The Apollo Stars
The Rock Stars of Scientology’s Sea Org
In 1974, the Apollo Stars released their only album, The Power of Source. Like many ’70s American rock bands, the Apollo Stars were young men with long hair, bushy moustaches, flapping flares and loud guitars. Unlike others, though, they were Scientologists and lived on a ship, the Apollo, with church founder L. Ron Hubbard, who was credited as the band’s producer and co-writer.
On board the Apollo was the church’s Sea Organization, or Sea Org. It comprises Scientology’s most dedicated members, who are required to sign a symbolic (but not legally binding) one billion-year contract to demonstrate their commitment to the church. The Sea Org was established in 1967, the same year that Hubbard purchased a fleet of ships including the Apollo, which was once a British Royal Navy landing ship called HMS Royal Scotsman and had served in World War II.
The purchase of these ships by Hubbard came at a legal crossroads for Scientology. In 1963, the church was raided by the United States Food and Drug Administration, with materials, books and E-Meters (used for displaying the ectodermal activity of a human being, an procedure known as ‘auditing’) being seized. The FDA believed that the church was making false medical claims through their practices and in 1967, when the church lost its tax-exempt status after an audit from the Inland Revenue Service, it moved its daily operations onto the water.
Scientology’s official line on the purchase of the fleet is that Hubbard formed the Sea Org in order for the church to focus on advanced research operations and supervise the church’s global organizations. However, given such raids and audits, which resulted in enormous debts and clashes with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it’s been suggested that Hubbard was using the ships to evade U.S. authorities.
The truth is that there was no band, just individuals who happened to have their instruments. – Tom Rodriguez
The remaining traceable few members of the Apollo Stars are split between those who have remained in the church, those who have left, and those who have no desire to talk about it from either side. In a rare instance, though, three members were willing to tell their stories: Craig Ferreira, guitar player, co-writer and current church member; Neil Sarfati, saxophone player and group director, who left the church in 1976; and Tom Rodriguez, bongo player, who prefers not to reveal his current status in regards to the church.
The Power of Source is a disjointed album, weaving together rock, jazz, blues, soul and psychedelia. It’s also driven by a solid energy and experimental tendencies, the result of which is reminiscent of an African-indebted, acid jazz freak-out. A key reason for this is the social and ethnic construct of the group. The Apollo would sail primarily across the Mediterranean but often as far as Africa, picking up sounds and members along the way. Bongo player Rodriguez, for example, boarded the ship from Morocco in 1971.
It would be a further two years before anything resembling a recording act would start, though – and even then it was by accident. When the Apollo docked in Madeira on the Christmas of 1973, the local mayor inquired if there were any musicians on board to play in the town square. “The truth is that there was no band, just individuals who happened to have their instruments,” says Rodriguez. “An announcement was made for any musicians to come directly to the PR lounge. About ten of us showed up. We were told to ‘put something together’ immediately. We asked each other, ‘What songs do you know?’ and we ended up with about three or four songs.” They performed in the square and despite Rodriguez thinking they were “terrible,” they went down well with the locals and were asked back again to play on New Year’s Eve.
The Apollo Stars were born. The band as credited on The Power of Source consisted of Tamia Arbuckle (bass, guitar), Craig Ferreira (guitar), Luten Taylor (bass), Russ Meadows (bass, flute), Charlie Rush (drums), Kenny Campleman (flute), Bill Potter (saxophone), Neil Sarfati (saxophone) and Wayne Marple (trumpet). Ferreira claims to have put this lineup together, with Sarfati then positioning himself as a director of sorts. “I became the head of the whole troupe,” Sarfati says. “I guess I had the balls because I’m a New Yorker.”
According to Sarfati, the band had some big hitters in tow. Taylor was one of the original composers for the Mission Impossible theme tune, Potter had played for Big Mama Thornton and Ferreira recalls fellow guitar player Arbuckle as being a “Japanese rock star,” referring to his time in the RCA-signed band the Lead in the late ’60s. As for the other members, “A lot of the folks just came from playing in garage bands,” says Ferreira. Various members joined the church at different times and for different reasons, but Sarfati’s story was a fairly common one. “At the time  I was 23 years old and lost. I didn't know where to go. I was looking for answers, and I thought that [the church] was the answer.”
Sarfati describes the living conditions on board as basic. “If you were in a couple, you were lucky to get a small room or a cabin. If not, you were put in dormitories that smelled of the worst smell you can imagine.” Pre-band, they would rise at 6 AM, work a 16-hour day and sleep for four hours a night. “We slept next to the rivets and steel of the outer ship. That's what the compartments were like,” says Sarfati. “You were so conditioned that this seemed normal. You had a bed, some food and you were saving the world, and so it was great. Remember – sleep and food deprivation are great ways to control people. Whenever we had money, the first thing we would do is look for a nourishing meal [on land].”
Once the band was formed, it took over their lives. Hubbard drafted a rigorous rehearsal schedule and they played at least one gig every day for two years. “We’d finish a gig in the evening, hit the sack at 1 or 2 AM, and then sleep for eight hours,” recalls Ferreira. “Get up, have breakfast and then rehearse – individually, then as a group – and write all day. It was around the clock, man.” The band became such a functioning part of life on board that it spawned roles outside of the band. A team was formed with a PR representative and a technical crew which included roadies, who set up the gigs ashore while the band rehearsed.
Such demanding schedules were commonplace on the ship, however. Sarfati views the process of becoming a full-time band member as a pleasant one, as it moved him away from more tedious work. “When I got on the ship – I call it my mind-shaft years, falling down the mind-shaft of my life – we’d work insane hours. We were all doing these jobs that had no meaning, but we didn’t know that then. We thought we were saving the universe and all that crap. We had some absolutely fun times in the band because we weren’t doing stupid 16-hour shift jobs any more.”
The only thing that Hubbard gave us of any use was saying, ‘Go primitive.’ – Neil Sarfati
When it came to their sound, little was prepared or discussed up front. They started out playing straight-up rock with some jazz influences, but it mutated into something grander. “The whole group would contribute to the writing, which was really fun,” says Ferreira. “Nobody ever brought in a full piece.” The mix of the members’ ethnic backgrounds contributed real-time twists to their sound, and the band studied African, Caribbean and Chinese music under Hubbard’s instruction. That said, the band was not shut off from the contemporary world of music. “A few of us had cassettes or a stereo system and we listened to all types of music – from Elton John to classical, jazz, rock and country,” says Sarfati. Apparently, Hubbard would share personal favourites, too, although specific details of what Hubbard liked are hazy.
When it comes to Hubbard’s role within the band, it seems to have been of a philosophical guidance and handholding nature rather than a direct musical contribution, playing a musical-religious Svengali role. Ferreira recalls Hubbard imparting his academic studies onto the band. “He directed us to study the basics of rhythm all the way back to Africa and although I never really got why we were doing that, it was fascinating. He would get us to try to emulate the sounds of some of these ancient instruments on modern instruments.”
Sarfati insists that he “never heard [Hubbard] play piano. I never heard him play any instrument. He had absolutely no experience in recording. It was because of all these different backgrounds and genres we had in the band that we started coming up with some really interesting sounds. The only thing that Hubbard gave us of any use was saying, ‘Go primitive.’” Sarfati goes on to link Hubbard spending several hours every day with the band with the timing of a serious motorcycle crash he had in 1973, with the band acting as a distraction from his constant pain and inability to move around the ship.
The motorcycle accident may go some way to explaining Hubbard’s level of involvement with the band, but as early as 1938 Hubbard wrote in a letter that “Capturing my own dreams in words, paint or music, and then seeing them live, is the highest kind of excitement just so long as any of these things are wholly mine, untrammelled by other opinions and unchanged by other hands.” It would seem that this desire to live vicariously through music while controlling the end output of others had long been with him. According to Sarfati, the pianist and long-time David Bowie collaborator Mike Garson was once invited to play with them, but even the man that Bowie had described as “exceptional” couldn’t work in his suggestions, as they were all looking to Hubbard for the final say. “Here was this guy that was recording with Bowie, and he couldn’t communicate with us because everything was done through Hubbard. When you knew that something wasn’t right, you couldn’t say anything. You couldn’t even think it. If you did, you’d get into trouble.”
We did hundreds of tracks in real studios, but the recording [of The Power of Source] was terrible. – Neil Sarfati
Ferreira remembers Hubbard in a more adoring light that Sarfati, though. “He would always tell us, ‘You’re the professionals. What do you think should be done here?’ He wouldn't tell us what to do. He would ask us what we wanted to do.” Whatever the reason or agenda for Hubbard’s involvement, it generally led to the greater benefit of the band’s life. “We were definitely flavour of the week for about a year, which was nice,” Sarfati says. “He added more bands on board. He had a country and western band, an Israeli singer – this whole troupe. It was a distraction and everybody loved it.”
When it came to the recording process, Hubbard was at his most hands on: manning the mixing desk, recording the album and crediting himself as a producer. “Making a record came out of nowhere,” says Ferreira. “Hubbard said, ‘Let’s go into town one day and make one.’ It was flippant because he was like that. I don't think anybody had produced anything before [The Power of Source].” The recording took place on an old movie theater stage in Tenerife and of the five tracks from that session that ended up on the album, it’s the cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that fizzles the most: a pummelling crescendo of African-tinged drums, over which the band yelp and whoop with excitement.
“We’re Moving In” is credited as being co-written by Hubbard, although Ferreira, Rodriguez and Sarfati are unable to clarify what justified the credit. Perhaps it was as straightforward as writing the lyrics, which repeats the mantra-like phrase “We’re moving in” over and over, and could be seen as a statement of intent for his wider ambitions for the Church. It is the weakest moment on the album by some stretch, however. The closing “My Dear Portugal” is an ode to a country and its people that, up to that point, had been welcoming – a sonic olive branch of sorts.
“We did hundreds of tracks in real studios, but the recording [of The Power of Source] was terrible,” remembers Sarfati. “Hubbard only listened to it on headphones. We didn’t have any monitors, so we couldn’t hear what was going on. He was standing up and doing the whole ‘You’re gonna pay a buck for each bad note you play,’ so you had a lot of pressure.” The band made several other recordings that have never seen the light of day, including an album of Beatles covers. Rodriguez asserts the superior quality of these missing recordings, and expresses a deep sadness over the fact that they are now lost.
Despite the band’s devoted living and working situation, Scientology stayed strictly on the ship. They claim to have never pushed their religion onto the general populace through their performances, and even actively hid their involvement in the church by telling people that they were training executives, working in management techniques. This claim would certainly fit with the idea that they were on the run, or trying to shed the image the church had left for itself back in the United States. As part of this, Hubbard was never onUstage with the band as the ship went from port to port. Instead, he would be studying, watching and filming them.
There was an extreme dichotomy to the man when it came to us. When you fell out of favour you could end up in prison [RPF], but for a while we were untouchable. – Neil Sarfati
“He would videotape us with a Super 8, and at the end of every show he would critique it,” says Ferreira. “Things like stage manners, and generally polishing up the presentation of the group itself.” Sarfati recalls an unusual evening in which the band was spared their critical breakdown. “When we did a live radio broadcast from Lisbon, we were all drunk. It was in a bar and we were free [for the night], so we were drinking. When you hear us play it sounds like nine drunken musicians, but he let us off the hook for some reason. There was an extreme dichotomy to the man when it came to us. When you fell out of favour you could end up in prison [RPF], but for a while we were untouchable.”
Sarfati, Ferreira and Rodriguez all recount the band being a live tour de force: more ferocious and tight than The Power of Source suggests, with Rodriguez going as far to say that playing with the band was the highlight of his life. During their two year run, the Apollo Stars played gigs that varied from handfuls of people in local town squares to 25,000 people in an open-air theatre in Portugal. The latter happened to coincide with a military coup known as the Carnation Revolution, and the band had to return to their ship as they saw tanks roll up the streets while they were on stage.
By 1975, though, one year after the release of The Power of Source, the band was over. The Apollo went back to the U.S. and operations – including the Sea Org, which still exists today – were moved back onto dry land. According to the official timeline of L. Ron Hubbard’s life, “By mid-’75, activities aboard the Apollo outstrip the vessel’s capacity and Mr. Hubbard returns to the United States.” However, other sources suggest that the ship had outstayed its welcome at many of the ports that it was trying to dock in. Numerous sources – including Diferencial, a Portuguese newspaper which went on to report on the Church’s history in the country in a 1996 article – suggested that the ship came under attack towards the end of 1974 in Funchal, Madeira.
The bands were scheduled to appear, but the political reunion of the MRPP, a left wing political party, didn’t buy the ship’s story of training executives, and rumors had spread that they were members of the Central Intelligence Agency. Cars and motorcycles belonging to the crew were dumped into the water, and the Apollo was pelted with stones, rocks and other objects. The attack was sustained and the ship abandoned the port, with Hubbard screaming directions from top deck. This evening has since been referred to by band members as “the rock concert.” Until this point, Portugal had been the ship’s last safe haven. After it, Hubbard was out of options. The Apollo headed back to the U.S. for South Carolina, but apparently federal agents were spotted waiting for them, so they sailed to the Caribbean before docking in Clearwater, Florida.
“We moved from the sea to land in ’75,” remembers Rodriguez. “I pretty much ceased being a band member then. Others continued to play together, when we had parties.” Sarfati left the Apollo Stars the following year. “I ‘woke up’ in ’76, when they put me in a prison camp and I escaped. The more I went through it [prison], the more it awoke me. It had the reverse effect on me. I was thinking, ‘Holy fuck, what am I doing here?’” The escape involved having to trick his former bandmate, drummer Charlie Rush, into thinking that he had explosive diarrhea in order to temporarily get out of a cell. Sarfati grabbed some money and clothes that he’d stashed behind a dumpster, hopped a prison wall, made his way to the airport and never looked back, not to Scientology nor the Apollo Stars.
Header image © Craig Ferreira