Tag Archives: Jerry Moss

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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Oh Lori – Alessi Brothers

The Alessi Brothers (or Alessi as they are sometimes billed) are not one-hit wonders. They had two hits, albeit different ones in the UK and the US. Oh Lori was their big British hit, a number eight in 1978 (Savin’ the Day, from the Ghostbusters soundtrack, was their US hit. No, me neither). Oh Lori is one of those songs I feel like I’ve always known, as it was an inescapable part of the BBC Radio 2 playlist for a couple of decades at a time when the music I heard was governed by what my parents wanted to listen to. My mum’s choice, Radio 2 was then home to voices I only dimly remember now, those who (unlike the late Terry Wogan and the still on-air Ken Bruce) didn’t survive James Moir’s cull: John Dunn, Derek Jameson and Jimmy Young.

Billy and Bobby Alessi were signed to A&M in the label’s 1970s heyday. It was an appropriate home for them, as A&M was not, and never has been, a hip label. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were good guys, but they were constantly behind the curve of music fashion and their rock roster has rarely been better than embarrassing. The quintessential A&M rock band (on their books during the label’s 1970s peak) were the Police – a band that comprised a jazzer, a progger and a schoolteacher in punk drag, a little too old to be convincing, a little too dextrous to be authentic, with identical bleach-blond haircuts. Alpert especially (a successful recording artist in his own right with the Tijuana Brass) was one to put his trust in old-fashioned virtues like graft and instrumental ability. Yet despite this, perhaps in a desperate effort to contemporise, they signed the Sex Pistols when EMI dropped them, famously letting them go a week later, after Sid Vicious had smashed a toilet in their offices and Johnny Rotten had harrangued the employees.

The Alessi Brothers were a far more typical signing: cute identical twins singing in jazzy falsetto. Like the brothers Gibb, to whom they owe a substantial debt, Billy and Bobby Alessi are consummate hacks, in the nicest possible way. They’ve maintained a career over 40 years as recording artists, songwriters, vocal arrangers and jingle writers, constantly employed, not often in the foreground, but always somewhere to be found if you look hard enough. Their hackwork is barely distinguishable from their best days at the office. Whatever they’re doing, they turn it out to a high standard.

But Oh Lori finds the brothers at the top of their A game. They may have broken the needle on the twee-o-meter with this song but they’re so damn sweet and doe-eyed about it – their idea of romance seems to have come from the same era as their chord changes: ‘I want to ride my bicycle with you on the handlebars’ indeed – that all but the most cynical listener forgives the shamelessness of the manipulation.

Somewhere on his farm in Scotland, I suspect, Paul McCartney – no stranger either to the jazz pastiche or to doe-eyed audience manipulation – heard this and nodded his approval.

Alessi
It was the seventies. Hair like this was acceptable then