Wednesday 29 January 2014

1967 Psychedelic Pop - SOPWITH CAMEL: Ode To A High-Flying Camel


Album Review of: 
(Kama Sutra Records KLPS 8060, 1967, 
 Talking Elephant Records TECD203CD 2012) 

 Hello. Hello. It’s one of the most recognisable words in the language. In Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist novel ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ (1959) a Tralfamadorian robot called Salo travels across the cosmos for over 200-millenia to carry a message to a distant galaxy. The message says simply ‘Hello’. “Hello, Hello” was also the greeting that announced Sopwith Camel to the world, as the first chart emissaries of the newly-come San Francisco sound. Some claim they’re ‘so relaxed they could make the Spoonful sound uptight’ as Lillian Roxon reported in her excellent ‘Rock Encyclopedia’. But to come on like a mini-me Lovin’ Spoonful was no bad way to come on at the 1966-‘67 dawn of American happy music. If they were sharply suspected as being sunshine-Pop, cute, commercial and too quaintly old-timey, they could also be very good live as active participants in the nascent Frisco music scene. And if their record company encouraged them to do the faintly satiric campy stuff, because that was what sold, then briefly, yes, it sold.

Announced by guitarist Terry McNeil’s hand-crafted fly-posted fliers, they’d started out sharing bills at the ‘Avalon Ballroom’ supporting the Grateful Dead, with the Charlatans at the ‘Firehouse Theatre’, or with the Association at ‘The Fillmore’. As well as playing ‘The Matrix’, they performed at a strange event with Allen Ginsberg at the Fillmore, 17 July 1966, plus sets with Grace Slick’s Great Society, and even Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Their sound was always more playfully light than the trippy kool-aid psychedelia of their heavier contemporaries, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Jefferson Airplane, but they were very much part of the scene. While their very name coincidentally – or presciently, had the cross-over potential to also snag with the retro-chic exploited by “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman”, “Snoopy Versus The Red Baron” and the Carnaby Street fad for vintage militaria. The first Sopwith Camel was – after all, a World War I biplane. It was at promoter Chet Helms’ home that friends were brain-storming free-associating names for Janis Joplin’s group. Helms didn’t much like Peter Kraemer’s suggestion, Sopwith Camel. So Peter took it anyway.

It was while hanging out in the bohemian ‘Big Little Bookstore’ on Polk Street that writer-vocalist, raconteur and occasional sax-player Kraemer first met graphics-student Terry McNeil, and allied his poetry with Terry’s guitar. With a couple of songs drafted out the duo rehearsed with drummer Fritz Kasten (later of Joy of Cooking), and Big Brother Pete Albin’s brother, Rodney. A more stable line-up emerged when this temporary hook-up was replaced by recruiting regular musician William Sievers aka ‘Truckaway’ (guitar), plus two friends – London-born Martin Beard (bass) and drummer Norman Mayell who’d once played back-up to Mike Bloomfield.

 Meanwhile, Artie Ripp’s Kama Sutra label had the niche edge when it came to happy-style good-time music with hits for the Tradewinds (“Mind Excursion”), the Innocence (“There’s Go To Be A Word”) and the Vacels (“You’re My Baby”) as well as the high-profile Lovin’ Spoonful. Producer Erik Jacobsen heard a Sopwith Camel demo tape and – impressed particularly by “Hello, Hello”, flew out to Frisco to meet the group. A former-Folkie himself, he’d already produced and arranged the first two Tim Hardin albums, discovered the Lovin’ Spoonful, financed their first hit “Do You Believe In Magic?”, and produced nine straight Top Ten hits for them, as well as working with the legendary Charlatans on their unreleased Kama Sutra album. So when Jacobsen’s Sweet Reliable Productions went to work on the first Kama Sutra Sopwith Camel sessions in a freezing New York winter, he could maybe be forgiven for nudging his new property in the Spoonful direction. Doesn’t Peter Kraemer sing in a lilting style not entirely unlike John Sebastian? Squint, and maybe yes. And anyway, it seems to be working, although signed second to Jefferson Airplane, they became the first group from the Frisco ferment to score a hit.

Eminently hummable, throwaway-catchy as hell, “Hello, Hello” was perfect for its brief window of time. The Monkees “I’m A Believer” was the US ‘Cashbox’ no.1 the week it made its first Top 50 appearance – at no.50 (14 January 1967). Kama Sutra label-mates the Lovin’ Spoonful were no.18 (with “Nashville Cats”) and the Innocence at no.48 (“There’s Got To Be A Word”). By the following week “Hello Hello” had climbed to no.41, then to no.32. By 4 February it had broached the Top 30, at no.29, then up to no.27. It peaked at no.25, the week the Seekers took over no.1 with “Georgy Girl”, holding the Rolling Stones “Ruby Tuesday” in second slot. For Sopwith Camel things would never get better than this. The single was down for a final week at no.30, then out, after a seven-week run.

But listen. The piano picks its way into the intro, before a cartoon-swoosh. Peter plays the unsure loser, in real life he’s a big guy with tinted shades, a shaggy centre-parting and dark moustache. Nevertheless, in the song he’s too nervous to approach the girl – ‘never knew how I’d meet you, didn’t know how to greet you’, until the odd off-the-wall seeming non-sequitur ‘would you like some of my tangerine?’ does the trick. A tangerine is not a substantial fruit. To offer a segment, or even half a tangerine, is not exactly an extravagant seduction inducement. But let’s deconstruct this. Let’s examine this innocent segment of citrus fruit. California-grown. This is the unique selling point of the hit single, and as such, the crux of the career. It’s like a songwriters fill-in word, something to establish rhyme and metre – it’s rhymed with ‘I know I’ll never treat you mean’, which works fine while awaiting substitution by a more inspired word. But it stays in, and is all the better because of it. All he’s offering, all he has to offer her, is this small piece of fruit. He has nothing more. He’s not even offering it all, just some of it. They are to share it, as equals.

Compare this simple gift with the designer-label status-signifying shallow-materialist bling-culture of Hip-hop and Urban to come. Contrast it with one of 2013’s biggest hits – “Blurred Lines”, with Robin Thicke urging ‘I know you want it, I know you want it’, offering nothing less than full-on sex. Peter is offering his relatively unthreatening piece of tangerine. Which the more endearing? Which the more human? The romantic down-at-heel scruff with his humble segment wins for me. He’s the teenage dirt-bag come good. The mix of the trite and the unexpected works, carried on breathlessly effortless voice, rag-timey piano over stroked guitar, clear through to the theatrical flourish and scattered applause tail-ending the track, adding to its tongue-in-cheek informality. The ‘B’-side – “Treadin’”, omitted from the original album, but added as a bonus track to the CD is untypical, chiming jangle-guitar slightly phase-reverbed with Byrds harmonies and the haunting questioning ‘in a world of constant change, can I love you forever…?’ It gives a glimpse that Sopwith Camel has other guises.

Delayed by touring and promotion – during which they were frequently miscredited as an East Coast band, the tie-in album emerged some time later. To tour on the back of one single is a precarious venture. Procol Harum took years overcoming the stigma. Thunderclap Newman and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown never lived it down. When Jefferson Airplane broke through with “Somebody To Love” they had ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ already in place. “Hello, Hello” was an invitation into the Sopwith Camel world, but once inside, it proved to be a sparsely-furnished place.

And when it did arrive, the ‘Sopwith Camel’ album does little by way of a get-out of jail free card. At this point there’s only one album – spawning three singles, which therefore neatly encapsulates the entire first phase of the group’s career. The long stinging guitar solo on “Frantic Desolation” is close to its saving grace. In the song he’s writing a letter, all his ‘thoughts are rolling’ because her absence has infected all he sees, with its jerky rhythms playing off the urban imagery of ‘neon lights flashing on the faces in the windows’ as he restlessly walks his misgivings. Onto the next track, and if the pseudo-mysticism of Willie Sievers’ “Saga Of The Low Down Let Down” is the result of a swaggering come-down – ‘stamp out reality, be what you want to be… before reality stamps on you’, it’s one that’s undermined by the half-chuckle in his voice and the irreverent back-up answer-voices that suggest he’s not exactly serious. Flirting with trendy profundity, Sopwith Camel are never going to get suckered into it, ‘take it from me, take it with salt, take it away’.

They’re more at ease with sympathetically reconfiguring the tale of “Little Orphan Annie” into a vagabond hippie-chick – ‘hot boom-a racka-tacky leapin’ lizards ah!’ But if down by the train-track you can hear a mournful sound, this is far from down. ‘Whimper little girl’ as she’s hopping box-cars with her dog Sandy, ‘simper little dog’ as it eats ‘fossilised bone’. This first side, more pleasant than it is striking, consciousness-expanding or life-changing, winds down with an extended instrumental play-out with rippling twelve-string, closing with a thirty-second mixed-down harmony-vocal refrain. There’s a loose dexterity to the interplay, as if it’s a semi-jammed Byrds or Love demo backing track, showing some easy skill.

Side two opener “Cellophane Woman” uses a harder-edged Standells riff, reverb guitar and bratty Dylan-accented vocal, although the lyric rather detracts from its acid-blues intent – yes, rejecting materialism and conformity, but inadequately expressed as ‘a woman wrapped up in cellophane’ who ‘aint been no-place’ but ‘thinks she’s been there just the same – alright!’ We know that what he’s rejecting is the shrink-wrapped cellophane-packaged PRODUCT! The idealised ‘Stepford Wives’ image of the female stereotype. His empathy lies more with wastrel Orphan Annie hopping box-cars with ‘wise words in her young mouth.’ It’s a fairly typical hippie stance. An echo of their “You Always Tell Me, Baby”, in which his Lady attempts to dictate his behaviour and life-style from her own pre-recorded moral facade. Here, sweetened by ooohing background harmonies.

 Elsewhere, “The Things I Could Do With You” has a vaguely ‘Sgt Pepper’ harmonium-break. The crooning “Walk In The Park” has a comedy voice-over invitation, ‘Hi, my name is William…’ “The Great Morpheum” advertises a surreal movie-show that ‘out-shimmers them all’. And the final track – the likeable second single, opens with the mailman’s chimes and a ‘postcard full of sunshine’ from the girlfriend who’s Mother has sent her away. She’s suggesting he takes a trip. It makes for a fine closer, even if it’s not an album born to endless night or sweet delight. It’s not stoned immaculate. There may be lysergic molecules swimming within its genes, but it’s more a sparky ‘balloons and cotton-candy’ feel-good dope vibe. They’re not out to change the world. They’re pretty-much at ease within their own.

For me in England, Sopwith Camel lacked the electric burn of Count Five, the Electric Prunes or Thirteenth Floor Elevators. But I was aware of them as being part of that huge American kaleidoscope of change, I heard and enjoyed their easy-on-the-air whimsy broadcast from Pirate radio, and followed their moves in the music press. And while their refreshing connections to all things West Coast trippy were soon overtaken as hip currency, their lightweight hit also devalued their credibility with the increasingly heavy emerging scene. By 1968 Tiny Tim, who was as quaint and old-timey as they come, was singing “Hello, Hello”, as if to prove their detractor’s point by association. While in the UK a jaunty fun cover by Freddie & The Dreamers diverted serious attention from the Sopwith Camel original, resulting in neither version charting. Whatever big things had been anticipated for Sopwith Camel, either artistically or commercially, got capsised when that first success-wave proved too much for them. It brought pressures they’d not previously imagined existed. After national touring they returned to the San Francisco ‘Fillmore’ to headline with the Young Rascals above the Doors, to find that things were shifting beyond their control.

First Willie quit, then Terry quit, and the Camel fell apart – almost never to come back together again. Until they reformed. Kraemer spent time writing well-crafted Pop for Jacobsen’s publishing company, Great Honesty, so that the gentle whimsy and melodic country-string sound was not entirely lost. While Jacobsen himself took Norman Greenbaum out of Dr West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band and up to no.1 with “Spirit In The Sky”. Norman Mayell, by now doing session-work, is said to play drums on the record. He was also drafted into Blue Cheer – one of Frisco’s loudest bands, in time to play on their fourth LP, ‘Blue Cheer’ (1969), and beyond.

 Yet once fashion time-shifted yet again into a cosy nostalgia for all things west-coast hip the group reformed, oddly – according to Kraemer, as a result of ‘Burger King’ seeking the rights to use “Hello, Hello” in an ad! With Peter and Terry (now aka Nandi Devam) back together, they contacted Marty and Norman, adding new guy Jimmy Stringfellow, because Sievers was busy operating his own Sausalito studio as William Truckaway. And a more well-received reunion album followed, ‘The Miraculous Hump Returns From The Moon’ (1972) – a wondrous artefact in its own right. Yet this renewed group incarnation also came to a fiery end, when their equipment truck literally exploded and burned on the road, taking all their equipment with it. Peter Kraemer launched a third line-up in the summer of 1977 at Berkeley’s Provo Park ‘Nude-In’. And there have been sporadic reformations ever since, as liner-notes scribe Lindsay Planer points out, they ‘are still playing in the San Francisco area to this day.’


August 1967 – ‘SOPWITH CAMEL’ (Kama Sutra KLPS 8060, reissued as ‘Frantic Desolation’ (1986), then as ‘Hello Hello Again’ (1999), reissued as CD in 2002 and digitally remastered in 2006 as Talking Elephant TECD203 in 2012), 3D cover art by Victor Moscoso, with (1) “Hello, Hello” (Peter Kraemer, Eric Kretz and Dean Deleo), (2) “Frantic Desolation” (Kraemer), (3) “Saga Of The Low Down Let Down” (William Sievers), (4) “Little Orphan Annie” (Kraemer and Terry MacNeil), (5) “You Always Tell Me Baby” (Kraemer), (6) “Maybe In A Dream” (Kraemer), (7) “Cellophane Woman” (Sievers), (8) “The Things That I Could Do With You” Kraemer), (9) “Walk In The Park” (Sievers), (10) “The Great Morpheum” (Kraemer), (11) “Postcard From Jamaica” (Kraemer) plus bonus CD-track “Treadin’” (Kraemer). In ‘Q’ (August 1990) Johnny Black writes ‘Sopwith Camel operated in a somewhat restricted musical genre which whimsically combined faintly psychedelic Pop with Vaudevillian theatrics and jug band jazziness’. Also issued as Edsel ED185

1967 – “Hello, Hello” c/w “Treadin’” (Kama Sutra KA217) reaches no.26, chart debut on 28 January 1967 and stays on the ‘Billboard Top 40 for four weeks

March 1967 – “Postcard From Jamaica” c/w “Little Orphan Annie” (Kama Sutra KA224) recorded in Kama Sutra’s New York studio

1967 – “Saga Of The Low Down Let Down” (written by William Sievers) c/w “The Great Morpheum” (Kama Sutra KA236)

1973 – ‘THE MIRACULOUS HUMP RETURNS FROM THE MOON’ (Warner Reprise, reissued on CD as ‘The Millennium Edition’ on Generic Type Records in 2001, then ‘The Miraculous Hump Returns From The Moon: Remastered’ on Rhino/Warner Bros in 2006), recorded at Wally Heider San Francisco studio, with cover art by ‘Satty’, with “Fazon”, “Coke, Suede And Waterbeds”, “Dancin’ Wizard”, “Sleazy Street”, “Orange Peel”, “Oriental Fantasy”, “Sneaky Smith”, “Monkeys On The Moon”, “Astronaut Food” and “Brief Symphonia”. Also on Demon LP-XED205, who say ‘a very different vehicle altogether, precursing the jazz influences later to become so successful for Steely Dan. The original gatefold sleeve has been preserved in its entirety’

1 comment:

norm said...

A very good description of the flight of the Sopwith Camel. I know! I played drums and assorted instruments with them through the years, Norm Mayell