you could find disused electronic equipment sitting on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes and buy radio parts, oscillators, switches and all kinds of different things for 50 cents apiece. "I'd take components apart and rebuild them in new ways, solder new parts on and mix them up just to find out what interesting effects could be created. When we hit on something that sounded good, Danny and I would work out a song around it."Around this time a well-connected New York artist named Barry Bryant stumbled upon the Silver Apples, intuitively saw their potential for dazzling weirdness and took it upon himself to nurture it to full paisley bloom. The provocative, often confounding, lyrical contributions to the Silver Apples' songbook made by Bryant's poet aquaintances, particularly Stanley Warren and Eileen Llewellyn, shouldn't be undervalued. The duo were set up in Bryant's fabulous Park Avenue penthouse and allowed to slap their instruments until their elbows ached in exchange for entertaining the art scene elite at his loft parties. It was only a matter of time before Andy Warhol arrived with entourage in tow. "Actually, Warhol even did my portrait. It was really a bribe for me to allow his protege Ultra Violet to sing with Silver Apples. We let her rehearse with us but she was so bloody awful a singer that it wasn't going to work out into another Velvet Underground and Nico thing. Nico, in her own unusual way, could sing. Ultra Violet couldn't. VELVET RIVALS"Although we remained on speaking terms with the Velvets, we came to be seen as their rivals. We were getting gigs at clubs that wouldn't book the Velvets, and Warhol hated to see a fellow artist and his band having more success than him. "I always got along well with John Cale and we found we had a shared interest in the work of John Cage. It was through Cage that I absorbed the idea that music didn't have to be a linearly structured thing -- it could be any arrangement of sound. I know it seems completely obvious today, but back in the 60s that concept was revolutionary."No less astonishing than the thought of a Silver Apples/Velvet Underground crosstown rivalry is how the shockingly unconventional Silver Apples ever got signed to the Decca label's conservative shlock-pop clearinghouse subsidiary Kapp.The Kapp label, after all, was the four-cornered home of Ruby and the Romantics, Jack Jones, the Waikikis, Burt Bacharach and lounge pianist Roger Williams -- clearly not a place you'd expect to roll out the red carpet for two unruly longhairs who thrashed at bleeping electric gizmos and composed swirly odes to pot. "Kapp was really the only label that would have us," Simeon explains. "Most of the record company executives Barry invited to come and hear us play at his loft parties ran away screaming, but for some reason Kapp's John Walsh kept coming back for more. "Eventually he suggested that we cut a demo, but Barry said, 'No demos. Either we record albums for your label or we don't.' Walsh agreed and signed us for a two-album deal with no advance money. We had to record in Kapp's own four-track studio, which was the size of a bedroom, and use the studio's engineer, who had never recorded anything but piano. Imagine his expression when I walked in carrying 13 oscillators."The label didn't have a clue of how to market us. Their idea was to get us gigs at high school auditoriums in Long Island opening for bubblegum bands like the 1910 Fruitgum Company. "But the people at Kapp at least knew we were doing something different, so they advertised our debut album as being 'music of the future' and whatever other cliches they could come up with. It must've worked, because our first album sold reasonably well. We were on Billboard's Top 100 chart for 10 weeks and began regularly playing better clubs with more critical audiences, like the Filmore East and West, Cafe Au Go Go and the Village Gate." As the Silver Apples' audience grew, so did the size of The Simeon, with more oscillators being soldered on to meet the artistic demands of the group's fast-evolving music.To meet the physical demands of creating more intricate harmonies and rhythmic interactions with drummer Danny Taylor, Simeon devised a clever color-coding system. But he failed to foresee the threat posed by the onset of the psychedelic explosion. COLOUR KEYS"When we began recording, we were not able to change chords. Our first single, Oscillations, was a one-chord song. When we added the potential for a second chord, I began colour-coding my oscillator settings. Because Danny had his drums tuned to my various settings, he could play a certain set of toms for a perfect tonal blend. We could play in the key of, say, red, and then switch over together to the key of blue. Since there were no guitar or keyboards in the band, it didn't matter what the actual key was so long as we were in tune with each other. "The more chords we required, the more oscillators and corresponding colours had to be added. All the shifting between colors got to be crazy when light shows became popular. A blue light would flash and all the blue-coded switches suddenly vanished, the yellows turned green and the reds went purple. It drove me absolutely nuts. There was no way we could ever perform under the influence of drugs -- it was already getting too complex to keep the colours straight and if something broke down I had to be ready with the soldering gun to fix it." Things began to fall apart for the Silver Apples when the Kapp label dissolved while Simeon and Taylor were ringing up a hefty studio bill at the Record Plant cutting their ill-fated third album. The sessions, their first with an outside producer, didn't go as happily as hoped. Worse still, the Record Plant wanted its $50,000 and nobody was offering to pick up the Silver Apples' tab. The reason for the group's abrupt disappearance should now be apparent. "We were sued. I'm not entirely sure of the details, but Barry suggested that we shouldn't perform in public as Silver Apples for a while and that it would be a good idea to lie low. We started hiding out to avoid being served with a summons. When everything came crashing down, it was a total surprise to Danny and me. We had been shielded from the financial dealings of the band so we could focus on the music. MISSING MONK"But Barry was prepared for the inevitable and when the smoke cleared he was living quietly as a monk somewhere in the mountains of Tibet. I don't know where Danny is now. He often talked about becoming a family man, so maybe he moved to some small town and stuck his head under a blanket." After some 25 years out of the music loop -- at first selling ice cream under an assumed name, then establishing a career as a serious painter -- Simeon is convinced the world is finally ready for the return of the Silver Apples. At last count, at least 10 prospective record labels happen to agree, so he's assembled a new version of the group with Xtian Hawkins and they're quickly getting up to performing speed.The Silver Apples' long-overdue New York reentry with guest musicians Michael Herndon and Arrow Kleeman, along with Henry Dark members Brooke Williams and Brook Bartlett, takes place at the Knitting Factory Sunday, January 19."The way Silver Apples' music is being embraced now is still a bit overwhelming to me, but I'm getting used to it. I can't adequately describe how it feels to be accepted for a change. Just to walk into a studio and have everyone there know who I am and like what I've done -- it's amazing. "Now that I'm recording again, the difficulty is to try and live up to the perceived standards set by our prior recordings. But it's a challenge that I'm ready to take on."SIDEBAR: Lou Barlow bites the ApppleThe inspiration of the Silver Apples' startling sonic innovations on the work of Sebadoh mainspring Lou Barlow is clearly displayed in the songs he recorded with John Davis as the Folk Implosion for the film soundtrack of Larry Clark's Kids (London/PolyGram). The lyrics have been changed and the tempos slowed down, but the Silver Apples derivation of a song like Nothing Gonna Stop is obvious.Yet it's Barlow and Davis who receive songwriting credits, not Silver Apples' composers Simeon and Danny Taylor. Barlow insists the Folk Implosion's songs were meant as a sincere homage."We weren't trying to get away with sampling an obscure group," explains Barlow from a New York hotel room. "We wanted everyone to know about the Silver Apples. That's why the lyrics of Nothing's Gonna Stop are made up of Silver Apples song titles like Seagreen Serenades and Water Over Velvet Caves. It was a tribute to the Silver Apples."We told the people at the London label that we sampled Silver Apples songs and they should be given credit, but the label's response was, 'No one knows who the Silver Apples are, so we don't have to give them credit.' Their whole attitude was totally lame. They said, 'Just don't say anything about the Silver Apples in interviews.'"We were appalled when we found out that London wasn't giving credit to the Silver Apples. We told them, 'We're gonna be fucked, don't you understand?' But we talked to our lawyer and made sure our contract didn't leave us liable in case of a lawsuit."There's something strangely charismatic and special about how the Silver Apples put their music together -- the way the drums work with the electronics -- which goes way beyond the songs themselves. That's why I thought our tribute idea was much better than trying to simply cover one of their songs. I suppose it would've been better still if they'd got proper credit." SIDEBAR 2: ELECTRONIC EVOCATIONS A Tribute To The Silver Apples (Enraptured) Rating: NNLet's face it, cover versions rarely stand up to the originals, and this well-meaning CD update of 1995's Electronic Evocations 10-inch EP offers no exceptions to the rule. The first big hurdle faced by contemporary space-rock bands attempting to rework Silver Apples' jams is not having access to the one-of-a-kind war-whoop generator known as The Simeon. Most groups here feebly attempt to wring a screech out of guitars or things that sound like Moog-styled devices, but they can't come close to the fearsome electro-belch of The Simeon's spaghetti-wired oscillator circuits. Even if they could, none of the groups on tap -- whispering softies like Windy and Carl, Tranquil and Scaredycat -- have the human chugging power of Danny Taylor available to set up the essential man/machine struggle at the core of the Silver Apples sound.You get none of the Silver Apples' earnest soul drip or whimpering paranoia interspersed with jocular oom-pah runs, banjo plinking and pointless radio cross-talk, just flat ghost prints where giants once stepped.Hold out for Enraptured's forthcoming release of the Silver Apples' new Fractal Flow seven-inch featuring sleeve art courtesy of Andy Warhol. - TP

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