Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi

In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.

■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.


Day Thirty-Nine: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

RSO Records ■ RS-1-3030
Released November, 1977
Produced by Glyn Johns

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cocaine
  2. Wonderful Tonight
  3. Lay Down Sally
  4. Nex Time You See Her
  5. We’re All the Way
  1. The Core
  2. May You Never
  3. Mean Old Frisco
  4. Peaches & Diesel

I’m not going to pretend my age doesn’t show in some measure in these writings (and particularly in what records I actually own on vinyl), but in noting that I grew up with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged on cassette in my family’s vehicles, I’m going to date myself a little more explicitly than I might have previously. Clapton has always been one of the most fixed sounds in my musical experience of the world–not so much in the sense of constant appearances, but in the sense that there has never been a moment that his work seemed to be either bizarre or uncomfortably trite. I did grow up with the “blasphemous” notion that the acoustic version of “Layla” was better, hearing it a million times before I ever heard the electric one, which was a jarring experience, let me tell you. I’m often left sputtering that including the instrumental outro as proof of the original’s superiority is just “cheating”. Of course, what I really mean is, “Yeah, you’re right, and I just like the pacing and sort of bluesier feel of the acoustic one. Sue me.”

As an extension, more than the Yardbirds or even Cream, it was Eric Clapton’s solo work that really seemed to be most “timeless” to me–not in the sense that it was most lasting, so much as established, undated and seemingly “always” there, if only to me. I never have mistaken it for an actual external permanence or “eternal” nature, but I can’t think of a time I didn’t know “It’s in the Way That You Use It”, the acoustic singles (alongside “Layla”, of course “Tears in Heaven” and maybe “Before You Accuse Me”), “Wonderful Tonight” or a small stack of others. And, indeed, it was my sappiness (that I have mentioned before) that really spurred the interest in this album, and it naturally relates to that very song.

I mentioned, when I wrote about Ziggy Stardust, that eventually we’d see some records with permanent black “X”s drawn in their top right corners. Shockingly, I find this is the first to appear. Of course, some have lost out in polls, so there’s that. The X is an indicator that the title came from the bargain $1 bin at my (now sadly passed) favourite music store, Musik Hut (formerly) in Fayetteville, NC. I would peruse the heck out of that thing in high school, often walking out with semi-classic albums in great condition, classic albums in iffy condition, and obscure albums in excellent condition. My copy of The Boomtown RatsThe Fine Art of Surfacing actually has its “X” on still-intact shrinkwrap–and yes, unfortunately, I’m quite sure that counts as obscure these days, though not on the level that many I own do. Mid-range obscure, perhaps.

In any case, Slowhand is one of the Clapton solo albums that is saddled with placement on “best album ever” lists, though usually not exceptionally high. Even appearing on them at all does mean, however, that this album crackles and pops a bit (not as much as my copy of Ziggy, or a fair number of other LPs), and, worst of all, has two (unintentional) locked grooves in “Peaches & Diesel”. I always forget both of them, and so, coupled with their placement in the final track, it’s always pretty disappointing when they appear. With that in mind, I am of course going to cheat just a bit on this and use my digital copies–which I’ll admit I always use for in-the-moment dissection as I write all the time, though I always do sit and listen to all my records all the way through for this. I patiently lifted and nudged the needle to escape both a few times, trying to lose as little music as possible, but I’m still going to use the digital copy as my “reference”, a first for this kind of “replacement”.

Slowhand is, of course, named for Eric’s own nickname, and it opens with a pretty significant combination: all three singles from the album come out in a row, some of them absolutely iconic for Clapton, or even rock music in general. “Cocaine” starts things off with a little fire at low flame: J.J. Cale’s easy riding tune is laidback, but it cuts and it burns. Largely hanging out on a simple “boom-bap” bass-snare beat, Jamie Oldaker lays a firm frame out for the famed riff, dense up front, then eased and free at the end. The hissing hi-hat Oldaker is hiding on top of the beat, though, is like a fuse to an explosion that never comes, and never should. There’s a halt for repetition at the chorus: “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…” and it stands on freed guitar chords and short rises from Oldaker, it’s ended quietly with Clapton’s anticlimactic delayed antecedent: “…Cocaine.” It wouldn’t be Clapton, or maybe there wouldn’t be a sort of “Clapton™” (perhaps no OBE title) without the sparks and rising licks of flame that mark the solos at the halfway mark and fading out the ending.

As with Shake It Up, there was probably one primary driving force behind my purchase of Slowhand, and that was “Wonderful Tonight”. Yes, it’s a cliché for school dances now (so I’m told, at least), and yes it’s a bit schmaltzy if you feel the need to be above such things (and maybe even if you don’t), but pulling that much feeling out of a single bend has got to be some kind of accomplishment we can all respect. While Dick Sims’ keyboards, the backing vocals of Marcy Levy and Yvonne Elliman (particularly on the chorus), and the laidback drumming of Oldaker set the stage, with a special nod to Sims as bearer of the core of the song, it’s that lick. The handful of variants Clapton works out at the end are special as well, but it’s just a little bend and two notes and it aches with all the kind of sweet, innocent love that Clapton is clearly at least perceiving here. Sure, Pattie Boyd, the alleged subject, had been married to another man when Clapton first fell for her, and would later succumb to addictions and extramarital temptations (to put it ever-so-mildly) that would ruin their marriage, but that’s not what this is–this isn’t about reality. This is the feeling that precedes it–sometimes runs right through it, and has little to do with the final facts. In the same sense that romantic anything media-expressed is going to be a rough outline at best, or scattered details.

From the dark hints of “Cocaine” into the sad, awed beauty of “Wonderful Tonight”, we get one of the most simply fun and pleasant tracks the album has to offer, the final single, “Lay Down Sally”. Written with bandmates Marcy Levy and George Terry (who mans the other guitars on the album), it’s a countryfied, jaunty, comfortable little tune. Clapton is joined by Levy and Elliman for the great majority of the track on vocals. The track is spare, but only cut free of any extraneous fat. Carl Radle’s bass walks at an easy gait, alternating back and forth with a simple tune that fits with the feeling of crystalline studio-infused backporch performance. The picked and plucked guitar keeps the tune low and contained, even when Eric improvises and expands at a few odd moments, and prevents it from losing its familiarity by becoming too showy.

The mixed tones and emotions of “Next Time You See Her” quickly grew to some of my favourites on the album, as Sims’ organ introduction is dramatic but plays the role of backing to the exquisitely emotive lead guitar that takes centerstage in front of it. Eric sings of the woman in question, describing her in  pleasant and loving terms, but a firmly accented acoustic and drum beat matches his words and embellishes the sound of the song; “Next time you see her/Tell her that I love her…” he sings, and now we know she’s not there with him, and it seems quite sweet, but then he turns the lyric in another direction: “Next time I see you/Boy, you’d better beware.” After a threatening verse (“I’m just trying to warn you/That you’re bound to get hurt…”), he repeats the chorus, and, seeing this is not enough, the song eases off to just hi-hat, restrained but intermittently spiking organ, and a pleasantly bouncy feeling as he quietly sings the final clarification: “If you see here again/I will surely kill you.” The song itself is gloriously ignorant of its lyrical content, and it may be my favourite on the album.

A full relaxation from the tension, aching feel of love that can’t be expressed fully enough, a bit of fun, and serious threats, “We’re All the Way” is a nice break. The song is light and gentle, in the same easy pace as the album as a whole, and Eric’s voice acts with the others as something approaching a duet (or a trio; I’m not always good at separating these things!). Distinctly short for the album, it’s almost like a worthwhile afterthought, not fluff or confection, just passing wisps of substance.

Somewhat unexpectedly long, “The Core” is roiling blues-rock, though the pace continues at its usual relaxed rate. One of those licks that tucks all its varied ends into all right corners and slots to come out sound more like a simple riff, but detailed upon closer inspection, Levy’s voice actually opens the song as a more complete duet with Clapton’s. The chorus’s rising stomp of melodic rhythm, the “brakes” of Sims’ pounded organ keys all lead to a fantastically tasty variation on the core (ahem) lick in near isolation. It turns and curls backward on itself, moving downward like a dancer sure to get each foot on every stair, up one for every two it goes down before it just releases and spreads at the end. It just rings out over nothing but hi-hat and the tone and recording are just damnably good. This sound eventually turns to a restrained solo that leads into the absolute histrionics of a Mel Collins saxophone solo (we last heard from Mel on Mike Batt’s Tarot Suite), which only trades into a far more freed guitar solo, the sense of a “jam” explaining the runtime of the song (nearly nine minutes).

While Clapton has a lovely and enjoyable voice, it’s at its best in “May You Never”, the melody and momentary vibrato he works into the chorus (which opens the song) is just delightful, and perfect for the laidback way he uses his voice. It’s the sound of a warm well-wishing to a leaving acquaintance–close enough for this to be heartfelt, distant enough for the wishes to be more general than specific.

Pulling out the only straight blues cover on the album, “Mean Old Frisco” reworks the Arthur Crudup song into one that vaguely hints at the country accents of the album’s overall sound. You wouldn’t know it from the way Clapton plays though. His voice and slide guitar follow each other so closely, it’s hard to tell which is coming “first”. Sims attacks the piano with the improvisation of pure feeling, but keeps it from competing too directly with the two slide guitars. Clapton also works his voice into his best subdued bluesman, which only helps it to follow the slide. And that is some delicious slide.

Tucked away at the end, “Peaches & Diesel” is the sole instrumental on the album. It almost seems like a sort of medley or amalgamation of the songs that precede it. Radle’s bass is at some of its most active, the upward swing of the tone against the semi-melancholy keys and peaks and valleys of single-picked guitar. The smooth, easy lead that sings over it eventually takes over, and guides the rest of the instruments through the rest of the song, moving briefly into a section that reminds one of “Wonderful Tonight” without explicitly quoting it. Bittersweet melancholy seems too harsh for the song, especially when the guitar guides everything to a few high notes, but it does carry the sense of passing, of times now seen only in memory, happy though they may be, they are inaccessible. Sims’s organ becomes soulful and free, though, and punches through with a brighter feeling overall. Though repeatedly coming back down, the overall thrust does remain upward. Perhaps there’s something to naming an instrumental with the word “Peaches” that renders it artful and lovely (if you know what other piece I’m referring to, you get some bonus points–otherwise, you’ll get it in, er, a few months). It all acts as a lovely coda to the album, not clearly ending, or even fading it all away, just carrying the sounds of the album off with itself, and condensing them to leave them all in your ears and mind after the album itself fades.

So, sure: I bought the album for $1 (if I listed purchasing price for everything, it might either be enlightening or misleading, actually–too much more goes into it than that), but that doesn’t make it bad. I know Eric tends to receive a lot of knocks as a player these days, more and more seeming like the general notion is “white-guy-steals-blues, gets way too much credit and actually isn’t that great”. I’m not a player. I never will be. I’m not going to profess anything on that front, as it would be stated in ignorance, and achieve nothing useful. What I will say–what I can say–is that his playing is effective. If it isn’t technically impressive (and I don’t know that it isn’t, either) it does what it should, and does it very well. This album has always pleased me because it is not about showmanship, not even the kind that permeates the blues as a fixture, the sort exhibited in songs played like “Mean Old Frisco”–there’s that one track and no other. I love Johnny Winter (also months away), but there’s no doubting the reason it turns my father away is inaccurate. It’s fireworks throughout, seemingly no note left unplayed, no lick left to languish. To me, that does have a place, but it shouldn’t be everything–I suppose that could very well be my musical epitaph, actually–and this exhibits something almost counter to it as a result: a guitar album that’s very definitively about the songs and maybe, just maybe, not actually a guitar album at all (other than the cover, of course).

  • Next Up: The Clash – To Be Determined! (See Polls on Right)

Day Thirty-Four: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Safe as Milk

Buddah Records ■ BDS-5001

Released September, 1967
Produced by Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow
Engineered by Hank Cicalo and Gary Marker

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do
  2. Zig Zag Wanderer
  3. Call on Me
  4. Dropout Boogie
  5. I’m Glad
  6. Electricity
  1. Yellow Brick Road
  2. Abba Zaba
  3. Plastic Factory
  4. Where There’s Woman
  5. Grown So Ugly
  6. Autumn’s Child

On the heels of an album for which my college and high school best friend and roommate is responsible, here’s another one that fits that same bill. I’d already mentioned that John started listening to Captain Beefheart in those days, but this is actually the only chunk of it that carried over to me. While he was experimenting with Can, Beefheart, classic 60’s rock (which I grew up on and, for a little while, knew better as a result–though he eclipsed my passing, rudimentary knowledge quickly), and other more experimental music, I was delving further into extreme metal, my obsession with a Japanese band (whose albums were not released on vinyl after about 1989, and would require a complicated process to order on vinyl, nevermind their rarity even in their home country), and periodically picking up much “safer” releases in the same fashion of semi-impulsive, but educated purchases.

While Trout Mask Replica is doubtless the Captain’s most famous work, it has never sat well with me. I’m usually best with such things when I take a deep breath and throw some money at a copy and sit down with a sense of ownership, but I’ve yet to feel that compulsion regarding Trout Mask yet, so it remains dusty on the shelf of memory. Safe as Milk, however, does not suffer the “refuse to wear a headset, sing to the beat of studio leakage instead, leaving vocals out of sync” problem (?) that Trout Mask does. The Zappa connection–a guided run-down of Strictly Commercial from my father pushed me toward listening to the Mothers for the first time many years ago–did lend itself toward trying, but I don’t always have the patience or right state of mind to deal properly with the weirdest of music, believe it or not (all depends on where the line is for you, past which music gets “weird”!)

I would hear songs like “Yellow Brick Road”, “Zig Zag Wanderer”, and “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do” from behind me in the same room on occasion, and eventually they leaked into my consciousness. “Yellow Brick Road”, in particular, I remember starting to click really well. I eventually sucked it up while living up there and picked up the album on CD, and, later, on vinyl, as it was a 180g reissue for a price that was quite reasonable indeed for the MSRP-laden pricing of teensy indie record stores “land-locked” into the mountains without competitors for sixty miles except each other.

The slide guitar that opens “Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes, I Do” makes it clear immediately that the blues were the primary inspiration for the song. The gravel of Beefheart’s (aka Don Van Vliet) voice is entirely appropriate for the music, bringing the right kind of soul to fit the sliding melody’s blues. John French’s drumming is not far off from what appears on recordings of Muddy Waters and Elmore James doing variations on the song best known as Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (which the song is clearly based very directly upon), but it adds just a bit more to the rhythm than usually appeared there. There are conflicting reports as to who is responsible for that slide guitar, as Alex “St. Clair” Snouffer is credited for guitars, but Ry Cooder is known to have played on at least a few tracks, and some think this may be him as well (he is definitively credited as arranging it). It’s the kind of uptempo blues that gets toes tapping uncontrollably, though, and the musicianship is absolutely in the right place for the song. Van Vliet is the star for a reason, though, of course: his voice is not just gravely, it’s vaguely elastic, pulled upward to near cracks at moments, squashed, frog-like at others. It’s never done with the feeling that it’s to make anyone laugh, but there’s no real pretension about it either–just emotive performance.

“Zig Zag Wanderer” is more unique, the guitar no longer slide-based, and Jerry Handley’s bass playing as a near match for it. French plays the snare hits as short rolls, a neat touch that fits the groove of the song very well. When the guitars drop to let Van Vliet sing only with the rhythm section, French switches briefly to direct, single hits instead, that emphasize the space between Van Vliet’s voice and the two remaining instruments. Much like “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do”, it has the kind of gut-tugging desire for movement and rhythm built into it that is the direct inheritance taken from the blues.

Seemingly somewhat out of place, “Call on Me” is more resonant of other late ’60s rock, with a guitar that sounds vaguely Byrds-ian for much of the track, and a basic rock and roll drum beat. Beefheart’s voice is more distinct in character than a lot of vocalists aimed for in that range of rock at the time, though: the gravel and the push and pull for emotion he takes from his influences in the blues (like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker) are not what pop was aiming for at the time, either, really. The song kicks into a footstomping rhythm briefly throughout, and lets the guitar really shine, not quite soloing, just taking on a bluesy lead.

The first real hint of the possible oddities of Beefheart, “Dropout Boogie” has Van Vliet pushing his down into a strained but powerful and controlled croak. The bassline is almost overpowering, and the extreme fuzz and distortion on the guitar lets it act less as the melody the bass is empowering, and more like a light, shaky glaze on the thumping bass. It’s dirty and rough, but when a piano enters on a similarly intense but more ramshackle rhythm, it’s like the song forgot what it was for a moment, but the bass and guitar remind it. The repetitive lyrics further the idea that this is a song driven purely by rhythm. Van Vliet is credited with the bass (!) marimbas on the song, too, which take it into a sort of peculiar territory as it fades out on the same rhythm, but now underpinned with that bass marimba.

Possibly the weirdest song only because it’s the least weird, “I’m Glad” is one of only a handful of songs credited solely to Van Vliet (many are co-written with Herb Bermann, long thought a myth or joke, but who has since been discovered). The song is practically doo-wop, and calls to mind, in a way, the doo-wop experimentation of Van Vliet’s school friend Zappa, though the attitude and voice Beefheart brings is more directly soulful and pleading. The high-pitched backing vocals are the most reminiscent of the often tongue-in-cheek works Zappa did, but they’re so overshadowed by Beefheart’s excellent vocal, that they become completely reasonable in place, and even logical.

While known for telling, ahem, stories, Van Vliet alleged that the song “Electricity” was responsible for ruining a label contract for the group (it has since been stated this is not the case at all). Bermann, after he was found and interviewed for his role in this, stated that this was a standing poem for him, which Don asked him if he could put to music. The opener seems normal enough, but when the cymbal wash and the rein-pulling guitar pick repetition pulls it to a halt, Beefheart begins singing over the wandering semi-Eastern slide guitar and more cymbal washes, until a tom roll pulls in one of his most notably weird vocal choices: “Eeeeeeelectri–sity” he croaks out over this, dragging that first “E” from the start all the way to the end. As if his voice gets stuck here, he keeps singing in that low, squashed croak for a few more lines, then comes back to his normal voice. A bouncing bassline pulls in a theremin (!), the slide guitar and the most ecstatically brilliant drum feel on an album that is driven by feel. Beefheart allegedly shattered the microphone recording this track (!?), but it’s that push/pull of the slide and drum that sends this thing rocketing into the sky.

Because why not, “Yellow Brick Road” opens with a voice (that of producer Richard Perry) saying in educational-film style: “The following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level,” followed by a wavering electronic theremin-style sound warping up and down. The slide and shuffling, clickety-tap drum beat and Bermann’s weird lyrics call to mind Beefheart wandering down some kind of bizarre fantastic yellow road, describing what he’s seeing. The chorus has a thundering bassline and distant, echoing vocals from Van Vliet himself. And, damn, is this thing catchy and bouncy. It’s still not a wonder it was the first song to stick in my head.

The weirdest song (judging more externally) is definitely the one half-named for a candybar: “Abba Zaba”. A semi-tribal drumbeat is joined by very high, clear, picked guitar and then a variety of extra percussive instruments, and strange, strange lyrics from Van Vliet. The song shifts periodically into only momentary stylistic departures. It’s heavily percussive but for a sort of bridge halfway, wherein an odd instrumental break composed of bass and drum occurs. It’s still very pleasant to listen to, and not totally out of keeping with the album–if you aren’t paying close attention, you could be forgiven for not noticing how odd it is. In the context of blues and rock just slightly contorted by the interests and ideas of Beefheart, a song that is neither but built from those same interest and ideas fits quite well.

Pulling out some great harmonica work, Beefheart opens “Plastic Factory” himself, with a more slow-rolling track, croaking and cracking his way through a description of a factory and why it is not the place for him–lyrically (Bermann, again), this is very in tune with the working class subject matter in plenty of blues stuff, despite the peculiar choice of specifically burning phosphorous and the identification of a “plastic factory” as the location in question. It’s the right voice for Beefheart to accompany his harmonica with, though, of that there’s no doubt. Keep an ear out for the outro, where the the guitars build and drop waves a few times only to leave the harmonica as the last fading sound.

Somewhat reminiscent of the sounds of some of the blues-inflected, semi-experimental (and much “safer”) artists of the same time frame, “Where There’s Woman” is spacious and disjointed, conga drums and lightly echoed, intermittent drum hits are like an extended bluesy jam–somewhat reminiscent of the “Gris-gris” segments of Dr. John’s work (though his first album was not released until the next year–but I wouldn’t have guessed it was an influence anyway). When it reaches the chorus, everyone doubles in speed and energy, no longer leaving space between any parts of performance, the second chorus just building to a relative frenzy.

The guitar that opens “Grown So Ugly” is just tasty blues work (no surprise this one is most definitively credited to Ry Cooder). When Beefheart comes in singing, “I got up this morning”, you hear the instruments answer him, and think it will be some variation on the clichéd blues riff, or perhaps something like the more standard but more often real kind of instrumental answer to a line in the blues. As previously, French carries the beat further, at the end suddenly switching to drag it into a more complex musical phrase, which the guitar and bass follow him through on. Instead of letting his voice crouch low and frog-like, Beefheart floats his voice up at the cracking top of his register, for a lot of the song. In most other respects, it’s structured like many blues songs, though the ringing riffs that make up the latter half are unusual in this context.

The album closes with “Autumn’s Child”, based at open on a simple melody played on guitar and answered in bass. Suddenly backing vocals and theremin (probably) come in: “Go back ten years ago”, like a group shouting a command. The instruments punctuate it, and then go back to more spacious, wandering melodies, that lay the ground for the mid-ranged passionate, blues-hurt singing of Beefheart, themselves abruptly responded to with that (musically) shouted group phrase. A high bassline moves the song along rapidly, the guitars playing shortly, sharply and speeding up the feel even more, but slowed by Beefheart’s voice–well, likely the other way, but it feels as if he’s leading them back to this slower speed.

I felt very restricted by the limitations of my musical knowledge here, but it’s also difficult to express the feel of a well-played blues group, which is all about feel, usually. It’s best to hear it, but it’s good to understand the kind of constructions at play here, however roughly, to know that this is a sort of deviant blues-rock album, but not to lean too heavily on the deviant–likely the most emphatic assumption to make if the name Beefheart means something but not much. This is a very “normal” album, and is often at least semi-shrugged at by Beefheart fans as a result–his challenges and influences related far more to Trout Mask than Safe as Milk, but, for my money, at this point in my life, I’d rather listen to Safe as Milk, and I will most definitely and happily enjoy doing so.

  • Next Up: The Cars – Shake It Up (yes, bit of a jump)