By Gillian G. Gaar
Like innumerable others taking in the sweep of the Summer of Love in 1967, the height of the psychedelic age, Patrick Campbell-Lyons found Nirvana. But for him, it was a little more personal; Campbell-Lyons was actually “in” Nirvana — the band, that is, one that predated that “other” Nirvana from the Pacific Northwest by a few decades.
From 1967 to 1974, Nirvana’s six albums established the band as prime purveyors of what was dubbed “baroque pop.” With the band’s Island Records albums on the verge of being reissued in 2018, and with Campbell-Lyons having a new album of his own, he took time to revisit the golden age of psychedelia, and Nirvana’s role in it.
Born in Ireland in 1943, Campbell-Lyons arrived in London in 1964. The aspiring musician first landed in a band that rehearsed at the Ealing School of Art and Design. “If I could have brought a bed, I would have stayed there day and night,” he says. “I found myself in a bohemian atmosphere of people who were into drawing, painting, making music and experimental film.”
He next plunged into the realm of R&B, forming the band the Second Thoughts in 1965. The group found steady work at the numerous U.S. Air Forces bases in the area, and landed a six-month residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. But even while feeling “right in the swim of things,” Campbell-Lyons sensed that musical changes were afoot. “I could feel a murmuring sound quietly coming to the surface of the streets from deep below,” he says. “By the time I returned (from Germany) it had exploded into a mushroom rainbow of free love, free music, free press, free expression and happenings.”
Which meant it was time to form a new band. Campbell-Lyons found a new partner in Greek composer Alex Spyropoulos, whom he met at La Gioconda, a café that was a hangout for those in the music business. The two instantly hit it off. “It was just divine intervention/destiny that we would work together,” says Campbell-Lyon. “We left the people we were collaborating with and went on our own adventure.”
After considering the names Birth, and Karma, the two chose to go with Nirvana. Signing with Island Records, Nirvana’s first record was the single “Tiny Goddess,” released in July 1967, followed by the album “The Story of Simon Simopath” in October. The latter was one of the first concept albums of the rock era. But while other concept albums, including such contenders as The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out!” (both 1966) and The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967), were built around a common theme, “Simon Simopath” had a narrative storyline.
Not that Campbell-Lyons saw it in those terms. “We did not know that ‘Simon Simopath’ was a ‘concept’ as we wrote and recorded it,” he says. “We called it a pantomime for grown-ups. We still do. It concepted itself! Recording the album was a real blast of a trip, with a 40-piece orchestra and rhythm section — our own London ‘Wrecking Crew.’” He points out that Nirvana was the first act to use an electric cello on record.
Campbell-Lyons (who played guitar and sang) and Spyropoulos (who played keyboards) remained Nirvana’s core duo, with session musicians used for recordings and live appearances. Nirvana’s second album, “All of Us,” was released in 1968 (the cover has the more fanciful title: “The Existence of Chance is Everything and Nothing While the Greatest Achievement is the Living of Life, and so Say All of Us”).
The success of the single “Rainbow Chaser” in France led to an invitation to appear on the French TV special “Improvisation on a Sunday Afternoon” in 1969. Nirvana was one of four bands to perform, on a set decorated with extravagant props. As a final touch, surrealist painter Salvador Dali was also a participant, in the company of two young women and two tigers on a leash. He splashed paint on Nirvana as they performed. “The show with Dali was the greatest happening for me,” says Campbell-Lyons, who still owns a jacket splattered with paint by the master.
The band’s third album was rejected by Island, so “To Markos III” was released on Pye in 1970 (the album was later reissued under its original title, “Black Flower”). The Campbell-Lyons/Spyropoulos then split up, something Campbell-Lyons calls “a gentle and orderly separation which was necessary for our persona and creativity. We were burned out; three years together, every day writing, recording, traveling. It was a blessing that we were then, and still are, good friends to this day.”
Campbell-Lyons then released three further albums under the name Nirvana (“Local Anaesthetic,” “Songs of Love and Praise,” and “Me and My Friend”), before pursuing a solo career. When that “other” Nirvana broke through with their album “Nevermind” in 1992, there was a lawsuit over who had rights to the name. A settlement was reached, with the U.S. Nirvana paying the U.K. Nirvana an undisclosed sum.
There were evidently no hard feelings; the U.K. Nirvana covered the U.S. Nirvana’s song “Lithium,” on their 1996 album “Orange and Blue.” But Campbell-Lyons says there will be no further Nirvana albums: “The 50th anniversary releases in early 2018 on Island/Universal will be our heritage.”
Campbell-Lyons now lives in Greece, where he recorded his most recent album, “You’re a Cloud, I’m a Comet,” on Market Square Records (Spyropoulos also makes a guest appearance). “I am extremely proud of the album,” he says. “All I would like to spotlight is please listen to it as a continuity piece — song one to song 11. Don’t shapeshift on it. Try to hear it if you can on vinyl; it is a very warm and honest work.”
He’s also told his story in the book “Psychedelic Days: 1960-1969,” saying on the book’s publication in 2009: “Today, so many years on, people fantasize and wonder about those crazy days and often ask me, ‘What were the ‘60s like? It must have been a crazy time! I wish I had been there.’ Well, my story is for you, and it is also for those who were there and did not make it to the other side. Have a good trip.”