Original Creator: Electro-Rock Pioneers Silver Apples
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Silver Apples.
Long before the electro-rock bands of today discovered they could augment their music with synthesizers, Silver Apples, a seminal psychedelic duo from New York City, incorporated the then-analogue tones of keyboards into their rock sound. In 1967, when members of the influenctial electronic band, Kraftwerk were still processing acoustic instruments with electronic effects, Simeon Coxe III, a.k.a. Simeon, was already wielding a full-on (abeit primitive) custom made synthesizer.
During the 60s, while Simeon was singing in a bar band in New York City and growing board of the sounds of a guitar, an epiphany struck him when he played a oscillator over a Rolling Stone record. He was visiting a classical composer, who was using the oscillator to play along to Beethoven. Excited by the sound of audio signals combined with rock music, Simeon brought his new toy to jam on during his band’s rehearsal. The atonal noises made by the synth annoyed his bandmates, to the point that they abandoned the project. Only one member stayed with Simeon—drummer Danny Taylor, who once played with Jimi Hendrix.
The two soon founded Silver Apples, the smallest “rock and roll band” unit in history, with Simeon on vocals and a Frankenstein-esque synthesizer made of assorted found electronics, and Taylor in charge of the rolling, pulsating and syncopated beats on the drums. The first song on their first self-titled album, “Oscillations,” celebrated this magical new sound that Simeon had discovered. “Oscillations, oscillations, electronic evocations of sound’s reality. Spinning, magnetic fluctuations, waves of wave configurations that dance between the poles off sound and bind my world to soul…”
Without knowing what mad a synthesizer work, Simeon set out to create his own instrument by mounting a dozen oscillators wired together on plywood. Along with wah-wah pedels, telegraph keys, and Echoplexes, Simeon would keep all hands, elbows and feet busy controlling the various knobs and switches. The crude instrument would release electric shocks, and the air would interfere with the frequency of the sounds. The unpredictable and unstable nature of the music gave the band their distinctive and mesmerizing sound.
What was also innovative about Simeon’s use of electronic signal generators was the ability to interact with the audience during live sets. When performing the song Program, Simeon would dial back and forth to differnt radio stations called out by the audience and incorporate their sounds into the song. Each performance produced a different electronic music collage stitched together with captured frequencies through the airwaves. In retrospect, Simeon created one of the first musical pieces sourced from the public in realtime.
Before Silver Apples could do any promotion or touring for their second album Contact, Pan-Am Airlines sued the band and their record company, KAPP, over album artwork. The cover for Contact (below) shows Simeon and Taylor sitting in a cockpit bearing the Pan Am logo. The back cover was the scene of a plane crash. This unintentional “prank gone astray,” as described by Simeon, ended with lawsuits and an injunction against their record sales. Subsequently, after KAPP went under in the early 70s, the band broke up.
Front cover of Contact (1969).
Back cover of Contact (1969).
Silver Apples sadly missed out on the next two decades when synthesizers became the go-to instrument of the 70s and the electronic music movement took off. However, the absence of Silver Apples didn’t stop their music from reaching their fans. 25 years after the band had dissolved, Simeon accidentally heard his song playing at a friends gallery opening in New York. Turned out a German record company had released Silver Apples’ first two albums as bootlegs in 1994 and had distributed them in stores around the world. The band’s industrial, minimal and highly experimental sound would become an influence on a wide range of renowned acts such as Sonic Boom, Portishead, Beastie Boys, and Blur.
Simeon reunited Silver Apples briefly to record and perform. After Taylor passed away in 2005, Simeon continued to collaborate with artists and tour. In the above video, you can see how Simeon plays solo with Taylor’s drum beat sampled.