Songlife by NirvanaRelease date: February 26, 2021
“Travels on a cloud/He’s one of the good time people now/I’m a face in the crowd/All dressed up and laughing loud/I can talk to him, and I can love him.” This was my introduction hearing the original Nirvana’s ‘Rainbow Chaser’ (no, not Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana) on an UNCUT compilation back in the summer of 2003 entitled, Acid Daze. It was like this crossover between symphonic pop, baroque beauty, and psychedelic phasing that was like a breath of fresh air.
They were often under the radar during the late ‘60s at the height of the Swinging London scenery during that time frame when up-and-coming bands like Pink Floyd, Family, The Nice, Traffic, and Spooky Tooth (who would later record with them) were recording their debut albums. And Nirvana were right in the middle of that scenery. That and their 6-LP box set on the Madfish label entitled Songlife covers the band’s pioneering classic period from 1967 to 1972. The Story of Simon Simopath, All of Us, Black Flower (Dedicated to Markos III), Local Anaesthetic, Songs of Love & Praise, and their never released album, Secrets.
Formed in 1965, Alex Spyropoulos and Patrick Campbell-Lyons met a coffee bar in Denmark Street. And what they wanted to do with Nirvana was to combine Latin, Jazz, Classical, Folk, Chamber, and Pop arrangements that would take their sound beyond the psychedelic genre. They would join Chris Blackwell’s label Island Records which started to move away from the Reggae sound and into the rock genre. While Blackwell helped Steve Winwood who would later leave the Spencer Davis Group in 1967 to form Traffic, Blackwell wanted to go into that genre of the rock sound. In the 2009 documentary, Keep on Running: 50 Years of Island Records, he knew it was time for a change. “I really started to focus most of my time on Rock music, and left Jamaican music behind. How was I going to get over the face that Island was known for Jamaican music? And so I thought ‘What I’m going to do is make the color of the label pink.’ So clearly it’s a vast change, there’s nothing pink about Jamaican music.”
The pink Island years is often referred to the ‘Pink Eye label’ or the ‘Eyeball label”, Island Records seemed to fit at home for Nirvana as their released their debut conceptual album in 1967, The Story of Simon Simopath. It tells the story about a young man named Simon who doesn’t fit in at school, dreams about having wings. When he reaches adulthood, working in his office and staring at his computer, he begins to have a nervous breakdown. While he couldn’t find a mental institution, he finds a rocket and meets a Centaur who becomes his friend. He meets Magdalena who works at Pentecost Hotel, they both fall in love and get married in the end. ‘We Can Help You’ which The Alan Bown would cover, is done in the styles of the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on Simon’s insanity by becoming a joyful sing-along to get him cured and being stable.
‘Wings of Love’ is a dramatic opener that starts the album off with an epic string section by dealing with an outsider not fitting with the cool crowd, trying to be loved and not shunned while trying to fly away from the real world that’s going around him. ‘Lonely Boy’ features this mixture between Jazz and Soul on the Organ, pick bass, and drums in a waltz tradition as the Hammond in the midsection channels the styles of Hansson and Karlsson.
‘In the Courtyard of the Stars’ sounds very French Pop orientated as it is set in the city of our solar system with some Fuzzy guitar sections while Patrick’s folky vocals deals with the choices that Simon is finally at his own place and freed from the real world. ‘Pentecost Hotel’ which would later be covered by the late Liesbeth List in 1970, is showing this romantic side of Simon when he meets Magdalena for the first time. With beautiful string arrangements along with harp and cello structures, it gives the character a chance to know that he’s calm and relieved from the nightmares he had in the real world. Both ‘Take His Hand’ and ‘1999’ is the sermon of a wedding ceremony between Simon and Magdalena. It describes what the wedding party is like with this ritualistic intro, melodic middle-eastern structure on guitar and oboe before ending with this ragtime finale as if they’re dancing to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans.
Their second release All of Us was released in 1968. It shows Nirvana into various arrangements from their departure of their debut and going into this cinematic structure inside the listener’s mind. Nirvana moved away from their pop sound and going into something strangely strange but oddly normal. ‘Miami Masquerade’ is a ‘60s nugget scenario of a mysterious action series with a very Green Hornet-sque arrangement as the midsections sees the villains creating a dangerous trap for the main protagonist before going into a roaring applause knowing that the trap is going to work. ‘Meanie Blue’ is a romantic ballad with a high rising orchestral section while ‘St. John’s Wood Affair’ showcases the darker side of swinging London. A cliffhanger scenario between the organ with a cat-and-mouse chase from guitars and bass that segues into a Keith Tippett-sque piano work and then the reveal is to be one big giant lie at the end.
‘The Touchables (All of Us)’ was selected as a single from the 1968 film based on a story by painter and screenwriter for the controversial 1970 cult classic, Performance’s Donald Cammell. Sinister lyrics on the four women from the main film with a lifting organ to get away from the big city with some background vocals done by the four actresses that I believe lend Patrick and Alex a helping hand for the song. ‘You Can Try It’ is their nod to not just Brian Wilson, but the Pet Sounds-era of the Beach Boys as ‘Tiny Goddess’ which was covered by Francoise Hardy who sung it in English, French, and Italian, is like an ice-skating arrangement for cello, piano, and harpsichord.
‘Girl in the Park’ is their tip of the hat of the Beatle-sque atmosphere, and the Small Faces’ Odgen’s Nut Gone Flake-era a-la ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ groove with joyful arrangement as both Patrick and Alex channel the Ray Davies approach in the song. While All of Us was warmly received by the critics, it was along with The Kinks sixth studio album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, overshadowed by The Beatles White Album, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, and The Stones’ Beggars Banquet to which those three had received acclaim.
Black Flower was their third release. The album remains a mystery and ancient history on why it never got a genuine release. The duo wanted to name their album as Black Flower to show support of the black power movement in the mid-to-late ‘60s, but for Island Records, they rejected it. So Blackwell who felt it was like the soundtrack to the 1966 French film, A Man And A Woman, decided to release the duo from the label. They would later it release it on the Pye International label in 1970 that was owned by teen heartthrob, Bobby Sherman.
But then just as the album was about to be released, there was a massive payola scandal in the States as Sherman’s company was caught in the section in the trouble that was going on. The album only sold 500 promo copies. Now with the various titles of the album, there is some confusion what it should be called as; Black Flower or Dedicated to Markos III. The story goes like this; Alex’s cousin gave both Alex and Patrick the money to remix the album once they brought it back from their former label, Island. And they told him they would pay him back, but he wasn’t interested in being paid back. But what he asked Nirvana to do was to dedicate the album to his son Markos on the sleeve, who was battling a terminal illness.
So it’s a dividing line in the sand on whether it should be known for those two titles. But that’s another story, now onto the music. ‘Christopher Lucifer’ is the struggle on how the duo had to move on after being released from Island with its melodic folk-rock groove, followed by a Django Reinhardt midsection solo. While the title-track is a romantic beauty thanks to Patrick’s soothing vocals with some unexpected string sections with an orchestral rise in the middle part of the composition to give the lead guitar structure a chance to blare out this incredible solo sequence.
‘I Talk to my Room’ is almost written as a musical or for a mini-opera with a harpsichord/mourning guitar melody as if they had wrote their own version of an earlier take of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me On a Sunday, but done properly as a one-person’s life to search for true love. ‘Tres, Tres Bien’ takes place in this train station in France with an acoustic guitar and an accordion waltz, knowing that when the next letter will arrive and how they will meet again someday soon.
‘Love Suite’, which is sung by Lesley Duncan who was the background vocalist for Pink Floyd’s magnum 1973 opus Dark Side of the Moon, has these smooth arrangements Thelonious Monk-esque arrangements that fits Duncan’s vocals as Alex comes in to give a response to Duncan and he gives her a helping hand as she welcomes her to the Big Apple.
After Black Flower’s release, Patrick and Alex went their separate ways. With Alex’s blessing, Patrick continued the Nirvana name as he become a producer and an A&R manager for Philips Records, Vertigo, and Fontana by working with bands and artists such as Clear Blue Sky, Dr. Z, Sunbird, Mike Absalom, and Czar.
Patrick wanted to move the Nirvana sound that was more progressive and moving away from their symphonic baroque pop sound from the first three albums into a two-part suite with an epic story-telling structure with their fourth studio release, Local Anaesthetic. Sampled by Andy Votel for his compilation tribute to the golden-era of the swirling label with Vertigo Mixed in 2005. This isn’t just your typical epic prog-rock album, but a far-out, zany, touching, heavier, and melodic release.
‘Modus Operandi’ begins with some screeching free-jazz sax solo featuring Black Sabbath-esque drumming, chugging guitars, middle-eastern flute and Rhodes to go into some Gershwin feel for the sunrise to happen before heading into a swirling swinging jazz-rock vibe with some heavy horn sections. And then it goes into this shuffle twist of the proto Glam Rock sound that resembles T. Rex’s Electric Warrior period for a train ride with some blues rock adventures. The blaring wah-wah keyboards lay down some funky chimes to keep the engines running until the very end before some studio chatter to show a bit of humor with the music hall piano fanfare.
‘Home’ is real clocker at 19-minutes. Beginning with a fast-speeding picking bass, it channels a pre-Goblin effect from the Profondo Rosso years with some intensive harmonica/percussion grooves before going into the waters of the Atom Heart Mother-era of Pink Floyd and channeling the rhythm section of ‘Fat Old Sun’. It is a mournful ballad to say goodbye to a loved one that you knew for a long time. And the road to healing can be slow. With mellotrons sending the listener towards the pearly gates with some heavy guitars by entering into the glowing lights of heaven, it segues into ‘The Saddest Day of my Life’.
A harpsichord ballad dealing with being alone and surviving to move past the memories you knew and loved, is suddenly gone. With a folky twist, it goes into this gospel hymn before ending with a sing-along groove. With Vince Guaraldi-esque piano work, clapping rhythms, it’s like a celebration inside the church and ending with 12-bar Glam-Blues-Rock stomp of ‘I Wanna Go Home’.
Songs of Love and Praise was the fifth and final studio album Nirvana released on the Philips label in 1972. Their last release showed more of an orientated texture sound from their previous release. Patrick he revisited two of the songs from the time they were with Island Records, ‘Pentecost Hotel’ and ‘Rainbow Chaser’. With ‘Rainbow Chaser’ that originally had a psychedelic phasing composition, this version from the Songs… album, has more of a jazzy arrangement but a well arranged to go beyond the late ‘60s sound as ‘Pentecost Hotel’ features a children’s choir as they return to the hotel where Simon fell in love with Magdalena as a romantic piano-orientated ballad.
Three of the tracks; ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’, ‘She’s Lost It’ and ‘Will There Be Me’, Patrick takes us to the Brazilian bossa-nova groove. As he takes the listener into the beaches to dance until dawn with some pounding 12-bar blues piano work melody between Elton John and Carole King. And while there are some proggy mid-sections with some killer wah-wah guitar sequences, you can just close your eyes and imagine yourself being in the landscapes of Bahia featuring this hot-club style jazz guitar flamenco arrangement.
‘Lord Up Above’ is almost a theme to Peter Sellers’ character Chauncey in the 1979 classic, Being There as it talks about the struggle to carry on and how do we deal in the afterlife by being free from the pain and suffering of what is happening in the 21st century.
Now onto the bonus LP, Secrets is an unearthed gem that for Nirvana fans to really explore the duo’s attempt to write a musical with melodic arrangement and cultivated structures. The genesis of the story goes back in 1976 when Alex and Patrick reunited to write a musical called, Blood. A story about a vampire who doesn’t bite people’s neck and becomes friends with a 17-year old kid. And another story based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. So it went through various titles; The Secrets of Soho: The Lost Musical and Secrets: The Lost Movie, but after through vinyl acetates, and a ‘book’, it never happened. Until now. Secrets is the lost musical LP that is worth exploring.
Featuring the original 1968 West End U.K. cast of Hair, Secrets is the story that deserves to be told. Despite the quality of the sound from the acetates, it’s great to hear what the musical could have been for both Alex and Patrick who wanted to bring it to the West End. And they would have given both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a big run for their money.
J. Vincent Edwards brings the house down with a preaching rocking take in the styles of Aretha Franklin by honoring the queen of soul with ‘What You Do You Are’ as the shuffling rock call-and-response of ‘I Don’t Care’, starts a new chapter of life and taking responsibility when you grow up into adulthood. The mid-allegro tense rhythm section on ‘Bingo Boy’ is counting the numbers to pick up the prize with moog synth fanfare scenario on not knowing if the character is going to win or fail miserably.
‘It’s Good to Have a Heart’ showcases the West Coast sound of the Laurel Canyon scene with a Country-Rock twist featuring some Bernie Taupin-sque lyrical structures with a little help from Marsha Hunt(I believe) on background vocals as she and Patrick duet together on a romantic relationship with the Girl Group ‘60s vibe as if Lionel Bart had wrote a song for The Ronettes big hit with ‘In The Shadow of that Old Love’.
The box set contains a 12-inch 52-page book about the history of Nirvana’s career by Peter Doggett. It includes a discography, ephemera, and never-before-seen photo sessions done by Gered Mankowitz who did photos from bands and artists such as Kate Bush, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and Slade along with an interview with Alex and Patrick.
Songlife is an incredible exploration about the unsung history of this amazing period of Nirvana’s career from the late ‘60s to the early part of the 1970s. For Alex Spyropoulos and Patrick Campbell-Lyons whose friendship is as firm as ever since their first met in 1965, they are the Rainbow Chasers by living in the Courtyard of the Stars.