If Kraftwerk was the Christopher Columbus of synth-pop, New York’s Silver Apples was Leif Erickson — the duo actually laid down the basics of the style in the ’60s, prefiguring that branch of krautrock by several years, but few noticed they had done so until the ’90s. Consisting of vocalist Simeon Coxe’s primitive, home-built synthesizer and Danny Taylor’s complex, idiosyncratic drum fills, the Silver Apples laid the groundwork for the electronic music which would follow, but their obscure innovations had little actual impact. It all began as a lark — Silver Apples began as a conventional psychedelic hippie quintet called the Overland Stage Electric Band until Simeon began screwing around with electronic oscillators as a way to kill time during instrumental breaks. Liking what he heard, he assembled oscillators and other electronic soundmakers into a jerry-rigged instrument he named after himself. As the Simeon’s pulses, bleeps and blurps formed increasingly complex patterns and Taylor’s drumming became more reactive to the electronics, their bandmates dropped out, leaving the Silver Apples a sui generis duo. There wouldn’t be a comparable band until Suicide appeared in New York in the early ’70s.
To be sure, electronic instruments had been in use long before the Silver Apples — although Simeon has claimed they took their band name from a Yeats poem, electronic auteur Morton Subotnick composed the groundbreaking piece/album, Silver Apples of the Moon, in 1967. The theremin was patented in 1921, and had been used in pop music, most notably by the Beach Boys. The music of Del Shannon and Joe Meek both featured prominent use of home-built electronic keyboards, while idiosyncratic jazzman Raymond Scott (of Looney Toons fame) had recorded a series of creepy synthesizer albums for children entitled Soothing Sounds for Baby (Scott’s idea of “soothing” was, to be sure, his own). Other bands, most notably the United States of America, were incorporating electronic experimentation into psychedelic music at the same time, but Silver Apples were the first to assemble complete, memorable pop songs out of the repetitive pulses and patterns of electronics.
Silver Apples is as fascinating decades after its release as it must have been puzzling in 1968. It’s an astonishing achievement, as Simeon and Taylor build a completely original sound without precedent. In its own way, Silver Apples is comparable to Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” in that listening to it is to hear an entire new vocabulary being created. But a unique sound would be less meaningful if the songs didn’t measure up, and they do. They’re very much of the late ’60s, with a hippie peace and love outlook, folk music melodies and Simeon’s fey vocals. “Oscillations,” “Seagreen Serenade,” “Whirlybird,” “Program” (which even incorporates a primitive attempt at sampling) and “Misty Mountain” are all first rate examples of melody, pulse, and Taylor’s masterful percussion, which somehow holds it all together. A truly original and classic album.
Contact follows up the debut without adding any major wrinkles to the sound, except for a bizarre (but very cool) detour into country music on a cover of Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby (Are You Mad),” a genre fusion so weird that it’s still waiting to be followed up two generations later. Contact contains “I Have Known Love,” which is arguably the band’s best song, as well as such top-notch tracks as “You and I” and “A Pox on You.” If not as striking as the debut, it’s still a great album from a fascinating, unique band. Work began on a third album, but the collapse of the band’s label, along with insignificant sales, led to the band’s demise in 1970.
Silver Apples lapsed into obscurity for the next two decades, not even well enough known to be mentioned as a historical footnote during the new wave explosion in synthesizer music, much of which had been foreseen on the Apples’ two albums. But visionaries of the next wave — Spacemen 3, Laika and Stereolab — rehabilitated the duo’s reputation as prophets. A limited-edition tribute album, Electronic Evocations (featuring Windy & Carl, Flowchart, Third Eye Foundation and others), was issued in 1997. Attention began to be paid, and the long out of print albums became collector’s items. The interest was strong enough to warrant the reissue of both albums on a single eponymous disc in 1997.
With that encouragement, Simeon — who had long since lost touch with Taylor — reformed Silver Apples with keyboardist Xian Hawkins and percussionist Michael Lerner. In 1998, the reconstituted Apples released Beacon (recorded by Steve Albini), which features re- recordings of three Apples’ classics — a muscular “I Have Found Love,” “You and I” and “Misty Mountain” — alongside eight new compositions. It’s only half successful — Simeon’s musical sense remains idiosyncratic and surprising, but his hippie-ish lyrics, even on the new songs, are hopelessly anachronistic. “Lovelights” and “Cosmic String” are worthy new additions to the catalog, but “Hocus Pocus” is just plain embarrassing.
Taylor was completely unaware of the band’s resurgence until he heard “I Have Found Love” played on the New Jersey public radio powerhouse WFMU. Impressed that anyone remembered what he had assumed to be his long-forgotten band, Taylor called to pledge money. The station contacted Simeon, who reconnected with his old cohort, who had tapes from the abandoned third album. Finding seven complete songs and seven percussion tracks, Simeon fleshed them out and completed The Garden as the duo’s belated third album. It’s nowhere near as strong as the first two, but it’s still welcome. There are further explorations of the weird country music of “Ruby,” as well as another great, more typical Apples tune, “I Don’t Care What the People Say.”
Decatur is a complete waste of time: Simeon, Hawkins and Lerner dick around for 40 or so minutes while tape rolls. Rather than experimental and innovative sonic explorations, it’s crap, nothing countless college students with access to instruments and a tape recorder haven’t been doing for years. Things threaten to get good around the half-hour mark, when it sounds like Simeon and Hawkins actually notice what the other one is doing, but that promise evaporates after 30 seconds. Perhaps fantasizing himself Lou Reed making Metal Machine Music, Simeon evidently assumes his fans would care to hear every note he commits to tape. Wrong.
Simeon and Silver Apples also collaborated with Spectrum (Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3) on A Lake of Teardrops and UK psychedelic noisemakers the Alchemysts on Simeon and the Alchemysts. Both are cut more from the experimental space-rock cloth of Decatur than the Apples’ more song oriented work. While neither are must- owns, they aren’t bad headphone music for fans of space/acid-rock.
In late 1998, just as the Silver Apples revival was picking up steam, a traffic accident left Simeon with a broken neck. He eventually recovered from his injuries, but the Silver Apples’ momentum was gone. Taylor passed away in March, 2005.