The Silver Apples were named for the fruit in W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” one of Yeats most fey but beloved efforts. Unsurprisingly perhaps, “Aengus” was taken to the bosom of hippie culture. Donovan sung the verses of the poem to the accompaniment of a mellow acoustic guitar, and more recently Devendra Banhart curated the freak-folk compilation Golden Apples of the Sun. The gold and silver apples are referenced elsewhere, and one mention must go to the 1973 film with the same name as Devendra’s compilation, which was apparently a shocking hippie horror flick that used gratuitous nudity and violence to drive home its point about mother nature’s cruelty.
To my mind then, there is more significance in Silver Apples’ name than the average happened-upon phrase or in-joke that stuck at the first jamming session, something a little more poetically apposite. The band’s songs rarely talk about girlfriends, but they do seem to harp on the divine feminine and mystical marriage — the repetition of words like ‘oscillations’ over some insistent drumming turns a silly, ‘far-out’ phrase into a serious invocation, and a Celtic style voyage to an eternal paradise is mentioned at least once. Silver Apples get away with this because their music has that same loose limbed exuberance Talking Heads could tap into without being mocked (too much). It’s not that the songs should be taken incredibly seriously, but there’s an art to making an ass of oneself, particularly if this display can be justified with the excuse of ‘I was wasted.’ And while drugs quite clearly had a place in the bizarre Silver Apples universe (the band so offended Pan Am executives by strewing the cockpit of a jet with drugs paraphernalia for an album cover shot that Pan Am sued and brought down their record label), Silver Apples appear to have been using drugs in that cute, experimental way. It wasn’t unheard of in their time to actually aim for the blessedness that reputedly only reveals itself to holy fools; think of Bob Dylan, adopting the Christian name of Dylan Thomas as his surname — Thomas who was the ultimate drunken poet lost in flowery ramblings about boyhood.
That’s why it’s not so surprising that Joanna Newsom cites the Silver Apples as one of her favorite party bands. After listening to their 1968 album, I was quick to pin Joanna’s choice on the distinct possibility of the girl’s being as mad as a box of frogs. It seemed to me (and my prejudices) that the doyenne of freak-folk simply couldn’t bear to drink anywhere outside the hip neighborhood of the astral plane. But Newsom was right: Silver Apples are often danceable, in the democratically pilled out way that 90s rave and techno were. It was a real pleasure to hear the air-raid siren noises and pounding beats that are the fixtures of modern techno still flush from their first joyride in Silver Apples’ scrap metal car. Incidentally, Subotnick’s landmark electronic piece, “Silver Apples of the Moon,” which definitely shows early signs of techno, didn’t influence Silver Apples’ choice of name at all. Their eccentric frontman, Simeon, who named his homemade oscillator after himself, got into the early adopters of electronic music much later.
The track “Misty Mountain” was, according to Simeon, their only love song. So despite the “maidens gathering flowers” on “Velvet Cave” and the poetry about flowing hair, the love buzz on songs like “Seagreen Serenades” and “Velvet Cave” is the blissed out, drugged up kind that’s directed at all mankind. In keeping with this, when the buzz evaporates, the comedown is paranoid and evil intentioned. “A Pox on You,” from the Silver Apples’ second album Contact, is one of the most deranged yet catchy break up songs you’ll hear. If Yeats’s ideal love conjured from apple blossom (in a scenario Yeats evidently preferred to the relatively straightforward procedure of asking a girl out) was the kind of woman Silver Apples were channeling when they were in love with humanity, then the anti-ideal of “A Pox on You” is a voodoo doll stuck through with pins, defleshed and dehumanized.
Mostly, though, the humanity and the inhumanity of the brand new sounds Silver Apples drew out of their wind-up radio oscillators went hand in hand in the innocent/merciless way that Philip K. Dick envisaged his childlike androids. Perhaps the best way to introduce the odd, offworld noises made by a cranky instrument like the Simeon was to emphasize that emotion could be felt through them in a particular way — with humor and goodwill and the vicarious pleasures of watching them grow. Simeon has said that his favorite Silver Apples moment was “Oscillations” — the very first song the band ever recorded. The oscillator was so fragile that a cloud passing over could make it go out of tune. It seems that what Simeon saw in his invention, much like Philip K. Dick’s eccentric model maker, was its childlike capriciousness rather than the cold, sophisticated futurism that came to be associated with electronic music in the 80s. That prejudice has since been and gone, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that there are often two genesis stories accounting for something we think we know, and one tends to be a lot more forgiving than the other.