California Dreaming: Frownland

The Magic Band had effectively split up. One at a time, every member who had played on the band’s first two albums had left, except for John French. And the reason for this was simple. Captain Beefheart himself.

Don Van Vliet had turned into a cult leader, insisting on twelve-hour rehearsal sessions, and then picking members at random to berate and humiliate in front of the rest of the group, sometimes going as far as physical violence. One by one, the original members reached breaking point, and were replaced by members of John French’s earlier band, Blues In A Bottle, until finally the Magic Band consisted of Blues In A Bottle’s two guitarists (Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad), bass player (Mark Boston), and drummer (French) all backing Van Vliet. The one member not in Blues In A Bottle was Vliet’s cousin Victor Hayden, who allegedly “played” bass clarinet, though he mostly just made atonal squawks which upset the rest of the band (though they do add to the music).

Each of these members had been a fan of Beefheart’s before they joined the band, and they were all eager to be in what was clearly the most exciting band in LA, making the most adventurous music. What they didn’t bargain for was that Vliet wanted younger, more easily-manipulable musicians (and Harkleroad in particular had just walked out of one cult) to come and live in a commune, eating little but rice, and obeying his every whim.

Vliet gave his band members new names — French became Drumbo, Cotton Antennae Jimmy Semens, Harkleroad Zoot Horn Rollo, Boston Rockette Morton, and Hayden The Mascara Snake — and new responsibilities. Cotton was to follow Vliet around, take dictation, and collect the random scraps of paper on which he wrote down his poetry. French was to take musical dictation.

Vliet had just bought a piano, but not learned to play it. He would sit at the piano with French at his side, and work out a tiny fragment of music, which French would note down and teach to the band. These tiny fragments were put together and structured into full songs by French, at Vliet’s direction, with band members playing in different time signatures, keys, and tempos, and French as drummer (and the only one whose parts weren’t written by Vliet on the piano) coming up with his own parts that attempted to split the difference between these and make some rhythmic sense of the music. Over these songs, Vliet would then lay his previously-written poetry.

The process was time-consuming and abusive, with the band members being constantly subjected to a stream of verbal and physical abuse from Vliet, yet the musical results were extraordinary. What resulted was a mixture of the timbres of the Chicago blues Vliet loved, all spiky, snarling, slide guitar, with the rhythms and tonalities of free jazz, with Vliet’s Howlin’ Wolf style voice shouting beat poetry over the top. It was difficult, both to play and to listen to, but it was the most astonishingly different music being made in the world at that time.

Frownland, which opens the album that came from this process, Trout Mask Replica, is a typical example. Vliet’s lyrics (“My smile is stuck, I cannot go back to your frown land”) are joyous, but conceal a darker undertone; in his description of a utopia “Where a man can stand by another man without an ego flyin’”, Vliet was attacking French, who he perceived as still having too big an ego. The music, meanwhile, is clangorous and violent, with Semens’ stabbed slide guitar going against the rhythmic grain of Harkleroad’s melodic picked figures to create music that demands the listener’s attention. There are no background parts here — every part is its own separate thing, and works against, rather than reinforcing, the others.

For this album, the Magic Band had been signed to Frank Zappa’s new label, Straight, and Zappa wanted to produce the album as a field recording at the band’s shared house, and brought recording equipment to do so. Vliet, however, had other ideas, insisting that Zappa only wanted to do this to be cheap, and to get out of recording the band in a proper studio. He also believed that Zappa was more interested in presenting him as a freak than as a serious artist.

The backing tracks were eventually recorded in four and a half hours in a professional studio, although comparison with the “field recordings” shows little difference — the band were so tight and had played this music so much that they could run through it in their sleep. Vliet recorded his vocals separately, refusing to wear headphones (he sang so hard that his ears had pressure problems when he was singing), and so only hearing leakage from the control room, with his vocals drifting in and out of sync with the backing tracks.

But the whole thing works, and works astonishingly. Trout Mask Replica is an album that has no precedent anywhere. Its constituent elements are easily identifiable, but the combination of them created something new under the sun. Of all the music discussed in these essays, Trout Mask may be the only truly original album.

John French, who had acted as the band’s musical director and deserves as much of the credit as Vliet for its success, didn’t even get sleeve credit. Between the recording and the album’s release, Vliet literally threw him out of the band, throwing him down half a flight of stairs. But French would return a year later, for the band’s next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and the two would remain in an on/off dysfunctional friendship and collaboration until Vliet retired in 1981.

Frownland

Composer: Don Van Vliet

Line-up: Captain Beefheart [Don Van Vliet] (vocals, woodwinds), Drumbo [John French] (drums, percussion), Antennae Jimmy Semens [Jeff Cotton] (guitar), Zoot Horn Rollo [Bill Harkleroad] (guitar), Rockette Morton [Mark Boston] (bass), The Mascara Snake [Victor Hayden] (bass clarinet)

Original release:
Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Straight STS 1053

Currently available on: Trout Mask Replica, Zappa Records CD

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