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RIP Simeon Coxe: An electronic music inventor who defied time

The homemade electronic instrument used in Silver Apples' psychedelic rock / proto krautrock made Coxe a musical revolutionary

  • David Pollock
  • 10 September 2020

Since news broke of the death of Simeon Coxe this week, a striking black-and-white photograph of the ever-immaculate electronic music pioneer – whose work went largely unsung for the early decades of his life – has been shared around social media. It shows Coxe performing live with his group Silver Apples, wearing a gender-blurring outfit of crushed velvet shirt, beaded necklace and perfectly bobbed brown hair.

Taken from a height, we can see banks of Coxe’s homemade oscillators laid out before him, his hands arcing and stretching towards buttons and dials, while he sings into the mic in his elegant flower-power falsetto. The shot could have been taken at Paradise Garage in 1979, or it could have been from Berghain last year – but this was Los Angeles in 1968: Silver Apples were at once like nothing the world had ever seen and everything it would come to dance to when the clubbing revolution of the 1980s had passed.

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Until the mid-‘90s, when a series of German bootleg recordings found their way to the UK, very few people knew who Silver Apples were, even as the Summer of Love generation essentially tried to recreate what they had done two decades later and with better equipment. They predated even Kraftwerk, but to listen to their classic records now is to hear a creative explosion years ahead of its time.

Silver Apples’ eponymous debut album landed in 1968 like an alien transmission. On opener ‘Oscillations’, Simeon intones a trance-like mantra over a skipping, itchy-footed kickdrum beat, a squealing oscillator piercing the air like a rave whistle; ‘Program’ grooves away over a prototype breakbeat rhythm, while bursts of intercepted radio noise pierce the air; the airhorn-like chime running through ‘Lovefingers’ sounds like the basis for an Orbital track; ‘Seagreen Serenades’ remains the most unexpectedly infectious dancefloor weapon to feature a jaunty flute solo midway through.

All of this music was largely shunned at the time, before slowly coming to light in the 1990s (album reissues on MCA followed the bootlegs) and belatedly becoming deserved touchstones for electronic music producers in the 2000s. UNKLE, LFO and El-P sampled them, the Beastie Boys sang their praises, and Portishead invited them to play their edition of hipster festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. Following drummer and co-founder Danny Taylor’s death in 2005, the silver-haired Simeon cut a dapper figure performing at electronic music festivals and recounting his story to magazines and blogs around the world.

Silver Apples were founded by Coxe and Taylor in New York in 1967, from the ashes of bar covers group the Overland Stage Electric Band. Or rather, Taylor was the only member who hung around when Coxe’s wild musical experiments with an oscillator a classical musician friend had sold him for ten dollars became serious. The classic rockers turned their backs, but the switched-on young heads of the city took an interest.

Silver Apples found themselves playing outdoor free festivals around the city to audiences of 30,000, and John Lennon and Taylor’s friend Jimi Hendrix were fans (an outtake exists online of the pair jamming with him on 'Star Spangled Banner'). Coxe and Taylor locked themselves away in a loft and recorded for weeks on end, with Simeon jury-rigging his own creation together called ‘the Simeon’, an assembly of initially nine oscillators (this number grew over time) fed through wah-wah pedals, which acted as a DIY synthesiser before anyone but hardcore geeks and gearheads knew what that was. It piqued the interest of Robert Moog, who visited Silver Apples’ studio for a viewing.

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The pair made two albums, 1968’s ‘Silver Apples’ and 1969’s ‘Contact’, and then split with little fanfare. Their debut LP had barely grazed Billboard’s top 200, and the second album’s release was canned by their label Kapp when promotional partners Pan Am discovered the sleeve featured them getting high in the cockpit of a jumbo jet on the front and basking amid plane crash debris on the back; lawyers were involved. No other labels would go near a completed third album at the time.

For more than two decades, Simeon left the music industry, taking work as a news reporter and producer for WKRG, his local station in Mobile, Alabama, and other American broadcasters. Following Silver Apples’ rediscovery he toured and recorded at first with Xian Hawkins and Michael Lerner, releasing the albums ‘Decatur’ and ‘Beacon’ in 1997 and ’98, and reunited with Taylor after many years. The latter still held a recording of their unheard third album ‘The Garden’, which was also released.

Simeon suffered a serious spinal injury following a hit and run car crash in 1998, but made a recovery. 2016’s ‘Clinging to a Dream’ – Silver Apples’ sixth album – was the work of an artist who was at last fully reintegrated into the music industry and receiving his deserved due.

“It’s just now opening up into a flower,” he told Thump of his perception of contemporary music in 2013, his hands blooming apart like blossoming petals. “I think the future is really ahead of us, it’s really gonna boom. You’re gonna see huge leaps in terms of what we accept as music.” He was, as ever, ahead of his time.

Simeon Oliver Coxe III was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 4 1938, raised in New Orleans from the age of seven, and died at the age of 82 in Fairhope, Alabama, on September 4 2020.

David Pollock is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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