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Escalator Over The Top; Part Two

Some of the March 1971 recordings were done at The Cinematique, a facility run by avant garde film maker, Jonas Mekas. Richard Cook and Brian Morton, in their Jazz Encyclopedia, thought that the world of “non-linear, associative cinema” was closer to the spirit of Escalator Over The Hill, rather than that of music. They further revealed that “we fall in and out of love with this strange.perverse work…no jazz composition is as large and ungainly…like all genuinely original artistic experiments, it is an uneasy hybrid of genius - vivid and uplifting - and unbelievable tosh”. My feelings exactly.

Perhaps the works of Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra (1972′s Ode, for example) approach the architectonic grandeur of Carla Bley’s concept. Like Guy, she was heavily influenced by European classical music, and wrote lengthy composed works that featured large ensembles, which sub-divided into smaller, jazz-based groups that could improvise. Some of the latter were groups to die for - Jack’s Travelling Band, for example, featured Jack Bruce (fresh out of the cream of rock music), John McLaughlin (at his early, Live-Evil-era best), Bley herself and Paul Motion; The Desert Band were led by an on-form Don Cherry, with Leroy Jenkins, Sam Brown, and Bley and Motion again.

There are some great improvising solos throughout (at least I think they are): Gato Barbieri on the opening Overture, McLaughlin across sides 5 and 6, Bruce on both bass and vocals on Rawalpindi Blues and End of Rawalpindi’, Don Cherry on lyrical trumpet on A.I.R. As well as featuring some great scat singing by Jeanne Lee on End of Rawalpindi, the track also features a carbon copy of the Paranoid riff by Black Sabbath, spat out by McLaughlin (I’m not sure when the track was recorded though, so a degree of unconscious plagiarism is the moot point here). The influence of the the JCOA of this time even spread to early ECM Records - Witchi-Tai-To, by the classic mid-70s Jan Garbarek Quartet (which is one of my favourite 70s jazz albums, ECM 1041) featured Coltane-ised versions of both A.I.R. and Desireless, a track which appeared of Cherry’s 1973 JCOA/Virgin recording of Relativity Suite (Cherry’s version was a miniature, at less than two minutes in length, Garbarek maxed it out to over 20 minutes, as per Coltrane Quartet).

These years were ones that saw the release of some genuinely interesting and promising ‘fusion music’ - by many of the musicians involved in these JCOA/Virgin Records recordings, McLaughlin, Cherry, Bruce, etc, etc, but this promise had been largely expunged by circa 1974. It’s difficult to say where EOTH might have gone - perhaps the extended works of improvising composers like Anthony Braxton and John Zorn are its true children. Whatever, it remains enigmatic, puzzling and inspirational in equal measures.

Escalator Over The Top; Part One

Writing about Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band has inevitably led me on to thinking about other works that are sui generis, and the one that immediately sprang to mind was Carla Bley’s massive triple album, Escalator Over The Hill, originally released on vinyl in 1972, and recorded at several venues in New York from November 1968 though to  June 1971. As I suggested earlier with Trout Mask Replica, it somehow makes more sense listening to the recordings in the vinyl format, as one gets to gradually know the music being split over the original six sides, rather than having to deal with the monumental contents across the course of lengthy compact discs.

Having proposed the uniqueness of the package, it could be mooted that Bley’s next album, Tropic Appetites, comes from the same hymn sheet as Escalator Over The Hill (EOTH), just as Lick My Decals Off Baby emerged from Trout Mask Replica’s blueprint. 1967′s A Genuine Tong Funeral is another Bley recording of considerable originality.

EOTH was also noticeable for being a triple album. This format was highly unusual in the early 70s - I thought of The Grateful Dead’s Europe ‘72, Keith Jarrett’s Bremen/Lausanne live solo discs and Yes’s Yessongs (all 1973), but precious little else (can anybody think of any 1960s triples?), so this was adventurous territory indeed for the time. The music contained inside the sleeves was an admixture of Jazz Composers of America (JCOA)-related big band material, jazz fusion stuff, rock-related wig-outs and more atmospheric ‘ambient’ interludes, all bound together by Paul Haines’s totally opaque libretto. EOTH could, at a stretch, be described as a programmatic piece, being centered around the notion of a colonial-style motel being run by a Cecil Clark, the denizens of which include various musical configurations, who wander in and out of the narrative (such as it is) - a hotel orchestra (basically the JCOA, led by Michael Mantler),, a hotel lobby band, a Desert Band (led by Don Cherry), Jack’s Travelling Band (Jack Bruce), Phantom Music (Mantler and Bley on various ring modulators for various ‘dream sequences’). One inevitably thinks of the JCOA’s 1968 recording Communications (with Cecil Taylor) as the most obvious precursor in terms of sound and scale..

The whole monstrous package was named by Bley and Haines as a Chronotransduction, a neologism for neologistic music.

Part Two to come.

Conditionally Recommended

Having expended much energy writing three blogs on Trout Mask Replica, and delineating it’s undoubted classic status, as possibly avant rock’s greatest recorded moment, I just want to discuss briefly one of the musics most reviled albums, Captain Beefheart’s 1974 attempt to achieve overground commercial success, Unconditionally Guaranteed (UG).

Now, Beefheart fans are among the most obsessive of all music nerds, and received wisdom has his two mid-70s Virgin Records discs, this one and the following years’s Bluejeans & Moonbeams as execrable dross, both of which which sacrificed Van Vliet’s unique muse on the altar of Hollywood soft-rock mellifluousness.  I want to be a bit controversial here, and suggest that the immense criticism that Unconditionally Guaranteed, in particular, has always received, mainly because it isn’t another Trout Mask or Lick My Decals Off, is.perhaps somewhat unwarranted. Granted, it has none of those albums’ unique originality, but, in my opinion, UG is a reasonably worthy album, replete with some good tunes and decent playing. Yes, it is slick, but this fits in well with other 1974 recordings from the west coast, such as Pretzel Logic and Court & Spark (not that it’s in the same league as those two!), but we have become blinded to this record’s positive features by the blizzard of negativity that greeted its release. Beefheart himself purported to hate it (and its successor), but I’ve always had time for it. You could make a comparison, say, to Albert Ayler - if Trout Mask Replica is Beefheart’s Spiritual Unity, then UG is his New Grass or Love Cry. Babies and bathwater come to mind.

The touring band for Beefheart at this time was subsequently named The Tragic Band by Van Vliet fans (they played in England in 1975 and are featured on an Old Grey Whistle Test edition, playing, if I remember correctly, Upon The My-O-My, one of the few tracks whose title slightly recalls Beefheart’s penchant for idiosyncratic word play). But just look who is playing on this first Virgin record (V2015) - Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Art Tripp and Alex Saint Claire, four of the greatest Magic Band players of all. I’m sorry, but these guys couldn’t play bad music if they tried. This Is The Day, for example, isn’t Moonlight On Vermont, but I’ve always been a sucker for its gentle guitar refrain, and Rollo’s slide guitar on Peaches is still gritty and makes up somewhat for the rather feeble lyrics. No, it’s not Big Eyed Beans From Venus, but then again, what is?

As regards my fave Beefheart material (after TMR and Decals), I have to own up to being a huge fan of The Spotlight Kid, psychedelic blues of the first order. I must also confess to being a fan of Mallard, the band formed by disaffected Magic Band members, who included Zoot Horn and Rockette, and, on the first album, Tripp. They made two albums for Virgin Records, and are somewhat Little Feat-ish in feel, another classic mid-70s band.  Most Beefheart-ians like their Captain neat, but I don’t mind what many see as diluted Beefheart. It’s far too easy to dismiss material because it doesn’t suit people’s conception of what ‘true’ Beefheart is meant to sound like. Many other artists have faced these sort of accusations - Charlie Parker for example, with his strings recordings. Accusations of ‘selling out’ are as old as recorded music. You don’t have to be weird to be weird! As I believe a certain Mancunian Beefheart fan once opined.

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.

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