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Music Review: Nirvana ’69 – Cult

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Eight months after the birth of Kurt Cobain in February 1967, an English band called Nirvana released their debut album, The Story of Simon Simopath. Historically, the album was perhaps the first narrative concept LP ever produced. It predated similar works from The Who, The Kinks, and The Small Faces. Speaking of The Faces, Nirvana’s British hit “Rainbow Chaser” was the first song to fully employ phasing or “flanging,” the sound that distinguished the earlier “Itchycoo Park.” “Rainbow Chaser” was also the song that, decades later, proved to representatives of a certain Seattle grunge band that the earlier Nirvana indeed had a “presence” in the music business. This led to some legal compromises that permitted, for a time, two bands with the same name to tour and release albums without worrying about each other.

Another group the original Nirvana predated was ELO, especially for its use of baroque chamber arrangements and instrumentation. This Nirvana was really the duo of two singer/keyboardists, Patrick Campbell-Lyons from Ireland and Greek composer Alex Spyropoulos. To augment their studio work, they added various players for live gigs and band photos including Ray Singer (guitar), Brian Henderson (bass), Sylvia A. Schuster (cello), and Michael Cole (French horn, viola). As recounted in Campbell-Lyons 2009 autobiography, Psychedelic Days 1960-1969, this Nirvana enjoyed exuberant times in international youth culture while touring and working in England, Greece, France, South America, Morocco, and points in between. Their most memorable gig was on a French television show hosted by surrealist artist Salvador Dali. While the band performed, Dali threw black paint at them.

While the group worked and played on a world stage, the one place they didn’t make a splash was the States. For one matter, while they were one of Chris Blackwell’s early signings to his fledgling Island Records, his distribution deal with Bell Records didn’t pay off for Nirvana. Bell released The Story of Simon Simopath and a few singles with no promotion whatsoever. Even the band didn’t know the album had come out. In 1968, the duo recorded their second album, All of Us, which continued the orchestral pop of their debut, but it didn’t appear in the U.S. Then, Blackwell rejected their third outing, Black Flower, and thereafter Nirvana disbanded until 1985 when Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos reunited for on-again, off-again recording and touring.

Why did Nirvana fly so low under the radar all these years, at least in America? Clearly, the Bell debacle didn’t help. It’s also true they came out during an era of guitar gods, and their emphasis on harpsichords, pianos, and strings were slightly out-of-step, although organ-based groups like Procol Harum and The Zombies found a comfortable niche for themselves. Some feel Nirvana was too “continental,” but it’s hard to see how anything with European themes would be ignored in the wake of the British Invasion. Perhaps the real issue was that Nirvana defied easy catagorizing. While being labeled “psychedelic” due to “Rainbow Chaser,” most of their material wasn’t even close to anything else associated with that genre, att least musically. Their lyrics were full of dreamy portraits and character sketches of young people told with trippy wordplay. Proto-power pop? British Beach Boys innocence?

So the original Nirvana eludes easy pigeon-holing, which is ironic as everything about their first two albums is so much of their time. You can hear it on Cult, the latest collection featuring the best of Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos. The bulk of the anthology includes the better tracks from The Story of Simon Simopath and All of Us. Of course, we get “Rainbow Chaser.” We get songs that should have gotten serious airplay back in the day and are classic nuggets now like “Pentecost Hotel,” “Miami Masquerade,” and “In The Courtyard Of The Stars.” We can now hear the experimental “The St. Johns Wood Affair” and the dramatic “Oh What a Performance,” which signals that the group could rock when it wanted to.

Admittedly, this Nirvana never rocked much. This Nirvana was more about beautiful melodies and polished arrangements, and this sometimes resulted in a measure of sameness, especially in the choruses. Still, it seems clear Cult is intended to be the best of the group and not a complete overview. To supplement the early material, we also get three interesting bonus tracks including “Habemus De Loca” from the late-’70s which employs synthesized vocals and the first guitar lead on the collection. The almost disturbing “Requiem for John Coltrane” is bebop saxophone with unusual effects and sounds, an outtake from All of Us. “Love is the Sea” is a lovely 2012 version of a song that was on a 1996 release called Orange and Blue. That album, by the way, has the original Nirvana’s version of Kurt Cobain’s song, “Lithium.” Had Cobain lived, it would have been part of a Nirvana Sings Nirvana album.

Cult is easily an album for all connoisseurs of ‘60s popular music, especially for those who enjoy the rare and neglected contributions from overlooked players of the era. For many, this is music you would have collected back then had it been available in your record store. It’s never too late to take a trip to interesting, fanciful places with interesting, creative people. Here they are now, ready to be rescued from the footnotes of music history.

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