Tag Archives: Captain Beefheart

Cockney Rebel

One of the huge drawbacks of EFA70sTRO 1974’s diary being ‘light’ on entries – particularly in the latter half of that year – is that we’ve missed out on several of my musical discoveries during that time.

I therefore feel it necessary to offer an ‘aside’ post about Cockney Rebel, one of the very few acts in my lifetime with whom I have shared a relationship bordering on ‘fandom’.

There have been many other acts I have abjectly raved about over the years – Bill Nelson, Captain Beefheart, Bowie, Ian Dury, ELP and more – but only a tiny handful where I have been drawn in a little bit further. Prince is one such act, Eno is another. But if I LOVED an act as an impressionable teenager it would have been Cockney Rebel. Or more correctly, Steve Harley.. because when all’s said and done he really was Cockney Rebel.

My first exposure to Cockney Rebel was back in February 1974 when I saw them on BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test“. I think they performed the track “Hideaway“? If memory serves me correctly, Harley sported heavily applied dark eyeshadow, slightly rouged cheeks and an ugly velvet suit. (VERY glam in other words!) Then, in May 1974,  their hit single “Judy Teen” was all over the radio. The band appeared many times on Top of the Pops and I always found Harley to be something of of engaging character.

I bought “Judy Teen” and the accompanying album, “The Psychomodo”. Not longer afterwards I tracked down the band’s 1973 debut album, “The Human Menagerie” (which – over the years – has proved itself to be my out-and-out fave) as well as shelling out for the band’s next hit single”Mr Soft” (a marvellous carnival piece of earworm-worthy pop fluffiness) and the follow-up flop, “Big Big Deal” (So much of a flop it was actually withdrawn from sale after just a few weeks!)

(It would feel criminal if I didn’t do EFA70sTRO reviews of the bands first two albums… so expect them soon!)

 The weekly music press I was reading back then seemed to have a love/hate relationship with Harley, his own journalistic background evidently giving him a keen eye for what would represent a good ‘quote’. The statements he made seemed to purposefully wind people up, and whilst the press seemed to find favour with his music they treated him personally with a certain disdain. I can’t explain why, but this dichotomy appealed to me somehow, so I then wanted to find out more about the band.

Steve Harley started life as Steven Nice, born in Deptford, London in 1951. He attended Hatcham’s College in the 1960’s, lucky to be attending an establishment where music was a speciality. He started writing songs and began performing them as a busker on the London Underground, often accompanied by his friend, violinist John Crocker.

He got the aforementioned job as a music journalist, simultaneously forming a touring band with Crocker (now known as “Jean-Paul Crocker”), drummer Stuart Elliott, bassist Paul Jeffreys (who would later be one of the victims of the Lockerbie Air Disaster) and keyboard player Milton Reame-James. Harley named the band Cockney Rebel, doubtless a cheeky nod to his own disruptive nature. They played just FIVE gigs before they were spotted by EMI Records and signed to a multi-album deal.

They toured on the back of “Human Menagerie” and (even after 35 years) I remain disappointed that I never caught them at Southampton University in early 1974 whilst Harley was just starting his career. (If that OGWT performance had been a month or two earlier I think I would definitely have trekked to the gig)

My 1974 diary didn’t mention it – hell, it didn’t mention much at all – but I seem to remember Cockney Rebel played either the University or Southampton’s Top Rank later on in the year too. Maybe I have that wrong? I can’t find reference to it anywhere online, so there’s every possibility I am just imagining it.

At the end of 1974 Harley broke up the original band, egotistically renamed it “Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel” and started recording a new album with, again, Alan Parsons (of Pink Floyd, Beatles and…erm… Alan Parsons Project fame) on production duties. This album – and one of its cuts in particular – would prove to both make and break Harley’s career. EFA70sTRO will be covering it at a later date.

My utter fandom for Steve Harley has not remained in place into my middle-aged life. I still adore all those early albums but it turns out his ego eventually got the better of him and his output started to drift downhill fast thereafter.

However, the phrase “Cockney Rebel” stuck with me and has become something of a personal legacy. After moving to the USA in the late 90’s I joined an online message board affiliated with a radio station my wife worked for. I was invited to chose a user name and “Cockney Rebel” popped into my head. From then until now I am known by many people more as “Cockney Rebel” or “CR” than I am my real name!

1975 and beyond will doubtless refer to Steve Harley and/or Cockney Rebel many times. I can only apologise in advance.

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(1974 Album) Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – Dropout Boogie

“Dropout Boogie” started life as Captain Beefheart’s debut album “Safe as Milk” in 1967.

After a couple of failed singles for A&M Records in 1966, the label dropped the band. They were picked up by music impresario Bob Krasnow and signed to an offshoot of the then-succesful Karma Sutra label, namely Buddah Records.

The album was released in the UK on Pye International, later reissued on Pye’s budget Marble Arch label. It was re-issued again in 1970 – strangely retitled “Dropout Boogie” – on a second budget label, Buddah’s ’99’ series… which, if I am right, signified that it sold for a mere 99 pence.

This may be the best 99 pence I ever spent on a piece of music. It started a lifelong appreciation of and fascination about Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

Captain Beefheart is essentially singer/songwriter Don Van Vliet (born Don Vliet), whilst “The Magic Band” are whatever musicians he could co-opt to work with him. Not the easiest task as Van Vliet always had a notoriously dictatorial approach to music making. What made matters worse was that the Captain couldn’t write music and often forced others to translate his strange ideas – often via the medium of whistling the tunes or banging ‘guitar breaks’ out on the kitchen table.

Whilst putting together “Safe as Milk/Dropout Boogie”, Van Vliet temporarily agreed that this approach was not ideal and employed the not-inconsiderable resources of a 20 year-old virtuoso guitarist, Ry Cooder, to help him out. A working relationship which ended as soon as recording was over, Cooder deeming Beefheart’s acerbic attitude impossible to deal with.

The album itself represents a massive hint of what was to come (“Trout Mask Replica” etc) from the Captain. Experimentation is a word that is bandied about by many artists, but Beefheart always seemed to take it that one step further. He took the Delta blues and fused it with surreal lyrics, off-kilter time signatures and repetitive guitar work, overlaying the mixture with his own distinctive vocal growl.

The opener “Sure ‘Nuff Yes I Do” captivated me from the opening chords and is a great primer for anyone who knows nothing about Beefheart as exists. The disjointed drumwork, the sparkly slide guitar rhythms and Van Vliet’s messed up lyrics – including the classic “I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye” – all combine wonderfully.

Then we get “Zig Zag Wanderer“, as good a bit of 60’s psychedelic garage rock as you’re ever likely to hear, that tambourine as relentless as hell and the bass riff distorted almost beyond recognition.

“Call on Me” sounds like Beefheart channeling the Beatles and the Stones both at the same time, replicating the former’s guitar rhythms whilst doing his best Jagger impersonation over the top. He even finds time to sneak a Phil Spector riff in towards the end.

I have often described “Dropout Boogie” as a song that sounds as if it is being pushed down four flights of stairs, pausing briefly on every landing. It’s marvellous and malevolent all in one breath, with Vliet screaming epithets that I’ve never managed to understand from 1974 to now.

I’m Glad is, quite simply, a lovely R&B ballad. It’s difficult to know if the Captain is trying to sing this ‘straight’ or if it’s meant as a parody of sixties ‘moon in june’ love songs, but I have always had a soft spot for it. I can’t help thinking that if someone with a voice such as Marvin Gaye’s or Curtis Mayfield’s had recorded “I’m Glad” it could have ended up as a massive hit. It’s certainly a “close your eyes and listen & sway” song for me.

I’ve lost count of the number of mix tapes and compilations I have added “Electricity” to. It is magnificently screwy in almost every way. It sounds like nothing else in recorded music. The drums are off beat, hi-hats to the fore, there’s a zither fading in and out (is it a zither or a theremin?) whilst the Captain – after a strung out “eeeee-lec—triiiiiciiiiteeeeeeee” to kick things off – shouts things like “midnight cowboy stained in black reads dark roads without a map” over the top. It ends with some electronic note stretching which could have given Brian Eno an idea for his entire career. If I had to be on a desert island with just five Beefheart songs for company this cut would most certainly be amongst them.

Whilst the studio version is tremendously worthy, this live version recorded on a Californian beach in 1969 is also worth a listen. (A rare chance to see the Captain in action too!)

A spoken word intro … “the following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level” leads into Side 2’s opener, “Yellow Brick Road”, a fairly straight (by Beefheart standards) skiffle-ish blues number, albeit one with the pre-requisite Van Vliet oblique lyrics.

Abba Zaba” is named after a chocolate bar that Van Vliet loved as a kid and was the first choice for the title of the album. What exactly “two shadows at noon, babette baboon” has to do with a confectionary is anybody’s guess however.

Plastic Factory” is a harmonic-led blues number. Beefheart’s great line “factory’s no place for me, boss man let me be” presumably representing some kind of cry for working freedom?

(I think it’s difficult to imagine Van Vliet working for ANYbody, although – as legend has it – he was once a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. The tale has it that he knocked on the door of science-fiction writer Aldous Huxley whom Van Vliet instantly recognised. He looked slowly down at the vacuum, then up at Huxley before stating “Sir, this sucks“)

Where There’s Woman” is another descent into drug-fuelled psychedelia. I like to think that the Edgar Broughton Band started their entire musical career from hearing this short song, as their sound and ‘feel’ is so very reminiscent of it. (Trivia fact: E.B.B. actually covered “Dropout Boogie” on their 1970 debut)

Grown So Ugly” is a marvellously disjointed affair that, again, screams “garage rock”. It’s the only song on the album which is not written by Van Vliet, instead penned by Louisiana blues musician Robert Pete Williams. (The Black Keys did a particularly Beefheart-esque rendition of the song on “Rubber Factory” in 2004)

Autumn’s Child” closes the album. It’s another slice of psychedelic overload with Van Vliet’s lyrics going off on as many tangents as there are bum notes…
Autumn’s child, I met her at a balloon bust picnic
She caught me with the beauty queen
With jade-green eyes buttons and bows and fancy ties
The feet of dust under trees of rust
Make them sandals gambol under knees of trust

It’s a surreal and fitting end to, what is for me, a terrific album.

“Safe as Milk”/”Dropout Boogie” is rarely mentioned as Beefheart’s best album, but it’s my favourite by a mile. Maybe because it was the first of his I heard? Maybe because of what it represented as I got older?

I have always realised that Captain Beefheart’s music is not for everybody. His is a very difficult sound to get into. To many ears it is little more than a “noisy racket” and I can respect that point of view. Particularly because, unlike most music critics, I’m someone who fails to fawn over what is supposed to be his finest moment, namely “Trout Mask Replica“.

I can say that as a result of listening to Beefheart I nurtured a mild appreciation for traditional Blues, Delta Blues in particular. More influentially though, he also got me ‘into’ what is now generally referred to as “freak beat”, a kind of hybrid of psychedelic sounds, garage rock and sixties culture in general (highlighted by such terrific box sets as “Nuggets” or “Son of Nuggets”). My love for the classic ‘freakbeat’ sound has really gone into overdrive in recent years and it – along with classic 60’s pop – is the music I find myself predominantly listening to as I lurch towards my mid-50’s.

More than that though, it is the ‘legend’ of Captain Beefheart I admire. I love how he fits into ‘musical history’, being both a vanguard and a villain. The fact that Frank Zappa found him “weird and extreme” pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him. For all his success and acclaim, Van Vliet has remained something of a media ‘enigma’ too, offering up just the merest handful of interviews over the years. The last any of us know about him is that he now lives as a wheelchair-bound recluse – having enjoyed a second career as an acclaimed abstract painter – somewhere in the Northern Californian desert.

Whilst Beefheart influenced me with regards to listening to differing sounds, his influence in the world of music has been much greater. Bands as diverse as The Clash, The White Stripes, Placebo, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joan Osborne, Magazine, XTC and Franz Ferdinand all claim they owe part of their success to Van Vliet’s “noise”. Tom Waits took it one step further… he actually changed his entire sound as a result of listening to Captain Beefheart. He stopped his previous ‘crooner’ stylings and swapped them for a much weirder set of offerings, the “Swordfishtrombones” album onwards.

It could be said that more music fans are listening to Captain Beefheart without even realising it?!

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May 29th 1973

“H-term – from 9-4 o’clock were in Southampton buying bludy smart clothes. Bort new platform shoes. Also bought Faust album – smart”

I bet if I saw them now those ‘bludy smart clothes‘ would seem FAR from ‘bludy smart’?!

I wonder if the platform shoes I ‘bort‘ were the cream and brown brogues I can (embarrassingly) remember? They had a sole about an inch thick, and a heel around 2½-3″ tall. Somewhat similar to those shown on the right. Yes, when I walked in them I MUST have looked like a complete pillock?!

Far more fascinating – and somewhat meaningful – 36 years later was mention of buying this Faust album. It was “The Faust Tapes

It was just the third release on the then fledgling Virgin Records label. As most music aficionados are aware, the first release became a little more famous; Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (The second was Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra“).

Virgin had just signed Faust, and acquired these old recordings as part of the deal. They compiled them into two lengthy tracks, each taking up one side of the album.

In a magnificent marketing coup they them sold the LP for a mere 48p ($1), which was then 1 penny less than the cost of a 7″ single

I was one of 60,000 people who bought the LP before Virgin deleted it… whilst it was still #12 in the album charts! The label had to delete it as they said they had lost £2000 on it, which seems like SUCH a small amount of money these days. (It was obviously a LOT to Richard Branson and Co back then though?!)

OK, I’ll admit it…. I probably bought it because it was cheap.

It is a VERY hard album to immediately like, so I’m pretty proud of myself for referring to it as ‘smart’ upon listening to it.

It single-handedly led me on a lifetime’s appreciation for the musical genre often referred to as “Krautrock”, a catch-all phrase to identify stark rhythms and repetitive beats… most of which has originated in Germany.

Although “The Faust Tapes” does have repeated noise structures combining both electronics and vocals, its whole is far more than that. Later in life I would compare it to free form jazz, with sounds, blips and rhythms going off in a million different directions all at once.

It very much taught me how to like ‘weird’ too, something I had only vaguely touched on previously with certain tracks on, say, the Edgar Broughton “Sing, Brother Sing” album or the more peculiar screwy elements of bands like Focus. Without this ‘weird’ Faust ‘primer’ I may later never had got into artists like Captain Beefheart, the Lounge Lizards or even the Blue Note jazz catalogue.

Not only did this album introduce me to krautrock and/or ‘weird’, it also – thanks to the sleeve – set me up with a deep love for artist/painter Bridget Riley‘s work

Her style of painting – predominantly using black & white lines or squares – is often referred to as ‘op art’, for its illusionary aspects.

The (original) cover of “The Faust Tapes” was a work of hers from 1964 called “Crest” and it remains one my favourite paintings ever. To my ongoing chagrin I have been unable to find a reprint of the work to hang on our own walls. However, a few years ago my wife and I attended a Bridget Riley exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London – where I oooh’ed and aaah’ed for a couple of hours – and we came away with a exhibition poster featuring her work “Reconnaissance” (seen left), an equally groovy offering. We had it professionally framed and it now takes pride of place in the entrance foyer of our home.

Thus, and inadvertently, Richard Branson’s decision to release an album for just 48p in 1973 had a remarkably profound affect on my life. Not just because of my ongoing love for German electronic rock and Bridget Riley’s work, but also because it all set me off on an appreciation of the structure of ‘music, art & design’ in general, something I would get deeper into a few years later… with a vengeance.

I think every teenage life has a series of ‘turning points’. Buying this album in 1973 was undoubtedly one of mine.

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April 14th 1973

“Work all day. Broke bottles. Went up Nigs in evng – listened to For Your Pleasure – Brilliant!”

Broke bottles? What does that mean? Does it mean that I maybe knocked some bottles off a shelf and broke them, or did my work today involve breaking down bottles, maybe to recycle them? (Unlikely it’s the latter as the concept of recycling didn’t really exist in 1973 – which, retrospectively, is obviously a crying shame)

So, tonight I heard Roxy Music‘s “For Your Pleasure” for the first time eh?

Remember me saying how Roxy’s debut album felt like nothing I’d ever heard before? The band’s second album did just that all over again. It even felt a departure from their first album without actually losing that intrinsic (certainly in the 70’s) Roxy ‘sound’

It’s almost impossible to start discussing this album without first commenting on the album sleeve. Like the band’s debut this was a glossy gatefold affair, the front a stylish shot (by photographer Karl Stoecker) of fashion model Amanda Lear. She is dressed in a tight black leather outfit, complete with stilleto heels and a pill box hat, and appears to be (for whatever reason) taking a black leopard for a walk along a rain-drenched urban street.

Folding out the sleeve reveals the picture continues across the back cover, where we see a waiting limo (I always used to think the limo’s interior would get really ruined if that leopard was allowed in it!).

For me, the sleeve’s stylish attitude feels somewhat undermined when you look at the limo driver, stood in the car’s doorway staring at Amanda with a smirk on his face. It’s none other than Bryan Ferry himself, doubtless grinning at all his fans because – at the time – he was dating her in real life. (Since this photo was taken of course, Ferry’s love life has become the subject of many a tabloid rumour)

When you opened up the sleeve, you saw this….

Do they look like bonafide pop stars or what? Nig, Mal and I investigated every little detail of this photo… from the fact that three of the band appear to be left-handed, via Brian Eno’s ludicrous ostrich feathers and all the way to Andy MacKay’s shiny silver pumps.

If the sleeve didn’t draw you in, then the musical contents did.

Opening with a flourish, “Do the Strand” (a hit single in its own right… but not until 1978!) sets the tone of this album immediately.
There’s a new Sensation,
A fabulous creation,
A danceable solution
To teenage revolution

is a killer collection of lyrics IMHO. It doesn’t let up either, as Ferry tries to persuade the entire world to to give up the ‘old’ dance crazes (“Tired of the tango, fed up with fandango“) and instead opt for “Strand Power” (or if you’re Russian, “the Strandsky“). That opening piano riff is as timeless now as it was exciting and original in 1973.

Vibrato piano and Ferry’s mangled vocal style both run right through “Beauty Queen“, the lyrics of which allegedly refer to one of the singer’s ex-girlfriends, Valerie Leon, a movie & TV actress who, like Ferry, was born in Newcastle.

(That’s “Carry On” star, Bond ‘chick’  – OK, and the Hai Karate Girl – Ms. Leon over on the right in that early promotional photo…. maybe pre-empting the “For Your Pleasure” cover by a few years?)

Strictly Confidential” finds a very mournful Ferry penning a pre-death letter to a long-lost lover. It’s almost deliberately dirge-like in its construction, Ferry’s vocals stretched, strained and pained. MacKay’s oboe punctures the gloom, as does Paul Thompson’s light staccato drumming. The only real upbeat moment of the piece comes right at the end with the lyric “There is no light here, is there no key? “, which presumably marks the passing of the song’s doom-laden protagonist.

Editions of You” should have been a single in its own right. It’s such an infectious heavy rock’n’roll song, riddled with catchphrase lyrics and some damn fine solo work from all the members of the band. MacKay, especially, gives a virtuoso sax performance, whilst Eno suitably hams it up on his ‘electronics’.

For most people, the mind-blowing “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” – which closes Side 1 – is perhaps archetypal seventies Roxy.

The first time I heard this song – even before I realised what it was about – I was in awe of the way it just sounded. Then when you get into the lyrical content – a blow-up sex doll – it takes on a whole new meaning. The song’s real panache is the break at around the three-minute mark. It stops being what is essentially a spoken word piece and – with Ferry’s eerie “but you blew my mind” lyric – descends into pure theatrical rock & roll with all the band’s instruments vying for attention. If anything, this cut was a pre-cursor to the material Brian Eno gave the world when he went solo. Structured, but strangely unstructured all at the same time. Yes, that may not make sense to anyone but me!

(Please be warned that later/live versions of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” very much pale into insignificance compared to the album original)

Side 2 of “For Your Pleasure” features just three cuts.

The opener is a 9+ minute sheer magnificence of a song.

The Bogus Man” stutters and shudders its way through a child’s scary nightmare. Its repetitive structure with the thrown-in clicks and noises now feels similar – to me – to material found much later on David Bowie’s “Low“… an album produced by Brian Eno.

Indeed, when “For Your Pleasure” was released Eno stated that he thought “The Bogus Man” reminded him of music by famed electronic krautrock pioneers Can. At the time I would not have known what the hell he was talking about. It would be a few years yet before I could personally appreciate the electronic noodlings of bands such as Can, Neu!, Faust and Kraftwerk.

The Bogus Man ends with Ferry giving a great big sigh before he goes straight into “Grey Lagoons” which initially presents itself as an atypical good-time rock ballad, complete with vintage-sounding sax work, guitar riffing and some oh-so-tight drumming. Then – like other songs on the album – it seems to kick it up a notch and becomes a different kind of beast, drenched in electronically-generated sounds before resorting, once again, to a feeling of “normality”

The album’s title track closes proceedings. “For Your Pleasure“, despite being written by Bryan Ferry, feels very much like an Eno track from start to finish.

The electronic interludes, the drifting drum sounds, the multi-tracked background (“ta-ra”) vocals and the enhanced piano are all elements Eno would keep coming back to in his later solo work.

I’ll always remember that the distorted end of the cut played havoc with bass speakers everywhere – their inability to deal with the sonics only adding to the distortion.

Trivia buffs may like to know that the female voice muttering “don’t ask why” just before the fade out is none other than Dame Judi Dench!

As regular readers will respect, there are few things I truly, truly remember from these early 70’s. Listening to “For Your Pleasure” for the first time however IS something I can recall.

Maybe it’s because I felt more connected to the band having seen them just a few nights earlier, but I’d rather believe it’s because the album impressed me so immediately and so positively. I remember Nig, Mal & me listening to it over and over – and over – again. I remember loving “Do the Strand” with its clever lyrics, I remember hearing that break in “In Every Home…” for the first time just as much as the human sigh at the finish of “The Bogus Man”.

I remember us looking diligently at the sleeve wondering if the band looked cool or not, eventually deciding “yes, cool”. I remember wanting fancy gold boots like Ferry’s and a white jumpsuit like Mackay’s. Most of all I remember wanting to own the album myself. How long would it take me?!

The thing is – this was just the first of two Roxy Music albums released in 1973. 

Although “For Your Pleasure” was the final album to feature the considerable talents of Brian Eno, it would be the third album – Stranded – that would always prove to be my absolute Roxy favourite… but more about that when it comes out eh?!

I’ll say the same as I said about the debut album; that Roxy Music seemed just so very different to us at the time. So unique. Sure they wore their pop sensibilities on their collective sleeves, but they seemed to wear them almost as an excuse for something that was much more interesting and important. Especially – but not limited to – when Eno was with the band.

In retrospect I always feel it a bit of shame that they got pigeonholed along with the multitude of “glam rock” acts that were emerging around this time. OK, so the clothes the band wore didn’t help matters in that regard, but I always felt they were several miles above the rest (Bowie excluded) in terms of talent and originality.

To paraphrase a remark from a book I am currently reading (about Captain Beefheart) ‘they’ say that whilst most of the time you find the music you want, every so often the music you want finds you. In 1973, I truly believe that Roxy Music found me.

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