I have been madly in love with a song called “Kites” by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound for… well for longer than I care to admit to in public. I discovered it in the mid-80s on a 45rpm single and long assumed that the group was a one-hit wonder of the psychedelic era—if that. But that was during the pre-Internet years before I could have just googled their name and known then what I only figured out over the weekend…
“Kites,” written by Hal Hackady and Lee Pockriss, is a gorgeous, soaring ballad that uses unusual instrumentation for a pop song—vibes, a gong, a wind machine, plus an early use of the mellotron—and the recited “sweet nothings” whispers of a woman speaking in Chinese. The lyrics are as romantic as anything Scott Walker ever came up with and are belted out by a truly powerful and fantastic voice:
I will fly a yellow paper sun in your sky
When the wind is high,
When the wind is high
I will float a silver solid moon through your window
If your night is dark,
If your night is dark
In letters of gold on a snow white kite, I will write “I love you!”
And send it soaring high above you
For all to read
I will scatter rice paper stars in your heaven
If there are no stars,
If there are no stars
All of these and seven wonders more will I find
When the wind is high,
When the wind is high
The group apparently hated the song—which got to #8 on the British pop charts—but their label and manager insisted on it. They considered themselves a sweaty rock and roll band, to them this lovey-dovey psychedelic balladeering was, as one of them would later call it “utter shit.” But this unwanted hit would soon catapult them into the spotlight as they went from playing clubs to package tours and TV shows with the likes of the Walker Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Gene Pitney and the Beach Boys.
But here’s the big thing I didn’t know about Simon Dupree and the Big Sound: the hard-charging blue-eyed soul band was the first step in the career of the Shulman brothers—Derek Shulman (who’d taken the name “Simon Dupree” which he thought better suited a rock star); his older brother Phil Shulman and his baby brother Ray Shulman—who would a few years later form prog rock legends Gentle Giant!
Here are a few more fascinating factoids about Simon and his Big Sound: They used the same studio, different shifts, as the Beatles at Abbey Road and they surreptitiously used the Fab Four’s instruments (and other equipment) which sat in the corner having been neatly arranged there by the group’s studio assistants.
But the Beatles connection doesn’t end there: Wanting to escape their new image, the Big Sound went undercover when they released “We Are the Moles” in late 1968 credited to The Moles. A rumor—deliberately circulated by the band and their press officers—went around that the Moles were, in fact the Beatles, fronted by Ringo Starr, and recording under a pseudonym. Ultimately it was Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett who “outed” Simon Dupree and the Big Sound as the band behind the Moles single.
And then there is the fact that none other than a young Elton John was briefly a touring member of the group (he also played on a few of their recordings).
Disillusioned by the drudgery of life as a constantly touring frilly-shirted pop group, after saving enough money to buy their mum a house (their other brother Terry was their road manager), the Shulman brothers disbanded The Big Sound in 1969, laying low for a bit before launching Gentle Giant in 1970.
This clip is claimed to be the original promo film for “Kites” in several places on the Internet and although I think that’s debatable—the band is not in it—it’s still fun to watch. It may well be the actual promo for the song, I can’t say. TURN IT UP.
A live version of “Kites” from German TV. You’ll note the playful piss-take attitude the group displayed when they performed their only (unwanted) hit song.
“Thinking About My Life” on German TV’s ‘Beat-Club’ in 1968
“Broken-hearted Pirates” on German TV. The studio version of this novelty song—what else could you call it—had Dudley Moore on piano.
“Give It All Back” featuring the talents of a young man named Reginald Kenneth Dwight. You may know him better as Elton John. So think of this as like a jam with Gentle Giant and Sir Elton.
“The Ravers” is a wonderful time capsule of a simpler, more openly sexist era in which Simon Dupree and the Big Sound are seen pursued by groupies in a classic episode of Britain’s popular ‘Man Alive’ TV documentary series. The irony of this, of course, is that in their next incarnation as Gentle Giant, the Shulman brothers were in one of the most chick-repellant bands this side of Jethro Tull…