May 12,, 1973
SUMMER OF LOVE
Dutton: A Penguin Group, 1994
Keeping alive the best San Francisco acid-rock tradition, Sopwith Camel can't be pinned down into an easy category.
A Camel performance is likely to begin with hand cymbals, bell ringing and atonal jazz stylings, move quickly into rinky-tinky rock sounds, back off with a Latin-flavored chant and, while waiting for inspiration to guide the next selection, the piano player launches into a quick, improvised rag.
That's just about how it went last night at Berkeley's New Orleans House. The historic San Francisco rock band performs there again tonight.
Sopwith Camel became the first San Francisco acid group to hit national record charts in 1966 with the irresistable ditty: "Hello, Hello," a tune they still occasionally perform.
After the first flush of success, the group broke up. It reorganized two years ago, after a three and a half-year layoff. The band's first album in six years will be released this fall by Warner Brothers. Four of the original quintet -- Peter Kraemer, Terry MacNeil, Martin Beard and Norman Mayell -- remain. The fifth member, William Truckaway, is now a solo recording artist.
At the New Orleans House, Kraemer handled all vocals, switching off on tenor and soprano saxophones and bamboo flute, adding a rambling dance step here and there. MacNeil doubled on guitar and electric piano, on the latter supplying touches of the Sopwith Camel rinky-tink sound.
The Kraemer-MacNeil compositions draw from a variety of musical sources, but lyrically maintain complete originality. Song titles -- "Astronaut Food," "Sleazy Street," "Sneaky Smith," "Fazon," "Scorpio" -- hint at the zany, strange approach to songwriting.
Instrumentally the band plays well together, handling standard changes and improvisations with equal ease. They emphasize melodies, not beat, and created a number of beautiful passage.
Peter Kraemer watched the guitarist at the Cedar Alley Coffee House pick up a wine bottle and sing the label copy. The impromptu performance left Kraemer fairly impressed. Although he personally couldn't play an instrument, he thought he could do a fair Mose Allison impression. Kraemer grew up in an artistic household in Virginia City, but moved to the City to attend S.F. State and missed the whole Red Dog Saloon episode. His mother's best friend was Caresse Crosby, famed Paris bohemian of the twenties whose husband ran Black Sun Press and published early works by Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Salvador Dali once was a house guest and journalist A.B. Liebling was married in their backyard. Kraemer had only recently moved from a Haight-Ashbury Victorian, where Chet Helms and Lori Hayman had also lived, and was working for an independent film distributor, contemplating taking the civil service exam and getting a job at the post office. Like many people his age, he was quite taken with rock and roll after seeing the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night. He attended the Rolling Stones concert the previous May at the S.F. Civic Auditorium and couldn't help but notice the Edwardian cowboys taking seats not far from his who turned out to be the Charlatans.
He left the coffee house for a nearby bookstore owned by a friend, who was working behind the counter. "I think I could write some songs instead of taking the civil service exam," he told his friend, "if I could find someone to play guitar."
"I play guitar," said Terry MacNeil, stepping around a bookcase. MacNeil, a student at the S.F. Art Institute, and Kraemer left the bookstore together for someplace around the corner from where MacNeil lived. They began drinking a bottle of wine and singing the label. Then they wrote "Hello, Hello."
The pair spent many late nights until four in the morning sitting in Bob's All Nite Diner on Polk Street working on songs together. After putting together more than a dozen acceptable numbers, they went looking for other musicians. Helms sent them to see Rodney Albin at 1090 Page Street. Albin took out his violin -- he and his brother Peter had started out playing together in mid-peninsula bluegrass bands like the Liberty Hill Aristocrats -- and he introduced them to Fritz Kasten, the jazz drummer currently living in the rooming house. They made peculiar-sounding, all-acoustic music, a kind of Arabian Nights feel to go with Kraemer's surrealistic compositions like "Anthropomorphic Misidentification Blues." They called the band Sopwith Camel after the World War I fighter plane, also prominent in the "Peanuts" cartoon strip, and recorded a two-track version of a campy Kraemer tribute to Batman in anticipation of the upcoming TV show. But Kraemer and MacNeil wanted to head more in the direction of rock and roll.
Kraemer met Norman Mayell, who was running around with a movie camera at the Trips Festival. Mayell, who had belonged to one of the early incarnations of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, could supply the big beat Kraemer sought. Mayell brought along his pal, Willie Sievers, a guitarist and songwriter. Bassist Martin Beard, a trained musician they found through a newspaper ad, completed the lineup. Bobby Collins played bass briefly with the band and sent a tape of three tunes -- including "Hello, Hello" -- to Eric Jacobsen, whom Collins knew vaguely through associations in the folk scene. The first time he heard the song, Jacobsen knew it would be a hit and wanted to make the record. The parallels with the Spoonful were obvious and Jacobsen flew out to meet the band.
Collins picked him up at the airport in a hearse and drove him to a parking lot outside Corte Madera in Marin to wait for the band. Collins lived in an old duck-hunting house suspended on stilts above a muddy marsh and reached only over a precarious walkway, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards long, made of boards balanced on a frame hammered into the mud. The band, who had played a party for a hoity-toity private girls school that night, pulled up and emerged from the car, all dressed in evening clothes, top hats and tails down to the ebony walking sticks. "Thank you for coming," said Kraemer. "Come with us, please," leading Jacobsen, Collins, the band and their manager -- the owner of the bookstore where Kraemer and MacNeil met -- across the bog to this otherworldly house, decorated in animal skins, dinosaur bones and other unusual clutter. Collins slept on a palette surrounded by prisms and windchimes.
The band needed a real manager, Jacobsen insisted. If the Camel signed with him, the band would also have to sign with his management associate. Sievers, a relatively accomplished musician, once belonged to a band in Dallas that had scored a modest regional hit and he was adamant that the Camel make hit records. The band had only recently started playing around local clubs like the Matrix and, although Kraemer did not see himself as a terribly valuable vocalist, the band was received as having an almost professional look. But the prevailing sentiment on the burgeoning San Francisco rock scene was to be suspicious of the established industry, to not sell out and, especially, to not go to New York. After lengthy consideration, the Camel decided what to do. Sell out and go to New York.
Gene Sculatti Joel Selvin Rolling Stone Magazine David Biasotti Andrew Lau