PRE-GRUNGE LEGENDS Nirvana

No, not THAT one. But THIS one, which created
what was arguably the first rock concept
album, was influential in its own right just the same.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Way back,
in the pre-grunge mists of Merry Ole England, there was a band called Nirvana. No,
not that Nirvana – years before Kurt
Cobain was born, and while he was still in diapers, this British outfit was
wowing critics with a unique musical vision that mixed folk-influenced rock ‘n’
roll with elements of psychedelic pop, jazz, classical, and even baroque
chamber music. Comprised of Irish musician Patrick Campbell-Lyons and Greek
composer Alex Spyropoulos, Nirvana turned quite a few heads, wowed a handful of
British music critics, and sold a bucketload of records – literally, however
many records could fit into a large-sized bucket. Yeah, that few…

 

The buzz
around Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos caused Island Records founder Chris
Blackwell to sign the pair, and with a bevy of professional studio musicians
and a small orchestra, Nirvana recorded 1967’s The Story of Simon Simopath, what is widely considered to be the
first bona fide “concept
album,” the odd couple beating such world-renown acts as the Who, the
Kinks, and the Pretty Things to the punch. Although the band’s music was exceptionally difficult to perform live, Campbell-Lyons
and Spyropoulos pieced together a touring band nonetheless, opening for bands
like Traffic and Spooky Tooth, resulting in a subsequent minor U.K. hit single
in “Rainbow Chaser.”

 

Campbell-Lyons
and Spyropoulos would record two more albums together, 1968’s All Of Us, which was similar in sound
and scope to their debut, and Black
Flower
, an allegedly difficult recording which Blackwell refused to
release. That problematic third Nirvana album finally saw limited release in
1970, but by 1971 the pairing had run its course, with Campbell-Lyons and
Spyropoulos splitting amicably. Campbell-Lyons would release two more albums
under the Nirvana name before launching a solo career that fizzled out in the
mid-1980s, when he reunited with Spyropoulos and re-launched Nirvana, the pair
making new music well into the 1990s.     

 

Imagine young
Master Cobain’s surprise when Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos filed a lawsuit
against him and Geffen Records in 1992 for the appropriation of their band’s
name. A rumored large cash pay-off allowed Cobain’s crew to continue using the
Nirvana name, while Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos kept
on trucking, virtually unknown in the United States, but evidently keeping a
sense of humor about the whole affair, even recording a version of Cobain’s
“Lithium” at one point.

 

By the
time of the Seattle Nirvana’s commercial ascent to the peaks of stardom, the
British Nirvana’s first two original albums had become a sort of Holy Grail of
1960s psych-rock collectors, fetching handsome prices on eBay and elsewhere,
leading to a rash of CD reissues, some legitimate and some questionable, that
only spread the band’s myth even further. Since many of these CD reissues of
Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath and All Of Us were import discs, the
band still remains a bit of an obscurity here in the U.S., notable mostly to
the sort of hardcore collector type that will spend hours digging through
crates to find that one album by Gandalf, the Millennium, the Left Banke, or
Kaleidoscope to add to their teetering stacks o’ wax. Credited to Nirvana ’69,
the newly-released Cult (Global
Recording Artists) is a long-overdue CD compilation of early material from the
British Nirvana, offered on these shores for what may be the first time.

 

Enquiring
minds want to know, does this 1960s-era Nirvana live up to the hype spread
around by the collectors’ community for the past three decades? Well, the short
answer is, yes and no. Only the simple-minded and/or clueless would really
believe that Nirvana ’69 sounds anything like Cobain’s world-beating trio, so those of you expecting some sort of
earth-shaking, proto-grunge cheap thrills can dash off to Pitchfork and see
what new band you’re supposed to download this week. As for the rest of you,
throw out any preconceived ideas you may have about psych-pop, British
folk-rock, or any of that because, the truth is, Nirvana sounds both like
nothing you’ve ever heard before and, curiously, like a lot of what you already
love. If you’re a fan of such 1960s-era fellow travelers as the Zombies, Love,
or the Left Banke, you’ll probably dig Cult nearly as much as any album by those folks.

 

To say
that Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos had a grandiose musical vision is to put it
mildly, and as shown by the nearly two-dozen tracks collected on Cult, the only limitations on the pair’s
immense musical ambition seemed to be the restrictions of the studio itself. Cult includes seven of the ten tracks
from The Story of Simon Simopath and
nine of twelve from All Of Us (the
album’s actual title is too long for even me to recount here), as well as a
handful of single B-sides, and even a new song in “Our Love Is The
Sea.” While the bulk of Cult is
pleasant enough psychedelic pop – a mind-bending musical garden that the
Reverend only walks through a couple times a year – there are rare flashes of
brilliance here that certainly justify the band’s legend.

 

Island
Records definitely missed the boat by only issuing a pair of singles from the
first Nirvana album, as I count four red-hot slabs from The Story of Simon Simopath that had a puncher’s chance to hit the U.K. charts
hard circa 1967. In an era where singles were the currency of commercial pop
music, it was almost malpractice to throw only one single into the marketplace.
The band’s album-opening “Wings of Love” is a wistful little romantic
number chock-full of poetic imagery, sweeping orchestration, a lovely melody,
and odd little instrumental rumblings here and there which raise it about your
normal “Summer of Love” fare. “Lonely Boy” would have made
another rad single, the melancholy vocals clad in baroque-pop trappings with a
dash of background harmonies, and an overall whimsical vibe.

 

“Satellite
Jockey” is simply brilliant, reminding of both the Kinks and the Move, but
pre-dating the Electric Light Orchestra with a complex pop melody welded to a
classical construct. The album’s actual single, “Pentacost Hotel,” is
a charming, elfish song with the sort of soft/loud dynamic that Cobain would
later use to sell millions of records. This Nirvana slaps cascading instrumentation and orchestral finery onto a psych-pop
framework with great results. The band’s only charting single, 1968’s
“Rainbow Chaser,” would later be included on their sophomore album,
and while it shows slight artistic growth over the aforementioned material from
their debut, it doesn’t stray far from the classical-pop hybrid blueprint they
used on that album. With swirls of orchestral instrumentation, the melody here
is somewhat more syncopated, with wan vocals lost amidst the washes of violin
and cacophonic percussion.

 

Curiously
enough, “Tiny Goddess” was actually the band’s first single, but
wasn’t included on the first album. I’m not sure why, because the song’ s
ethereal arrangement, thundering percussion, flowery lyrics and vocals, and
dazzling instrumentation fit like a glove with that album. Perhaps with a
stronger melody “Tiny Goddess” might have delivered the band’s first
hit. There are a couple of other high points from All Of Us included on Cult,
including the up-tempo “Girl In The Park,” a spry pastiche of late
1960s pop/rock and sunshine pop that hides its symphonic foundation beneath
lively vocals and a strong melodic hook. “The St. Johns Wood Affair”
is a catchy little number that blends jazzy flourishes with an unusual
arrangement, sparse instrumentation, and a few surprising musical twists and
turns before it’s all over.

 

Of the
B-sides, etc to be found on Cult,
they don’t detour much from the material from the main albums, although both
“Life Ain’t Easy” and “Darling Darlane” both stand out, the
former a hauntingly beautiful ballad with a lush orchestral background and
melancholy vocals, the latter a mid-tempo romantic pop song that melds scraps
of 1950s-era rock (think Gene Pitney) with a 1960s psychedelic sensibility
(more like the Bee Gees than the Beatles). As for the “bonus tracks”
on Cult, “Requiem for John
Coltrane” is an unexpected outlier, mixing lonesome jazzy hornplay with
odd noises and overall sonic chaos unlike anything the band had previously
recorded. “Our Love Is The Sea” presents the 2012 version of Nirvana;
benefiting from modern production and improved studio tools, the song builds
upon the band’s 1960s legacy to deliver a fantastic bit of musical whimsy.    

 

The
British Nirvana never found the fame and fortune that their later stateside
namesakes did, but they were nonetheless influential far beyond their meager
commercial returns would suggest. The making of the band’s first two albums
involved a number of talents that would benefit from the experience of working
with Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos to go on to bigger and better things. This
list includes producers Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Marc Bolan); Jimmy Miller
(The Rolling Stones); and Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople, The Clash) as well as
studio engineer Brian Humphries (Traffic, Pink Floyd), plus musicians like
Billy Bremner (Rockpile).

 

All in
all, if you’re a fan of 1960s-era psychedelic pop, you’re going to love
Nirvana, and Cult is a fine
introduction to, if not a substitute for, the band’s near-mythical original
albums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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