SAN FRANCISCO NIGHTS
Gene Sculatti and Davin Seay
St. Martin's Press, 1985
miraculous hump returns
"We were like the second San Francisco band to be signed to a record deal," Peter Kraemer told rock historian Pete Fram, " and this caused some resentment from groups who had been 'paying their dues'. It was a known fact that we were not hardened musicians; we had not played all the bars down the Peninsula, we didn't do a very convincing job on Chicago blues or do extended versions of 'In the Midnight Hour'..."
On the other hand, the Sopwith Camel had a pedigree as impressive as that of any San Francisco band. After all, guitarist Terry MacNeil had come out of the Art Institute, drummer Norman Mayell had hung tight with the Pranksters, and Peter Kraemer, the mustachioed singer who looked like Ernie Kovacs with a pituitary problem. Peter was born in Virginia City, had gone to S.F. State and was living at 1090 Page with Rod Albin and John McIntyre (later manager of the Grateful Dead) way before Chet Helms jumped off the Greyhound from Texas. Boho roots? Eric Jacobsen, who produced the Camel (as well as the Lovin' Spoonful and the Charlatans), recalls that Kraemer's mother had been the center of an artists' circle in Nevada: "They lived in a 15-room brewery, and Dali visited them once and chased a bird through Peter's house."
What, then, was the rap against the group? Plainly and simply, that they'd gone and got themselves a hit single -- a bonafide, AM radio ditty-smash called "Hello, Hello." It was light-weight, camp, clever as all hell and it nudged itself into Billboard's Top 30 right next to "Pretty Ballerina" and "Too Much to Dream" and all those records by the Monkees, the Buckinghams and the Bob Crewe Generation.
"I'd been out to California when the Spoonful played Mother's and the Longshoremen's Hall," Jacobsen explains. "And I'd already started working with the Charlatans. On one of my trips, somebody gave me a tape of these guys doing 'Hello, Hello.' I flipped out and knew I had to have it. I just knew it was a hit song. So I make arrangements to go meet the group. They're living in a little house built on stilts over this swamp. To get there, you had to walk a quarter of a mile on this rickety old one-board walkway that went out over the mud. I met them half way out there, high tide, and here are these five guys coming through the fog on this walkway, wearing tuxes and top hats and white gloves. They'd just come from playing some deb hall at a fancy girls' school. I mean, they looked pretty weird."
The meeting led to a Kama Sutra contract, as well as the Camels signing with Spoonful manager Bob Cavallo for representation. Then came the trip to New York to record the album. There, between the San Franciscans' first exposure to the big city (especially the seedy confines of the Albert Hotel) and Peter Kraemer's debilitating go-round with the flu, things fell apart. Rhythm guitarist Willie Sievers decided to quit, and was followed by Terry MacNeil; the cumulative effect was to postpone completion of the album that might have provided the Camel the momentum to get over the hump.
While it owes much of its inspiration to the good-timey Spoonful sound, the Camel's first and only album reveals an engaging, idiosyncratic band clearly enjoying itself. "Cellophane Woman" struts '60s punk moves, while "The Great Morpheum" and the feedback-strewn "Frantic Desolation" suggest more ambitious ideas at work. "Postcard from Jamaica," the group's second single, continues the sunny approach of "Hello, Hello." But Sopwith Camel arrived too late to save the drowning band; released almost a year after its only hit single had peaked, the album's cover sticker read "Remember 'Hello, Hello?'" Five years later, the band recorded a comeback album, The Miraculous Camel Returns from the Hump (Reprise), but by then there was little magic left to believe in.
"There weren't any big American rock stars yet. The San Francisco band scene was the Camel, the Great Society, and the Charlatans. We were the original San Francisco hippie band."
Peter eased himself out of his chair and went into the kitchen to get a frozen apricot pie out of the oven. It was a munchie afternoon. "There I was living in a basement on Polk Street," he continued when he got back. "Studying for the post office exam and writing poetry when I ran into Terry in a neighborhood hangout called the Big Little Bookstore.
"We drank a lot of wine and smoked a lot of dope and Terry went out and got a twenty-five dollar six-string Dan Electro guitar in a hock shop and painted it black and blue.
"Terry was insistent on finding a drummer who had the big beat. It didn't matter what else he could do, could he really play drums, so long as he had the beat."
They auditioned a series of drummers including Fritz Kasten, who later becam a mainstay in Joy of Cooking, but Peter and Terry finally settled on Norman Mayell, who had the big beat but little else. "In the years since then," Peter says, "Norman has really mastered his art. He has become a first-rate drummer and nowadays plays marimba, vibes, guitar and sitar as well." He'd started playing in Chicago in a very early Bloomfield-Butterfield band, came to San Francisco, became a part-time Merry Pranskter with Ken Kesey.
Peter says, "We found Norman incredibly sophisticated. I come from Virginia City, Nevada and Terry was from Wichita, Kansas. Norman had definite big-town vibes." An old school friend of Norman's, William Sievers, also played with Sopwith Camel in the early days and wrote a few of the songs on their first album. "I remember that William used to write depressing cynical songs and that I used to write cheerful songs," Peter recalls. "Now I think it's the other way around. William left Sopwith Camel, changed his name to William Truckaway and put out an album of his own on Warner Bros. His songs sound cheerful to me, and mine sound sad and cynical."
The final member of the old band was Martin Beard, the bass player. "You know," Peter says, "Martin was the only one of us who could read music. Terry hadn't had so much of that music major. Also, Martin was the pretty one. He was young, about seventeen, and he was English. He'd been playing in a middle-aged union band that did a lot of high school dances. They'd hired Martin to give them a modern look, stand up in front and sing Rolling Stones songs."
With the band put together Peter picked the name of Sopwith Camel to go with the Snoopy-airplane fantasy. They played at the Matrix, the Avalon and Fillmore. They had only been together about four months when they were playing big gigs and starting to record.
"I remember that the first thing we recorded," Peter says, "was a song about Batman. This was before the TV serial and theme song. We sent a tape to Eric Jacobsen in New York--he was producing the Lovin' Spoonful. He was so impressed that he flew out to the West Coast to hear us."
Eric decided that he was going to make Sopwith Camel his next big band. He wanted them to become another Spoonful. He got them a recording contract on the Spoonful's label, Kama Sutra. The first song on their album was a huge hit: "Hello, Hello".
"In a way it was having that hit song so early in our career that destroyed us," says Peter. "We were all still busy trying to find ourselves. Sudden fame was our undoing.
"We were the first San Francisco hippie band to have a hit record and we didn't know how to react to it. Well, the Beau Brummels had had a hit but they were really a kind of young slick pop band. They dressed slick. We dressed like hippies."
"Hello, Hello" was all over the radio. Peter recalls that "We were so big on the charts that we were booked to play the Cow Palace. We had second billing on that show. Third billing was the Jefferson Airplane. Top billing was the Rolling Stones.
"But our popularity did not make us very popular with the other San Francisco bands. They felt that we were newcomers, which I don't understand, as we were actually one of the first bands here. But somehow they felt that we hadn't paid our dues."
The band really started to fall apart when they went to New York. They did two stints there, one of four months, one of six. "We sure played some funny gigs. We went up to Connecticut to play at a school of modern dance. We played at Andy Warhol's Balloon Farm with the Velvet Underground."
But within a few months after "Hello, Hello" had hit the charts, Sopwith Camel broke up. "New York was no place for us to get it together. We were all trying to find ourselves, and New York City wasn't the right place for us to be."
Terry shortly wound up in India meditating. Martin played for a while as the token male in a lesbian band. Norman did studio work and became a really first rate drummer. He also pulled together what was left of Blue Cheer, one of the prime disaster bands of the era, and produced a couple of pretty good albums for them.
Peter didn't do much of anything except try to get involved in avante garde filmmaking. "I wanted to become a film director. Instead I became broke, busted and miserable."
In 1970 Peter went to see Eric Jacobsen. "I was trying to get in touch with you," Eric told him. "A dog food company called and wants to buy rights to the music of 'Hello, Hello' as background for a TV commercial." Peter said to take it fast. He and Terry each got $3,200 for those rights.
With some money in the bank, Peter had to decide what to do. "I was thinking about serious poetry again, going off to Majorca to write and bask in the sun."
Instead he went to Hawaii to find Terry, who was involved in an ashram. Peter wanted to write some new songs with Terry and form a new band. "I wanted us to become a smash hit overnight. It had happened overnight the first time so I saw no reason why it couldn't happen again."
They rented a piano studio, started writing, and sent tapes back to Eric Jacobsen. The plan was to return to California, find new musicians to play in their new band, and get going again. The new band was to be called Scorpio Rabbit.
"We were all set to start auditioning musicians," says Peter, "just like in 1966, but things didn't work out that way. Instead, Norman and Martin said they'd like to be in the 'new' band, so Scorpio Rabbit never happened -- instead, Sopwith Camel was back on the scene, as if it had returned from a long sojourn on the moon. We figured that as Sopwith Camel we'd get back all our old fans."
For a while the going was rough for the revived band. Audiences had changed since their first round. They had to start at little clubs which were seldom filled. But they stuck with it and started getting a little interest from record companies.
Then in 1971 the now-defunct PHR recording studio in San Francisco threw a Christmas party. It was a '60s revival show with the Charlatans reunited for the single gig, and Sopwith Camel was invited to play. Moe Ostin, the president of Warner Brothers Records, was in the audience, liked Sopwith Camel, and eventually they signed with Warner-Reprise.
The band's second album, Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon, is almost completed and should be out in the late spring of 1973. They spent a long time in the studio, really working out their music, to the result that they will probably start their next album very soon -- their music has moved far beyond what's recorded, a common experience among bands that spend a long time in studio.
But meanwhile, with the album almost finished, the band is beginning to schedule live performances again, and their problem is to avoid getting tagged as has-beens. The very name Sopwith Camel evokes odd reactions -- Is that the same band that...? Do they still have that guy that sang...?
People who hear them don't consider them has-beens. Their music has evolved with the years and is thoroughly contemporary, but still with a feeling of fantasy to it that makes them highly distinctive. Returns from the Moon will do a lot to re-establish the band, and they'll do the rest for themselves.
Gene Sculatti Joel Selvin Rolling Stone Magazine David Biasotti Andrew Lau