Friday, May 3, 2024

Archive Review: Nivana '69's Cult (2012)

Nirvana '69's Cult
Way back, in the pre-grunge mists of Merry Ole England, there was a band called Nirvana. No, not that Nirvana – years before Kurt Cobain was born, and while he was still in diapers, this British outfit was wowing critics with a unique musical vision that mixed folk-influenced rock ‘n’ roll with elements of psychedelic pop, jazz, classical, and even baroque chamber music. Comprised of Irish musician Patrick Campbell-Lyons and Greek composer Alex Spyropoulos, Nirvana turned quite a few heads, wowed a handful of British music critics, and sold a bucketload of records – literally, however many records could fit into a large-sized bucket. Yeah, that few...

The buzz around Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos caused Island Records founder Chris Blackwell to sign the pair, and with a bevy of professional studio musicians and a small orchestra, Nirvana recorded 1967’s The Story of Simon Simopath, what is widely considered to be the first bona fide “concept album,” the odd couple beating such world-renown acts as the Who, the Kinks, and the Pretty Things to the punch. Although the band’s music was exceptionally difficult to perform live, Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos pieced together a touring band nonetheless, opening for bands like Traffic and Spooky Tooth, resulting in a subsequent minor U.K. hit single in “Rainbow Chaser.”

Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos would record two more albums together, 1968’s All of Us, which was similar in sound and scope to their debut, and Black Flower, an allegedly difficult recording which Blackwell refused to release. That problematic third Nirvana album finally saw limited release in 1970, but by 1971 the pairing had run its course, with Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos splitting amicably. Campbell-Lyons would release two more albums under the Nirvana name before launching a solo career that fizzled out in the mid-1980s, when he reunited with Spyropoulos and re-launched Nirvana, the pair making new music well into the 1990s.     

Imagine young Master Cobain’s surprise when Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos filed a lawsuit against him and Geffen Records in 1992 for the appropriation of their band’s name. A rumored large cash pay-off allowed Cobain’s crew to continue using the Nirvana name, while Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos kept on trucking, virtually unknown in the United States, but evidently keeping a sense of humor about the whole affair, even recording a version of Cobain’s “Lithium” at one point.

By the time of the Seattle Nirvana’s commercial ascent to the peaks of stardom, the British Nirvana’s first two original albums had become a sort of Holy Grail of 1960s psych-rock collectors, fetching handsome prices on eBay and elsewhere, leading to a rash of CD reissues, some legitimate and some questionable, that only spread the band’s myth even further. Since many of these CD reissues of Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath and All of Us were import discs, the band still remains a bit of an obscurity here in the U.S., notable mostly to the sort of hardcore collector type that will spend hours digging through crates to find that one album by Gandalf, the Millennium, the Left Banke, or Kaleidoscope to add to their teetering stacks o’ wax. Credited to Nirvana ‘69, Cult is a long-overdue CD compilation of early material from the British Nirvana, offered on these shores for what may be the first time.

Enquiring minds want to know, does this 1960s-era Nirvana live up to the hype spread around by the collectors’ community for the past three decades? Well, the short answer is, yes and no. Only the simple-minded and/or clueless would really believe that Nirvana ‘69 sounds anything like Cobain’s world-beating trio, so those of you expecting some sort of earth-shaking, proto-grunge cheap thrills can dash off to Pitchfork and see what new band you’re supposed to download this week. As for the rest of you, throw out any preconceived ideas you may have about psych-pop, British folk-rock, or any of that because, the truth is, Nirvana sounds both like nothing you’ve ever heard before and, curiously, like a lot of what you already love. If you’re a fan of such 1960s-era fellow travelers as the Zombies, Love, or the Left Banke, you’ll probably dig Cult nearly as much as any album by those folks.

To say that Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos had a grandiose musical vision is to put it mildly, and as shown by the nearly two-dozen tracks collected on Cult, the only limitations on the pair’s immense musical ambition seemed to be the restrictions of the studio itself. Cult includes seven of the ten tracks from The Story of Simon Simopath and nine of twelve from All of Us (the album’s actual title is too long for even me to recount here), as well as a handful of single B-sides, and even a new song in “Our Love Is the Sea.” While the bulk of Cult is pleasant enough psychedelic pop – a mind-bending musical garden that the Reverend only walks through a couple times a year – there are rare flashes of brilliance here that certainly justify the band’s legend.

Island Records definitely missed the boat by only issuing a pair of singles from the first Nirvana album, as I count four red-hot slabs from The Story of Simon Simopath that had a puncher’s chance to hit the U.K. charts hard circa 1967. In an era where singles were the currency of commercial pop music, it was almost malpractice to throw only one single into the marketplace. The band’s album-opening “Wings of Love” is a wistful little romantic number chock-full of poetic imagery, sweeping orchestration, a lovely melody, and odd little instrumental rumblings here and there which raise it about your normal “Summer of Love” fare. “Lonely Boy” would have made another rad single, the melancholy vocals clad in baroque-pop trappings with a dash of background harmonies, and an overall whimsical vibe.

“Satellite Jockey” is simply brilliant, reminding of both the Kinks and the Move, but pre-dating the Electric Light Orchestra with a complex pop melody welded to a classical construct. The album’s actual single, “Pentacost Hotel,” is a charming, elfish song with the sort of soft/loud dynamic that Cobain would later use to sell millions of records. This Nirvana slaps cascading instrumentation and orchestral finery onto a psych-pop framework with great results. The band’s only charting single, 1968’s “Rainbow Chaser,” would later be included on their sophomore album, and while it shows slight artistic growth over the aforementioned material from their debut, it doesn’t stray far from the classical-pop hybrid blueprint they used on that album. With swirls of orchestral instrumentation, the melody here is somewhat more syncopated, with wan vocals lost amidst the washes of violin and cacophonic percussion.

Curiously enough, “Tiny Goddess” was actually the band’s first single, but wasn’t included on the first album. I’m not sure why, because the song’ s ethereal arrangement, thundering percussion, flowery lyrics and vocals, and dazzling instrumentation fit like a glove with that album. Perhaps with a stronger melody “Tiny Goddess” might have delivered the band’s first hit. There are a couple of other high points from All of Us included on Cult, including the up-tempo “Girl In the Park,” a spry pastiche of late 1960s pop/rock and sunshine pop that hides its symphonic foundation beneath lively vocals and a strong melodic hook. “The St. Johns Wood Affair” is a catchy little number that blends jazzy flourishes with an unusual arrangement, sparse instrumentation, and a few surprising musical twists and turns before it’s all over.

Of the B-sides, etc to be found on Cult, they don’t detour much from the material from the main albums, although both “Life Ain’t Easy” and “Darling Darlane” both stand out, the former a hauntingly beautiful ballad with a lush orchestral background and melancholy vocals, the latter a mid-tempo romantic pop song that melds scraps of 1950s-era rock (think Gene Pitney) with a 1960s psychedelic sensibility (more like the Bee Gees than the Beatles). As for the “bonus tracks” on Cult, “Requiem for John Coltrane” is an unexpected outlier, mixing lonesome jazzy hornplay with odd noises and overall sonic chaos unlike anything the band had previously recorded. “Our Love Is the Sea” presents the 2012 version of Nirvana; benefiting from modern production and improved studio tools, the song builds upon the band’s 1960s legacy to deliver a fantastic bit of musical whimsy.    

The British Nirvana never found the fame and fortune that their later stateside namesakes did, but they were nonetheless influential far beyond their meager commercial returns would suggest. The making of the band’s first two albums involved a number of talents that would benefit from the experience of working with Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos to go on to bigger and better things. This list includes producers Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Marc Bolan); Jimmy Miller (The Rolling Stones); and Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople, The Clash) as well as studio engineer Brian Humphries (Traffic, Pink Floyd) and musicians like Billy Bremner (Rockpile).

All in all, if you’re a fan of 1960s-era psychedelic pop, you’re going to love Nirvana, and Cult is a fine introduction to, if not a substitute for, the band’s near-mythical original albums. (Global Recording Artists 2012)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012

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