IN THE COURTYARD OF THE STARS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH NIRVANA CO-FOUNDER
In the early weeks of 1968, the MGM label released its third and final compilation comprised of the most recent highlights of one of the most respected and prolific bands on its roster. The Best Of Herman’s Hermits, Volume Three
(MGM SE-4505) featured a reasonable sampling (although not all) of the band’s most noteworthy material that had been released since the second volume in the series appeared in 1966, including the singles Museum
, Don’t Go Out Into The Rain
and No Milk Today.
As was the case with the second volume, The Best Of Herman’s Hermits, Volume Three
did not encompass all of the band’s most obvious successes, as it also served as a showcase for newer material. To that effect, this installment included the band’s rather ambitious and generously orchestrated take on the Four Preps’ 1958 monster classic, Big Man
(Capitol F3960), as well as a most novel track that was composed by a pair of relative aspirants.
That new recording immediately stood out amongst the more familiar fare on the album for its unique arrangement; highlighted by a lavish string section that was augmented by some of the late, great Derek Leckenby’s finest lead guitar work. In turn, the uptempo vamp near the fade spoke volumes with its relentlessly optimistic proclamation of, “She wants to be in love, she wants to fly.”
The track in question was Wings Of Love
, which was composed by the remarkably gifted songwriting team of Patrick Campbell-Lyons (who hailed from Lismore in Ireland’s County Waterford) and Greek native/film student Alex Spyropoulos, the resident visionaries and front men of the highly ambitious, London-based psych/garage/folk band, Nirvana. The band had released their own version of Wings Of Love
in October 1967 on their Island label debut album, the Chris Blackwell-produced The Story Of Simon Simopath
(Island ILPS 9059), which also featured Ray Singer on guitar, Michael Coe on French horn and viola, Brian Henderson on bass, and Sylvia A. Schuster on cello, plus drummers Peter Kester, David Preston and Patrick Shanahan. Comprised of a series of thematic vignettes that predates like minded efforts by the Pretty Things (S.F. Sorrow
), the Who (The Who Sell Out
) and the Kinks (The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society
), The Story Of Simon Simopath
was instantly acclaimed as the groundbreaking achievement that it was.
Yet for many, it was Herman’s Hermits’ sublime cover of Wings Of Love
that served as their introduction to Nirvana’s music. Nonetheless, Nirvana’s prolific and perfectionist work ethic soon made it abundantly clear that there was much more from where that came. To that effect, the band issued a series of albums and singles that progressively confounded expectations. In each instance, Nirvana underscored the fact that theirs was a highly unique and complex synthesis of vivid imagery that drew from both reality and fantasy with equal deference, augmented by lavish and sympathetic orchestration that invoked Broadway, opera and folk music for inspiration.
As a result, Nirvana was in part responsible for the development of the dreamscape template; a curious sub genre that continues to resonate with garage rock and psych devotees. It was a development also evidenced at the time in the works of Harpers Bizarre and Twinn Connexion, although each band did so on their own terms.
“I think they are terrific”, said Twinn Connexion co-founder, Jerry Hopkins in reference to Nirvana.
Together with his late brother, Jay, Hopkins went on to record Twinn Connexion’s acclaimed debut album for Decca in 1968, which likewise has been hailed as a breakthrough in the dreamscape genre.
“However, Jay and I were really not influenced by any of the bands at that time”, he said.
“We really did develop our own style, with the help of Jerry Keller. Jay and I started out with a dream of working in Vegas or on Broadway. Our style as the Twinn Brothers was more night club kind of stuff. Bobby Cole, Judy Garland's musical director thought that's where we belonged and wanted to sign us with his record label, Concentric Records. Then Jerry and (songwriter) Dave (Blume) came along with Bill Downer of Northern publishing and the sound just evolved.”
Evolve it did, as Twinn Connexion, Harpers Bizarre and Nirvana each made remarkable strides in their respective endeavors throughout the remainder of the 1960s. Thankfully, Nirvana initially had the backing of several influential labels in their attempts to generate momentum. While Island oversaw their releases for the U.K., the late Larry Uttal’s Bell label (which at that time was the recording home of such greats as the Syndicate Of Sound, James and Bobby Purify, the Chartbusters, Jimmy Jones, the Doughboys, the Scaffold and -- on their subsidiary Mala label -- the Box Tops) assumed responsibilities for Nirvana in the United States. That the vaunted Festival label handled the band’s output in Australia only enhanced the opportunities for diversity amongst releases.
To wit, there was some consensus by default at the onset, with the July 1967 release of the non-LP single, Tiny Goddess
/ I Believe In Magic
(Island WIP-6016). However, the late September 1967 release of Pentecost Hotel
from The Story Of Simon Simopath
album (which was released as Bell 6015 in the United States) with the non-LP B-side, Feelin’ Shattered
(Island WIP-6020) apparently did not represent an ideal coupling to Bell, who in early 1968 issued Pentecost Hotel
backed with the exuberant We Can Help You
(Bell B-715) from the album.
For that matter, Bell Records passed on the single release of Rainbow Chaser
, although that March 1968 single (coupled with Flashbulb
on Island WIP-6029) gave Nirvana their biggest moment in the spotlight. Island and Bell again concurred on the June 1968 release of Girl In The Park
as an A-side. Even so, the increasing importance of the flip side in the overall presentation was becoming readily apparent, with Island’s introduction of C Side In Ocho Rios
(Island WIP-6038) versus Bell’s choice of You Are Just The One
(Bell B-730) from the debut album.
In Nirvana’s case, nowhere was the wisdom of the mission statement behind that seeming dichotomy better evidenced than with their own single release of the definitive Wings Of Love
. Both Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos were heavily impacted by the July 1967 passing of the beloved and immensely respected jazz visionary, John William Coltrane from cancer at age forty. Their resultant Requiem For John Coltrane
paid tribute to the late saxophonist with simulations of his Atlantic and Impulse Records-period work, interspersed among dreamscape snippets of mourning. Requiem For John Coltrane
provided a perfect showcase of the band’s diverse repertoire by being coupled with Wings Of Love
for U.K. release (Island WIP-6052). However, Festival in Australia wisely decided to instead emphasize the band’s dreamscape leanings by pairing Wings Of Love
with the pomp and grandeur of Melanie Blue
(Festival FK-2786) from their second album.
That second album in and of itself was guaranteed at least a modicum of recognition by virtue of its title, The Existence Of Chance Is Everything And Nothing While The Greatest Achievement Is The Living of Life, And So Say All of Us
. Commonly referred to as All Of Us
for logistical reasons, that 1968 follow up was issued as Bell 6024-S in the United States and as Island ILPS 9087 in the U.K. Produced by Chris Blackwell, All Of Us
featured not only the aforementioned Melanie Blue
, but such Nirvana staples as Rainbow Chaser
, The Touchables
, Miami Masquerade
and the theologically rich The Saint Johns Wood Affair
. For this second effort, only guitarist Ray Singer remained on board from the debut album to support Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos.
For the remainder of the decade, as self-indulgence became an increasing presence in rock music, Nirvana remained a progressive entity in the most positive sense of the term by continuing to challenge themselves to excellence. By 1969, the band had switched American label affiliations to Metromedia, which at that time was not only the recording home of such diverse and respected artists as the Winstons, Bobby Sherman, Julius LaRosa, Chill Wills, Merv Griffin, Carolyn Hester and Lester Lanin, but of the New York duo, Milkwood Tapestry, whose work has often been favorably compared to that of Nirvana.
Their third album, To Markos III
was released in late 1969 on Metromedia MD 1018. Produced by Mike Hurst, To Markos III
featured such diverse and engaging fare as It Happened Two Sundays Ago
, I Talk To My Room
and The World Is Cold Without You.
The album was also noteworthy for enlisting the services of such beloved session greats as Luvvers alumnus, Parlophone solo artist (The House On The Hill
) and future Rockpile guitarist, William Murray “Billy” Bremner and the late, great virtuoso vocalist and songwriter, Lesley Duncan. To Markos III
(which was reportedly named after an uncle of Spyropoulos) eventually saw U.K. release in 1970 on the Pye label.
However, the challenges of sustaining such momentum in the face of the increasingly negative developments in the world of music at the time proved to be a bit much for Spyropoulos, who in 1971 opted to take a sabbatical from the band. Campbell-Lyons kept Nirvana’s momentum going that year with the release of the not so subtly titled, Local Anaesthetic
, aided in part by saxophonist Mel Collins.
Campbell-Lyons followed suit in 1972 with Nirvana’s theologically rich Songs Of Love And Praise
album, which combined remakes of Rainbow Chaser
and Pentecost Hotel
with such challenging fare as Lord Up Above
and Please Believe Me
. For Songs Of Love And Praise
, Campbell-Lyons was rejoined by cellist Sylvia A. Schuster, who subsequently carved out a successful niche for herself in that capacity with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
For more than a decade following that release, Campbell-Lyons also opted to go it alone, with the solo efforts Me And My Friend
(1973), The Electric Plough
(1981) and The Hero I Might Have Been
(1983) representing the cream of his efforts during that period. Me And My Friend
also earned an American release, with the title track coupled with Out On The Road
as a single (Capitol P-3707). The solo single, That’s What My Guru Said Last Night
(The Electric Record Company WOT12), issued near the end of the 1970s, also demonstrated that the adversity of the times had little impact on Campbell-Lyons’ unique perspective and wry wit.
Happily, Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos opted to reunite as Nirvana in 1985. The reinvigorated duo celebrated the occasion with the release of Black Flower
for Bam Caruso Records in 1987; which combined archival recordings with newer material. Not surprisingly, Nirvana continued to confound expectations in 1999 by sidestepping a number of their most essential tracks with the release of the three CD anthology, Chemistry
for Edsel Records.
As an adjunct to his responsibilities with Nirvana, Campbell-Lyons authored a book of his recollections of the music industry during that most creative of eras. Published by Createspace in 2009, Psychedelic Days 1960-1969
remains available online via www.psychedelicdays.com
In 2012, Nirvana reintroduced their most essential work via the sublime compilation, Cult
, released appropriately enough on Karl Anderson’s Global Recording Artists (GRA) label. In addition to his work overseeing the late Scott Seely’s legendary Accent label (whose vast roster includes such greats as Lawrence Welk Orchestra virtuoso guitarist Buddy Merrill, as well as beloved acoustic era pioneer Nick Lucas and first generation garage rockers, the Human Expression), Anderson’s GRA label has amassed its own impressive track record in short order by releasing superb collections of all new material by such immensely respected pioneers as the Strawberry Alarm Clock, We Five co-founder Jerry Burgan, Bees/Byrds alumnus John York and the prolific singer/songwriter Bill Mumy.
In the sleeve notes of Cult
, veteran journalist/musicologist Alec Palao suggests that Nirvana’s “central strength is their songwriting”. To be certain, the evidence to date underscores that assertion in abundance, and Cult
is as ideal of a starting point as any for the uninitiated.
In the following exchange with Blitz Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell (conducted during July 2012), Patrick Campbell-Lyons discusses the highlights of Nirvana’s legacy, as well as the inspiration behind their ongoing creative process.
Your first musical endeavor of consequence was the band Second Thoughts, whose repertoire was largely based in rhythm and blues. In addition to rhythm and blues, what genres and/or which artists were your earliest musical inspirations?
I was born and brought up a Catholic in the Republic of Ireland as part of a loving family that was interested in drama, music, all things cultural, with parents who did their very best to make sure that I, my brother and my sister got a good education.
As a kid in that environment, I heard on the radio the well-known singers. Tenors of the day. Enrico Caruso, the operatic voice of John McCormack, as well as Margaret Barry, a traveler who sang and played banjo, and Bridie Gallagher, a dance band singer, “who sang like a lark”. My mother’s words. My parents did like to go dancing!
I knew some of the Gilbert and Sullivan show tunes, as we performed them in school in my early teens. Also a lot of church music and hymns. Then when I was about seventeen, I started to hear the first rock and roll, mostly on the juke boxes in arcades and coffee bars. The devil and his followers had found me!
Inspiration was not a way to describe the feelings I had about what I had heard. It was more a desire to temptation; see what this whole music thing was about, what it could lead to and what I could do with it.
The October 1967 The Story Of Simon Simopath
album on Island Records was ahead of its time in that it is a storyline/concept album, comprised of a series of musical vignettes that are rife with vivid imagery, highlighted by We Can Help You
, Satellite Jockey
and In The Courtyard Of The Stars
. Bands such as Twinn Connexion and Harpers Bizarre in the United States were also experimenting with that genre at the time, although Nirvana was the first to combine those individual vignettes into an overall concept album. What was the inspiration behind it?
Nothing grand or mind blowing, as we used to say. It was very simple, like most of the best things usually are. Alex and I had been writing the songs. The ethereal flavors around us were very visual. Maybe even a bit hallucinogenic!
So we decided instead of sleeve notes -- mostly very boring, even today -- that we would create a journey for the songs with Simon Simopath as the guiding force, the captain of the ship. We had a date to deliver the finished album. So it always helps the creative muse if there is pressure to dig the vein a bit more to get to the real treasure.
Many people first became aware of Nirvana by way of Herman's Hermits' sublime and impeccable cover of Wings Of Love
, which was released on their The Best Of Herman's Hermits, Volume Three
album in early 1968. It seemed as though both Herman's Hermits and Nirvana were pursuing parallel musical avenues at that time, given that their 1968 The Most Beautiful Thing In My Life
has much in common with Nirvana's concurrent work. How did Herman's Hermits come to record Wings Of Love
Their producer, Mickie Most had his office on the floor above Island Records in Oxford Street in London. At the time, he was producing the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Donovan, Terry Reid and Jeff Beck amongst others. The top songwriters of the day were around there all the time, pitching songs to him.
We were a little nervous when we made the appointment, even though he knew who we were through his brother Dave Most, the publisher. But we believed we had a couple of good songs.
On one hearing of Wings Of Love
, he said he would cut it with Herman’s Hermits later in the week, and that’s what he did. He also said when we played him the song All Of Us
, which was for our second album, that it would make a great track for a movie, but that he was not in the business of making movies. He was right again. Twentieth Century Fox used it as the title song in the movie, The Touchables
a year later.
In my book, Psychedelic Days
, I devote a chapter to him under the heading, Golden Ears. He is the only person I ever knew who could tell you if you had a smash or just another song. Sometimes he only listened to the first verse and chorus, and he still knew.
With its high drama atmosphere, symphonic arrangement and brilliant "He wants to be in love, he wants to fly" vamp at the fade, Wings Of Love
is a prime example of why Nirvana is one of the few bands that is truly worthy of the controversial progressive rock distinction. Many bands at the time were deemed as such for little more than their ability to improvise. But Nirvana took a much more challenging approach aesthetically by persevering head on into the so-called hippie era with creative and engaging material that continued to maximize the verse, chorus and bridge template, and without succumbing to the tedium of improvisation. Your thoughts?
You have said it all in your question. To elaborate any further would be futile! Anyone reading this should make the effort. Go and listen to the music itself -- Google, YouTube, vinyl, CD and downloads -- and hear how true your words are!
The B-side of Wings Of Love
was the non-LP Requiem For John Coltrane
. The late saxophonist had of course just passed away in July 1967, and the loss would have been fresh at the time of this recording. Your track not only highlights the enormity of the loss with recurring sounds of mourning and wailing, but by invoking bits and pieces of such Impulse-era Coltrane material as A Love Supreme
, Sun Ship
and Song Of Praise
. As such, would it be fair to infer that Coltrane was a major inspiration for Nirvana?
We both had listened to John Coltrane albums, as well as Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk, the Jazz Messengers. That one was Alex’s from his days in Paris, before he moved to London.
I also liked Mose Allison, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar. Alex liked It’s A Beautiful Day. We never came to the table with the idea of trying to copy or capture someone else’s vibe, though many of that time did.
I can honestly say that one of the most enduring and rewarding feelings I have about our music is that I know it is truly original and has come from a special place. That is why I believe it is still played on the BBC and other radio stations today, and why new, young bands are discovering and covering our tunes.
BLITZ: Feelin' Shattered
was the non-LP B-side of Pentecost Hotel
, featuring only piano accompaniment. Was the sparse arrangement intended to emphasize the timeliness of the lyrical content?
I have to admit that this answer is laden with shame! Well, not really. Chris Blackwell, our producer and founder of Island Records, said on that day that all our other songs were much too good to waste on the B-side. So he suggested we go mucho rapido
around the corner to a demo studio on Denmark Street and knock one out there and then. We wrote, recorded and mixed it in two hours.
Was the track Our Love Is The Sea
inspired by Chad and Jeremy's Distant Shores
? It also contains traces of the dreamscape atmosphere of Donovan Leitch's A Flower To A Garden
LP and in turn seemed to become an inspiration for the New York City duet, Milkwood Tapestry in their work for the Metromedia label in 1969.
The original title of the song was, Our Love Is A Tree
, inspired only by our imaginations. We did a rewrite on it some years later, and it became, Our Love Is The Sea
. Of course I have heard of Donovan. But the other two you mentioned, I know nothing of them or their music. So I may Google them later today!
With its relatively rapid tempo at the onset and its urgent execution, The Saint Johns Wood Affair
invokes unique references to God in the wake of the account of shortcomings in interpersonal relationships that characterize the opening verses. Thereafter, it is inferred that the Lord takes an increasing role in our lives. He is likewise therein referred to in casual conversation as a companion ("Hello God, would You like to take a walk?"), which is of course not unlike the train of thought espoused in both evangelical and charismatic circles. There is also a recurring Biblical theme found in the aforementioned Pentecost Hotel
, which of course was a part of the 1972 Songs Of Love And Praise
album. That album in turn added to the Biblical imagery thread with songs like Lord Up Above
. In what role did you envision Biblical inspiration for the band?
I am sure that the Greek Orthodox Church and Irish Catholic Church both planted seeds in our young and impressionable furrows. Travel and reading in our student years brought us both to the place where we met. That place could be described as having pagan and decadent influences amongst its many avenues and alley ways. Sin city and all that, carry on. There are some vivid descriptions in my book! Still, through all of it and everything since then, God has always been there for me.
That Songs Of Love And Praise
album also featured a remake of the Rainbow Chaser
single, which many regard as the band's signature track. From your own perspective, does Rainbow Chaser
warrant such a distinction? If not, which track does?
For sure, that is a yes. It first appeared on our All Of Us
album. Then, as you mentioned, I did a re-recording of it alone on Philips Records when I was doing some production for them a few years later. Jazzier tempo, no phrasing. I believe the original track has been on over thirty different psychedelic compilations worldwide. A kind of a classic in that field and a great calling card for us. It is also a favorite with many of the current BBC radio ’60s playlist programs.
When Nirvana was on sabbatical, you managed to release a series of solo projects, including Me And My Friend
, The Electric Plough
and The Hero I Might Have Been.
Without Alex Spyropoulos' involvement as a composer, as was the case with the Nirvana recordings, what sort of challenges did that present for you in order to bring each endeavor to fruition?
I moved on from being part of a collaboration that had created the Nirvana persona to being just me. We had been together every day and many nights for four years. We needed to breathe another air. It was good for us. Made our friendship even stronger and lasting. We are still writing together. We are blessed!
In 2009, you wrote Psychedelic Days
, a book about your experiences with Nirvana and with related musical developments in the 1960s.
Many in such a position have considered such an undertaking, but you actually did so. Was there perhaps some facet of those experiences that could only be conveyed in such manner?
I never had any intention to write a book. It all started with a lyric for a song I was working on three years ago, called Psychedelic Daze
, about someone special I knew during the ’60s. The lyric somehow became a poem that became a short story that started to grow like a wave I could not control. I could not stop writing every day until I had it finished. Well, the first copy of it! Then I realized maybe it could be a book.
How did Nirvana reach an agreement with Global Recording Artists to release an anthology of the band's work?
Karl Anderson published my book in the U.S.A. We developed a friendship. When Alex and I got the rights back for North America from Universal, we asked if he would be interested in releasing a compilation. That’s how it happened.
As a key component of its mission statement, Global Recording Artists emphasizes the release of new recordings by the legends who comprise its artist roster.
As such, are there any new Nirvana recordings in the planning stages?
Nothing for now, though we do have the lost music, Bloood
that people keep talking about. For now, let’s see what happens with the Cult