BY MIN CHEN
Oh, how Silver Apples soared in 1968. Throughout the Summer of Love, the duo’s profile and reputation rode high across New York’s East Village and beyond—their space-age psychedelia marrying sound and technology in ways that struck awe in a pre-electronic age. They’d soundtracked the moon landing for an audience of thousands at Central Park, jammed with Jimi Hendrix, and won over John Lennon. They’d rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, who attempted to pair them up with his superstar Ultra Violet in the vein of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and earned an endorsement from the city’s mayor John Lindsay, who dubbed their work “The New York Sound.” The independent (and as it would turn out, flailing) label Kapp Records came calling and in due course, released the band’s debut LP.
Decades on, Silver Apples would be lauded as a landmark in avant-electronic music. But even back then, in June of 1968, Simeon Coxe and Danny Taylor’s sonic ingenuity was not lost. Their secret sauce: Coxe’s deployment of WWII-era audio oscillators that warbled, whirled, pulsed, and droned against Taylor’s stolid backbeat. By the time of their first record, the band’s gear ballooned with, according to the liner notes, “nine audio oscillators piled on top of each other and 86 manual controls to control lead, rhythm, and bass pulses with hands, feet, and elbows.” Even Robert Moog took note. It was a maximal machine (christened, at some point, “The Simeon”), corralled for a surreal, otherworldly minimalism. Things get heady here, as “Oscillations,” Silver Apples’ lead single intones, “Oscillations, oscillations / Electronic evocations of sound’s reality.”
Still, according to Coxe, they never intended the group’s sound to be odd or weird. “We weren’t intending to be futuristic,” he said. “We were just kids playing and making pop music.” Which is likely why, in hindsight, he’s partial to their second pressing Contact, for it “gets closer to the rawness that we had.” He added, “It’s a little more what you might say was getting punk-ish, which is kind of where we were.” And sure enough: Contact ushers in an edge and tension—the mellow temper of earlier songs like “Seagreen Serenades” and “Misty Mountain” giving way to the airtight claustrophobia of “Water” and “A Pox on You.” It was an accomplished record that cut new avenues into the duo’s palette, but that, alas, contained the seeds of Silver Apples’ destruction.
What proved troublesome wasn’t Contact’s contents, but its sleeve. Masterminded by Kapp’s advertising department, the album’s cover image captured Coxe and Taylor, in full hippie regalia, sitting in the cockpit of a Pan Am aircraft, a ruby red sunset framed by the flight deck’s window. The record’s first track “You and I,” after all, does open with the sound of a plane taking off. Pan Am, one of the label’s clients, had offered the band use of one of its planes for free (“Thanks to Pan Am for the Jet,” reads the record’s credits), in exchange for some blatant logo placement. And the cover looked rad enough that the air carrier signed off on it. That is, until they flipped the sleeve around.
On the back of Contact is a rawer and starker photograph, depicting the duo sitting amidst the wreckage of an airplane crash. In the background, trees stand bare against a gloomy sky, while in the foreground, for whatever reason, Coxe wields a banjo. What, on first glance, seemed to be free publicity for Pan Am, dove south really quick. In swift order, the carrier acquired an injunction to curtail the sale and promotion of the record. Contact was pulled off shelves everywhere and the band had to cancel an entire tour. Not content to stop there, Pan Am also brought individual lawsuits against Kapp and Silver Apples.
That doomed everyone. Kapp folded under the weight of litigation and the band didn’t do any better. “It was [for] $100,000, which in 1969 was like a million,” Coxe said of the suit. “It was more money than I had ever contemplated… all possibility of us growing after that point was gone.” He further recounts being hounded at a live show at Max’s Kansas City, where New York City marshals arrived to repossess their synths and drums. “That was it, man,” he said. “Danny lost his drums to the marshals.” Most of Coxe’s gear, including his oscillators, made it out of the venue though. They stashed it at a friend’s place and then “laid low.”
After that, the duo was roundly ostracized. In 1970, they recorded a third album, The Garden, but not one record company would touch them. Said Coxe, “I think they thought if they signed us, all that Pan Am crap would come along with us. We were like lepers.” There was little else for the pair to do than to disband. “If we couldn’t be Silver Apples,” stated Coxe, “we just wouldn’t want to do anything.”
But nothing, it seems, could clip Silver Apples’ wings. Its demise notwithstanding, the group’s legacy continued to swell, culminating in its revival in the 1990s, orchestrated by Coxe. From 1998, the band began releasing albums of new material, as well as The Garden, the tapes of which had been sitting in Taylor’s attic for more than two decades. The drummer passed in 2005, but Coxe today continues to tour, play, and make pop music with various collaborators as Silver Apples.
Witness his latest work, 2016’s Clinging to a Dream, which summons electronic pulses and oscillatory sleights of hand to conjure dulcet hues and moods. It levitates, defying gravity as any Silver Apples work is wont to do. Then and now, the sky is no limit. “The plane continues / Swimming through the clouds of raindrops,” incants Coxe in its opening number. “One dream is over, another one begins / Flying through the skies of night time.”