I was delighted and a little taken aback to see that pioneers of electronic music, Silver Apples, will be playing at The Cavern in Exeter on 3rd August. The Cavern is a venue more attuned to hosting local punk bands and heavy metal nights (I’m not putting it down – just not my cup of tea) so the appearance of an act with such international cult status is a startling departure. The Silver Apples take their name from Yeats’ poem The Silver Apples of the Moon, which was also the title of composer Morton Subotnick’s (not to be confused with Amicus producer Milton Subotsky) 1967 piece of electronic music. This was produced on the early modular Buchla synthesiser, which was operated by touch sensitive pads rather than a keyboard. It also featured a primitive sequencer, which Subotnick used extensively on the recording, and the resultant rhythmically pulsating tonalities anticipated aspects of the Silver Apples sound. Subotnick’s music reached a wide audience through its release on Elektra subsidiary Nonesuch records (whose founder Jac Holzman had commissioned the piece). It no doubt reached the ears of one Simeon Coxe III, who was playing in a band in East Village, New York. He began to experiment with his own knocked-together electronic equipment, hooking up oscillators to pedals and switches, and incorporating the resulting sounds into the live performances. His bandmates were evidently of a more traditionally rockist persuasion, and it wasn’t long before only Cox and drummer Danny Taylor were left. They decided to make a virtue of such limited means, and it was at this point that the Yeats/Subotnick appellation was adopted.
Oscillating - Simeon and the SimeonThe first, self-titled LP, released in 1968, began with the song Oscillations, which was essentially a manifesto and statement of intent. Over the pulsations of the oscillators and the spiralling repetitions of Taylor’s drumming, Simeon sang ‘oscillations, oscillations/electronic evocations/of sound’s reality/spreading magnetic fluctuations/waves of waves, configurations/the folds of sound combining web to song’ (I may have misheard that last bit). The lyrics on the album are written by Warren Stanley, Eileen Lewellen and Simeon himself, and are redolent of local Greenwich Village poetics. They are rather of their time, but if you make allowances for that and don’t pay them undue attention they add an array of associative colours to the songs. Simeon became known by his first name alone, ditching the Coxe and its ancestral enumeration, and he also applied the name (with definite article attached) to his ever-growing agglomeration of oscillators, filters, pedals and switches. The oscillators stacked up and eventually reached a critical mass when 12 had been conjoined. Together, they provided a one man band of bass lines and driving rhythms, with one left free for ‘lead’ playing (as Simeon enthusiastically demonstrates in the photo). They were unlike other contemporary groups who used electronic sounds, such as The United States of America, who tended to incorporate them into a more standard rock sound. The combination with Taylor’s looping, locked groove drumming anticipated some of the defining sounds of Krautrock , and sounds at times uncannily like Can (if you see what I mean). The guitarless, stripped down electronics plus rhythm duo, so unnatural for the time in which bands had become the fixed form, looked forward to groups like Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire and the early Soft Cell (Memorabilia in particular).
The electronic sounds are leavened slightly on the first LP by a bit of melodic recorder on Seagreen Serenades, and, bizarrely enough, by some banjo on the 2nd LP Contact. The song Ruby, a collision of bluegrass and electronic psyche rock, is as bizarre as anything which came out of the psychedelicised American music scene in the latter part of the sixties. The track Program on the first LP also makes extensive use of sampling from the radio. This is an adaptation of ideas explored by John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape 4, from 1951, which was ‘composed’ for 12 radios, the score dictating the manner of their tuning. Here, such chance procedures are incorporated into a skewed pop song about listening to the radio. Whether the snatches of programmes included were indeed the product of chance (and I’d like to think they were), or were more consciously selected I don’t know. Nor indeed whether it was indeed a conscious homage to Cage (or whether Simeon was even conscious of the piece at all). It provides a neat bridge between the worlds of pop and avant-garde classical music, anyway, and it’s an interesting track whatever its provenance.
Meet the pilots - Contact coverThe second LP, Contact, adds a wah-wah pedal to the Simeon’s sound mix, and the restraint and single-minded minimalism of the first LP is left behind in favour of a wilder sound; a howling electronic storm which doubtless sent the needles on the oscillators fluctuating madly. On the first LP, Simeon sings in a pleasant light, fluting baritone. By Contact, his voice has developed more of the traditionally aggressive rock delivery and strained vocal anguish. The LP finishes with a track called Fantasies, a playful song in which the recording process is laid bare. Simeon comments on his fumbled lyrics, and announces his intention to change chords several times in an almost cabaret-style ‘wait for it, wait for it’ fashion. The cover art of Contact features Simeon and Taylor in full freak flowering, looking back over their shoulders from the cockpit of a Pan Am airplane. It would be a worrying sight for any passengers glimpsing their pilots before take-off. The LP opens with the sound of a plane roaring overhead, blending into the panic signals provided by high-pitched oscillators sounding the alarm siren. The song, You And I (in no way resembling the Yes song And You And I), goes on to evoke the frantic and enervating rush and noise of modern life in sound and lyrics. Pan Am were apparently distinctly unamused by the back cover of Contact, which depicted Simeon and Taylor sitting and playing the banjo amongst the wreckage of a crash site, and expressed their displeasure through litigation. This played its part in bringing the Apples’ flight down to the ground for the time being.
Like many pioneering acts, it took a while for their innovations to be acknowledged, absorbed and adopted. The Silver Apples awoke from their slumber in the latter half of the 90s. Simeon initially worked in collaboration with various artists, and made an album of new material, Beacon, recorded with Steve Albini and released in 1997. Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) also made a record with Simeon, A Lake of Teardrops, and thus provided a link with the Radiophonic Workshop, pioneers of electronic music making and makeshift instrument construction from the other side of the pond; Kember had located Delia Derbyshire and coaxed her into musical collaboration in her later years. Decatur is an interesting LP from this era, the edited-down product of a lengthy improvisatory session, and a chance to hear Simeon’s electronics in a more freeform, vocal-free context. Simeon was re-united with Taylor in 1998, and the Silver Apples once more took on their original configuration. Taylor had turned up the tapes for their unreleased 3rd LP, The Garden, which finally saw the light of day. Simeon added some contemporary touches to Taylor’s drum demo recordings, making it a reflective collaboration across the decades. John Peel had always been a fan, and the Apples played at the Meltdown Festival which he curated on London’s South Bank in 1998.
It was during one of their tours in this busy year that their van was forced off the road by an unknown driver. Simeon suffered serious injuries – his neck was broken and he only learned to walk again after several years of physical therapy. He never wholly regained his motor skills, and of necessity went back to the more minimalist, streamlined style of the first LP when he did finally return to music. Taylor passed away in 2005, leaving Simeon to continue the Silver Apples as a solo and collaborative venture. A new LP, made with various musicians, is apparently due next year, as is the documentary film ‘Play Twice Before Listening’, extracts of which will be screened at The Cavern. It’s definitely a tale worth telling. I look forward to both hearing and seeing the Simeon (man and machine) in action.