The Silver Apples are one of those groups that sit in the corner, just waiting to be discovered. Their singles flopped and still don’t get played today, and their only modicum of chart success was when their first album just barely scraped the Billboard Top 100. But like Neu!, they always seem to inspire that “this happened when?” reaction. I remember hearing one of their songs (“Oscillations”) over the PA while waiting for Dan Deacon to take the stage, and I was overwhelmed by how modern and funky it still sounded (“surely this must be a remix”, I thought, but when I went home and put it on…nope, that was it). From time to time they get referenced as the first electronic pop band, which I think oversells it a bit, but there is a point there. You just didn’t hear sounds like that on a pop record back then, and quite frankly there’s nothing that sounds like the Silver Apples even today, given how the band came to be. They were borne out of a five-piece rock combo called The Overland Stage Electric Band, which was a five-piece until Simeon Coxe alienated nearly every one of them by bringing a 40’s audio oscillator on stage with him. As band members started quitting, Coxe piled more and more oscillators on top of each other to compensate, until eventually all that was left was Coxe, the drummer Danny Taylor, and this unholy contraption called The Simeon, a custom-built mess of circuits and manual controls that frequently malfunctioned, often leaving Coxe to sing in whatever random key the Simeon had put itself in.
Because this was the 60’s, the band was fairly successful, leading them to a contract with Kapp Records. They were psychedelic and free, and they sounded like no other band on the planet. But as strange as they were, they were really not all that difficult, rooting themselves in somewhat simple pop songs, the sort which you could even play yourself. Their self-titled debut album has “hidden gem” painted all over it, as it really is a fine pop album with two very distinct wildcard elements. One of course is the oscillators; the constant beeping and whirring that somehow form into a clanky melody of sorts. The other is Danny Taylor, who is a real beast of a drummer, nearly always in freakout mode even when the songs don’t call for it. Listen to “Seagreen Serenades” – it’s a pretty folk song at its core, and yet Taylor plays like he’s auditioning for some breakbeat record 30 years in the future. Gotta love it. As for Simeon’s voice, all I can say is it’s the sort of voice that one can only imagine working the 60’s; a bit croaky but he handles the melodies well. The Silver Apples always had that mad genius aura about them and Simeon certainly sounds the part.
Taken altogether, there is a weird sort of tension about their music. “Lovefingers” has one of those noisy climaxes that a lot of rock songs do, but given the instrumentation it just sounds like you’re onboard a severely malfunctioning submarine. Certainly it is not unusual to hear bands incorporate vintage electronics or other odd sound bites in their work (particularly in the 90’s, where “alternative” bands like Soul Coughing did stuff like this all the time), but here, it’s nothing but. Just looped test tones, unsettling whirling noises, and drum rhythms that sound like they were intended for another song. This is not a knock on the record, of course – Taylor is such a dynamo that you can focus on him entirely (“Velvet Cave”), and the songs are generally good enough to make the thing worth multiple listens. Granted the album does go off the deep end on Side 2, with the dark and formless “Dust” and the Native American ritual “Dancing Gods”. Face it, you knew this album was going to get weird at some point. But it does pick right back up on the final track “Misty Mountain”, maybe the closest thing to a real-live single the album’s got. At 32 minutes there’s not much time to waste, and as such the album still comes off quite solid to me. My favorite track on here is “Program”, which has such a monstrous groove to it, plus it samples random snippets off the radio, which is always a cool gimmick. But take your pick…”Oscillations”, “Seagreen Serenades”, “Whirly-Bird”, “Misty Mountain”…classic, classic, classic, classic.
The second album came eight months later. Like many a hastily-recorded sophomore album, it is not quite as captivating and it’s a bit light on the songwriting, but it is better in some ways. While the first album was mostly done “live” with a 4-track, this one feels a bit more professional and has a cleaner sound. If nothing else, there are less moments where the band members fall out of time with the bloopy machine. Plus, Simeon figured out how to get pitch his machine up to sound kinda like an organ in spots, which I guess is neat. As a result, this does not quite have the personality that the first album did, but it’s still plenty odd, mostly due to Coxe’s writing making a turn for the atonal and experimental. Listen as “You and I” careens all over the place, using a melodic squiggle somewhat akin to a “low battery” warning. Or “You’re Not Foolin’ Me”, which includes the sound of a phone ringing off the hook for its entire 6-minute runtime. Or the closing “Fantasies”, a straight-up jam with a bunch of improvised asides from Simeon (“I can’t read my own writing…”) and a spot where the band randomly starts playing “Ring Around the Rosie”. Most of these tracks are barely even proper songs. There is also a banjo for some reason (“Ruby”, “Confusion”), which, like a lot of the odd choices on this record, comes across as a way to add a new dimension to the band’s sound, as one would expect from a second album.
That said, to me Contact is mostly notable for “I Have Known Love”, which is not only their best song but also a crystallization of everything this group did well. Jarring electronic noise clashes against a pitch-perfect pop song, complete with those sort of brain-melting chord changes that every songwriter dreams of. It is one of those songs that deserves its own little shelf in the shrine of electronic music history, and frankly it’s a bit surprising that it didn’t catapult them to more widespread success. Instead, Contact wound up killing the Apples’ career, for a rather oddball reason – the cover art. The front cover shows the bleary-eyed band members flying a Pan Am jet, while the back showed the aftermath of a plane crash, with Simeon sitting on a log, strumming a banjo. Funny, right? Well, some executive at Pan Am didn’t think so, bringing a lawsuit against Kapp Records, and by extension the band members themselves, which resulted in a cease-and-desist order being levied against the band. Kapp was forced to drop the band, and no label would touch them. As such, a mostly-completed 3rd album called The Garden was indefinitely shelved, and both Coxe and Taylor found themselves needing to get real jobs. And such was the end of the Silver Apples. But stay tuned…