For San Francisco’s psychedelic Sopwith Camel, life as a Sixties pop sensation ended as quickly as it began. In February of 1967, the band scored its one and only hit, a good-time novelty tune called “Hello, Hello.” Within six months — immediately following the release of its debut album — the band was defunct and slipping from public consciousness, so much so that the album carried a sticker reminding buyers, REMEMBER HELLO, HELLO!
It all began in late 1965. Peter Kraemer, the group’s vocalist and lyricist, had dreamed up the name for the band while living in Haight-Ashbury at 1090 Page Street, the infamous twenty-five-room Victorian house with the basement ballroom where Big Brother and the Holding Company rehearsed and performed. During the flowering of San Francisco’s counterculture, everybody wanted to be in a band, and Kraemer was no exception. He ran into guitarist Terry MacNeil at a bookstore, and within a week they had written eight songs, including “Hello, Hello.” After they added guitarist William Sievers, drummer Norman Mayell and bassist Martin Beard, they began performing at the Matrix, one of the first clubs to present psychedelic music.
Their big break came when Erik Jacobsen, the twenty-six-year-old producer who had produced seven Top Ten hits for the Lovin’ Spoonful, came out to San Francisco scouting talent. He heard “Hello, Hello,” loved it and turned it into the first national hit for a genuine hippie band. But success didn’t stop the band members from bickering offstage, and the Camel soon disbanded. Sievers, who quit to pursue a brief, ill-fated solo career, chalks it up to immaturity. “We were not the kind of seasoned musicians and performers that it would have taken to maintain on that level,” he says. “We fell prey to the various temptations of the Sixties. We did hit it big fast but didn’t get a lot of money out of it.”
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In 1970, Kraemer and MacNeil started writing songs together, eventually deciding to re-form the band. Their 1973 comeback album, The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon, stiffed, and their tour literally went up in smoke when the truck loaded with their equipment caught fire. Beard and Mayell went on to play sessions for Jacobsen in the late Sixties and early Seventies, appearing on Norman Greenbaum’s hit album Spirit in the Sky, Mayell later joined a version of Blue Cheer.
Today Beard, 40, is an electronics technician for a Silicon Valley company, and Mayell, 45, owns a successful typesetting company with his wife, Judy. Sievers, 44, markets condominiums for San Francisco’s Pacific Union Company.
Kraemer, 43, lives on a converted ferryboat in Sausalito, California, with his kids, Michael, 16, and Zolee, 14. His post-Camel gigs have included ditch digging, carpentry, house painting, landscaping and nightclub management. He also paints on canvas, and some of his art was shown at a San Francisco café last year.
Terry MacNeil became a follower of Gurudeva Sivayasubramuniyaswami in the late Sixties and changed his name to Nandi Devam (“Every band had to have one of those,” says Mayell, laughing). Devam, 43, lives with his wife, Surina, and their three daughters. He’s suitably philosophic about the wheel of fortune: “As far as I’m concerned, everything is perfect the way it happens. It always happens for a reason.”
Kraemer has a different perspective. Standing on a short wooden bridge that leads to the ferry, he says with a laugh, “If I had only hit the big time, I could have a condo on the hill and a Porsche and cocaine and a limitless stream of blondes.”