Thursday, 22 February 2018

Going Underground - Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Mark E Smith

"Revolver" did it for me. It opened the doors to my own particular perception of how pop music, Rock music as it was rapidly being referred to then, could go. Three-minute songs laced with backward taped guitars, electronic noise and lyrics that really made you think. Of course, there was also the Monkees but I was only 12. No, no, that's not fair, I loved The Monkees, loved their obviously Beatle inspired wackiness. My Saturday evenings were religiously spent in front of the TV watching their 30-minute show.

Frank Zappa appeared on one episode. He and Mike Nesmith dressed as each other. Quite a laugh it was too.Yeah, The Beatles 1966 album set the pace and need for me to hear music that dared to be different. Funny how it didn't quite prepare me for "Freak Out."

I didn't hear Frank Zappa's Mother of Invention double album until well after the Beatles groundbreaking masterpiece and when I did, the effect it had was not dissimilar to that of "Revolver." "Freak Out" took me places I had never been before. It was challenging, funny, accessible and not at all like the sleeve made you think it would be. This was music with an edge but also with a twisted sense of humour. It was tough, able to stand on its own two feet capable of hitting hard when the need arose yet of being subtle too with an enormous sense of fun. Experimental yet with its feet firmly rooted in a wide range of influences. To my ever expanding ears, not that they are now the size of elephants, the music threw shapes and shadows that would chase the future down some very interesting paths.

The albums flew thick and often. Zappa was very prolific. Prolific and hugely talented. When the albums arrived their titles were provocative and again, much like the man himself, unlike anything seen before. 

"Lumpy Gravy"

"We're Only In It For the Money"

"Uncle Meat"

"Burnt Weeny Sandwich"

"Weasels Ripped My Flesh"

It was the mad mix of absurdism, that Dadaesque poking at societal sensibilities that I loved then and still do to this day. These albums comprised of notated compositions, live recordings that sounded better, tighter, than any band I had heard before when considering the complexities of the music recorded live and all were conducted by Zappa even the improvised bits. 

The bogus nonsense that surrounded the so-called rivalry between The Beatles and The Stones, both groups were friends, as also riddled with hocus pocus about The Stones being somehow more dangerous than their Liverpudlian contemporaries. Dangerous? More rebellious? When compared to Zappa and The Mothers the rest of the 'counter-culture' were conservative by comparison.

The Mothers, driven by the spark of brilliance as given them by Frank Zappa were, as far as I am concerned, the first and foremost underground band with the aforementioned Mister Zappa that movements messiah. Frank Zappa's name is now synonymous with that of The Mothers. Rightly so. Zappa was The Mothers. In this, he shares a likeness with Captian Beefheart and Mark E Smith. I wonder what the Mancunian would have had to say on that score?

Beefheart came later and via Zappa's "Hot Rats" album and the now legendary track "Willie The Pimp." Beefheart had a voice that demanded attention. It was raspy, flighty and indelicate. Howlin' Wolf may have, in fact, was, an influence but the old blues legend never sang quite like Beefheart did. Nor did the blues offer enough to the music being played by The Magic Band. Again, it was an influence but what other musics influenced Don Van Vliet's mind? What was it that gave rise to this odd brew? Jazz? Yes, freeform. Blues as already mentioned. But Beefheart wasn't like his friend Frank Zappa who self-taught himself to notate. Beefheart was a malformed force of nature. Very possibly an idiot savant. His creativity defied definition. It was composed by ways only someone who had little or no idea of how to produce music would have made it. His hands drumming out rhythms held only in his head for guitarists to play. Melodies barked out loud. Counterpoint, a thing Beefheart had no concept, thrown into the mix naturally and without deliberation. Shouts bellowed out from a room distant to the where the band were recording the song/piece. "Start!" Stop!" Start!" "Stop!"

A wonderful brew of Beefheart's music created from influences that once thrown into the artist's mind came out sounding utterly original if not unique. Sure, you can detect them but the overall effect is intoxicating. So exciting for a young man steeped in the belief of Rock and Roll hearing something equally as thrilling, like an alien counterpart from another planet.

Again the albums have titles that, to use a euphemism, are challenging if not downright odd.

"Safe As Milk"

"Strictly Personal"

"Trout Mask Replica"

"Lick My Decals Off  Baby"

Along with Zappa, Beefheart provided me with endless hours of entertainment. For me, their leftfield visions left no quarter. They were from an alternative viewpoint yet, as far as I am concerned, accessible. Neither artist was like Egg, a band who fell into the 'Prog Rock/Experimental' bag yet were so filled with empty noodlings that all passion, all sense of fun, of humour, of purpose, seemed wrapped up in self-amusement.

The underground was filled with some excellent bands, The Velvet Underground springs to mind, but for me Frank Zappa and his boyhood friend, Captain Beefheart led where others, The Velvets being one fine exception, followed.

Captain Beefheart was very much in charge of things. He relied on other musicians to realize his vision but remained an autocrat, a dictator who demanded the musicians he worked with did precisely as he wanted, as he instructed. In this, he shares a likeness with Frank Zappa and Mark E Smith. I wonder what the Mancunian would have had to say on this?

In 1975 the underground went overground. Punk arrived. Much of Punk was little more than R'nB played fast, as if on amphetamines. With some notable exceptions, I wasn't that enamoured with it. I liked the power, the fury and the idea of youth picking up instruments, playing them without training and making a noise but an awful lot of it was lacklustre garbage.

On the 11th August 1978, The Fall released their debut EP. The recording was entitled "Bingo Master's Breakout." It was a three track release. It was the start of something quite remarkable. Although to all intents and purposes, The Fall seemed a band, they were, even then, one mans way of getting things done - Mark Edward Smith. 

This EP was followed months after, March 1979 to be precise, by the bands first full Fall album, "Live At The Witch Trials." It was, as debut albums go, it wasn't met with overall praise. Many did but just as many found faults.

Since then The Fall has gathered both strength and universal acclaim. They are seen as being not only a formidable force but a vehicle by which a relentless sound has been pursued. A music both repetitive with its use of potent riffs but also experimental. Far more so than the sound of Punk, it is said to have grown out of.

Of course, The Fall, as I said, is one mans creation. Mark E Smith, dead now, died recently, in fact, shares this fact with Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet. Not something anyone wants to think of as a commonality yet all three men died far too young.

Smith was, in so many ways, someone I could never like yet conversely was enamoured with. He was divisional setting himself up as being a Northern patriot, that is a man of Manchester, therefore, representing all the North in its entirety. He was all fags and ale and working-class attitude. He was said to have despised London and Londoners in equal measure. I find this deplorable. Not just that but a self-made stereotype. One who clung to a class divide that's as fake as the very idea of class itself. Our differences provide cultural springboards.

Mark E Smith was attitude personified. If Liam Gallagher had an attitude then Mark E Smith had it plus 5. Paradoxically, even though I cannot understand the need for such an attitude, certainly not as a man matures, it was his stance that as much fascinated as horrified me.  What is it with people when they feel the need to voice their prejudices, their opinions, their self-centred judgements for the sake of journalists and thereby the readers of whatever journals they write for. Is it so they are loved more for their opinionated outpouring then their creativity? For Mark, another man with similar views, John Lydon, could be encapsulated by the letters lyric - "anger is an energy" - Mark E Smith had energy enough to sustain a battalion of marching men.

Undeniably it was Punk that galvanised Smith into forming The Fall before forging a future framed by songs as remarkable as they were un-Punk like. Having attended a Sex Pistols gig Smith gave up his day job taking up his vocation as a band leader. However, not that I dismiss the Punk influence as they themselves are but influences of an earlier movement, it is with a keen eye on the likes of The Velvet Underground, Can, and yes, Frank Zappa that rocks my boat that and The Fall's frontman's love of The Move and Link Wray that provide such insight.

As with Beefheart and Zappa, The Fall has had a succession of mind gripping album titles. I like album names that stop you dead in your tracks and make you ask -'What the hell?' The Fall, presumably Mark E Smith, provided an endless amount of intriguing titles.

"Live At The Witch Trials"


"Grotesque (After the Gramme)

"Reformation Post TLC"

"Imperial Wax Solvent"

Post-punk certainly. The Fall came after Punk that is undeniable. Obviously influenced by the DIY aspect of the short-lived genre but then again wasn't Skiffle DIY? The Blues? Folk? Yet still, I maintain The Fall had more in common with '60's underground than it did Punk. But then again, Punk was a late product of that earlier movement. 

No matter my reservations regarding Mark E Smith's attitude he was, all the same, a fascinating character An incredible lyricist, and a remarkably talented man.

Mark E Smith shared so much in common with Captain Beefheart. Both men were fond of sacking musicians often for vacuous reasons. Both were dependent yet disregarding of musical ability. Both shared a love of the absurd as did Zappa.

So, who was Kingpin among these incredibly talented individuals? Who cares? I enjoy all three's output still.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.


Cara H said...

I didn't really get into Frank Zappa's music until I was in my junior year of high school. I then wondered how someone as weird as me could have been missing out on something as weird as that! Kind of odd too, given that I was a fan of Alice Cooper and Alice Cooper was a huge fan of Frank Zappa.
Sad that Frank died so young. They play a lot of his music on the Sirius XM Deep Tracks channel, which I enjoy greatly.

Russell Duffy said...

I think it was Frank who promoted Alice Cooper, then The Alice Cooper. Makes sense really as both were kind of left field.

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