Posts Tagged ‘John French’

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Captain Beefheart’s 1970 album Lick My Decals Off, Baby, is a classic album.  If you can imagine (for a moment) that ‘Trout Mask Replica’ never happened and the next in The Captain’s discography was ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby,’ the chasm between lovers and haters would be just as strong. For those who could palate ’Trout Mask Replica,’ the follow up album seems somewhat “commercial” but is still very much just as lyrically abstract and equally instrumentally adventurous. The production quality of the album is unquestionably superior to its predecessor. First, gone are the “field recordings” from the Beefheart house in Woodland Hills, CA. The entirety of this follow-up album was seemingly recorded in a proper studio…and was given enough of a budget to spend precious studio time to make sure it sounded much more than a hugger-mugger arrangement of demos/outtakes.

Perhaps it’s the simple and sublimely unique charm of it all, but the “fault” that I have discovered with ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is the fact that it feels more like a scrapbook of those nine months holed up in a claustrophobic house rather than a proper and cohesive autobiography of those times. Please don’t misinterpret those words to mean it is unworthy. After all, I am an ardent supporter and one of the faithful that applaud ‘Trout Mask Replica,’  that represents one of the most landmark recordings in Pop/Rock of the 20th century. As a matter of fact, I listened to it alongside The Mothers Of Invention ‘Uncle Meat’ in a single sitting and there is quite a bit of similarity regarding the structure of each album.

Obviously, the common denominator is Frank Zappa himself who informed the construction and flow of ‘Trout Mask Replica.’ He was able to more-or-less realize what HE THOUGHT The Captain was trying to achieve rather than allowing Beefheart to express what he truly wanted (perhaps that was impossible)…but that will never be known. However, the snippets of those “field recordings” and other shenanigans that were grooved into wax seem to be more of Zappa’s perverse nature than it does the overarching concept Beefheart had in mind.

That said, ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ has all of the raucous, cantankerous, obstreperous and demanding music of ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ yet has a beauty, sheen and digestive quality that I don’t think Zappa ever wanted; he endeavored to make a difficult album even less surmountable by the masses…pushing the boundaries further than The Captain even wanted. ‘Lick…’ is just as free, unencumbered and freewheeling, but unlike its predecessor, possesses more structure, stability and accessibility. However, reflecting on Beefheart’s recorded output, ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby,’ is an album that (like ‘Strictly Personal’) is absolutely essential; equally as ground-breaking.

The immediate takeaway is that the songs are more succinct and the music (thanks to the production) is much more intense than the inconsistent sonics of ‘Trout Mask Replica.’ The ‘Trout Mask…’ graduates; John French (aka: Drumbo), Mark Boston (aka: Rockette Morton) and Bill Harkleroad (aka: Zoot Horn Rollo) were all on absolute FIRE for this recording. Despite all of the insanity that occurred during the recording of ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ that prepared them to achieve the “cohesiveness” on ‘Lick…’ Those three (and no disrespect to Artie Tripp whose contribution is equally significant) were nothing short of telepathic at this point.

The solo guitar piece, ‘One Rose That I Mean’ is nothing short of virtuosity. ‘Peon” is an absolute sublime bass/guitar duet that illustrates a performance between players that have spent an immense amount of time playing (fantastic and unconventional material) together. The soprano sax excursion in ’Japan Is A Dishpan’ is just as “Coltrane” as John Coltrane himself during those years where he was “searching” for something he was not able to harness within the normal bookends of traditional harmony. Well, The Captain seemed to distill that searching in the matter of just shy of three minutes.

I didn’t ever think that I would have so much to say with regard to specific tracks, but the vocals, are “in your face.” This is Beefheart at his absolute most pointed, direct, intense, focused and determined. ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)’ should have been the theme song to the ill-fated civil engineering disaster labeled ‘The Big Dig’ in Boston, MA as a way of expanding roadways in and out of the city to ameliorate perennial vehicle congestion. ‘The Buggy Boogie Woogie’ is absolutely an answer to our current zeitgeist.

Much like the “now assumed” controlled chaos of ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ is the Pop/Rock album that is chaos perfected. The music contained therein confirms the so-called “randomness” of the former and cements it by reproducing it to amazing detail. It ossifies that “controlled chaos;” it is thoughtful, repeatable and unable to repeat the sentiment that ultimately created the art.

‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’…’ requires and demands as much a close analysis as its predecessor (not to mention it sounds a whole lot better) and is bereft of much (if not most) of the “filler” that consumes ‘Trout Mask Replica.’ If newcomers to the Beefheart camp need to warm their toes into his most fruitful/experimental period before diving-in head first, listen to ‘Strictly Personal’ and ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ before attempting the glorious miasma that is ‘Trout Mask Replica.’

PS – I know this sentiment might rival a lot of opinions but I appreciate having the ability to compose and share my thoughts in an open forum…all reactions welcome!

words all written by Brent Rusche July 2020.

An overview of Captain Beefheart’s 1968 studio album “Strictly Personal”, Ultimately a failed attempt at a double album (the partner project released years later under the title, ‘Mirror Man’), this second record from Beefheart and his unwavering Magic Band is a pivotal point in his career whereby it provides a nod to the past (the debut, ‘Safe As Milk’) and prognosticates things to come (‘Trout Mask Replica’). This album comfortably bridges the predictable and “formulaic” nature of the songs on the debut, yet takes the music in unconventional directions; just listen to the song “Son Of Mirror Man – Mere Man” or “Kandy Korn” to illustrate the point. Gone are the traditional Blues song forms, yet the soul and musical vocabulary used is still very rooted deeply in that Delta Blues style.

The songs still have a strong semblance of unity where the instruments largely play in complementary ways while the vocals follow, yet diverge and are clearly becoming more abstract in definition and delivery. Opening with “Ah Feel Like Ahcid,” an a cappella blues workout with its roots in Son House’s “Death Letter,” the brief (barely 35 minutes) album is at the same time simpler and weirder than Safe As Milk had been.  ‘Beatle Bones ’N Smokin’ Stones’ might just be the signature tune of the album to foreshadow what is to come…the breakdown of conventional forms, idioms, expectations and ultimately what could be done in a “Pop/Rock” format was galvanized with this album. It wasn’t until ‘Trout Mask Replica’ that it was completely realized.

The Captain; He frustrated, hurt, abused, rebuked and demoralized more than a handful of musicians in his artistic pursuit of absolute freedom. While I think that he achieved his goal…and created unparalleled music in the process, the result is timeless and “tip my cap” to all of those who bore the weight of his tyranny, persevered and ultimately created this incredibly groundbreaking music.

Producer Bob Krasnow was the owner of Blue Thumb added phasing and reverberation effects to the recordings, which have since been the topic of much discussion among music fans and critics. The original intention was to record the album for Buddah Records entitled “It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper” (Strictly Personal’s sleeve design is a relic of this initial concept). A considerable amount of material was recorded for the project during the period of October–November 1967 with Krasnow producing. Buddah Records, however, declined to release the album, which appeared in revised form the following year. Strictly Personal features re-recorded versions of songs from the 1967 sessions. Beefheart subsequently condemned the production. He said the effects were added without his knowledge or approval. These comments became public only after sales of the album failed to reach expectations. It has been claimed by other band members that he initially agreed to the use of these sounds. Regardless, Beefheart did release his later recordings with a much more basic and unprocessed sound.  The CD I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird contains all of those ’67 tracks, except Korn Ring Finger recorded for the sessions.

Buddah released some recordings from the earlier sessions, along with an earlier version of “Kandy Korn”, as Mirror Man in 1971. Much other material from the 1967 sessions has since been released: This album has long since been out of print, but all eleven tracks can be found spread across The Mirror Man Sessions and the current version of Safe as Milk. Some of these tracks were also used for a vinyl-only release by the Sundazed label in 2008 bearing the original intended title of It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper but this release does not duplicate the original album’s concept or sequence.

‘Strictly Personal’ is not only required listening to every Captain Beefheart fan, I think it deserves mention of one of the most Avant-Garde albums in the Pop/Rock genre (is that even possible?!?!) Hopefully, some who visit this page will investigate this landmark recording and comment on my emotions, but this is a Huge milestone in his development as a “musical” artist and what (along with a healthy dose of competition he felt with fellow friend and maverick, Frank Zappa) created the Beefheart aesthetic.

thanks for words by Brent Rusche

Originally released in October 1968 as the first album on the Blue Thumb Records

The Magic Band:

  • Don Van Vliet – vocals, harmonica
  • Alex St. Clair – guitar
  • Jeff Cotton – guitar
  • Jerry Handley – bass
  • John French – drums

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reDiscover Captain Beefheart’s ‘Doc At The Radar Station’

As the 80s rolled around, many iconic artists from the 60s would struggle to find their place in the decade. Captain Beefheart, however, though boasting a 60s discography that re-wrote what was possible for a mere three-minute song, came back revitalised. The punk and new wave scenes of the late 70s and early 80s had embraced his creative freedoms, while Beefheart himself, after seemingly turning his back on boundary-pushing music, unleashed a late-period Magic Band that asserted his credentials as one of rock’s true visionaries. They super-charged themselves for 1980’s “Doc At The Radar Station”, his penultimate album. Portentously, it boasted an artwork painted by Beefheart himself – the final album to feature his own work on the sleeve, as if signposting Beefheart’s eventual decision to retire from music and pursue painting in the middle of the decade.

The line-up that made “Doc at the Radar Station”, the penultimate studio album from Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, recorded in June 1980. In this photo, left to right: Robert Arthur Williams, Don Van Vliet, John French, Eric Drew Feldman, Jeff Moris Tepper and Bruce Lambourne Fowler. Photo by Michael Kent Rothman.

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In this photo, left to right: Robert Arthur Williams, Don Van Vliet, John French, Eric Drew Feldman, Jeff Moris Tepper and Bruce Lambourne Fowler. Photo by Michael Kent Rothman.

Doc At The Radar Station marked the first Magic Band credit for New York art-rock icon Gary Lucas – continued evidence of Beefheart’s influence on NYC’s downtown art scene (it’s an influence that never left: the album’s opening track, ‘Hot Head’, is a clear ancestor to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ early outings). Further youthful bite came courtesy of Eric Drew Feldman, a multi-instrumentalist who had joined the fold for 1976’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), and who would go on to perform with Pixies and PJ Harvey – two artists who wore their Beefheart influences openly.

A nod to Beefheart’s hallowed Trout Mask Replica-era band came with John French’s return since his defection in 1972. French picked up marimba, slide guitar, bass and drums across ‘Ashtray Heart’ and ‘Sheriff Of Hong Kong’, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that both boast the deceptively unhinged mania that marks much of Beefheart’s 60s output, but with an extra heft thanks to the new blood involved.

This melding of old and new is arguably what makes Doc At The Radar Station such a success: some of the material dates back to the Trout Mask era, while other outings (‘A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond’,’ Flavor Bud Living’, ‘Brickbats’) received initial try-outs during the shelved Bat Chain Puller sessions of 1976. With such a forceful Magic Band attacking top-tier material with gusto, there was no way Doc At The Radar Station could fail.

Indeed, in their review Rolling Stone lauded “music of such heat, strength and passion that many listeners will get trampled”, though also noted that the songs “rarely shatter into headlong chaos without first showing the comely, formal compositions they might have been”. It was an astute observation. Beefheart might have divided his fanbase with his outwardly commercial 70s outings Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams, but it’s true that Doc At The Radar Station also makes clear the genuine songcraft that goes into even his most outlandish material.

It had taken almost two decades, but perhaps the world had finally caught up with him. Rolling Stone reasonably pointed out that, really, the man Don Van Vliet was “bugged by the same things that plague us all: bad relationships, bad technology, bad government”, while The New York Times was sufficiently moved to hail album closer ‘Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee’ as “probably the most extravagantly original and perfectly realised creation of Beefheart’s career”.

Almost three decades on, as a penultimate salvo, Doc At The Radar Station still warrants such positive diagnoses.