Feted by Andy Warhol, ill-fated by Pam Am, but revered by musical free-thinkers across the globe, the remarkable story of SILVER APPLES is testimony to the endurance of the human spirit. PUSH meets Silver Apple Simeon Coxe in 2012
There was no such thing as an electronic music scene when Silver Apples started out. We’re talking 1967, New York City. So Silver Apples, who made some mightily odd noises, usually got lumped in with The Velvet Underground and the other trippy, arty, experimental psychedelic rock groups playing around New York at the time. As it goes, the Velvets’ mentor Andy Warhol was a big Silver Apples fan and tried to hook the band up with Ultra Violet, one of his leading ladies at The Factory, in the same way he’d hooked the Velvets up with Nico, but the would-be union got no further than a couple of rehearsals.
Silver Apples weren’t much like The Velvet Underground, though. They weren’t much like anyone. When they played their first gig – in front of 30,000 people at a huge festival in Central Park – the people jammed close enough to the tiny stage to get a good look couldn’t believe what they were seeing. There were just two guys up there, Simeon Coxe and Danny Taylor, and they sat side by side, Simeon behind a big table packed with electronic jiggery-pokery and Danny behind what looked like two or three drumkits pulled together into some sort of percussion monster. They only had a few songs, but the crowd went hippy-go-go-gyrating-crazy for the swoops and drones and wobbles and thrums and bleeps that spun out and spiralled up and soared over the tom-tom heavy rhythms. The reviews that followed in the underground press over the next few days positively twinkled.
From that first gig, it was clear that Simeon and Danny were a unique musical entity. Much of the interest in the group centred on Simeon’s strange homemade instrument, which consisted of more than a dozen oscillators, plus various effects boxes and guitar pedals and tone controls and bits of old radios. Some of the oscillators were wired through telegraph keys and used to make pulsating rhythmic bleeps, others were tuned to bass notes and wired to switches on a board which Simeon played with his feet. The main oscillator meanwhile provided the dramatic sonic swoops. To begin with, Simeon simply piled everything up on a table. Later on, he had it all boxed into a single unit. The press dubbed the instrument “The Simeon”, but Simeon never called it that himself. He just called it “the thing”.
Simeon is still playing today, still gigging and occasionally recording under the Silver Apples name. These days, Silver Apples is a one-man band, though. He was a special guest at an All Tomorrow’s Parties event in New Jersey a couple of years ago, appearing onstage with Portishead and teaming up with Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster/Kluster to perform as Silver Qluster. He’s still got The Simeon too. It’s been modified and re-built several times over the years, but it still sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
The story of Silver Apples is also probably like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Because what happened to Simeon Coxe and Danny Taylor, well, let me tell you, that really is a saga and a half.
Simeon Coxe was raised in New Orleans and pitched up in New York when he was 18. He had hopes of being an artist, but he became distracted by the Greenwich Village music scene and soon found himself singing in a covers band called the Overland Stage Electric Band. It was good fun, although not creatively satisfying. But things got more interesting the night he brought along an oscillator he’d been given by a friend and added some electronic weirdness to the set.
“The other guys in the band hated it,” he chuckles. “I mean, they really hated it. The exception was Danny, the drummer. He said he liked it too. So when the other guys up and quit, he said he wanted to stay with it. That’s how Silver Apples got started.”
Simeon spent the next little while rummaging around boxes in the dusty corners of electronic surplus stores on the hunt for oscillators. Some of oscillators were ex-military hardware and he could generally pick them up for a couple of bucks. Half of them didn’t work, so he’d strip them out and use the parts to fix another one. It wasn’t that he was some sort of electronic wizard, though. He says he didn’t know anything about electronics back then – “I’d smoke a doobie and hook stuff up and see what happened” – and he doesn’t know much more about it now. And every time Simeon bought another oscillator, Danny would buy another couple of tom-toms, and they’d set to writing themselves another song.
The first Silver Apples album came out on Kapp Records in 1968. It was simply called ‘Silver Apples’. The opening cut, ‘Oscillations’, which was the first song Simeon and Danny ever wrote, was released as a single and became the group’s signature tune. The pulsating bleeps, wobbly bassline, rattling snare and rolling toms are typical Silver Apples, as is Simeon’s gentle, almost folky vocals. Elsewhere on the album, his voice edges on bluegrass, which is the kind of music he’d grown up with in New Orleans. Silver Apples isn’t always an easy listen, it takes some effort to tune in what’s going on, but the critics loved it and the record scraped into the Billboard album charts, while ‘Oscillations’ hit the Top 10 list in a number of cities across the US.
The following year, Silver Apples put out a second album, ‘Contact’. For the front cover, the pair were photographed sitting in the cockpit of a Pan Am aircraft, with the airline company’s logo clearly visible on the instrument panel. The Pan Am marketing department approved the shot, but it seems they didn’t bother flipping the album over. So it was only after the record had been out for a month that someone at Pan Am saw the picture of a crashed aeroplane on the back cover. Cue mass sackings in the marketing department and a cease and desist order on the distribution and sale of the album from Pan Am’s heavyweight lawyers. Kapp Records didn’t have the brawn to fight it and the album disappeared from the record stores overnight. Not content with that, Pan Am hit Simeon and Danny with personal lawsuits and, like in an old wild west movie, pretty much ran them out of town.
“Pan Am got a judge to issue some sort of restraining order on the band performing the songs from the album,” says Simeon. “They got the New York City marshals to come down to a gig we were playing at Max’s Kansas City and confiscate the stuff from us off the stage. We were about to go up and play and here come the marshals, acting like we were at the centre of a crime scene or something. We managed to get most of my gear boxed and out the back of the building, but the marshals were standing on the stage, not letting us get near the drums. That was it, man. Danny lost his drums to the marshals.
“After that, nobody would hire us. We’d recorded our third album, but nobody would touch it. Kapp were through with us and nobody else in the record industry wanted anything to do with us. I think they thought if they signed us, all that Pan Am crap would come along with us. We were like lepers.”
After a few months out in the wilderness, Simeon and Danny decided to quit the music business – “If we couldn’t be Silver Apples, we didn’t want to play music any more, so neither of us did” – and went their separate ways. Simeon headed back down south, to Mobile, Alabama, about 100 clicks down the coast from New Orleans. His parents and his brother had moved there a short time earlier. For a while he drove an ice cream truck. Then he worked as a newspaper and television journalist for many years. Danny meanwhile took a job as a telephone repair man and later became a salesman for a hospital bed manufacturer.
As time rolled on, the pair completely lost touch with each other. Simeon’s passion for music waned – krautrock and synthpop and house music and techno all passed him by – and he took up sailing as a hobby, racing boats in the Gulf of Mexico and winning lots of cups along the way. Then one day in the mid 1990s, on a trip to New York, he walked into an art gallery and was astonished to hear the Silver Apples playing through the sound system. It was the first time he’d heard the songs in around 20 years.
What the art gallery was playing was a bootleg CD of the two Silver Apples albums. Simeon was understandably upset that his work had been ripped off, but the bootleg reawakened interest in the group at a time when electronic music was bigger than ever before, and it wasn’t long before he was getting calls from artists wanting him to play with them and remix them and cover Silver Apples tracks. With the help of a young multi-instrumentalist called Xian Hawkins, Simeon resurrected the Silver Apples name, undertook several tours of America and Europe and released two albums in quick succession, ‘Beacon’ (produced by noise rock bigwig Steve Albini) and ‘Decatur’ (which consisted of just one track). Then in 1998, right out of nowhere, he got a call from a radio station telling him they’d tracked down Danny Taylor.
“That was wonderful, that was amazing,” says Simeon. “Danny and I got together to play and it was like we’d never stopped. Someone rented him some drums and I took my gear up to his place and we set up in his living room. I said, ‘OK, what do you wanna do?’ and he said, ‘Let’s start where we started, let’s start with ‘Oscillations”. So that’s what we did. It had been nearly 30 years, but it was like we’d played the night before at Max’s Kansas City. I’d been out there playing for a while by then, so I was back up to speed, but Danny hadn’t. It didn’t matter. He didn’t miss a lick.”
Within days, Simeon and Danny had got themselves a booking agent, who set about arranging some Silver Apples reunion shows in New York. It turned out that Danny had a rough dub of the unreleased third Silver Apples album, ‘The Garden’, which the pair reworked and made ready for release. By this time, the gigs were coming in. But they’d played just three shows when disaster struck the band once again. After leaving a gig at The Cooler in New York, their van was involved in a serious accident when it was forced off the road by another vehicle. Simeon broke his neck in two places. That he survived at all was a wonder. When the ambulance showed up, he wasn’t breathing and he didn’t have a heartbeat.
Simeon spent a long time in recovery. For a while, the doctors didn’t have much hope of him ever walking again. But two years down the line, he was able to start playing music once more. By this point, though, Danny was in poor health, having been diagnosed with a muscle degenerative illness. Simeon says Danny had suffered muscle stiffness and soreness his entire life and wonders if the road accident may have aggravated an existing condition. So in the event, despite Simeon’s recovery, that gig at The Cooler in 1998 was the last time the two of them played together. Danny died as a result of a heart attack in 2005, by which time he was confined to a wheelchair.
These days, Simeon lives in a little town not far from Mobile overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. He still does a lot of sailing – “I still kick ass on the race course,” he laughs – but right now being the one and only Silver Apple is taking up a big chunk of his time. He’s just about to take the covers off The Simeon in readiness for a series of Silver Apples dates in Europe. He’s also talking about recording new material and maybe hooking up with Portishead again at some stage.
Inevitably when speaking to Simeon, one of the main topics of conversation is The Simeon. I ask him what happened to the instrument during all the time he was out of the business. Where did he keep it? Did he ever wheel it out and play it?
“I never did that,” he says. “I had it shipped to Mobile when the band stopped. I had it packed up in boxes and I stored it in my brother’s basement. But then in 1979, a hurricane flooded the entire area. The main oscillator was in the house and that was OK, but the rest of it went out into the Gulf of Mexico. It just floated out there and was gone. So when I started working with Xian Hawkins, I had to build it up again from scratch.”
What was the original Simeon like to play? It looks like it was a total body experience. It also looks like it might have been kind of dangerous.
“I’ve been shocked more than enough, I can tell you. I had to be taken to hospital one time. I took a line of voltage. I was rolling around on the stage, like I was having a fit. Danny thought it was part of the act. He thought that was funny. But, yeah, it was dangerous in a way. There’s a lot of electricity flowing through that thing. I made smoke a few times. I’d solder something together and turn it on to see what it would do and – phuffftt – it would start a little fire.
“When I played the thing back then, yeah, I used to have everything going – hands, feet, elbows. It was the only way. Even when we were recording. We wanted the songs to sound the same on record as they did live, so we kept it simple. There’s very little overdubbing on those records. I mean, there really was only so much I could do and I couldn’t put anything on automatic pilot. There was no automatic pilot. You know, the first time I was introduced to a sequencer, which was in the 90s, I thought it was a damned miracle.”
Since the road accident, Simeon has never fully regained the feeling in his hands and feet. He has had to alter The Simeon to take account of his physical limitations, but advances in music technology over recent years have helped him achieve this relatively easily. He uses a sequencer for bass samples now, so he can focus on just three or four oscillators rather than having to think about controlling anything up to 16 of them at a time, and he no longer has to play oscillators with his feet. He uses his feet to trigger effects instead, which means he is now able to stand up when he performs, and that’s something he says he’d always wished he could do back in the day.
“For a long time after the accident, I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” he says. “Even now, it’s not easy. I mean, I still stumble a lot just walking around. If I pick something up that’s hot, it’ll burn me before I realise I shouldn’t be picking it up. If I reach into my pocket, I can’t really tell you what’s in there, whether it’s keys or money. I can tell there’s something there, but I can’t distinguish details. Trying to separate the pages of a newspaper drives me insane. It’s made me hate reading because I can’t handle the paper. Paper confounds me.
“But when it came to playing, I discovered it didn’t matter that I couldn’t feel with my hands. As long as I could see the dials on the oscillators, I could play them. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with my eyesight or my hearing. As long as I could see the oscillator I was touching and how far up I was on it, I was OK. So I learned to play an oscillator almost like you’d play a trombone, where you have positions on the slide that are approximately correct, and then you use your ear to intonate and get bang on it. I look at the numbers on the dial to more or less position it and then use my ears to fine tune the note in.”
For all the fascinating noises Simeon has squeezed from his “thing” over the years, the Silver Apples sound was as much down to Danny’s drumming. His style is different from track to track – sometimes militaristic, sometimes machine-like, sometimes child-like. There’s no particular sense of rock or jazz or funk about what he does. It’s certainly not electronic either. It really is quite special.
“I guess it would take a special drummer to see that there was a possibility in all this electronic junk,” says Simeon. “And without a bass player too, without some foundation there he could build with. Actually, I think Danny liked the idea that he didn’t have to stick to some routine, that he was free to do anything he wanted to do. That’s what kept him interested. It offered a whole creative area for him.”
Did you think about trying to find a new drummer after Danny became too ill to play?
“That would be have been bad for the drummer and bad for me. It was a no-win situation. They’d always have been compared to Danny and that wouldn’t have been fair. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got endless hours of Danny rehearsing on tape, I’ll sample them up and build stuff from that’. So that what I started doing. I play samples of Danny and that’s how I’m able to go out there on my own now.”
When you’re playing live, does it almost feel like Danny’s still with you?
“Absolutely. When I write a new piece or go to re-do an old piece, I aways find myself thinking, ‘What would Danny do here?’. So I go back and I listen to Danny and I’m discovering just how freaking amazing he was all over again. It’s a real pleasure to be kinda, well, kinda keeping him alive. I’m sure he’s sitting on a cloud up there somewhere, laughing his ass off at the idea he’s still doing shows and he doesn’t actually have to do a damned thing any more.”
Silver Apples were only briefly in the full glare of the spotlight – two short years from 1967 to 1969 – but the fact that they got to the game slightly ahead of Can and had a more overtly electronic sound than most of the krautrockers that came after them has rightly earned them a special status in the world of machine music. That status has also been fed by the group’s remarkable history, a history in which Pan Am played a leading role. I ask Simeon how he feels when he looks back on the Pan Am episode now.
“I just wonder what in the world those people were so afraid of. I mean, did they think we were going to ruin the airline because of one record? It was so crazy. They called out the marines on us, man.”
Thinking about some of the things that happened to you – the problem with Pan Am, the van accident, Danny getting sick just at the same time you were able to start playing again – does it almost feel like someone somewhere had it in for Silver Apples?
“I don’t go there,” he says after a little hesitation. “I can’t go there. If I think like that, it’d only be a short step to thinking, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t leave the house today’. So, no, I try not to get into that too much.”
But do you ever wonder what might have happened if Pan Am hadn’t brought that lawsuit against you? If you could have put out the third album at the time and carried on into the 70s and maybe beyond?
“You know, I have thought about that, and I think what happened with Pam Am might have been for the best. If Silver Apples had carried on, I do wonder if we might have gone more into the dance thing, the disco thing. I think there might have been some pressure for us to do that, just because of all the electronics, and I don’t know how strong we’d have been to resist that. And I think that might have been bad. I think we might have lost our souls if we’d gotten into that.”
Simeon seems a very open and down-to-earth and laid-back guy, and I can’t help thinking too much fame might not have been good for him. I wonder if he’s so grounded because he’s spent many years up to his elbows in “electronic junk”. So maybe he’s right. Maybe what happened was for the best. One thing that’s for sure is there is a whole bunch of interesting stuff he wouldn’t have done if he’d stayed a Silver Apple all his life.
“That’s true,” he says. “I’d have never interviewed Ted Turner or Muhammad Ali. Or Jesse Jackson. Or Vincent Price. When I was a journalist, I met all those guys and I learned something from them all. You know, VIncent Price was smart. That guy was a genius. He was a major art collector. He owned Picassos and Matisses. I interviewed Roy Rogers as well – and he was one of my childhood heroes. So, yeah, I got to interview Roy Rogers. So that wasn’t so bad.”
Not so bad at all.