A lot has been said about the originality of the ‘greatest band of all time.’ The influence of their inventions has been felt far and wide, exalted and referenced as groundbreaking and unequaled to this day.
Lets take a look at some of this groundbreaking work, and maybe try put it into perspective.
They were heralded as one of the most original bands ever when they released the song Twist and Shout in 1964. I’m not quite sure just what is so original about recording a cover of an Isley Brothers song. The way they performed it, with all of them singing ‘Whooo!’ at the same time?
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that aside from Brian Epstein inventing a way to shape them into something marketable, the beats pretty much played variations on the same couple of songs and covers until Rubber Soul in ’66, their first original album. Aside from some new instrumentation (George Martin) and their constant use of marijuana, what exactly was so original? It was a bunch of pretty rock songs. The same goes with the groundbreaking Revolver.
This brings us to their piece de resistance, Sgt Pepper. They spent over six months in the studio recording and mixing it, released it in ’67. There was a lot of groundbreaking equipment and technical tricks used in the studio. A lot of elaborate instrumentations and sound effects were used. Some tunes were longer than the average pop song. In the end, they had an interesting collage of songs and sounds based lyrically on drugs, leaky roofs, articles in the newspaper, circus posters, meter maids, corn flake commercials and one about spirituality. Musically they took influences from 30’s music, skiffle, rock and carnivals. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems more like using whats at your disposal than inventing anything. They achieved massive commercial and critical success. Whats new?
Lets take a look at something else that was happening at roughly the same time. Don Van Vliet, an up and coming R&B singer, changed his persona to Captain Beefheart and started a group named The Magic Band in ’65. They became quite popular and put out a few early singles covering blues songs to great local success. He began to form his own ideas about what music was and what it should say, and recruiting Ry Cooder on guitar they went in the studio to begin work on their first album, Safe as Milk. This was a bold, delta blues inspired work of poetry and intensity. Shortly afterwards, they were dropped from their label after the song Electricity was considered too negative. Although it didn’t reach commercial success, this album was hailed internationally, finding many fans and supporters.
Although Lennon was hugely impressed with Safe as Milk (note the posters behind him), it appears Beefheart wasn’t quite as taken with him.
Vliet then decided to take the band somewhere new. Holed up in his isolated home drawing on free jazz, sea shanties and blues, he sat down and began to compose on the piano, an instrument he couldn’t play, in order to avoid falling into the traps of convention and theory. He wanted to hear what was in his head, and what was in his head couldn’t conform to anything he’d heard. He ruled his band with an iron fist, demanding 14 hour practice sessions, forcing them to learn impossible chords and timings and live in virtual poverty until the album was complete. At one point he locked guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo in a shed after he was suspected of listening to a beatle song. There was to be no outside influences. He spit fire, bled poetry, lived music and the band honed its teeth for 8 months.
While Howlin’ Wolf was in England trying to wean British blues masters away from their obsession with even bar-counts, Vliet was creating his own musical language and universe. What he came out with polarized the music world, shocking people with its stunning originality and its musical ties to nothing. Its lyrics spoke of the environment, genocide, immigrants, Vietnam Vets, and poverty, among other things. The double album Trout Mask Replica was recorded in Van Vliet’s home over a period of one weekend, as opposed to the five months it took the FF to record their double album, The White Album.
Perhaps an extreme example, but this is originality as an uncompromising force to be reckoned with. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to listen to it, just turn on your radio and you’ll be safe from the threat of ever hearing it, but you do have to acknowledge it. Wanna tell me what the FF did that was so groundbreaking again?
Don Van Vliet, retained that original spark until he retired from the music biz in 1982 after MTV rejected Ice Cream for Crow as being too weird. Also in 1982, the remaining FF continued recording generic safeness; Ringo released Stop and smell the Roses, McCartney was singing duets with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and George Harrison released Gone Troppo (I had to look it up too).
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band performing Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do from Safe as Milk, live from Cannes in ’68.