Timing, as they say, is everything. The adage is just as applicable to the realms of commerce and marketing as it is to creative inspiration. When the Sopwith Camel's debut album was issued, in 1967, almost a year after its featured hit had peaked ("Remember 'Hello Hello'?" read the sleeve sticker), there was a sense of misalignment, of clock and calendar time running off schedule. In short, despite notching a national Top 30 hit, the San Francisco band's moment had passed.
Recording delays and the departure of Willie Sievers (guitar) and Terry McNeil (guitar) were factors in the album's delayed release. So were the newly formed quintet's inexperience in the studio, its lack of material, lead singer Peter Kraemer's winter illness, New York City and the Albert Hotel. None of which prevented The Sopwith Camel from being one of the most enjoyable, consistent and pop LPs to emerge from mid-'60s Frisco.
The pop factor has always played into folks' perception of the band, since the December '66 Hot 100 success of "Hello Hello," achieved by only the second S.F. group to sign a record contract (the Airplane was first), bugged many underground- rock longhairs, who saw hit singles as impossibly gauche items. "It was a known fact that we weren't hardened musicians," Kraemer told Pete Frame in a Zigzag interview. "We didn't do extended versions of 'Midnight Hour,' though we did 'Born in Chicago' and 'Bright Lights, Big City.'" (I recall them delivering a house-wrecking take on the Stones' "2120 South Michigan Avenue" at the Avalon. August '66, on a bill with the Dead.)
But the Camel's psychedelic papers were in order. Kraemer, after all, had grown up in Virginia City, Nevada—the acknowledged ground zero for the Charlatans and the whole lightshow-LSD-Victoriana formula that would blow the pop-music lab sky high - and was one of the first S.F. State students to room in the Haight (with, among other proto-freaks, future Grateful Dead manager John Mclntyre). Drummer Norman Mayell had played with Charlie Musselwhite in Chicago and hung with Kesey's Pranksters. And the band (which would add London-born, Frisco-bred bassist Martin Beard) formed in the basement of 1090 Page, the delivery room that birthed Big Brother & the Holding Company.
The young band played plenty, on local bills with the Great Society and the Charlatans, Allen Ginsberg and the Dead, the Grass Roots and the Daily Flash. And it caught the ear of producer Erik Jacobsen, who'd helmed the Lovin' Sooonful's hits and recorded the Charlatans "I heard a tape of 'Hello Hello,' and it just knocked me out," recalled Jacobsen in Zigzag. "If that couldn't become a huge hit, I'd eat my watch and chain!"
In short order, the Camel signed with the Spoonful's producer, the Spoonful's label (Kama Sutra) and the Spoonful's manager (Bob Cavallo, later to guide the careers of Little Feat and Prince), and, in late 1966, trekked to New York to cut its album. With Cavallo grooming the band to open for the touring Spoons, it's no surprise that the IP's songs veer to the bright side of the road; they're compact, melodic vehicles, many of which fall into the then-prevalent "goodtime music" bag ("Daydream," "Good Day Sunshine," etc.). The most obvious examples of this style are "Hello Hello," "Walk in the Park" and "The Things That I Could with You," though the campy vaudevilliana of "Little Orphan Annie" (about the Depression-era comic strip that introduced the exclamation "Leapin' lizards!") likewise fits. Inspirational Verse: "The wisdom of the ages/ Clutters Annie's pages."
But there's ambition and adventurousness present too. "The Great Morpheum" starts ominously and builds, on some great changes, to a killer chorus, and the largely instrumental "Maybe in a Dream," a modal, 12-string-harmonium-fuzz-guitar piece not unlike Country Joe & the Fish's "Cetacean," is a sleeper treat. Sievers' "Saga of the Low Down Let Down" resembles a jangly Charlatans-Spoonful co-venture, while the punky "Cellophane Woman," with its "Diddy Wah Diddy" verse rhythm, could easily have come from the Standells or Chocolate Watch Band songbooks. It sports a classic Frisco psyche guitar solo, as does the subtler "Frantic Desolation."
The marketplace failure of The Sopwith Camel and the group's subsequent dissolution make one wonder what could have been. The 45 follow-up to "Hello Hello," though it barely scraped the bottom of Billboard's Hot 100, may have been the band's finest four minutes. The A-side, "Postcard from Jamaica," sounds solidly commercial, the band having sanded off some of the campy edges of its style while retaining the knack for melody and striking arrangements. The flip, "Treadin,"' is simply sublime — Spoonful-ish, yes (think "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice"), but with a sparkling twin-guitar solo unspoolmg mid-song and some of the Bach-ish flavour that makes "Maybe in a Dream" so tasty.
As quickly as "Hello Hello" charmed its way up the charts, the Sopwith Camel got the goodbye look and disappeared down the hall of pop-rock history. A reunited band produced 1972's The Miraculous Hump returns from the Moon (Reprise), but the timing and the tunes failed to connect. One certified classic album was all they had in them, but we can surely be thankful for it.
by Gene Sculatti, November 2005
1. Hello Hello (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:27
2. Frantic Desolation (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:15
3. Saga Of The Low Down Let Down (W. Sievers) - 1:46
4. Little Orphan Annie (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:53
5. You Always Tell Me Baby (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 1:47
6. Maybe In A Dream (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:02
7. Cellophane Woman (W. Sievers) - 2:27
8. The Things That I Could Do With You (T. MacNeil, P Kraemer) - 2:12
9. Walk In The Park (W. Sievers) - 2:25
10.The Great Morpheum (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:57
11.Postcard From Jamaica (T. MacNeil, P Kraemer) - 2:25
12.Treadin' (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) – 2:19
13.Hello Hello (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:27
14.Frantic Desolation (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:15
15.Saga Of The Low Down Let Down (W. Sievers) - 1:48
16.Little Orphan Annie (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:53
17.You Always Tell Me Baby (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 1:47
18.Maybe In A Dream (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:02
19.Cellophane Woman (W. Sievers) - 2:27
20.The Things That I Could Do With You (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:12
21.Walk In The Park (W. Sievers) - 2:25
22.The Great Morpheum (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) - 2:57
23.Postcard From Jamaica (T. MacNeil, P Kraemer) - 2:25
*Martin Beard - Bass
*Peter Kraemer - Keyboards, Vocals, Wind
*Terry MacNeil - Guitar, Keyboards
*Norman Mayell - Drums, Harmonica, Sitar
*William Sievers - Guitar
the Free Text