reviews and rants
GROW FINS rarities 1965-1982
based on promo sampler ceedee
by: byron coley from: 01.05.99 the wire #183, england
Although it was their third album release, Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band only really árrived with 1969's sprawling 'Trout Mask Replica'. The ability to appreciate its seemingly random and all but impenetrable double elpee length seemed beyond the ken of all but the most hardcore weirdos. Those who were able to decode 'Trout Mask Replica' felt like they had passed a gruelling test, after which few of them could resist the call to become missionaries of the Beefheart cause.
The prevailing notion was that Don Vliet, as his mother knew him, had descended to earth from a planet very near Sun Ra's, and that the music he and his group produced - a kind of stinging, avant-Martian blues - was the result of a singular union of musicianship and artistic vision. For all the truth of that statement, it didn't tell the whole story. The exquisite 'Grow Fins' set and its accompanying booklet notes by John French, together with Bill Harkleroad's Lunar Notes memoir, present a new take on Beefheart's Magic Band. If this version is radically at odds with that of the doctrinaire fanboys, it is no less amazing or compelling.
'Grow Fins' traces the development of The Magic Band's form-destroyer tendencies, from their protean psychedelic garage blues roots to 'Trout Mask Replica''s mastery of unknown tongues and beyond. The set's main emphasis is on 1965-69, but few of the group's remarkable turns are left unnoted. The first disc, 'Just Got Back From The City', presents some of the group's earliest recordings. These sides occupy the same archaelogical strata as their A&M singles.
By all accounts, the direction of this early unit was determined democratically. Don's interest in the blues, and his comrades' take on Rhythm & Blues were cemented with odd Stonesian paste. Acolytes will be blown away by the demos that guitarist Doug Moon has dusted off here. Others will probably be surprised by how 'inside' the tradition they are. Rounded out by live blues choogle from the Avalon Ballroom and a too-speedy demo session for 'Safe As Milk', the first disc demonstrates a group whose potential wa somewhat muted by the fact that they were operating in the psych era's space / time continuum.
The second disc 'Electricity' is a wild, transitional work. Guitarist Jeff 'Antennae Jimmy Semens' Cotton replaces Ry Cooder (who had replaced Doug Moon) and John 'Drumbo' French is introduced as the group's new drummer [he already was in it - teejo]. With 'Safe As Milk' and the first version of 'Strictly Personal' already recorded, and following the departure of two original members, Don had become far more central to the music's direction.
The bulk of 'Electricity' was recorded during The Magic Band's first two trips to Europe. In early 1968 they went on a promotional junket, which included a legendary concert on the beach at Cannes's Midem Convention (you can see it on video on the enhanced cd). Using equipment borrowed from Blossom Toes, the group's sound here has a beautiful limberness that beams the way toward things to come. Other tracks were recorded in Kidderminster, on the second '68 tour they undertook immediately after 'Strictly Personal' proper was finished [récorded you mean - teejo].
Cotton and French had used their session fees to buy Vliet a soprano sax and he whips it out hárd. Regardless of whether he knew what he was doing, his lung capacity was so massive that his extended reed discharges add an insane flavour to the proceedings. Among the rambling desert blues improvisations, his keening-goat hornwork is a striking as the sweet bellow of his voice and harmonica. Zappa's contention that the group's music was a collision between free jazz and Delta blues was never truer than there.
The next two discs, both called 'Trout Mask Replica House Sessions', have most to reveal to those steeped in Beefheartian lore. By this juncture Bill 'Zoot Horn Rollo' Harkleroad and Mark 'Rockette Morton' Boston had arrived. Isolated in a house in Woodland Hills, this new Magic Band attempted to give shape and colour to the abstractly three-dimensional piano improvisations that Vliet whacked out in short spurts. The rehearsal tapes and the accompanying notes suggest that 'Trout Mask Replica' was not exactly the headbirth some have claimed for it.
By the time the album's basic tracks had been laid down at Whitney Studio, in a single four and a half hour gush, the material had been learned, re-learned and tinkered with to an incredible degree. Bathing the process of 'Trout Mask Replica' in new x-ray light, the music and chatter captured on these ceedees actually make the results appear even more monumental. To think that these fractured miniatures of almost tortuous complexity could evolve into the holistic otherness of 'Trout Mask Replica' buggers belief. But here's the proof. Actual human beings spent months of agonised labour to create its pocket universe: a jagged landscape of alternating hilarity and aridity that operates entirely by its own logic. Hats off to 'em all.
The final disc 'Grow Fins' is a miscellany recorded in the wake of 'Trout Mask Replica'. There's a track from the 1969 Actuel Festival (with Zappa on guitar), two tunes by the superb 'Lick My Decals Off, Baby' group rescued from Detroit's 'Tubeworks' TV show (also on the enhanced cd), and various assorted dribbles. Some of it is incredibly instructive (like the piano and guitar work tapes for 'Evening Bell'); some of it is just incredible.
Even though he has been retired from music for more than 15 years, during which absence he has been accused by former associates of the foullest power trips, Captain Beefheart's music remains its own cutting edge. Together with the Magic Band he created a music so powerful and unique that it has expanded subterranean horizons in ways that we have yet to discover. 'Grow Fins' is a splendid log of the journey.
'THAT'S RIGHT, THE MASCARA SNAKE'
by: jon savage from: 01.06.99 mojo #67, england
Seventeen years after his withdrawal from the music industry, Captain Beefheart remains an enigmatic, contradictory figure: eco-freak, control freak, visionary, charlatan, bandleader, painter, avant-garde hero, would-be pop star, genre originator and mutator, the original high-voltage man. His silence has only added to a legend which rests less on cultivated mystique than on the genuine affection in which he is held. Covering the full span of his recording career, 'Grow Fins' shines the archival light on a figure who, for once, stands up to the glare.
Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band never translated their major innovations into sales. In the '60s, Van Vliet learned and lived the rulebook, then shredded it comprehensively: the result was a sequence of 12 albums that have had a musical and cultural influence disproportionate to their sales. Some of this came out during 1976-'77 - most notably in the early, rocking but discordant Pere Ubu singles and the language used by Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols ('old fart', the 'Japan in a dishpan' dis in New York) - when a new generation was remaking rock from the ground up.
Van Vliet's packaging as a full-blown psychedelic monster remains a bone of contention - viz the rock lore about the mix of 'Strictly Personal' (for the record: I like the phasing) and Zappa's freak angle on 'Trout Mask Replica' - but the simple fact was that it was a great boy hook. For those who wanted weird in the later '60s, Captain Beefheart was it: lots of mutterings, audio verité, speaker-blowing vocals, surreal poetry (as it was thought of at the time; nów it just seems logical), perceptual and ecological concerns, great lunging band performances, perfect one-liners. Still sounds pretty good to me, and most of the time, it is.
Weird is only part of the story, however. Let us not forget that the Captain was a recording artist within the heart of the West Coast music industry and that he, like anyone who deals with big companies, wanted the rewards of this often difficult interaction: pop success. And yet, at the same time, he had these sounds in his head: something that would mix hard blues and Rhythm & Blues with free jazz. And, in 1965, pop was changing fast enough to grant outcasts like Don Van Vliet a platform, even a small taste of the spoils.
The first five, early 1966 [uh... according to the track list - teejo], cuts here show the first [uh... - teejo] Magic Band shedding their Brit Invasion influences: just listen to Them's 'Baby, Please Don't Go' (number 1 in KRLA in autumn 1965) and the way that Van Morrison sings 'My baby's leaving... on the midnight train' to hear confirmation that the Howlin' Wolf growl could be transferred to white Rhythm & Blues. In fast, tricksy pieces like 'Here I Am' and 'Triple Combination' you can hear the Beefheart of the future; 'I'm Glad' shows an early mastering of the soul style, but the real find here is 'Obeah Man' - an explicit homage to and immersion within black American magic, mojo hands, conqueroo and all.
Slipstreaming into the harder-edged sounds of 1966, the Magic Band got teen attention and KRLA Beat press for their 'Diddy Wah Diddy' 45, but the emerging San Franciscan scene offered another opportunity to experiment, at once with harder blues - like 'Tupelo' and Howlin' Wolf's 'Evil' - and genre-busting stompers like their version of Wolf's paranoid 'Somebody In My Home', the first sign of the monster blues drone that The Magic Band would chase over the next two years. And dig the Captain's affected Brit Invasion accent as he insists: 'I'm going to hit the row-ed, yer know'.
Then it all came together. In his book 'San Francisco Nights' Gene Sculatti describes the unveiling of the new Magic Band in late 1966. 'In pre-New Wave plastic wraparound sunglasses, tassle-topped Shriner's fez and a braided bandleader's corset straight out of The Music Man... Beefheart barked out an entire new repertoire whose only link to his earlier blues were the dissembled chords, shuddering and clashing in a brilliant... cacophony. The Captain Beefheart the world would know arrived in San Francisco then, premiering 'Kandy Korn' by pelting the audience with handful after handful of the yellow-and-orange candy.'
Recorded in 1966 [uh... - teejo] and released in early [uh... - teejo] 1967, 'Safe As Milk' remains a towering achievement: an avant-garde pop masterpiece from the time when they had only just started to make them. Along with the first couple of Love and Mothers' albums and 'The Velvet Underground And Nico', 'Safe As Milk' had a huge impact in the UK, largely thanks to radio play by John Peel; don't forget that it was hardly possible to get any actual San Franciscan albums until the end of 1967. It also helped to initiate the phenomenon memorably described by Bob Christgau as 'semipopular' music: music that was meant to sell, didn't so much, but which benefitted from a rapidly expanding music economy to find a strong niche. And that was where the Captain was privileged - and cursed - to remain.
Mainly, however, 'Safe As Milk' rocks harder than almost any other contemporary record - the Velvet Underground and the first Moby Grape album being the only other contenders. It still sounds totally new, one of the best albums ever made. The outtakes are rougher, bluesier, less produced than the finished record: only the 1965 [uh... - teejo] 'Call On Me' is radically different, with its delightfully ludicrous vocals and sappy Byrds-style back-up prefiguring the Captain's sweet, unjustly maligned 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' phase. All have that yearning, breakthrough quality that could easily have found a wider audience if perversity and bad luck - detailed in John French's notes - hadn't nixed a projected Monterey appearance.
Disc 2 mostly features live material from 1968, when the third [i suggest: at least the twelfth - teejo] Magic Band were touring the 'Strictly Personal' album and its (then) shadow twin 'Mirror Man'. (Those purists who want the non-phased 'Strictly Personal' are directed to Sequel's 'I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird'.) This is the kind of epic bues drone drama that I could listen to all day: two different versions of 'Electricity', a four-minute 'Kandy Korn', 'You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond' (aka 'Tarotplane Blues') with a snatch of 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love', a 'Rollin' 'N' Tumblin'' not a moment too long at 11 minutes, and a real find - a pretty new 'Mirror Man' outtake based on the modal bass for John Coltrane's 'India', 'Korn Ring Finger', which celebrates 'a funny old man smoking golden cane'.
Disillusioned by his three-time loser experience with record companies (A&M, Buddah, Blue Thumb). Van Vliet was determined to do it his way the next time. Released on Frank Zappa's Straight label (along with Wild Man Fischer and The GTO's), 'Trout Mask Replica' makes it three (aesthetic) winners in a row: a wild-sounding 28-track double album with no pop or psychedelic traces, its free jazz harshness held together by the force of Van Vliet's outcast rants, undiluted for the first time. 'Trout Mask Replica' is a collaged masterpiece, with its field recordings, docu-dialogue ('Fast and bulbous' - 'That's right, the Mascara Snake...; also, a tin teardrop') and sonic source variety (like the cheap tape snap throughout 'The Dust Blows Forward'). Yet the scripted nature of this apparently chaotic music is reaffirmed by the 'alternative' first recording of the album on Disc 3.
What you get here is 15 out of 28 cuts in a primarily instrumental form. With different edits of the documentary material used on the finished record, this 'Trout Mask replica' sounds like one long run-through, with no editing, no recitals and few Beefheart vocals. There's some mildly amusing studio chat ('Are we waiting for something?' - 'Us.' - 'Uh?' - 'Us. But it's all right.') and some moments of sharp baeuty. But there's also a lot of noodling. When the distorted blues tones of 'China Pig' eventually come through, it's a huge relief, although skronk fans will have revelled in the previous 70 or so minutes.
This and the 20-minutes playback chat preserved on the audio portion of CD 4 take as given that 'Trout Mask Replica' was the Captain Beefheart pinnacle: I admire its rigour and passion, but love 'Safe As Milk' and 'Strictly Personal' more. In some ways 'Trout Mask Replica' was a disastrous commercial move, presenting Beefheart as a kind of GTO / Wild Man Fischer oddity that, for all the trappings, he patently was not. Its severity proved unrepeatable, and the next three Magic Band records show a dilution or a slow relaxation into the Captain's previous blues drone / spoken word modes, with the deliberately female-friendly 'Clear Spot' (Bill Harkleroad: 'Women do not listen to 'Trout Mask Replica' - at least, very very few'.) as the highlight.
With the comparative failure of 'Clear Spot', the rest is wrong moves, missed cues, a partial return and eventual silence. The Captain's reputation for weirdness returned to haunt him when he made the pop move on the Mercury albums 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' and 'Bluejeans And Moonbeams', as many fans rejected their simpler, linear approach. Then a few collaborations with Zappa, and nothing until 1978's consistent 'Shiny Beast', with its trombone-thriven summary of the several Beefheart strands thus far. 'Doc At The Radar Station' and 'Ice Cream For Crow'continued in this vein, with static returns - although 'Sue Egypt' from 'Doc At The Radar Station' may well be the most electrifying three minutes of the Captain's career thus far.
The problem was highlighted by the famous promotional video for 'Ice Cream For Crow'. Plenty of desert beauty, tumbleweed and the Captain, to be sure, but as you watched the wacky antics of the last Magic Band you couldn't help but think that the worst had happened: weirdness was no longer an expression of outcast individuality but had become a geek template. Self-conscious weirdness was, after all, a punk / New Wave staple. The Captain had been superseded by his children: in an industry which values a fixed image above all, he had become the prisoner of his strongest statement. Some of the later live cuts here highlight his deteriorating relationship with his audience: who wants to be a circus attraction when they could be painting in the desert?
Disc 5 is a pretty great alternate run through these last 10 or so years. A few early skronkers - audio versions of TV material available on the CD-rom Disc 4, including a savage 'Bellerin' Plain' from Detroit in 1971 - segue into a collage of radio broadcasts, demos, and the occasional live performance. Bickershaw  alumni will delight in the tough 'Grow Fins' and terminally confrontational 'Spitball Scalped A Baby'. 'One Red Rose That I Mean' is a Durutti Column-like guitar instrumental from 1972, while 'Click Clack' from Paris in 1973 [uh... - teejo], boogies to the max. Six of the seven radio shots are brief harmonica and a capella pieces which show off Van Vliet's humour and occasional testiness. 'That's too nasty there,' he giggles at the end of a deep 'Black Snake Moan I'; 'What key was that in?,' asks the DJ after 'Harp Boogie III', 'That was the key of... skeleton key.'
There is nothing here from the two Mercury albums, nor much from the first version of 'Shiny Beast', 1976's 'Bat Chain Puller', except two five-minute run-throughs of 'Odd Jobs': the full band version is a return to the gleaming, gliding textures of 'Strictly Personal'. There's a piano demo and a worktape version of the 'Ice Cream For Crow' instrumental 'Evening Bell', a good early assembly of 'Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee', and a 1978 'Mellotron Improvisation' which is sabotaged by the noisy crowd: 'If you're gonna talk, forget it!'. A longer 'Mellotron Improvisation' from 1981 is no better received. 'Sun Ra,' somebody yells, and the Captain erupts again: 'Shut yer mouth, boy!'. After a few more trills he demands: 'Was that Liberace?'
Best of all, and worth the price of admission alone, is an astonishing version of 'Orange Claw Hammer' where, backed simply by Zappa's driving folk-blues 12-string, the Captain gives an impassioned sea shanty reading of the lyric's hobo Odyssey / fantasy ('I'm the round house man / I once was yer father'). For once, these masters of the obtuse play it straight, and it really cuts through. With its Victorian melodrama and Depression emptiness, 'Orange Claw Hammer' shows the Captain becoming what he always threatened to be: not an American weirdo but an American archetype.
by: mark paytress from: 01.11.99 record collector #243, england
Captain Beefheart's music used to exist merely for audiences to love or loathe. Now, 30 years after the release of his most acclaimed - and hotly debated - work, "Trout Mask Replica", no rock enthusiast who wishes to be taken seriously can omit to pay testament to the Captain's "genius". The combined weight of rock history and critical praise has, it seems, finally filtered through. Unfortunately, it's merely lip-service: in my experience, few latter-day converts ever get round to playing the records.
It's a relief, then, to report that among the latest batch of releases bearing the great man's name is the first career-stretching compilation, a chronicle that begins with mid-60s blueswailing garage rock and concludes with extracts from the trilogy of post-punk albums that became Beefheart's musical swansong. Aficionados will no doubt disagree about the track selection on Rhino's "The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology)", but as a gentle, neatly packaged and historically precise introduction to the most awe-inspiring catalogue in popular (?) music ever, it serves its purpose well.
But first, the long-awaited, five-disc box set. Unlike the Rhino collection, "Grow Fins" is not an ideal starting place (in fact, I'd still direct newcomers straight to "Trout Mask Replica": I mean, why beat around the bush?). It's not meant to be. "Fins" is strong on early rarities, with two discs documenting the years 1965-68; provides a feast for "Trout Mask Replica" fiends with two discs of outtakes, albeit vocal-less; and concludes with over an hour of live material that spans 1969-1982. For the aficionado, it's a truly miraculous package, enhanced by a CD-ROM containing rare film footage and a 112-page booklet that documents the most thrilling, traumatic rock 'n' roll tale you'll ever come across.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band had it all. Brains. Imagination, Skill. The Protestant work ethic. True daring. Though hardly handsome in the classical sense, they even resembled works of art. But the crucial element was Beefheart himself, a man whose pursuit of musical greatness later prompted the "monster" tag that often affixes itself to those bestowed with creative genius. The legacy is a body of work that renders the efforts of most other cherished rock originals - Hendrix, Barrett, Pere Ubu, Nico, Sonic Youth, Zappa, Throbbing Gristle, the Pop Group - almost humdrum by comparison.
That's kind of a dumb comment, but it does at least give some idea of the boundary-stretching achievements of rock's most intrepid, creatively successful explorer. With Howlin' Wolf in his lungs, delta blues, free jazz, acid-rock and Eastern scales in his ears, and words that carried more wit and wisdom than Tommy Cooper and Bertrand Russell at their most potent, Beefheart nevertheless created music way beyond the sum total of his influences.
That's why anyone who has ever had the good fortune to have met the man in person cannot help but bring it up. My meeting with the Captain backstage at Southampton University in 1975 remains one of those benchmark moments (and if the amateur photographer still has the shots of Beefheart, Drumbo, et al, with a rather foolish-looking schoolboy hairy in a full-length fur-coat, I'd love to hear from him). Both Rolling Stone's David Fricke and Rhino's sleevenote writer Barry Alfonso recount their meetings with him not, I believe, for reasons of vanity, but because Beefheart's stature - a Picasso amidst a sea of water-lilies, if you like - simply demands it.
Oddly, only those with a thorough knowledge of Beefheart's work will be able to pick up "Grow Fins" and join the dots to create the wider picture that spells 'genius'. To the uninitiated, it may well be a mystifying experience. That's because this stylishly-packaged set dances around the main body of work on which his reputation is based and delivers instead a musical autopsy that dissects its inner workings.
The most coherent disc is probably the first, which begins with a handful of misfit R&B numbers like "Obeah Man", "Just Got Back From The City" and the twisted garage rock overdrive of "Triple Combination", takes diversions into Stax-like soul ("I'm Glad"), Dave Berry-like pop ("Call On Me"), then revisits trad-style blues with live versions of "Tupelo" and Howlin' Wolf's "Evil Is Going On", before arriving at the threshold of the inimitable style for which Beefheart and his Magic Band are renowned.
It's the nature of that threshold which is explored throughout Disc Two, which opens with rousing, disciplined versions of "Safe As Milk"-era classics "Electricity" and "Sure 'Nuff 'N' Yes I Do", recorded on a Cannes beach for French television, then veers off into improv-land with four songs taped at the band's famed 1968 UK appearance at Frank Freeman's Dancing Studio in Kidderminster. The disc concludes with "Korn Ring Finger", an uncharacteristically loose studio recording from October 1967 and a companion piece to the material on the "I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird" CD issued some years back.
The centrepiece of "Grow Fins" is Disc Three. Well over an hour's worth of "Trout Mask Replica" outtakes represents something of a holy grail for collectors, and if you can live with the fact that Beefheart is largely absent, probably in the garden making sure the trees weren't being unduly affected by the noise, then it's a fascinating find. (Incidentally, the quality is far better than the bootlegs that were going around a couple of years back.)
The disc's subtitle, "Trout Mask House Sessions" is marginally misleading, because it suggests that these are practice tapes. Don't be fooled: these recordings constitute a vital part of the album sessions: "Hair Pie: Bake I" is identical to the LP version, right down to the Captain's line about it being "a bush recording" albeit in unmixed form; likewise "Hair Pie: Bake II", "Sugar 'N' Spikes", "Dachau Blues", and "China Pig", the last track with added typewriter tapping.
Don't let that diminish your enjoyment. These instrumental performances reveal once and for all the magnitude of the Magic Band's achievement. The arrangements are three parts mathematical to one part busking it: "Frownland" which, after a relatively straightforward intro, soon descends into a dizzying miasma, the perfect soundtrack to the vision of a giant octopus dancing on the ocean floor.
The scampering instrumental collisions that make "When Big Joan Sets Up" the masterpiece it is bring to mind the world seen from the perspective of a colony of mice. The thud of "Hobo Chang Ba", usually obscure by the Captain's ultra-deep bellowing, is unmasked as truly deranged. And so it goes on. Disc Four's spoken-word extracts from the same session pale in comparison, but when a visitor asks what happens next, the voice that replies "you put the words on in the studio" is Frank Zappa's, proof that at least some of the album was laid down at the group's shared house in Woodland Hills.
"Grow Fins" disappoints on just two counts. The CD-ROM element contains some fine film footage (some of which has been seen, at least in part, in the BBC's The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart [link] documentary), but it's grainy and limited to just one-third of its computer screen potential.
And Disc Five, which promises a trawl through Beefheart's live repertoire between 1969 and 1982, simply skirts around the subject (probably for contractual reasons), presenting us instead with thin-sounding recordings from the TV appearances viewed on the CD-ROM, several spoken-word radio improvisations, demos for lesser tracks like "Evening Bell" and "Odd Jobs", and damming evidence of Beefheart's impatience with his audience towards the end of his career.
"Shut yer mouth boy!", he grunts at an enthusiastic fan who repeatedly shouts out "Sun Ra!". Another time, he simply announces "Fuck it, if you're gonna talk, forget it," and stops playing. Beefheart grew fins alright, but only so he could leave rock 'n' roll and return to the safety of water again.
Rhino's "The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology)" ought to pale in comparison, but bearing in mind Beefheart's convoluted recording history, this two-disc survey is a major achievement. Just one previously unreleased cut is unearthed, "Little Scratch" (a dry run for "The Past Sure Is Tense") from the "Clear Spot" sessions, but the presence of several overlooked cuts (including Beefheart's key contributions to Zappa's "Bongo Fury", the "Hard Workin' Man" single from 1978, and "Light Reflected Off The Oceands Of The Moon", an EP cut from the end of Beefheart's career, provides a neat bonus to a well-compiled and expertly re-mastered set. Two early single cuts, "Diddy Wah Diddy" and "Frying Pan", sound particularly impressive.
Beefheart's much-admired cap wins a further couple of feathers in the shape of two further reissues: BMG/Buddha's revamped editions of "Safe As Milk" (his 1967 debut) and "Mirror Man", recorded shortly after but not issued until 1971. Both come newly mastered (with the former benefiting most from the aural upgrade) and with half-a-dozen songs or so apiece from the sessions later documented on the "I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird" CD.
The booklets are considerably slimmer than those accompanying the grander packages (but these are being knocked out at mid-price), yet still boast a handful of rare pictures and notes by yet another respected Beefheart authority, John Platt. Both are unreservedly recommended.
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