June 01, 2007
September 12, 2007
A SOPWITH CAMEL - S/T (Acadia, UK) / The Miraculous Hump Returns from the
....The Charlatans encompassed all that was true and right about the scene and about rock ‘n’ roll: blind ambition, style, classy covers, a don’t-give-a-shit attitude that lacked pretension. Since their fade was so slow, no one really noticed. But come an anniversary or benefit to play, or the recent photo shoot of all survivors from the scene, the Charlatans (minus Ferguson, who died 1979) show up dressed to the hilt looking a little older but smiling wider than anyone else. There’s always a crowd around them, respect gravitates towards them now instead of bad luck. On rare occasions when they get together for a one-off show, it’s still a glorious, ragged affair.
It was that great ragged appeal that kept their music from being totally accessible, however. They had potential hits; their covers of “32-20 Blues” and “Alabama Bound” would’ve worked as well as any of Hick’s songs [Proof: The Amazing Charlatans CD, Big Beat, 1999]. But they weren’t a hit-song writing band. Others were. Others like the Sopwith Camel.
Sopwith Camel seemed to come out of nowhere, especially when they were the second band in the area to sign a record deal. They wrote economic popish songs which came and went without wasting anyone’s time. Like the Charlatans, Sopwith Camel (originally the Sopwith “Camel”) reached back in time for their sound and ended up with a fantastic Hoagy Carmichael-style with just a touch of an acid undertone. They were immensely talented; every song on their debut LP is good enough to be used as a single. Although the San Francisco scene wasn’t necessarily about singles, they wrote circles around everyone else in town, a fact that caused problems later on.
Peter Kraemer was trying his luck at San Francisco State but his thirst for the written word and music was drawing away his attention. He crossed paths with a graphics student named Terry MacNeil who had been in various bands and studied classical guitar. There wasn’t any question they should form a band, and after some trial and error, the line-up gelled when drummer Normal Mayell and second guitarist William Sievers joined in. They found bassist Martin Beard’s ad in a local paper, just like that… things moved fast in those days. Fast enough to where, after a month of solid practice, they played their first show in February 1966 at the Firehouse.
Erik Jacobsen was just brushing himself off after the dust-up with the Charlatans when the Sopwith Camel demo slid across his desk. He heard potential; especially in the song “Hello, Hello” (they reminded him of Kama Sutra’s flagship group, the Lovin’ Spoonful). Although they had regular gigs at the Avalon and Fillmore, even sharing a bill with Allen Ginsberg for a benefit at the Fillmore, Sopwith Camel hadn’t really paid their dues; no low-paying gigs at pizza joints or strip clubs. Little facts like this hardly go unnoticed in a small scene like San Francisco’s, especially when a major label shows interest.
Anyway, just as Sopwith Camel was getting comfortable and popular, Jacobsen pulled the band out to New York City in September to record a full-length album. “Hello, Hello” had already been recorded that summer at Coast Records and was such an obvious hit Jacobsen rightly expected more magic. So there they were, five scruffy West Coast kids who, months earlier, were dreaming of being in a band, now were pushed into the studio’s glare. They had written a handful of songs already, but they needed more to fill an album. The pressure was on—not a good situation for any young band.
As Sopwith worked on their record an odd thing began to happen: they were actually sounding good, the songs had a distinctive, airy feel peppered with melody and great hooks. The accumulative pressures of writing and recording with the studio clock ticking, however, was too much for the young group, and Sievers couldn’t decide if he wanted to continue. As autumn gave way into a dreary winter, the band’s spirit was sucked dry and nothing seemed to be going right. Kama Sutra, wanting to capitalize on the success of “Hello, Hello”, increased demand. Then Kraemer came down with bronchitis. Just as they were wrapping up the record, MacNeil quit. By the time that record hit the shelves, the band was history.
With its brash orange cover, that LP is a jewel of the era. Eleven songs: eight written by the Kraemer/McNeil team and three by Sievers, all originals; unusual for a band that young. Kraemer’s lyrics and breezy tenor are the stand-out features. They glide over the music like a soothed hush. But no one in the community gave a rip about the record or their break-up. To the increasingly cliquey scene, Sopwith Camel was off limits. The first problem was their brief relocation to New York, and don’t forget that hit single. It doesn’t take hindsight to see through their hometown’s double standards: two extremely popular area bands had already recorded in Los Angeles, a city considered more taboo than any other.
Then there was their thin connection to a certain New York band that ran into trouble while on tour in California. A certain member of said band was busted for marijuana possession and then ratted out the dealer in order to keep his ass out of jail. This was (and still is) a huge no-no, whoever and wherever you might be. The only crime the Sopwith Camel had committed was being on the same label as said band—guilt by association. Their street cred was shot to hell and they never recovered.
They were able to regroup four years later and record an even better
LP called The Miraculous Hump Returns From the Moon. With it they were able to extend their
career, if only for a few extra years, and leave behind a recorded legacy. The Great Society
was never able to release anything during their career. They lasted all of 12 months—not
very long for a band but great for an art project, which is how they started anyway.....
Gene Sculatti Joel Selvin Rolling Stone Magazine David Biasotti Andrew Lau