Tag Archives: Frank Zappa

Plastic Factory – Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band

Don Van Vliet (or maybe Don Glen Vliet – wikipedia says the latter was his given name) spent his teens and early twenties collaborating with Frank Zappa, and their volatile friendship would endure long enough for Zappa to sign Beefheart to his own label in 1969. Both difficult and ornery men, their careers have obvious parallels, not least their need to stand out from the crowd, to run hard and deliberately in the opposite direction to the way everyone else was going.

So it was, then, that in 1967, during the Summer of Love – the height of the hippie era – while his contemporaries were ready to float off into the ether, Beefheart released his first album, a fractured but only lightly psychedelic take on Delta blues and gritty R&B. While everyone else wore their hair long, with robes and beads, the Captain and his bandmates dressed more like 1930s gangsters or British toffs gone to the bad; on the sleeve of Safe as Milk, guitarist Alex Snouffer resembled the aristocratic murderer Lord Lucan enjoying a second life as a James Bond villain.

Captain Beefheart’s records have a forbidding reputation, especially Trout Mask Replica. I own TMR, and I’ve never made it all the way through in one sitting. It’s as hard-going as people say. Guitarists play seemingly in different time signatures and at varying tempos. The drums seem chaotic and at odds with the guitars. The bass is in another world again. And Beefheart bellows over the top of it all, again seeming to pay little heed to the band. Throughout the album, whatever his instrumentalists are playing, Beefheart always seems to sing in the same key.

However difficult Trout Mask Replica is, though, not all Beefheart’s music is so forbidding. His debut album, Safe as Milk, is a delight, and positively accessible in comparison, a surreal take on Delta Blues with occasional stylistic diversions into doo-wop (I’m Glad) and even children’s music (Yellow Brick Road). Nevertheless, despite being easily the most conventional of Beefheart’s classic works, Safe as Milk, and the song Electricity in particular, horrified his label A&M, whose boss Jerry Moss heard a demo of Electricity and decided that he wouldn’t want his daughter listening to this kind of negative music. Such was the way of things for Beefheart. He instead released his debut on Buddah (sic), subsidiary of Kama Sutra.

Plastic Factory, written by Beefheart, the enigmatic Herb Brennan and bassist Jerry Handley, shows off Beefheart’s dead-on Howling Wolf impression, and was improbably released as a single. It didn’t fly out of record stores, but it did help to build the good Captain a cult audience that would follow him down even his most elliptical paths.

Like Safe as Milk generally, Plastic Factory is very portable: you could listen to it and get a lot from it without knowing anything about Beefheart’s wider career, just purely on its own terms. If you’re into electric blues generally or Delta blues particularly (or you want an overview of late-1960s California music), then you definitely should hear it. I’ve listened to it a lot down the years, even while my lack of success extracting much pleasure from Trout Mask Replica has led me to conclude that Beefheart fandom was not for me. Safe as Milk stands well on its own.

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No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai featuring Aimee Mann

Unless you’re a fan of instrumental rock guitar music, Steve Vai is likely to be an unfamiliar name. In the 1980s, a school of intensely technical metal guitarists working in what we could call the post-Van Halen style, who came to be known as shred guitarists or shredders, colonised the pages of guitar magazines, defining the parameters of what was thought of as rock guitar, a situation that endured until the early 1990s. When we talk about shred guitar, we’re talking heavy distortion, fast tremolo picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sweep picking, dive bombs with the whammy bar, an exaggerated vibrato technique and 2-handed tapping. Essentially, lots and lots of notes.

Vai was one of the titans of this school of playing. While Vai’s one-time teacher Joe Satriani was given to a notable degree of lyricism in his playing, and Yngwie Malmsteen was identifiable from the pseudo-classical motifs in his work (and his absolute lack of humour about himself), Vai was the weird one. Vai’s the guy who created his own Xavian scale by dividing the twelve tones of the European tempered scale into 16 on a synthesiser and having a custom guitar made to allow him to play his new intervals. Vai’s the one whose career takes in work with Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd and, uh, Whitesnake.

If I’m honest, Vai is someone whose work I was passingly familiar with (one of my best friends in high school was a fan), but who I had put in the “Not for Me” box. There’s a lot of people in my Not for Me box, but nothing in this life is hard and fast: one-time residents of my own Not for Me box include Steely Dan and Neil Young.

Aimee Mann is very much For Me. Singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyricist, undemonstrative, almost conversational singer, big Beatles fan – this is stuff I get on board with. But for someone who’s often been accused of essentially making the same album over and again, Mann’s career is musically pretty wide-ranging, taking in the fractured post-punk of the Young Snakes and the MTV-friendly synth pop of Til Tuesday as well as her solo albums which are more musically diverse than is often assumed – 1995’s I’m With Stupid carried a discernible Britpop influence; 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is a 1970s-style southern rock record; Lost in Space, from 2002, plays with static, white noise and time-domain effects throughout its running time to suggest unknowable blackness and unimaginable distances.

What I’m getting towards is that Mann is an underrated musical force, as opposed to merely (merely!) a songwriter. She was at Berklee College of Music at the same time as Vai, initially as a voice major, before switching to bass and starting from scratch. Til Tuesday’s arrangements often leaned heavily on Mann’s bass playing, from the slap-and-pop riff of Love in a Vacuum to the subtly reggae-influence off-beat feel of What about Love (try singing and playing bass. Now try singing on the beat while playing bass on the offbeat). Listen to 50 Years After the Fair on Whatever where she has the unenviable task of hanging out on bass on while Jim Keltner plays drums; unenviable because, if it hadn’t grooved, only one person could have been responsible. It grooves. I imagine I’m not the only long-time fan who regrets the absence of Mann’s own bass playing on her more recent records.

So when Vai took the advice of his wife (an old college friend of Mann’s) and asked Mann to work with him on a piece he’d been writing, it wasn’t at all the unlikely partnership that it might have seemed on the surface. On No More Amsterdam (as the finished song was called), their approaches meshed beautifully.

The chief pleasure of No More Amsterdam is the contrast between the winding, slowly unfolding verse melody, with its time-signature changes and tricky syncopation, and the short phrases of the chorus that Vai and Mann sing in harmony, which keep climbing in pitch even as they repeat in phrasing. The two singers trade verses (and later on lines within verses), adding a layer of complexity to the narrative – are the “I” and “you” referred to throughout the song stable? In the verses, Vai seems to get all the “I” pronouns and Mann the “you”, suggesting that his character is the protagonist, with Mann an observer, but the song permits other interpretations – it’s a typically clever piece of writing from Mann, the intricacy of Vai’s music pulling something out of her that’s unlike anything she’s done on her own records.

It’s a lovely song, and it’s got me wishing that Vai did this kind of thing more regularly. I can’t think of anything else in my record collection that is comparable musically, and I’m not sure there is a singer-songwriter who has the instrumental chops and inclination to play on this turf. So Vai and Mann had better make it a full album next time.

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