The Sopwith Camel

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The Sopwith Camel
by Kim Cooper

Although they recorded for Kama Sutra, and their sole hit had the traditional double-barreled name, the Sopwith Camel was emphatically not a bubblegum band.  What they were were mid-sixties San Francisco misfits, a little too weird for that scene, who scored a big hit single with a New York producer and broke up so quickly that they barely finished their album.  

Nevertheless, people continue to lazily lump the Sopwith Camel in with the bubblegummers, and not entirely without reason.  Most Kama Sutra acts had hardcore kiddie appeal, and the Camel was no exception.  Their charming, retro songs would go over nicely during kindergarten quiet time.  And like all the best bubblegum bands, they were brought to New York at a producer’s behest, only to have everything go wrong.  If not truly of the genre, we’re willing to peg them as bubblegumesque.

Band leaders Peter Kraemer and Terry MacNeil met in a bookshop in 1966.  Terry was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, and Peter was from a bohemian Virginia City family—although he’d moved away before the Red Dog Saloon became hepcat-central during the Charlatans’ tenure.  Drummer Norman Mayell had played with Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite in Chicago before moving west to hanging out with the Kesey crowd.  Martin Beard was British, seventeen, and the bassist, natch.

Kraemer had been living with Chet Helms in the Haight when the latter was trying to launch a new group.  Names were bandied about, and Kraemer’s suggestion was mocked for being “trite and dumb”—so Helms’ group became Big Brother and the Holding Company (sheesh) and Kraemer remembered Sopwith Camel when he formed his own band.

Things started happening for the Camel once occasional bassist Bobby Collins sent a demo tape including “Hello, Hello” to Lovin’ Spoonful producer Erik Jacobsen.  Jacobsen—a visionary who had left his bluegrass band after hearing the Beatles, and who collaborated with John Sebastian to forge a distinctly American brand of folk’n’ roll —smelled a hit with this light-hearted, retro ditty, and invited the group out to New York.  They signed with Kama Sutra, making them one of the earliest SF bands with a record deal.  They’d never quite fit in with the other San Francisco bands, and “selling out” to an East Coast producer ensured that this remained the case.  Nonetheless, the Victor Moscoso cover art on their album was one of the first instances of mass exposure for an underground cartoonist from the SF scene.

Sure enough, “Hello, Hello” made the Top 10.  Their album, recorded as the group was disintegrating in unfriendly Manhattan, is a delightful old-timey idyll mixing moments of whimsy with some nifty oddball rock’n’roll.  Kraemer’s flapper vocal stylings and romantic lyrics are well-served by the organ grinding band.  You can see why Jacobsen liked them—they’re much closer to the Spoonful in their sense of play and wit than to any of the super-serious Bay Area bands.  After recording a couple of Levis ads, the band split up.  They reformed around 1971, prompted by Burger King’s use of “Hello, Hello” as a commercial jingle, and went on to record one well-reviewed space-rock LP with Jacobsen, The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon (Reprise, 1973).