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Psychedelic Treasure Trove: Nirvana - The Story of Simon Simopath (1967)

In the first instalment of our brand new regular feature Psychedelic Treasure Trove, music journalist Jon Chapple opens the lid on some of the sixties and seventies most obscure moments of music history. This week he explores the original Nirvana. No, not that nineties grunge band!

Words by Jon Chapple

“Little swallow in the sky, permit me to entice you with a bargain / I will give you all my sweets, a comic book, a clock that sings / if you will let me have your lovely wings.”

And so spake Simon Simopath; deranged dreamer, modern-day Icarus and eponymous hero of the original Nirvana’s d├ębut long-player, The Story of Simon Simopath. Yes, you did hear correctly; do not adjust your sets – this 1967 album, the first item in our shiny new Psychedelic Treasure Trove, is subtitled A Science Fiction Pantomime and has a hero, because it’s probably pop’s first ever narrative concept album. And it’s a trip.

Now, young Simon isn’t your typical hero of old. Well, not really – he is being tested, I suppose, in a way, and he does have a gargantuan task to overcome, but our protagonist’s problems are of his own making. You see (as you may have already guessed from the opening paragraph), Master Simopath’s got a hankering for flying.

And boy, does he have it bad. So bad, in fact, that his all-consuming obsession with taking to the sky leads – as you’d expect – to a complete nervous breakdown and subsequent incarceration in a mental hospital untactfully called ‘Bendersview’. Luckily, however – owing to the fact that our hero apparently resides in a world where the mad are regularly cherry-picked to be sent into space – Simon is able to become an astronaut, blast off to a verdant intergalactic paradise via a chance encounter with centaur named Cedric, drink from a fountain of immortality and wed a stunningly beautiful extra-terrestrial goddess named Magdalena. Oh, and become King of his perfect astral abode. Nice.

A certain Mr. Townshend would no doubt prefer to use the term ‘rock opera’ to describe the song cycle of Simon Simopath, but I’ve shied away from doing so, with the reasons being two-fold. Firstly, this was the era of the ‘pop group’ – in 1967, the strange neologism ‘rock band’ was just a sparkle in its anonymous coiner’s eye, plus, I’m a sucker for slightly archaic slang at the best of times – and secondly, and marginally more importantly, by no stretch of anyone’s imagination can Nirvana’s science-fiction pantomime realistically be called a rock album.

Nirvana were a multi-instrumental duo, Irishman Patrick Campbell-Lyons and Greek Alex Spyropoulos, and a rotating line-up of hip London session musicians, who – in spite of sharing a name with a trio of plagiarising, unwashed grungers (if that’s still a word) – created music frequently so featherweight it could make Freddie and The Dreamers sound like Black Sabbath (if they’d existed in 1967. Which they didn’t). Embracing the freewheeling, experimental spirit of the post-Sgt. Pepper epoch like no other, Nirvana decided from the outset that their music would consist of a then-unique melding of orchestral sounds with a pop sensibility (unlike a number of other ‘Underground’ cousins, who often saw rock albums given the ‘classical’ treatment at their record companies’ behest once recording had finished).

The result is that their first album sounds nothing like any of its contemporaries. Whimsical, starry-eyed and often disarmingly twee (even by the standards of a year that spawned the likes of Excerpt from a Teenage Opera), The Story of Simon Simopath is ostentatious baroque ‘n’ roll at its most gentle. There isn’t any guitar-work to speak of, but, hey, who needs those brutish stringed things when in their place you’ve got pianos, strings and assorted wind instruments? Think you need male vocalists that sound like men? Think again! Fey, simpering Irishmen are where it’s really at.

Now, I understand all this may sound a bit alarming, and on first listen most will find at least certain aspects of the LP unbearably sappy, but fortune favours the bold, and those who persevere will soon uncover an underrated selection of soft popsike gems. Opener Wings of Love (the one about the little swallow) is a bewitching baroque pop toe-tapper with a chorus you’ll be whistling for days, oboe ‘n’ xylophone-fest We Can Help You has a dense, lush wall of sound production that H.P.S. himself would no doubt be proud of was he not such a crazy bastard, and Pentecost Hotel, a soaring, immaculate micro-symphony serving as both a lead single and our introduction to Magdalena, really is just too lovely for words.

It’s not all so rosy, of course – I Never Had A Love Like This Before is a pointless, maudlin dirge that goes nowhere, and the jury’s still out on weird, out-of-place, boozed up honky-tonk number 1999 – but the peaks far outweigh the troughs, and, taken as a whole, The Story of Simon Simopath makes for very enjoyable listening indeed.

And it’s just as well, really, because – as unique and diverting as the narrative aspect of the album is – it’s really no more than just that; a diversion. There aren’t any spoken passages, for instance, and there’s no way of really knowing what on Earth (or space) is going on, story-wise, without following along in the liner notes, so it’s still the music that counts for the most here.

That music certainly isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes – I suspect you’ll either dig it whole-heartedly or hate it with a passion – but you’ve still got to admire them for having a go. After all, lame, generic guitar rawk is no fun. Kurt.

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