Synth pioneer Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples dies

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The musician created new and innovative sounds as one half of space rock duo Silver Apples

Simeon Coxe, co-founder and vocalist of the 1960s experimental electronic band Silver Apples, has died aged 82.

The musician was known for fusing traditional rock structures with electronically generated melodies, using synthesizers he built at home.

Although Silver Apples' career was short-lived, they influenced the likes of Beck, Beastie Boys and Portishead.

Coxe died at home in Alabama, having suffered with the progressive lung condition pulmonary fibrosis.

In a statement, his manager Jack Trevillion said the condition had made it hard for the musician to breathe without oxygen, but that he had died peacefully.

"Silver Apples leaves a lasting legacy and contribution to electronic music with their ground-breaking sound that has stood the test of time and influenced many artists over the years, right up to the present day," Trevillion added.

'A pile of electric junk'

Prior to forming the Silver Apples, Coxe and percussionist Danny Taylor played in a more traditional 1960s rock group, the Overland Stage Electric Band.

But the band's destiny changed after a friend introduced Coxe to an oscillator - a very primitive forerunner of the synthesizer - that had been built in the 1940s.

Intrigued, Coxe started experimenting with the machine, layering eerie, atonal sounds over his band's music.

"They hated it," he told The Guardian last year. All of the band except Taylor quit, and the duo began making music as Silver Apples in New York in 1967. Coxe added more and more oscillators (or, in his own words, "a home‑made pile of electric junk"), eventually building an instrument he called The Thing.

According to sleeve notes on the band's debut LP, The Thing consisted of "nine audio oscillators and 86 manual controls... The lead and rhythm oscillators are played with the hands, elbows and knees and the bass oscillators are played with the feet".

Image source, Silver Apples
Image caption,
The unwieldy instrument required an incredible level of dexterity to play

The instrument - which the press dubbed The Simeon - allowed for some unusual experiments. On stage, Coxe would ask the audience to shout out the name of their favourite radio station - and he would tune into it live, adding random snatches of speech and music to a song called Program.

The band won several famous fans, including John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix (with whom they jammed on a version of The Star-Spangled Banner prior to the guitarist's legendary Woodstock appearance in 1969). But they remained a cult concern, with low sales for their self-titled debut album and its follow-up Contact.

The artwork for the latter showed Coxe and Taylor sitting in the cockpit of a Pan Am jet - a stunt that had been arranged in return for the band including the airline's logo in the artwork.

However, when the album was released with a picture of a plane crash on the back cover, Pan Am sued. The record was pulled from the shelves and the band's instruments were confiscated.

"They actually came to a club where we were playing and confiscated Danny's drums," Coxe told Sound On Sound. "Fortunately, my stuff wasn't there.

"That photograph led to the lawsuit that broke the band up. No record label would touch us from that point on. That was the end of Silver Apples."

Revival and tragedy

Coxe went on to work as a graphic designer, TV reporter and ice-cream salesman, while Taylor worked for a telephone company.

Two decades later, a German record label printed bootleg copies of Silver Apples' two albums, leading to a surge in interest in their music.

In 1997, Coxe revived the band with a show at New York's Knitting Factory, attended by Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, the Beastie Boys and Sean Lennon.

At the time, he hadn't been able to locate Taylor - but after mentioning his name in interviews, the pair reconnected and went on to release four new albums albums including 1998's The Garden - completing the record they'd been working on when Pan Am sued and ended their career.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Portishead's Geoff Barrow called Silver Apples "the perfect band"

However, tragedy struck in 1998 when their tour bus was forced off the road while driving home from a Halloween show in New York. Coxe suffered a broken neck, an injured spine and partial paralysis.

Fans including Alan Vega and Martin Rev from the punk-synthesizer duo Suicide, and Sonic Youth's drummer, played a benefit concert to help pay his medical expenses.

After "years of physical therapy", the musician felt well enough to resume his musical career, but by that time Taylor was in poor health, having been diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease.

When the drummer died in 2005 of a heart attack, Coxe kept his bandmate's spirit alive by sampling studio recordings in live performances, rather than replacing him with a session musician.

Coxe's injuries still caused complications, however. "I still stumble a lot just walking around," he told Electronic Sound magazine in 2012. "If I pick something up that's hot, it'll burn me before I realise I shouldn't be picking it up.

"But when it came to playing, I discovered it didn't matter that I couldn't feel with my hands. As long as I could see the dials on the oscillators, I could play them."

His last album, Clinging to a Dream, was released in 2016, and he said he never lost the desire to perform.

"Every day I wake up trying to figure out how to unravel something new," he told Huck magazine.

Coxe is survived by his long-term companion and creative collaborator Lydia Winn Levert, brother David Coxe, sister-in-law Foster, his nephew Aaron, and family.

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