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Trout Mask Revisited, Part 3

Beefheart was dissatisfied with Bob Krasnow’s tinkering with 1968′s Strictly Personal, so he was tempted by Frank Zappa’s offer of complete artistic freedom on Trout Mask Replica, on what’s more, a double album, which was still a relative rarity in 1969, despite Freak Out! (possibly the first such, an audacious move by Zappa on what was his debut release), Blonde On Blonde, Electric Ladyland, The White Album and Wheels Of Fire. An Evening with Wild Man Fischer on Straight Records was also a double, so credit has to be given to Frank Zappa for his sheer chutzpah as producer. His production values have had their critics, admittedly, but in many ways they were perfect for the audio verite of Trout Mask Replica. It’s hard to imagine the white-coated technicians at, say, Abbey Road, dealing with the material and the methods that Beefheart and the Magic Band would have presented them with.

The sound of Trout Mask Replica has been described extensively in rock literature, and also on YouTube (do check out Samuel Andreyev, although I do have reservations about his need to break the music down to its constituent parts, thus rather rubbing off the ‘fairy dust’ somewhat, in my view), so I don’t intend to bore the reader any further with ham-fisted attempts from yet another ‘busy music nerd’. However, I’d like to suggest the seven types that the 28 tracks on TMR can be broken down into, if anything just to point out the sheer variety on offer:

1) The Blues Stuff - Dachau Blues (rather tasteless, I’ll admit); China Pig (the only rock track that I know dedicated to a porcelain piggy bank, with accompaniment from earlier Magic Band member, Doug Moon,which is  probably the ‘straightest’ number on the whole album); My Human Gets Me Blues. Clue - none of these, apart from Pig, are blues as you or I would know them.

2)The Free Jazz Stuff - Hair Pie(s), Ant Man Bee. John French hated Beefheart’s reed work. Me, I think it works, especially on Ant Man Bee, especially when Beefheart cuts in at the 1:38 mark. It probably puts a lot of people off, however. Most people think free improvisers can’t play; Beefheart probably couldn’t, really.

3)The Ecology Stuff - spread throughout the album, and later reflected in his artwork. This concern marks him out; ecology wasn’t on most people’s agenda in 1969.

4) The Acapella Poetry Stuff - The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back, Well, Orange Claw Hammer. Barmy, beat-influenced rants about dead-beats and ‘pirate friends’ in general. Some of the best tracks of all, imho.

5)The’ Fairly-Straight Rock’ Stuff- not much of this, to be frank. Sugar N’ Spikes, Ella Guru, When Big Joan Sets Up, Veteran Days Poppy (at a pinch).

6) ‘Love Songs’ - Ella Guru, Pachuco Cadaver, Bill’s Corpse, Sweet Sweet Bulbs, She’s To Much for My (or anybody else’s) Mirror. These are the on’s that spring to mind, but hey, we are in TMR territory here!!  No ‘Moon in June’ on this one.

7) Just Plain Weird - Plenty of these. Take your pick from Neon Meate Dream of an Octopus (the unconscious mind of such a creature, rendered in alliterative word/weird associations and assonances, if that’s your thing), The Blimp (utterly hatstand), Pena (this one is the one, towards the start of the original Side Three, which most people drew the line at, the one which Antennae James Semens probably got death threats about), and still one that I have ultimate reservations about. Tantamount to unlistenable, it still fascinates me, 43 years on.

So there you have it. Trout Mask Replica. Still as opaque and unique as it ever was. And ever will be. And the only thing that I’ve felt needed three blogs to get out of my system.

Trout Mask Revisited, Part 2

This might have to be a three parter, I’m afraid. There is so much to say about this record.

It was on hearing Eugene Chadbourne’s live rendition of The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back a few weeks back that drove these blogs. I was also reminded of that phenomenal version of Beefhearts’s other accapella number on Trout Mask Replica, Orange Claw Hammer, which was finally released on the 5-CD retrospective on Revenant Records, Grow Fins.

It’s funny how Beefheart fans talk in code, recognisable to all of those who share the meta-language: just say ‘Fast and Bulbous’ to any adept! Just like the Monty Python or Withnail & I bores, there are a plethora of Beefheart signatures that can keep fans verbally stroking each other for hours on end. But he is one of those artists that I return to regularly, a pracice that I blogged about earlier in January this year (’My Re-Appreciation Society’). This seems to be a mainly male pastime,as indeed is Beefheart fan worship generally. How many female fans of Beefheart do you know? Really? He does seem to be a male initiation rite for would-be counter-culturists?

Trout Mask Replica seems to be, as has often been remarked, a unique mixture of Delta Blues and Free Jazz, with the addition of crypto-beat poetry and Beefheart’s Howling Wolf-influenced roar. A musical Nerd Fest! But all these references only take us so far. Trout Mask Replica (and Beefheart’s other, lesser works, like Lick My Decals Off Baby) were UNIQUE, beyond partisan approaches, and never to be repeated. We don’t seem to be able to produce these sort of works any more. It has to be remembered that Beefheart was initially treated as one of Zappa’s freak shows on the Bizarre/Straight labels (as was Tim Buckley), and many of us filed him alongside other idiots savants, like Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs and the early Alice Cooper. The myth went round that the album was written and made in 8 hours, in some sort of inspired improvisational frenzy. Any informed hearing of the record renders these notions risible - John French’s drums are basically comparable to the work of great free improv artists like Paul Lytton or Tony Oxley, the guitars of Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo) and Jeff Simmons (Antennae Jimmy Semens) and the bass of Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) produce an interlocking matrix of incomparable power, a machine that many, many months of preparation and practice to unleash, as both Harkleroad’s (Lunar Notes) and French’s (Beefheart:Through the Eyes of Magic) books describe. Made up on the spot? Don’t make me laugh. But these are the sort of The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance-type stories that take root, and prove very difficult to displace.

In fact, the person who got closest to describing the sound of this Magic Band was none other than Ornette Coleman, who coined the idea of Harmolodics-the bass, playing chords, and the drums are independent, and are equal to the guitars, who are also independent. They all produce so much more ‘information’ than on the average rock album. Other twin-guitar groups, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Television, for example, never even came close. It is incredible to think that none of these musicians were formally trained, and were all in their early 20s, apart from Beefheart himself.


To be continued.

Trout Mask Revisited, Part 1

I’ve been a bit busy, what with researching for the Barry Guy biography, so haven’t found a lot of time for blogging. However, after visiting my Captain Beefheart-adoring friend in Sheffield, I decided to return to the lifetime task of decoding Trout (although it look more like a carp on the record cover) Mask Replica (TMR). Now TRM is a cultural avant milestone, and listening to it thoroughly is analogous to the task of properly exploring Ulysses (my favourite book) in the world of literature, or perhaps a proper evaluation of the films of Tarkovsky (who I don’t especially ‘get’,) or getting a proper handle on Coltrane’s Ascension. Anyway you look at it, it is a dense, difficult and demanding recording.

One does need a bit of a historic perspective on this ‘masterpiece’ (I will probably have recourse to a lot of inverted commas in these blogs, Beefheart’s work necessitates their use, I find). Many, many listeners, including my beloved wife, would not describe TMR as ‘music’ (see, I’m using them already). You would have to be disingenuous or passive-aggressive in the extreme, to not admit that this former double album, now a single CD, is not an incredibly disturbing and dissonant and dislocating listening experience, at least on first hearing (unless you’re one of those ‘look at me, I’m well-weird, me’ types). Certainly, when I first heard it, I was as perplexed and annoyed as I was when I was first exposed to free improvisation, which also both got my goat and yet presented a challenge.

To set the scene for younger readers and listeners - TMR  was first released in America in 1970, but wasn’t readily available in this country until ten years later, when Reprise Records released it over here. Before that it was only available as an expensive import (older readers will remember the thrill of getting your hands on American imports, whose covers were  were made of  more durable and tough cardboard, or so it seemed, being coated with Yankee fairy dust). I remember beggaring myself buying the Mothers of Invention’s Uncle Meat as an import in early 1973, on Bizarre Records, the same label that released TMR.  I never regretted it - in those times, it often involved considerable expenditure of teenage pocket money to get to hear particular music. I first set eyes on TMR at Warwick University in late 1974. A fellow long-hair, educated at St. Paul’s and loaded (in more ways than one) had a copy and kindly lent it to me. I listened to it, initially in homeopathic doses, and gradually got to grips, over several weeks, with Side One. I do remember that Ella Guru was the track that initially clicked with me (but even this was odd in the extreme). 

It’s important to remember that this was originally two albums, with four sides, an architecture that is totally lost on the CD version (although the latter does have the ‘advantage’ of having the lyrics printed out). This format was a good way of gradually getting into the record, as opposed to being confronted with it in its entirety, as on the CD - each side has a very strong opening and closing number: to wit:

Side One: Begins with Frownland, which You Tube’s Samuel Andreyev thinks is the most musically complex track, on this most complex of records, and ends with the bone-crunching Moonlight On Vermont (my personal fave)

Side Two: Pachuco Cadaver starts this side strongly and ends with the instrumental Dali’s Car, which gave it’s name to a later English band.

Side Three: Begins with the album’s other instrumental Hair Pie, Bake 2 (cute!) and ends with the tremendous, mostly-instrumental, Ant Man Bee.

Side Four: The verbal recital Orange Claw Hammer starts this side, which end with another number with an long instrumental coda, Veteran’s Day Poppy.

To be continued.

Eugene Chadbourne

I was visiting an old friend in Sheffield last weekend, partially because the guitarist Eugene Chadbourne was playing on that Saturday night at The Shakespeare pub in the former Steel City.

I’d never seen Chadbourne before, but had been aware of him since the 80s and his work with Shockabilly and Derek Bailey. What a surprise, in a rather schadenfreude sense, to see him still playing in the ‘toilet venue’ scene, to put it bluntly. The Shakespeare is a good old fashioned boozer, the sort which are becoming rapidly extinct in London, where most venues don’t know who they are supposed to be catering for, certainly not ordinary people.

The downside of this is the ‘room upstairs’, which was a mainstay of early English free improv. It’s still there, believe me, and I have recently experienced it in The Shakespeare (there are others, like The Three Cranes). I am conflated  here, as this is a rather noxious point -  what was/is the value of these rather dodgy venues? Improvisers such as Evan Parker and Barry Guy might have moved beyond the ‘toilet circuit’, but what is left to their successors?

Chadbourne himself was superb - a mix of country, a superb Beefheart rendition of  The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back, for Pete’s sake, some Hendrix/Sharrock/Heino inspired shrock and a few Hollywood numbers to conclude. A consumate performer, in front of 30 fans, at best.

A great performer (and a great facial at that). Go see him.

“Age cannot wither them...”

I was debating with a friend today about pop/rock compositions, and about how anyone above 30 seems unable to write classic pop/rock numbers. The Beatles were all in their early 20s when they produced their best known compositions; ditto The Rolling Stones. One only has to read about Jagger;s latest ‘conquest’, a 22-year old, to realise how ‘out of time’ this particular dodgy septuagerian has become. Paul McCartney has become similarly irrelevant. Only the recent Nobel Prize recipient Bob Dylan is keeping the freak flag flying on behalf of his chequered generation.

What is it that means that one has to be under 30 to create great rock music, I wonder? It really does seem that this is youth music, as the sad products of the Gallagher brothers has recently proved. Sure, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Neil Young have produced great work in their middle ages, but you know what I’m talking about, yeah?

The Rolling fucking Stones and their zombie roll outs, and the awful U2 cavalcade are indications of the true horror of middle-age and middle-class rock ‘n roll detritus. I’m amazed that they can take themselves seriously, particularly the Jagger phallocentrism and the Bono leather-trouser parody.  They are an embarrassment for us already embarrassed 60 year olds.

However, here comes the cavalry, the improv gerontocracy!! 

 Barry Guy, with his 70th birthday (slightly younger than the absurd Jagger), at the helm of the celebrations at The Vortex last April, playing in all the groups that were featured over three hours of challenging improv. Trevor Watts, Paul Lytton, John Russell, Terry Day, Steve Beresford, David Toop- all around the age of 60, and all still producing challenging work, which is more than can be said of the Rolling plutocrats, who seem to tour mainly to please their accountants. There are some left of even greater age - Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Lee Konitz- let’s hope that they are acknowledged  as the greatest of our elders - as opposed to the bogus oldsters as represented by the greatest pretender of all, Mick Jagger, who has ripped off his mentors from 1963 onwards.

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