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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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March 20th 1973

“Taped Piledriver + Sing Brother Sing”

I must have been extraordinarly particular about my recordings as I have talked about taping both of these albums several times before?!

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March 19th 1973

“Got pulled out of assembly by Jim Barry – only a homework check (phew)” / “Went up Nigs in the evng. He lent me Sing Bro Sing + Rainbow Bridge”

I must have had some kind of guilt complex if the “phew” comment is to be believed? What WAS a homework check anyway? Was it to check on me, or the teachers teaching me?

I have already written as eloquently as I can possibly can about the delights of Edgar Broughton Band’s “Sing Brother Sing” album.

Rainbow Bridge” was my 15-year-old introduction to rock god Jimi Hendrix.

Rainbow Bridge” was – supposed to be – the soundtrack to a 1972 documentary film by Chick Wein. The film features footage from a free concert Hendrix performed at on the island of Maui in 1970… just months before his tragic death in a London apartment.

However, the “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” tag given to the album release is something of a dubious misnomer. The sound recording from the concert itself was of such appalling quality that other Hendrix tapings were instead cobbled together to form the finished result.

Because of this, the album – as was – has never been released on (official) CD or other formats. I’ll guess it’s all mired in what the music industry likes to call “legal difficulties’.

To be honest, I can’t remember much about the album at all… bar two important bits. I do recall that the album started off with Hendrix’s awesome “Dolly Dagger“, but that as good as that opener may have been, it paled in comparison to his immense string-bending interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner“.

Indeed, so memorable is his version of the USA national anthem (I have a nasty ‘american unfriendly’ habit of calling it the “Star Bungled Spanner“) it is Hendrix’s I judge all other versions against whenever I am ‘forced’ to rise from my seat and ‘turn to the flag’ at the Cincinnati Reds stadium prior to baseball games I attend. Therefore that boy scout troop doing it on trumpets and that elderly ‘operatic’ duo don’t stand a chance.

I don’t think there’s ever been – nor will there ever be – a more gifted and entirely natural guitar player than Hendrix. The guy used to tune his guitar whilst he was playing for goodness sake!

However, I’ve never been entirely convinced his recorded output ever matched his considerable skills and there’s not one Hendrix album I personally consider to be his “best”. Instead, each and every one either seems to cram too many ‘filler’ cuts or, worse, are badly – and muddily – produced. I do have a favourite however, and it is the peculiar posthumous release “Loose Ends“, which is pretty much a compilation of studio outtakes. It’s another album mired in those tenuous “legal difficulties” – for whatever reason – and has likewise been absent from any official release schedule since the advent of CD. I won’t pontificate about it too much – I am sure it will turn up as a feature in a future diary entry – suffice to say that the version of “The  Stars that Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice” that appears on it never fails to blow my tiny little mind whenever my trusty iPod pulls it out of shuffle.

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January 28th 1973

“Dave came up in the morning and borrowed Pictures and lent me Roxy Music”

I was almost dreading the debut mention of Roxy Music in this blog.

Why? Because it is extremely difficult to explain the impact that the band – and their style – had on this particular teenager. It’s also difficult to explain to an audience now wholly familiar with their sound just HOW radically different they appeared to be in 1973.

Vocalist Bryan Ferry – originally a ceramics teacher from Newcastle – formed Roxy Music in November 1970. This was a few months after he had failed to secure the spot as King Crimson‘s new lead singer following the departure of Greg Lake. (Yes, that Greg Lake) However, Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield liked Ferry so much they helped the vocalist’s young band obtain a management contract with EG Records.

Ferry started the band with bassist Graham Simpson, then recruited saxophonist Andy MacKay and drummer Paul Thompson via wanted ads placed in Melody Maker. MacKay brought along his university chum Brian Eno to act (initially) as a technical advisor. Phil Manzanera joined the band just as they started recording their debut album, replacing former ex-Nice guitarist David O’List.

Ferry initially monikered the band “Roxy”, an homage to the name given to old-fashioned cinemas and dance halls across the UK. He then found out there was already a similarly-named American band, so added “Music” to differentiate the two.

The band’s debut album was recorded – along with their quirky hit single “Virginia Plain” (not included on the original LP release, but subsequently added to LP & CD re-issues) – in March 1972 and unleashed on the public a few months later.

I feel somewhat ashamed in retrospect that it apparently took me until January 1973 to first acknowledge it!

The sleeve alone stood out as completely different to everything else I was listening to at the time. Whilst groups like ELP, Deep Purple or the Edgar Broughton Band featured terrible representations of the band members, Roxy Music turned things on their head by having an extremely glamourous model – Kari-Ann Muller – lounging across the gatefold.

If that wasn’t enough to draw this impressionable teenager in, then the musical contents certainly did.

The opener, “Re-Make/Re-Model“, starts with the sounds of a cocktail party in progress before launching full-tilt into what, on the surface, appears to be a traditional rock & roll song from the 50’s, complete with solos from each of the band members. Subsequent listens unveil a whole separate texture to the song, with Eno’s futuristic synthesizer sounds and MacKay & Manzanera’s instruments creating an almost cacophonous roar. There’s more than just a cursory nod to The Beatles “Day Tripper” in the riffing, but the most off-the-wall element is the vocal chorus of “CPL 593H“, allegedly the number plate of Ferry’s car at the time!

Ladytron” is one of Ferry’s (what-would-become) trademark ‘seduction’ songs, and kicks off with an eerie duet between MacKay’s oboe skills and Eno’s synthesiser blips and gloops before eventually descending into another band battle of sounds and noises.

If There Is Something” is quintessential early-Roxy. It forges a sound that the band would duplicate over and over again;- Ferry’s vibrato – but utterly nonchalant – vocal styling at the forefront with repeated band melodies behind him. MacKay’s oboe playing is nothing short of magnificent, his mid-song solo bringing the tune its melancholy.

It would be easy to think that “2HB“, which closes side 1, is Ferry’s personal tribute to pencils. It is actually a song dedicated to actor Humphrey Bogart, specifically his role as Rick in Casablanca. In keeping with the movie, this song has a detached moody atmosphere, entirely driven by Ferry’s electric piano and MacKay’s erie Eno-enhanced sax.

Side 2’s opener is “The Bob (Medley)” , a bitty & somewhat unstructured affair – and probably my least favourite track on the whole album. Punctured by the sound of warfare (Bob is an acronym for “Battle of Britain”) the song is split into sections that veer dramatically from each other. It’s almost as if the band are showing off just a little too much, or trying a little too hard with this track, although it has be stated that without Thompson’s thumpy drums or Manzanera’s fretwork it would amount to very little indeed.

Things get properly back on course with “Chance Meeting“, one of Ferry’s more traditional love songs. It is peppered with Manzanera’s guitar – having first been fed through Eno’s box of electronic tricks – and underlined by Ferry’s own gentle piano playing.

I personally feel that “Would You Believe” is one of Roxy’s unsung little masterpieces, so ‘unsung’ that there’s no footage available at all on YouTube. The boogie-woogie piano, drum, guitar and sax section that intersperse the contrary starkness is pure rock and roll, and offers more than a mere hint to some of Ferry’s influences,

Sea Breezes” is, pure and simple, a Roxy Music ‘classic’ – assuming such a thing even exists. It is one of my – admittedly many – ‘shower songs’, wherein I persecute the walls of our bathroom with my singing. It starts off pretty traditionally, Ferry’s gentle voice overlaying some fine guitar, synth and sax work. Suddenly the silence is punctured by a drum break and we find ourselves in new territory altogether, amps turned up to ’11’ and the band members noisily battling each other. Then, as quickly as the noise starts, it all mellows out again and Ferry once again professes his love for the song’s protagonist. Delightful stuff.

Bitters End” ties the album up, a 50’s doo-wop pastiche containing a strange choral refrain of “bizarre” almost summing up the entire album’s sound. Its also the song that seems to ‘go’ with the band’s image seen on the inside LP sleeve.

I think those images ‘drew’ me to the album as much as the music itself. There’s Manzanera in ‘fly’ sunglasses a decade or two before U2’s Bono discovered them, MacKay personifying “rock’n’roll”, and Ferry & Eno in leopard/tiger skin leather jackets, the latter looking particularly ‘other-worldy’ (and, bless him, displaying early signs of hair loss)

The second Roxy Music album “For Your Pleasure” was the album that REALLY sealed my personal – and lifelong – fascination for the band, but this very assured debut introduced me to their quirky stylings and unique sound in a major way.

It also goes to underline the fact – repeated again for those that have forgotten it – that I was willing to listen to – and appreciate – just about anything that came my way. Whilst many of my school chums may have been fixated only by Heavy Rock or Pop Music my own listening rounded up both of those and a whole lot more besides.

I often wonder if bands such as Roxy Music would stand even half a chance in the current music ‘business’. I would like to think that with someone as always forward-thinking and technically-savvy as Brian Eno in its ranks the band would find a way of getting their music across to the masses but I’m not convinced there would be a 100% guarantee of success.

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March 7th 1972 (1)

“Recorded B.O.T.W. – Simon + Garfunkel in evening – scrubbed out Zero Time + Sing Bro Sing”

Well, WHAT a strange twist?!

I recorded over Tonto’s and Edgar Broughton? Was I a bit bereft in the trouser department and so couldn’t afford the expense of another blank cassette? Whatever the reason, it seems peculiar to me now.

Bridge over Troubled Water” (or B.O.T.W. is I have described it here) is perhaps the seminal Simon & Garfunkel album. I know it was a firm repeated favourite as musical background to the Sunday evening TIBS meetings, so it doubtless wormed its way into my ear as a result.

I still adore the cuts “Cecilia” and “The Boxer” with a vengeance, even if the maudlin title track (sadly, a staple of American “rock radio”) makes me want to find a bucket, as sickly sweet and irritating as it has become over the past three decades.

Regardless of the “biggest hit” problem, the album gave me a youthful appreciation of the songwriting skills of Paul Simon. This would be accentuated years later, when (arguably) his finest work “Graceland” became the first disc played over the speakers when I opened my own CD store to the public in 1986.

My wife refers to Paul Simon as the “troll”, and looking at the cover photo, with Art towering over him, you wouldn’t want to argue with her too much, would you? However, it has to be noted that he was married to Carrie Fisher during her attractive “Princess Leia” years, and is currently hitched to the equally sassy Edie Brickell. To paraphrase Caroline Ahern I say “Tell me girls, what exactly did you see in multi-millionaire Paul Simon?”

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February 3rd 1972

“Rained Hard. Recorded ‘Sing Brother Sing’ by Edgar Broughton Band”

I doubt there was correlation between the two, but there could have been I suppose?

I do believe the loan of the Edgar Broughton Band’s debut album came via my friend Nigel’s older brother, Keith. It was – even if I didn’t know it at the time – my initial foray into the strange screwy arena of ‘heavy psychedelic rock’. 

The opener, “There’s No Vibrations, but Wait” is – like much of the album that follows – a wild drug-fueled load of old bollocks really, but at the time it ‘felt’ so strangely compelling.

There’s No Vibrations – but wait
Out of the night crept the words that had been lying behind the dusty doors
And things that should be there, anywhere
as long as the cigarette smoke curls up not down from the ashtray,
soon it’ll be day

14-years old, and already I was seeing the possibility of illegal substances heightening one’s senses. Let’s face it, you definitely needed to be on something to suffer lyrics like that.

All retrospective joking aside, I LOVED “Sing Brother Sing” and decades later… I STILL love it. From beginning to end it just reels me in every time, even if the benefit of ‘ancient wisdom’ makes me now realise that the song “Psychopath” is actually about a murdering paedophile rather than a cute little number where the singalong chorus goes “she stripped… I flipped

A few years ago, eager to ‘nostalgically bolster’ my CD collection, I hunted down other titles from the Edgar Broughton Band ‘ouvre’ (I was amused to discover that their online presence is described as their “EBBsite”. Yes, very clever Edgar). I snagged “Wasa Wasa” and “Oora”. The purchase and subsequent listen of these proved the point to me that if you REALLY like ONE album by a relatively unknown band, the likelihood of you liking the rest of their stuff is EXTREMELY slim indeed. You just “lucked out”, so be done with it and don’t dig any deeper because the ‘buried stuff’ has been covered over for a reason!

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