SUGAR AND SPIKES
odds and ends
diary of an unlost weekend
from ZIGZAG #53
by connor mcknight
is ±04.75 interview
note: shortened and edited version. mind that the group had no name yet: 'mallard' was a later invention
part 1 - THIS is PART 2
so by mid afternoon two numbers had been finished for the day, leaving only a new version of 'peon', the vocals, and a couple of guitar overdubs to be added, and then the album will be ready to be hustled around the record companies. artie was leaving on sunday for manchester to meet his in-laws for the first time, so the period remaining to him was at a premium. it is decided that artie will do the marimba parts this evening and additional percussion tracks tomorrow. but before tackling that task, it's time to play all the tapes to allow some kind of review to take place of what has been accomplished. thus it was that amongst cups of coffee, tea, cokes and scrumpy, the huge fat reels were ceremoniously unpacked and zigzag - nót the weeklies of the press conglomerates, but that modest little venture dismissed by the dregs as too uncritical etc etc - is given the exclusive, sneak preview of the new album.
sitting in that mobile trailer, i went through the whole spectrum of excitement-induced reactions i think rock 'n' roll is all about. in the back of my mind, as i had journeyed down, was a tiny nagging feeling that maybe beefheart had been the source of all that was great in the old band's music - and that what they were putting together here in devon, without him, would prove lifeless and disappointing. a minute into those tapes and these doubts were dispelled completely. this was glorious music, made by musicians who for too long had floundered in their old singer's shadow.
highlights for me were: a tune called 'winged tuskadero', an irresistibly jaunty, strutting sort of song featuring mark on spoken vocals; 'back on the pavement' with a nice pizzicato type of picking; and a solo guitar track that bill wrote, as a love song, called 'yellow', which features a widely differing set of styles and sound textures interleaved amongst each other. finally, bill and mark have re-recorded 'peon'. i wouldn't have thought it possible to improve on the version on 'lick my decals off, baby', but they have by the simple and obvious expedient of turning it into (if it wasn't that to start with) a slow lyrical number. they took the amps down to the river and the track has a kind of sound backdrop, bird's calls, rustling trees, and stream noises - it is truly beautiful.
after the tapes finished, bill enquired as to my reactions. i couldn't conceal my glee, lapsing into gibberings like: 'fuckin' great. if you can't start a new career with this under your belt then i'll give up in despair'. the only thing i can add to emphasise my feelings is by using some trite imperatives: 'check it out! i guarantee, you won't regret it!'.
late saturday night saw the saga known as 'the hijack art tripp III episode'. it transpired that whenever there had been a particularly good day's work put in, artie was wont to commemorate this achievement with a visit to the local pub. since he is a pretty agreeable sort of fellow, he had fallen in with a bunch of locals who were only too delighted to help him continue his celebration on into the night. while this was an unexceptional enough thing for a man of artie's pedigree to do - after all, he was an original mother of invention - it had a somewhat deleterious effect on the recording schedule. besides which it necessitated shumow knocking on countless village doors asking: 'is artie there?', a routine he was beginning to find a little tiresome.
i had already been cautioned against revealing my destination earlier in the evening with the injunction: 'don't let artie know you're going to the pub'. all restraining measures, alas, had proved in vain: as soon as the marimba parts had been completed, art had shot off. this boded ill, especially since bill had decided to re-record the number 'south of the valley' with a different type of drumming. the prospect of trying to do it with a wasted and hung-over artie tripp was occasioning formidable wariness.
i was only trying to dispel the gloomy foreboding when i suggested: 'well, why don't we set up a search party, and go and rescue him'. there was a marked lack of enthusiasm for this idea - the others being anxious not to incur artie's displeasure - but eventually we set off to spend the next hour surreptitiously peering in through windows, trying to spot the large, hawaiian-shirted shape of art tripp. the search had to be abandoned, but as we were making our way back to the farmhouse, our prey was located in the very same residence from which the piano had been borrowed.
closer examination revealed that artie had fallen into a very mellow mood, and was busily nibbling away at a bottle of whiskey and equally busily recounting some of the more amiable moments he had spent with zappa and the mudsharks. it was an opportune moment to make our entrance and gently disentangle the errant drummer. but different, and possibly wiser counsel prevailed. 'look,' it was suggested, 'he is a grown man; we should respect his wishes'. i suspect that all members of the search party were relieved that no physical intervention was necessary, but as we trooped back many a silent prayer was offered to the night sky that next day the band would have a halfway decent drummer to work with.
the night was the sort that summoned up visions of ribbons of moonlight and highwaymen rap-rap-rapping at stable doors.... bill harkleroad wondered aloud about the wisdom of putting 'peon', a track identified with the beefheart period, on the new album. "we're trying to get away from that period, but it's a beautiful song and i think we could really add something to it now. and it might get don a few bucks - because i've heard that he is really hard up." after all the trauma of splitting up, bad-mouthing each other and both parties having to endure periods of acute adversity, in the middle of the devon countryside, on a saturday night, one of the chief protagonists wants to push a bit of the publishing royalties beefheart's way because he is broke. it was a testament to decency, a noble note on which to end the day's proceedings.
the prodigal percussionist's return for breakfast was greeted with sighs of muted relief, a few derisory cracks, and the announcement that his kit awaited his attentions in the barn. the first task was to remake 'south of the valley' with a different drum part. in spite of his protestations that the tune wasn't worth this extra effort - an aversion stemming one suspected, more from his desire for an easy day's work rather than his aesthetic values - artie manfully met his obligations. if he can drum like that after a bottle of whiskey, then either he was drinking disguised ice tea, or he's got a spare liver. the new drum part was a real 'ringo effort', unfussy but metronomic, the tune itself generating a slow, languid feel - another nashville job, showing sam's voice at its mournful best.
a considerable amount of thoughts was needed for the percussion tracks, since there were no instruments available. bags of noodles were rattled and various kitchen implements struck, scraped and banged. the experiments produced some notable innovations, the best - soundwise - being scissors snipping. unfortunately, to pick up the sound through the mike would have meant artie holding his breath for the duration. another possibility - taping the cows eating the grass, a fabulous noise - was also technically unfeasible. the final choices were coke cans filled with gravel and a drum with a bag of stones on the top, that was rocked to produce a noise not unlike a very badly functioning 'rhythm master'.
during one of their idler periods, mark asked if i would like to go out with him and throw a few knives together. my immediate thought was that maybe those los angeles music types were right: the band was a bunch of crazies! but thankfully it emerged that this pastime didn't involve me standing by a tree while mark did a carnival type routine planting the blades round my torso: it was a perfectly normal competitive activity, akin to darts. in spite of giving me a substantial start, mark easily won....
over lunch, they discussed the sort of press coverage they should aim at. i had volunteered my services as a publicist, since they couldn't afford a professional. i was fairly sure there would be considerable interest from a few journalists, but they found this hard to believe. it was agreed that a press release should be put out, and that i would follow it up with some phone calls to specific writers. there was sufficient interest and several writers wrote some really nice features on the band in the weekly papers.
further discussions took place around the question which record companies should be approached. they revealed some fairly startling insights into the relative importance attached by musicians to the various components of the record company's job. i have no idea whether this kind of information is of interest to zigzag readers, but the one thing everyone was adamant about was the distribution provided by record companies. not the a&r function, nor the financial resources at their command, not the press office, nor whether the company has good tv and radio promotion, but whether records will get to retail outlets quickly and accurately.
another topic to be broached was finding a suitable keyboard player for a couple of the tracks and, having sorted through the possibilities, getting hold of him and persuading him to do the job. the bloke in this case was john bundrick, who i last heard of when he was in the final version of 'free'. perhaps it is an inaccurate impression, but it seems to me that making an album is really about 80% administration and only 20% music.
that evening an expedition was made to dartmoor to visit a pub just down the road from one of her majesty's ships. while pints were supped and feet warmed by the open fire i had a chance to talk to sam galpin, the singer. he didn't reveal that he had been in the chamos [prison? - t.t.], as emerged later, but described his part career as 'twelve years of lounge singing, man - around vegas, reno, sometimes the coast'. i wondered what this existence was like - because alex snouffer had also worked on that circuit in between spells in the magic band [so summer 1968 thru fall 1972] and he had let me to believe that it was a fairly wild existence: plenty of drinking, a lot of promiscuous sex, a general style based on earning quite a lot of money by playing fairly conventional bar-type music - and spending it in as lawless and uproarious a way as possible.
"yeah man, it ís like that; but towards the end it really got me down. the only way i could get up on the stage, was just to get redded out every night, and i was nearly fucking dead. i saw what was going to happen and stopped. i went back to los angeles where i worked on doing demos, until i got this phone call from bill, and here i am." it couldn't have been as simple as that, so i asked for details.
"well man, in my line of work, you get a hell of a lot of people who just ring you up out of the blue with propositions. they're usually just a fucking joke: touring with some shit-heap who had a hit during the war, who is going to work as a clown in a kid's holiday camp. and all this work for about a hundred bucks a week - after some arsehole manager has taken his cut! when this guy just rings up and offers me some job with a rock band, i dismissed it. but he kept going on about coming to england and how we would get a recording contract and all this shit. so i just thought it was another one of those scenes, and i said: 'sure man, sure', and forgot about it.
the next thing is: bill, mark and shumow turn up, and give me this same number, and again i'm saying: 'sure man, sure'. and later shumow rings me up and says could i meet him at the passport office, and then i started to wonder if maybe they weren't serious. so i turn up and get a passport - and a fuckin' ticket to england! and i still wasn't really sure, but what i said was: 'look, if i come with you, i'll have to have some money to pay the rent and buy the groceries while i'm away'. and the next fucking day there's a cheque which doesn't bounce, so it was for real. the next thing: i am sitting in a fuckin' jet on my way to england."
from further conversation it emerged that sam's qualifications for filling the vocalist's shot were admirable - because in reality he has none. he asked me: "what was this beefheart like, man?" and when i had picked myself up off the floor, i replied: "haven't you heard the records?". "no man, they won't let me listen to them, because they just want me to sing it all the way i feel i should." "well," i added lamely, not wanting to destroy the artfully constructed edifice of his ignorance, "he was sort of far out rhythm 'n' blues singer and he was also really good on stage".
sam grinned slightly and posed another floorer of a question: "what goes on at these rock concerts? i've never been to one." "what, you have never been to a rock concert? and you're going to start a career as a rock singer?!" "that's right, man," he smiled wryly. "i have an old friend who works in the edgar winter band, and they were playing in las vegas, and i went along. but when i got out of the car, the car park was full of these terrible wasted kids, man. they were doing drugs all over the place, and collapsing even before they got into the auditorium. i walked towards the entrance and it was just too heavy, man. so i left, and that's the nearest i've ever got."
as i said: no qualifications at all. which means that when sam gets up on stage he will be free of all the neo-cockeresque physicals which, together with the obligatory bare chest, seem to constitute the rock singer's equipment these days. sam will just sing, which on the evidence of the recordings i heard, he'll do excellently. sam, however, wasn't in the position to share my knowledge and went on to further discuss his role within the band. "i am getting a bit nervous about doing the vocals, man. i have been here for two weeks not doing any work at all - just stalking round like a caged lion - and i have to start tomorrow."
i ought to add that the imminence of doing the vocal tracks was clearly emphasised by the rigorous discipline to which he was subjecting himself: regular gargling with a fearful liquor called something like 'johnny hurricane extra special bourbon' and chain-smoking (with inhaling) bloody great fat cigars. "it just loosens up my voice, man."
since he had raised the subject, i had a chance to divest myself of one of the weekend's deepest revelations: the emergence of bill harkleroad as a formidable musical intelligence - which seems to me now (i remember being told this in countless children's books) like the way a bear comes out of hibernation, stretches up and measures the growth that has taken place during the winter.
"shit, sam, just trust bill," i offered. "yeah," he gave that wry smile again, "i don't suppose i have any choice." "no kidding, i think he is a really talented guy, you must know that. you have seen him at work on the production - you must know that he's got a really huge musical ability." "yeah, i just hope you are right, man, i really fuckin' do." with that prayer sam went back to priming his vocal chords. i had a game of darts, reflecting during the match that with sam's voice and his undeniable ability to get on with people and cope with situations in an adult fashion, he shouldn't have too much trouble with his new career.
in spite of one of the band's local acquaintance's insistence on driving back from the pub at an idiotic speed through the country lanes, we got back to the farmhouse in one piece. artie was going back to london and after wishing him god-speed, together with some more prosaic wishes about seeing him in the autumn when the band will tour, it was off to bed.
the vocals were due to start on monday, but problems with the recording equipment meant a postponement. bill and mark went off for a walk, shumow and i decided to set off for london ahead of schedule and sam heroically decided to keep his vocal chords in shape with johnny hurricane. as we drove back, shumow told me with a slightly wistful, bewildered tone: "man, do you know that only eight weeks ago, bill was going to give up music? isn't it strange: now we are here to make an album, just like none of that shit had ever taken place?" a-fuckin'-men to that.
go to the DISCOGRAPHY of this 1974-1976 spin-off
click clack back to the history or the power station
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo