Volume 3: “My Smile Is Dirt”
Captain Beefheart, the Red Krayola and dadaist experimental rock
Children of Scaruffi rejoice, this week we celebrate Trout Mask Replica, Parable of Arable Land and pretentiousness in general. The musical equivalent of all this modern art the general public hates so much. And to them, yes, your three year old could play this. Congratulations. Twelve year olds the world over play Jimi Hendrix’s solos in their local Guitar Center and it doesn’t mean shit. Sit down, shut up. I don’t want to give the impression I think all abstract, free-form art is good, the majority isn’t, but when used effectively, as it has been by artists ranging from free jazz to dadaism and abstract expressionism, it has produced some of the greatest art of the last century. The reason the majority of the population doesn’t like abstract art is because it functions on different terms than art as they understand it. People don’t like looking at Jackson Pollock paintings because they don’t know what it is a painting of. They think too concretely, too logically. You can’t think concretely about abstraction, and you can’t think logically about emotions or dreams. Trout Mask Replica doesn’t function on intellect, it’s too primal and instinctive. When you listen to Captain Beefheart you don’t listen with your brain, and you don’t think, you feel and you react.
In the mid sixties various garage rock bands began re-contextualizing the free jazz being explored by artists including Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane into a rock and roll construct. Though the strong majority of bands in that era had shows based on long stretches of improvisation, only few had the confidence and ambition to play with dissonance, household items and/or no set rhythm or key. These bands also took influence from avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen and incorporated elements of musique concréte and experimental composition. One of the greatest exporters of this brand of free-form experimental rock was The Red Krayola, a band of art students from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. Led by singer/guitarist Mayo Thompson (later of Pere Ubu) their noise infused rock is an obvious precursor to acts from Sonic Youth to The Fall.
In 1967, the same year Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band released their debut Safe as Milk, the Red Krayola released their debut, the psychedelic masterpiece Parable of Arable Land. Featuring help from upwards of fifty other friends and musicians deemed the Familiar Ugly, each song on Parable is trapped in between sections of musique concréte titled, “Free-Form Freak-Outs.” The band and the Familiar Ugly build up these towering monuments of noise and tension before seamlessly drifting into brilliant pieces of psych-pop like, “Hurricane Fighter Plane,” and, “Pink Stainless Tail.” The music feels surreal and child-like swerving from nightmarish symphonic sized dissonance and household free jazz into the dreamy, psychedelic suites, never dissolving or relenting for any type of rest. Obviously taking pop in a, “dreamy, psychedelic,” direction wasn’t anything unique for 1967, it was as ubiquitous as long hair, but this element of incorporating dissonance to counterbalance all the sunshine was wholly original in a rock context. In many ways the Red Krayola were the middle ground in 1967 between the first two bands we talked about, the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd.
Another artist who began introducing cacophonies of noise into a pop setting was songwriter Tim Buckley. Like the Red Krayola, Buckley drew from free jazz, but where their’s was closer to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or something like Coltrane c. Meditations, Buckley’s music focused more on vamping and mood similar to Miles Davis’ early electric works. With the album Blue Afternoon he began his transition from a more traditional songwriting into abstract expressionism and improvisatory composition. His two masterworks, Lorca and Starsailor, both released in 1970, sound like meditations on death and human mortality, Buckley’s almost operatic voice bravely taming the dissonant monster of music he was making.
Only a year before Buckley’s seminal pieces the renowned master magician of this form of free jazz-rock-dada-expressionist brew, Captain Beefheart, released his magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band recorded the album in a quasi-cultish approach, living together in one house for eight months off nothing but welfare. Obviously the myth doesn’t make the album, and the music alone speaks for itself, it bears no need for defense. Trout Mask Replica is nearly eighty minutes of paranoia, schizophrenia, violence and humor all deconstructed and reconstructed into an idiosyncratic juggernaut of rock and roll. It’s eccentricities are only matched by it’s unparalleled influence. Its’ approach of cutting and pasting together various bits of recorded material, be it Beefheart’s poetry, band improvisations or constructed songs, has had an inarguable influence on the lo-fi movement.It’s album format as informative in rock history as the White Album. And while one album’s unabashed pop accessibility is much easier too swallow than the other’s hermetically dense weirdness, in the world of indie rock we need Trout Mask Replica as much as we need the White Album.
Coming soon- Volume 4: “Now We’re Gonna Be Face to Face” the Stooges, the Modern Lovers and proto-punk populism.
It was really fair when Lena Dunham did all that racist shit and then excluded PoC entirely from her show and then fucked a Black guy in the opening of her season premiere after being criticized for her racism to make up for it. Gold star for you Lena *wink*
WELL GUYS OBVS RACISM IS NOW *OVER*. I have never seen this show, but it sounds like the worst thing ever and this Dunham lady sounds like a real idiot.