Monday, 16 November 2020

NIRVANA - Black Flower


I think of the Black Flower as some sort of benevolent mushroom cloud ballooning over the Kensington rooftops. It’s purpose somewhat obscure. Like something out of a pulp Sci-fi novel, Aldiss and Ballard. “Black Flower grow, easy, easy take it slow”. The scarlet chimney pots lined up like soldiers on parade amongst the spidery branches of the trees in Holland Park all pointing upwards. Upwards like the skeletal hand on the cover of the “Dedicated to Markos III” album sleeve, caressed by the disembodied red finger-nailed hand. Something like an Amicus film poster, something full of portent and gloss. Like the song. It’s beguiled me for thirty years and it refuses to let go. I bloody love it.

It came from the back-streets of those glorious 60’s. Hidden away in the rehearsal rooms, of songwriting teams hammering away at pianos with scratch backing bands formed in the queue on the stairs, waiting to pitch their weekly offering to the men with the golden ears. A time when David Jones was studying Scott Walker and Freddie Bulsara, was doing the same with Barry Ryan and somewhere above Oxford Street Reg Dwight was practising on being everyone to anyone who'd listen. The collective known as Nirvana were at their core an Irish rocker and an exotic Greek living la vie Boheme along the length of the Uxbridge Road. If Pat Campbell-Lyons voice was fey then Alex Spyropoulos’ was even feyer. (on this selection he's like a lounge Donovan). Songwriters first and foremost they briefly dallied as a baroque in-concert group assembled from the classical music students they stalked hanging around outside the Royal College of Music. It was all kaftans and harpsichords for a spell with a repertoire of ethereal morsels such as “Pentecost Hotel”, “I Believe in Magic” and “Tiny Goddess”, the latter memorably covered in French, German and Italian by the highly erotic Francoise Hardy. Incongruously they became the first band signed to Island Records and hot on the heels, their phased ”Rainbow Chaser” charted as a minor hit in the UK and a major one on the continent. By 1968 it was almost over, they’d scaled down to a duo and were promoting the record across Europe, clutching only their string charts and the assistance of whoever the record company had arranged to meet them at the airport. But along the way they filled out the soundtrack to the bizarre “The Touchables” film and took a trip to Rio to help launch the international singing career of Jimmy Cliff. There was also a naked appearance in front of teenage girls on Belgian TV save for angels wings and underpants. And in Paris one memorable Sunday afternoon they appeared on a TV happening with Salvador Dali where a couple of Bengal tigers prowled around a studio filled with paint pots and expensive chocolates.


And the muse propelled them on and on and like the Black Flower it grew and grew …until inevitably Island Records rejected the new album. The title sounded too much like “Black Power” and the music sounded too much like Un Homme et Une Femme and not enough like "All Right Now".

But that’s just history, it was done and its with us now. Over 3 days at Pye’s Marble Arch studios in the Spring of 1969 with a cavalcade of arrangers clocking-in and out including Mike Hurst, Tony Visconti, Mike Vickers and Johnny Scott, they gathered to score the new batch of  euro-pop sounds. There were songs about the blind and the beautiful, about Aline Cherie, about Island boss Chris Blackwell, a duet with Lesley Duncan and a Webb-like western about Illinois (not Wichita). And against Skis on Sunday strings they nailed the perfect anglo-chanson "The World is Cold Without You" and capped it all off with the monumental "Black Flower". 

It starts like the opening of a movie with Spyropoulos softly enunciating obscure couplets …

Pick a black flower

Girl in the supermart

Holy man in the monastery

With all your mystery

It's simplistic and strange and floats about in an ambience of easy strings that sit on the edge of a larger orchestra that promises something far more disruptive. And then it comes with the rush of a an unexpected wall of sound chorus,“Black Flower grow, easy easy take it slow…” The skies darken - think Jean-Pierre-Ferland’s “Le Chat du CafĂ© des Artistes” (c’mon you know the one) and then a press of the switch and the candelabra is turned back on, the mood restored and all is well again. And back we go into this mysterious lyric that with closed eyes behind tinted specs could be coming  en direct a L’Olympia ou Bobino:

Paradise found

The world is breaking up

Now the devil can spread his wings

And everybody sings…

The devil indeed.The ending is devastating. It just breaks out into a long raucous multitracked guitar solo over jittery military drums that stutter and collapse like grenadier guards tottering in the heat at Horse Guards Parade. On it goes, on it goes like a curtain falling over the whole Nirvana project. The summit of their blink and you'll miss it moment in the sun. It could have ended the album. When I taped it in 1990 from Stoke-on-Trent Public Library it was on a compilation that started with it and that really worked I have to say. Label stable-mates Spooky Tooth were on the sessions for this album but I don’t think this is the work of Luther Grosvenor. The other guitarist cited is Billy Bremner who went on to play with Dave Edmunds Rockpile in the 70’s. So take a bow. I think.  

Nirvana carried on in various guises and someone needs to do some intensive work gathering their 70's output together. It's a very mixed bag but chock full of interesting items taking in prog-rock, jazz-piano noodling, Xian-pop, odes to John Conteh, session work with Diana Dors offspring, songs for Demis Roussos and Frankie Vaughan and of course the theme tune to childrens TV's Cloppa Castle. 

As I said "Black Flower" really was their towering glory. 



My first experience of Nirvana was in the late 80s when as a teenager I bought the Back On The Road prog compilation, including their most famous song, Rainbow Chaser. At the time the song was a little too twee for my taste, it didn’t sate my hunger for loud guitars, strident Hammond organs and nonstandard rhythms – a hunger which persists today, albeit to a slightly lesser extent – but as a piece of pleasant psych pop fluff (as I saw it then) it was still a worthy inclusion to the collection. 

I’ve since tried to get more into their sound and have been frustrated by the patchiness of their LPs. The Story of Simon Simopath was interesting and had some great moments; All of Us likewise had its high points, but both were let down by too many cutesy, childish tunes and throwaway, overly-simplistic song ideas. To Markos III had a slightly darker feel to it, but suffered from the same problem as the previous two LPs – evidently enough for Chris Blackwell to call time on their Island tenure and the album tip-toed out on Pye records instead, to little fanfare. It featured the typical Nirvana setup of many hired hands to provide a heavily orchestrated sound, fronted by regulars Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos.  

Black Flower is the best song on the album by far, transitioning from easy listening to psych pop to freak out rock rather well. After the dramatic intro, the listening is so easy it could’ve been warbled by Charles Asnavour (ED.That is criminally mispelt!) on a Saturday afternoon variety show; very middle of the road, nothing special at all (unless you happen to love Charles Aznavour ).(ED.I managed to correct this one!)  

Then the psych chorus comes in and it all gets much more interesting… I start getting hints of Donovan with the melodramatic refrain “Black Flower, grow – easy, easy, take it slow!”, and the chromatic descending chords lend a hint of threat and menace to disrupt the tranquillity and calm of the verses. There’s a brief return to that calm, then another dark chorus until a twittering-flute-and-staccato-strings palate cleanser, which sounds like it’s going to resolve to an easy verse again to fade but no… 

POW! Searing twin tracked psych fuzz guitars come in over the repeated descending chorus motif, and the effect is mind blowing. It’s such a contrast to the easy listening verses, but because the familiar chorus chord progression is kept, it absolutely works within the structure of the song. Simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb and blending in with the structure is no mean feat… and it sounds fantastic. Freak out to fade and I’m reaching for the repeat button before it can finish. 

In revisiting the Nirvana catalogue I’ve also developed a new-found soft spot for the follow up LP Local Anaesthetic, released on Vertigo a couple of years later – an album I had previously dismissed as crap but evidently I was wrong, as a complete LP it might even be their best (further listenings required to confirm this…)  

But Black Flower deserves to sit alongside Rainbow Chaser as an essential ‘in’ for new listeners, it’s a cracker. 


This song is the tombstone of the Nirvana project that lasted as a musical collaboration between London-based songwriting partnership of Irish musician Patrick Campbell-Lyons and Greek composer Alex Spyropoulos. It formed the centrepiece of their third album, an album their mentors at Island declined to release. The band were melodic, symphonic, marked with lush productions, performed by an Asgardian selection of session musicians. Campbell-Lyons has a distinctive strut to his voice, which despite being slightly too thin for the material he is draping over Spyropoulos’ orchestrations, is pleasing from an aesthetic point of view, but it lacks the passion shared by his contemporaries who sold better. This is the same year as Bolan’s Unicorn, Fripp’s Court of the Crimson King, Townshend’s Tommy and Beefheart’s Trout-Mask Replica who all score higher for cerebral conceptualisation not to mention raw sexuality.

(This song) has a lovely verse and a lovely chorus, it’s beautifully orchestrated and confidently performed, but I don’t know who it was for when it was made and I suspect that was the problem all along. I guess calling your ex- boss Lucifer doesn’t help your long-term recording relationship either, even in free and easy 1969.


Hats off for an esoteric submission that I had never heard of. I have to state that this is not my type of music, in part from having heard too many records in this style with lyrics making a nod to Donovan (but not to Dylan, please note) and in the music evoking a very English scenario of pleasant chord progressions souped up in the production to show it has expanded horizons (but not to the psychedelia of Hendrix or the acid of early Grateful Dead, please note). For me it evokes that part of John Major’s famous quote that “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs and dog lovers”, something that is perhaps less solid than it seems. This record gives me the same ambivalence, especially to warm beer, and is not my cup of tea

(ED. Here is a very interesing clip of the band around the time this song was recorded. We see PC-L  attempting to hang up his coat, a very awkward interview and a great moment capuring the limited cuisine back then at La Giaconde on Denmark St (London's Tin-Pan Alley).