I'm surprised this hadn't come to my attention before now, but on March 10, 2005 Danny Taylor passed on at the tragic age of 56 in Kingston, New York. I haven't been able to locate any further details, but it's better to spend a moment thinking about his grooves instead anyway. Rock's answer to tabla tarang (the tuned drum array of Indian classical music), Taylor created a radical body of work in collaboration with Simeon Coxe as Silver Apples between the years of 1967 and 1970, creating three studio albums, Silver Apples, Contact, and a third that went unreleased until it was discovered in Taylor's attic in 1998 and released with other material as The Garden. Along with his extension of drumkit vocabulary into the realms of tuned percussion, Taylor's critical innovation was a style of drumkit rhythm that predates by several decades the breakbeats of electronic dance music culture and the bouncy blissouts of Stereolab and Broadcast. If someone heard tracks like "Seagreen Serenades" and "Program" from the 1968 debut without knowing any better, they could easily mistake it for an oddity of the mid-90s jungle / drum 'n' bass explosion, though the 60s feeling in the production and vocals would temper the impression.
Nobody else that I'm aware of in that seminal era of rock experimentalism played rhythms like Taylor. I wish I knew to what extent his breakbeats and motoric loops were based on earlier music, but my knowledge of pop music doesn't stretch much further back than the mid-60s. Quite generally, I'm itching to read a historical analysis of the development of the underlying rhythmic concepts explored in breakbeat culture. I would imagine that Taylor got ideas from earlier soul, funk, and jazz drumkit approaches, but I really have no facts to refer to. Concurrent to the explosion of so-called psychedelic rock that the Silver Apples were an obscure part of, James Brown was honing his advanced concepts of groove overseeing constant performances by a crack ensemble that would feature as many as five drumkitters in one concert, alternating duties depending on the specific requirements of each tune. Clyde Stubblefield's drum fill in the James Brown tune "Funky Drummer" is of course always cited as a landmark and has been used as the rhythmic basis for a vast amount of music in the past two decades or so, but this was recorded in late 1969. There must be some earlier chapters to the breakbeat story. Sheer personal invention by Stubblefield, Taylor, et al is probably part of it, but I'll bet there was a groove zeitgeist yet to be documented.
The motoric, even beats that Taylor used in addition to the funky ones can be heard in Maureen Tucker's drumkit style with the Velvet Underground, which predates the Silver Apples by only a year or so. Interestingly, both bands were from New York City, a disproportionately infertile region for the creative rock of the era (but let's not forget other great NYC experimental rock units like Autosalvage and Mystic Tide!). I wonder if their worlds overlapped? Taylor was definitely part of the lower Manhattan rock scene as the drumkitter in Jimi Hendrix's first group, Jimmy James and The Blue Flames, which formed in 1965 and hung its hat in the Greenwich Village scene. In the case of Tucker, it's not hard to hear how she was incrementally modifying earlier blues and rock models for her propulsive beats, but in tandem with Sterling Morrison's equally insistent strumming loops on electric guitar it was a fresh rhythmic feeling that predated the Krautrock of the early 70s, as did Taylor's more insistently repetitive moments, though the guitar sound of VU relates more to Faust, Can, Ono, etc than the pre-Neu!/Kraftwerk electronic timbres of the Silver Apples. Surely unbeknowst to each side of the Atlantic, Germany's quintet of American GIs The Monks broke comparable rhythmic ground in 1966, curiously even using a banjo like the Silver Apples did! While The Monks' amplified six-string banjo was a thrashing punk element much more brash and raw than their kindred spirits in NYC, the band definitely shared the austere propulsion of Tucker and Morrisson, not to mention the seminal introduction of guitar/amplifier feedback into the vocabulary of music. There's also a striking resemblance to The Monks in the Silver Apples' hot motoric banjo groove classic "Ruby".
I speculate that Taylor's unique prefigurations of breakbeats and some of his other rhythmic concepts were a result of adapting to the extremely novel form of bass accompaniment Simeon provided. Unlike just about every other rock band of the era you could name, the Silver Apples used no guitars in any form, bass or alto/tenor, and no keyboards in any form, except on the tracks where Simeon played amplified acoustic banjo. Aside from drumkit, the key compositions by the duo derived all their instrumentation from Simeon's homemade assemblage of oscillators covering the full range from deep bass to twee filigree. Simeon's bass lines were stark and mechanical, obviously predating yet another critical aspect of drum 'n' bass aesthetics. The conventional phrasing and inflections of a bass guitar (or heck, even a tuba, like on The Seeds' third album) were out of reach for Simeon and his crude oscillators. It's easy to imagine the duo reconstructing their rhythms from the elemental units of repetition and accent in response to these instrumental conditions, focusing on synchronization and rhythmic minimalism to accomodate the limitations of Simeon's motor system as he dealt with simultaneous layers of rhythm and melody on his oscillators. In any case, it's frankly astounding how similar the breakbeats and massive bass tones are to relatively recent music, and in the many times over the years I've found myself joyfully indulging in tracks like "Seagreen Serenades" at sonically forceful volume levels from my car stereo, I've occasionally caught myself feeling I might be awkwardly misrepresenting myself as a member of a certain acoustic-ecologically problematic subculture I have no affiliation with!
There's something odd about the fact we use the term "electronic music" to refer to a lot of music that's so heavily based on a purely acoustic instrument like drumkit, but you can't get much more electronic than Simeon's oscillators. Silver Apples manager Barry Bryant penned this classic precis of the duo's sound at the time:
Silver Apples is an organic mechanism composed of the Simeon and the Taylor Drums. The Simeon presently consists of nine audio oscillators and eight-six manual controls, enabling Simeon to express his musical ideas. The lead and rhythm oscillators are played with the hands, elbows and knees and the bass oscillators are played with the feet. The Taylor Drums at this point include thirteen drums, five cymbals and other percussion instruments that Danny uses to develop his own mathematically pulsating systems, creating both rhythm and melody. As the two artists each create melody and rhythm, the resulting sounds interchange and grow to an electronic evocation.Índeed, as far as I know, the Silver Apples and The United States of America were the first electronic rock groups, and the Apples were the most purely electronic of the small handful of other groups in the late 60s infancy of avant-rock that used electronics, with the possible exception of White Noise, the 1969 studio project that gave us the timeless An Electric Storm. The United States of America were similar to the Silver Apples in their avoidance of the standard guitar vocabulary of rock music and offered an equally inventive homebrew electronic sound world, while also relying on the relatively conventional instrumentation of bass guitar and violin, albeit fretless in the former case and heavily electrified in both cases. The reason I rank USA higher than Silver Apples (and higher than any 60s rock music for that matter) is simply the untouchable vocals of Dorothy Moskowitz; in most other respects the two groups were equally brilliant, though it does bear special mention that Taylor's drumkit work was way more advanced than any group that could be cited for exploring electronics in this era. As it were, the only other significant electronic rock group of the era that I'm aware of is Fifty-Foot Hose, who were several notches less accomplished than these other three, but still created a masterpiece album with catchy, sophisticated, and innovative pieces that can still blow minds. Spoils of War and Red Crayola also count as minor historical footnotes in any overview of this first period of experimentation with electronics in a rock context, but didn't deliver the kinds of inspired masterpieces of songcraft that make a group like Silver Apples so relevant just as great music regardless of its innovative aspects.
In the end, the reason the Silver Apples are so deliriously enjoyable and warrant permanent high-rotation status is that they wrote songs that reached rare peaks of sheer, joyful pop bliss, and it's to these I turn most often, despite my occasional deep enjoyment of the bizarre anti-pop gems they crafted as well. These are the high-rotation pop nuggets: "You and I", "Misty Mountain", "Seagreen Serenades", "Lovefingers", "Program", "I Have Known Love", and "Oscillations". Simeon was a great vocalist who could nail a lilting melody. Combine that with some ace songwriting and the singular, devastating grooves, and you've got timeless music ranking among the greatest achievements in rock history. I return to this music again and again. It never loses its power.
The mid-90s saw a Silver Apples renaissance highlighted by the overdue proper reissue of their two albums and the fantastic tribute album Electronic Evocations that presented genuine reconstructions of their classic tunes with independent aesthetic identities. Somewhat regrettably, after decades of absence from the music world, Simeon tackled some of the same tunes himself alongside a program of new original material in a new incarnation of the Silver Apples that released the embarassing Beacon in 1998, a debacle on par with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer in the history of comeback attempts. Without Taylor's distinctive drumkit vocabulary and with gaudy digital synth timbres instead of the artfully primitive oscillator palette of the glory days, not to mention the painfully vivid loss of Simeon's vocal skills, it's an album that even serious Silver Apples fans should avoid wasting money on. Simeon's fascination with newer electronic instruments was also documented on the follow-up album Decatur, a single album-length track of beatless electronic noodlings with a musical sensibility akin to various non-academic electronic music trends in the 70s and 80s, a quaint, listenable, and pleasant work bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the earlier Silver Apples sound.
It was only a matter of time before Taylor would also re-emerge, but it's a shame it didn't happen a few years earlier to possibly forestall Simeon's failures to extend the group's legacy. The story is recounted in the liner notes to The Garden:
It was 12:30 in the afternoon of March 17, 1998. Danny Taylor was sitting at his desk at the phone company eating a baloney sandwich. He was idly listening to the radio, a satellite of WFMU in New Jersey. At 12:31 his eyes got round as saucers. He sputtered "That's Me!". The radio was playing "I Have Known Love" from Contact, Silver Apples' second album, recorded in 1969. Danny was the drummer on all Silver Apples sogs of that era, but this was the only one on which he sang! He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
The station was conducting a pledge drive so he called them up and pledged $25 saying "Anybody who plays Silver Apples after all these years gotta be alright". And he gave his name and phone number. An alert DJ at WFMU named Fabio noticed the pledge card and called him back, asking "Are you THE Danny Taylor, the long lost and missing-in-action Silver Apple?". So that's how it came to pass. Fabio emailed Simeon "We've found Danny!". Within minutes Simeon was out the door. He drove 300 miles for the reunion. They hadn't seen in each other in twenty-seven years!
Shortly thereafter, the long-forgotten recordings of the unreleased third Silver Apples album from 1969 were located in Taylor's attic, as were recordings of solo drumkit pieces from 1968 documenting Taylor's groove research. The seven songs that were completed for the album hold up nicely and show a bouncier, goofier side to the band, also continuing certain trends evident from comparing the first and second albums. The solo drumkit works (released on The Garden with some solid and reasonable electronic additions Simeon recorded in 1998) are especially relevant today as we reflect on Taylor's legacy. His fascination with the timbral and melodic colorations of tom-toms comes through as he loops through pounding, catchy grooves, and his fidgety breakbeat sensibilities are especially well captured on "Fire Ant Noodle".
~Michael Anton Parker
Thanks to avant-rock guru Craig Shropshire for bringing this news to my attention.
An informative entry on the Silver Apples appears on this pleasant blog. I also located this note on Taylor's passing from someone with a personal connection to Taylor and Simeon. In this fine interview, Simeon says Hendrix tried to get Taylor to join him for his UK transition. The fickle winds of history blow again.Posted by maparker on August 26, 2005 3:53 PM
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