Ugly Things

June 01, 2007


September 12, 2007

Sopwith Camel Moscoso Poster


A SOPWITH CAMEL - S/T (Acadia, UK) / The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon

No song better captures the optimistic vibe of San Francisco in 1966 than Sopwith Camel’s Kama Sutra single “Hello Hello,” and for one of a certain age, hearing its signature line, “Would you like some of my tangerine?” is enough to send visions of long ago loves in granny dresses spinning through his head. Although Sopwith Camel was one of the very first bands in what would become the Bay Area ballroom scene, they were nonetheless regarded by some of their peers as undeserving upstarts when they scored not only a major label contract but an actual hit single.

The fact that they recorded (with Lovin’ Spoonful producer Erik Jacobsen) in New York, of all places, also made them seem less credible, somehow. Nor did it help that their album didn’t come out until the following year, by which time the band had dissolved.

History doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with Sopwith Camel either. You’re as likely to encounter “Hello Hello” on a bubblegum as on a psych comp, and Sopwith Camel is rarely if ever mentioned among the essential aural artifacts of the San Francisco scene. In part this may be because “good-time music,” much in vogue at the time, hasn’t weathered the decades quite as well as the more overtly lysergic sounds of the day. Listen to the album, though, and you’ll hear that there was more to Sopwith Camel than “boop-oop-a-doop.”

The guitar work of Terry MacNeil and William Sievers on 12- and 6-string is top drawer, as is the rhythm section of Martin Beard (bass) and Norman Mayell (drums), and front man and chief lyricist Peter Kraemer’s creamy vocals evoke John Sebastian, with a dash of Mellow Yellow-period Donovan. Highlights include the stomping ballroom rocker “Cellophane Woman,” the mostly instrumental “Maybe in a Dream” (a “Variations on ‘Telstar’” of sorts), and the fantastical “The Great Morpheum.” Lastly, there’s the peerless swan song single, “Postcard from Jamaica.” The Acadia reissue offers both the stereo and mono mixes of the album along with the non-LP B-side “Treadin,’ and the profusely illustrated booklet features a solid introduction by Gene Sculatti and Pete Frame’s hilarious 1974 band bio from the pages of Zigzag.

A few years after the band’s demise, Burger King used “Hello Hello” for a TV commercial. Co-writers Kraemer and MacNeil came into a welcome bit of money, began writing together again, and, with Beard and Mayell back in the fold, the reconstituted Sopwith Camel recorded 1973’s The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon for Warner Brothers. Gone are any vestiges of the rinky-tink sounds of yore; the vibe here is cool and jazzy, punctuated by clever, elegant sax lines. Trippy touches of synthophone and ARP synth enhance the outer space theme that runs through the album. Kraemer’s lyrics are much to the fore, by turns spacey (“Fazon”), caustic (“Coke, Suede and Waterbeds”), sensual (“Orange Peel”) and downbeat (the sitar and harmonica-laced “Dancin’ Wizard”). All in all, it’s a chill out album for thinking people.

The master tapes for Miraculous Hump were recently unearthed, and the resulting CD remaster can be ordered through the band’s website.


Ugly Things
David Biasotti


Sopwith Camel Moscoso Poster



Excerpt from an article
by Andrew Lau


....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.....


Andrew Lau


Gene Sculatti   Joel Selvin   Rolling Stone Magazine  David Biasotti   Andrew Lau