The Rise & Fall of Silver Apples: The 1960s Electronic Band That Built Their Own Synthesizer, Produced Two Pioneering Albums, and Then Faded into Obscurity

In the late 70s and early 80s, a handful of musical duos emerged who would have tremendous impact on post-punk, alternative, new wave, and experimental electronic music. Bands like Suicide, NEU!, and the Pet Shop Boys made far bigger sounds than their size would suggest. Before them all came Silver Apples, a duo who should rightly get credit as pioneers of electronic experimentation in pop song form. Like many a pioneer, Silver Apples had no idea what they were doing. They also suffered from a string of some of the worst luck a band could have, disappearing after their second album in 1969 until a mid-90s rediscovery and brief return.

Bandmembers Simeon Coxe and Danny Taylor formed the band in 1967 from the ruins of a rock group called The Overland Stage Electric Band, which fell apart when Coxe began experimenting with old oscillators onstage. All of the members quit except Taylor, and Coxe set about building his own synthesizer, “a machine nicknamed ‘the Simeon,’” Daniel Dylan Wray writes at The Guardian, “which grew to consist of nine audio oscillators with 86 manual controls—including telegraph keys—to control lead, rhythm and bass pulses with the user’s hands, feet and elbows.”

Coxe was the only person who could play the Simeon, and he sang as he did so, his weird, warbly voice complementing his machine, as Taylor played proto-Krautrock beats behind him. “I had heard the word synthesizer,” he says, “but I had no idea what it was. We were dirt poor and used what we had, which was often discarded world war two gear.” They were essentially making up electronic pop music as they went along, isolated from parallel developments happening at the same time. They named the project after a line by William Butler Yeats (many of their lyrics were written by poet Stanley Warren). Around the same time, composer Morton Subotnick released his groundbreaking all-electronic album, titled—after Yeats—Silver Apples of the Moon.

It was Silver Apples' fate to be overshadowed by other releases that came out immediately after their 1968 self-titled debut, such as Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach and Gershon Kingsley’s hit “Popcorn,” both of which popularized Robert Moog’s modular synthesizers. Moog himself became so fascinated with Coxe’s singular creation that he visited the Silver Apples studio to see it for himself. The band’s manager scored them their very first gig playing for 30,000 people in Central Park, “providing a live soundtrack to the Apollo moon landing—broadcast on enormous screens beside them,” writes Cian Traynor at Huck magazine, “as people took their clothes off in the rain.”

This magical experience—and other brushes with fame, such as a one-off recording session with Jimi Hendrix—was no indication of a bright future for the band. For their second album, they were allowed to photograph themselves inside the cockpit of a Pan Am jet. The inclusion of drug paraphernalia in the photo, and of a crashed airplane on the back, prompted a lawsuit from the airline. The album was pulled from the shelves, the band shut out of the industry, and a third album, The Garden, remained unreleased until 1998.

For a look at how musically forward-thinking Silver Apples were, see the short documentary about their rise and fall above. They ended up influencing neo-psychedelic electronic bands like Stereolab and 90s duo Portishead, whose Geoff Barrow says, “for people like us, they are the perfect band…. They should definitely be up there with the pioneers of electronic music.” Taylor sadly died in 2005, just after Coxe had partially recovered from a broken neck suffered the year of their 90s resurgence. But Silver Apples music is immortal, and immortally otherworldly and strange, even if its creators never quite understood why. “To me and Danny,” says Coxe, “it sounded perfectly normal and was a normal progression into the areas we were trying to go.”

As so much experimental electronic pop music that emerged around the same time proves, Coxe was more right than he knew. What Silver Apples did turned out to be a “normal” musical development, though they had no idea that it was happening when they made their astonishingly groovy, spaced-out records.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Édith Piaf’s Moving Performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’ on French Television (1954)

Édith Piaf's life was anything but rosy. Born in a Parisian slum, she was abandoned by her mother and lived for awhile in a brothel run by her grandmother. As a teenager she sang on the streets for money. She was addicted to alcohol and drugs for much of her life, and her later years were marred by chronic pain. Through it all, Piaf managed to hold onto a basically optimistic view of life. She sang with a lyrical abandon that seemed to transcend the pain and sorrow of living.

On April 3, 1954 Piaf was the guest of honor on the French TV show La Joie de Vivre. She was 38 years old but looked much older. She had recently undergone a grueling series of "aversion therapy" treatments for alcoholism, and was by that time in the habit of taking morphine before going onstage. Cortisone treatments for arthritis made the usually wire-thin singer look puffy. But when Piaf launches into her signature song, "La Vie en Rose" (see above), all of that is left behind.

Nine years after this performance, when Piaf died, her friend Jean Cocteau said of her: "Like all those who live on courage, she didn't think about death--she defied it. Only her voice remains, that splendid voice like black velvet."

Note: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on our site in February 2013.

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Hear the Cristal Baschet, an Enchanting Organ Made of Wood, Metal & Glass, and Played with Wet Hands

Playing a musical instrument with wet hands usually falls somewhere between a bad idea and a very bad idea indeed. The Cristal Baschet, however, requires its players to keep their hands wet at all times, and that's hardly the only sense in which it's an exceptional musical instrument. Have a listen to the performance above, Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 1 by Marc Antoine Millon and Frédéric Bousquet, and you'll understand at once how exceptional it sounds. Both ideally suited to Satie's composition and like nothing else in the history of music — a history which may ultimately remember it as, among other things, one of the most French musical devices ever created.

"It was invented in France, so perhaps that's why I have one," says composer Marc Chouarain as he prepares to demonstrate his Cristal Baschet in the video above. "I put water on my finger and I have to put pressure on the glass rods, and the sound is amplified." That amplification happens, like every other process within the instrument, without the involvement of electricity. Despite being fully acoustic, the Cristal Baschet produces sounds so loud and otherworldly that few could hear them without instinctively imagining a sci-fi movie to go along with the soundtrack.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Chouarain is a film composer, nor that the Cristal Baschet was invented in the early 1950s, when the cinematic visions of the future as we know them began to take shape. That era also saw the dawn of musique concrète (1964), with its use of recorded sounds as compositional elements, and the influence of the early Moog synthesizer, which would go on to change the sound of music forever. What influence the brothers Bernard and François Baschet expected of the Cristal Baschet when they invented it is unclear, but it has surely left more of a legacy than their other creations like the inflatable guitar and aluminum piano.

"Ravi Shankar, Damon Albarn (Gorillaz), Daft Punk, Radiohead, Tom Waits, and Manu Dibango are among the musical acts who have used the Cristal Baschet," writes Colossal's Andrew Lasane, citing the official Baschet Sound Structures Association brochure. The instrument also continues to get respect from adventurous film composers like Cliff Martinez, who tickles the glass rods in the video above. According to an interview at Vulture, Martinez first encountered the instrument when composing for the Steven Soderbergh remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. He seems to have become a serious Cristal Baschet fan since: the video's notes mentions that he now "incorporates the instrument in all of his scores," for more pictures by Soderbergh, as well as by Nicolas Winding Refn — another director of possessed of distinctive visions, and thus always in need of sounds to match.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Hear the Sound Of Endangered Birds Get Turned Into Electronic Music

Bird-watching is having a moment, thanks to the pandemic.

As non-essential workers adjusted to spending more time at home, their ears adjusted to the increasingly non-foreign sound of birdsong outside their windows.

Those sweet tweets are no doubt largely responsible for the record breaking turnout at this year’s Global Big Day, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's annual birding event, held earlier this spring.

50,000 participants logged 2.1 million individual observations, and 6,479 species.

Apparently, there are even more birds in this world than there are sourdough starters...

...though for the immediate future, civic-minded birdwatchers will be confining their observations to the immediate vicinity, as a matter of public health.

We look forward to the day when bird enthusiasts residing outside of Belize, Mexico, or Guatemala can again travel to the Yucatán Peninsula in hopes of a face-to-face encounter with the Black Cat Bird.

Til then, the animated video above, in which a Black Catbird unwittingly duets with Belize’s Garifuna Collective, makes a soothing place holder.

The catbird and the collective appear along with nine other electronic musician / endangered native bird teams on the fundraising album, A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager joins NILLO, a producer and DJ from Costa Rica who draws musical inspiration from the tribal communities around him.

Siete Catorce, a producer who helped popularize the popular border genre known as ruidosón—a mix of cumbia and prehispanic tribal sounds—is paired with a Yellow-headed Parrot.

Jordan “Time Cow” Chung of Equiknoxx seamlessly integrates a Jamaican Blackbird into his unique brand of organic, experimental dancehall.

The album follows 2015's Guide to the Birdsong of South America, and as with its predecessor, 100% of the profits will be donated to regional organizations focused on birds and conservation—Birds Caribbean, La Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica, and Mexico’s Fundacion TXORI.

Birds, as the project’s founder, Robin Perkins, told Gizmodo’s Earther, are the most musical animals in the world:

There’s something really nice about focusing on endangered species and songs that are disappearing and not being preserved and to use music to raise awareness about the species. I believe music has a big power for social activism and social change and for environmental change.

Listen to A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean for free on Spotify.

Buy the album or individual tracks on Bandcamp to benefit the charities above.

Robin Perkins’ limited edition prints of the featured birds also benefit the bird-focused regional charities and can be purchased here.

via MyModernMet

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green (RIP) Was the Most Underrated Guitarist in British Blues

Debates about whether a guitarist is underrated often involve a lot of posturing and needless name-dropping—they don’t tend to go anywhere, in other words. This is not the case with Peter Green, founder and former singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Fleetwood Mac, who died this past weekend. He is, probably most definitely, “the most underrated guitarist in British Blues,” argues the Happy Bluesman, or at least he became so in the last decades of his life.

Green experienced a tragic end to his career with Fleetwood Mac when his mental health declined precipitously in 1970, and he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. His legend lived long among musicians (and fans of the band who preferred their early work), but Green more or less disappeared from public view, even after releasing a handful of solo albums in a period of recovery.

Fleetwood Mac, the group he founded and carried to its first years of major stardom became, of course, “a household name, widely recognized as one of the best soft rock bands ever for hits like ‘The Chain,’ ‘Go Your Own Way,’ and ‘Everywhere’”—songs Peter Green had nothing to do with, though he had the soft rock chops, as the melancholy “Man of the World” beautifully demonstrates. Hear him in some of his other finest moments in the band, including a phenomenal “Black Magic Woman” at the top, before Carlos Santana made the song his signature.

The argument for Green’s most underrated-ness as a blues guitarist is more than compelling, with endorsements from B.B. King—who said Green had “the sweetest tone I ever heard”—and John Mayall, who said he was better than Clapton when Green joined the Bluesbreakers at age 20. After founding Fleetwood Mac, Green wrote “Black Magic Woman,” sent a guitar instrumental, “Albatross,” to the top of the British Charts in 1969 and, that same year, recorded at Chess Records with, among other blues legends, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy.

Was he the “best” British blues guitarist? He was “the only one who gave me the cold sweats,” King confessed, which sure is something, even if you prefer Clapton or Jeff Beck. Is he the most underrated? Probably most definitely. “Within a few short years, Peter Green had achieved greater commercial success than two of the world’s most famous bands,” selling more records in 1969 than “both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, combined.” Then he disappeared.

Green is receiving the recognition in death that eluded him in his last years, though fame never seemed to truly motivate him at any time in his life. Fellow musicians have spared no superlatives in online memorials, including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, not known for going anywhere near an early Fleetwood Mac sound. But Green was a consummate musician’s musician (he named his band after the rhythm section!), and he earned the respect of serious rock artists and serious blues artists and serious metal artists.

A longtime friend and admirer, Hammett owns Green’s ’59 Gibson Les Paul (nicknamed “Greeny”). He recently covered Green’s last Fleetwood Mac song—“The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”—live onstage and was collaborating on new material with his idol. “Our loss is total,” Hammett wrote in tribute, perhaps the most succinct and devastating tribute among so many. Fleetwood Mac would never have existed without him. And his influence on the British Blues and beyond goes even deeper. See Green revisit his lovely “Man of the World” in a more recent performance, just below. He steps back from the fiery leads, playing subtle rhythm parts, but he still has the old magic in his fingers.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Last, Transcendent Performance of “Echoes” by Pink Floyd Keyboardist Richard Wright & David Gilmour (2006)

“Gentle, unassuming and private.” These are the words David Gilmour chose in his eulogy of Richard Wright, Pink Floyd’s keyboard player and co-songwriter, who joined the band in 1964 and stayed with them through all of their major albums, leaving after The Wall and rejoining for A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Wright was the quiet one; drummer Nick Mason compared him to George Harrison, and like Harrison, he was also Pink Floyd's secret weapon, helping to deliver many of their most career-defining songs.

Wright may rarely get much mention in songwriting tributes to Pink Floyd’s warring leaders or its tragic elfin first singer/songwriter Syd Barrett ("had his profile been any lower,” one obituary put it, “he would have been reported missing.”), but his “soulful voice and playing were vital, magical components of our most recognized Pink Floyd sound,” Gilmour went on. “In my view, all of the greatest PF moments are the ones where he is in full flow.”

Wright’s jazz training gave an improvisatory bent. His formal music education gave him an ear for composition. He was the band’s most versatile musician, playing dozens of instruments in addition to his signature Farfisa organ, and he was equally at home writing orchestral pieces or falling into whatever groove the band cooked up, as on their sixth studio album, Meddle, which emerged from several stages of experimental methods and happy accidents like the “ping” sound Wright’s piano makes at the beginning of the sprawling epic “Echoes,” the 23-minute second side of the album.

The song continued to grow, overdub by overdub. Waters wrote lyrics, Gilmour experimented with a sound effect he’d stumbled on by plugging his wah-wah pedal in backwards. If you ask Wright, as Mojo did in their final interview with him in 2008, the year of his death, it was largely his piece. Or at least, “the whole piano thing at the beginning and the chord structure for the song is mine.”

Like so many of Wright’s compositions, “Echoes” is also a showcase for Gilmour’s soaring solos and delicate rhythm playing. The interplay between the two musicians is on transcendent display in Wright’s final, live 2006 performance of the song before he succumbed to cancer two years later, for an audience of 50,000 at the Gdańsk Shipyard in Poland, recorded on the last show of Gilmour’s On an Island tour.

This is really great stuff. The filmed performance, which appears on Gilmour's album and concert film Live in Gdańsk, shows both Wright and Gilmour in top form, trading solos and creating the kind of atmosphere only those two could. Gilmour has said he’ll never perform the song again without Wright. It’s hard to imagine that he even could.

The band closed with the 20-plus-minute “Echoes” every night of the tour, and Wright brought out his old Farfisa just for the song. Given how long Gilmour and Wright had been completing each other’s virtuoso strengths as co-creators of instrumental moods, every performance on the tour was surely something special. But in hindsight, none are as moving as this one—the last time fans would ever have the experience of seeing Pink Floyd, or one version of them, recreate the magic of "Echoes" live onstage.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Revisit Six of Elton John’s Most Iconic Concerts, Streaming in Their Entirety for 72 Hours

Just as Bohemian Rhapsody introduced Freddy Mercury to an unsuspecting generation of young fans, last year’s Elton John biopic, Rocketmanhas netted its subject a host of fresh admirers.

John's newest fans were born into a far different world than the one that was astounded when he declared, in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone, that he was bisexual.

Now a knight (the first openly gay musician to be so anointed), Sir Elton is using his enormous public platform to encourage youth who may be struggling with their sexuality or gender identity and to end the global AIDS epidemic.

To date, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised over $450,000,000 to support HIV-related programs in fifty-five countries, and is now doubling down with coronavirus relief efforts for the population it has long served.

To that end, Sir Elton is revisiting six of his most iconic performances over the last half-century, posting a concert in its entirety to his Youtube channel every week in hope that viewers will be moved to make a donation at concert's end.

(As further incentive, an anonymous supporter has pledged to match donations up to $250,000.)

Each concert streams for 72 hours, but clips of individual songs linger longer.

Last week the Classic Concert Series turned the dial back 30 years to find Sir Elton playing a 1st-century Roman amphitheater—Italy’s Arena di Verona—as part of his 130-show Reg Strikes Back tour. His interplay with singers Mortonette Jenkins, Marlena Jeter, and Kudisan Kai during an 8-minute gospel-tinged spin on “Sad Songs (Say So Much)," above, is a highlight of the 22-song set.

The series kicked off at the Playhouse Theater in Edinburgh in 1976 as "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart" was topping the charts, and continues to the Sydney Entertainment Center ten years further on, when Sir Elton defied doctor's orders, performing despite vocal nodules.

On July 24, John takes us along to Rio’s Estadio Do Flamengo when the release of 1995’s Made In England prompted his first ever tour of Brazil.

The following week, we'll enter the 21st-century with a pitstop at Madison Square Garden before the series comes to a close at the Great Amphitheater in Ephesus, Turkey.

Watch Elton John’s Classic Concert Series on his Youtube channel, and even though it's not obligatory,  seek out the blue donation button that appears on every post. You can also make a tax deductible donation via the Elton John AIDS Foundation's website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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