by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 17, 2002
The Punk Myth
Or, why knowing how to play is a good thing.
When the noble savage theory of punk rock was first laid out in the early-to-mid-'70s, I bought in. According to one version of the mantra, all you needed was "an attitude, three chords and something to rant about." And I believed it. Now I'm not so sure.
The reason for my reassessment is simple: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Before Don Van Vliet (AKA Captain Beefheart) and his musicians went into the studio in the late '60s to record Trout Mask Replica, one of the most innovative musical statements of all time, they rehearsed for six months. Six months!
Why? Well, because the music was so difficult to play, and Van Vliet wanted it to be just right. The band included guitarist Bill Harkleroad (renamed Zoot Horn Rollo), drummer John French (Drumbo), guitarist Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens), bassist Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) and bass clarinet player Victor Hayden (The Mascara Snake). They were all already quite skilled on their respective instruments, but it took them months to learn the music, which contained complex percussion, bass and guitar parts.
The musicians often put in 12-hour days rehearsing. "...learning to play these formidably complex compositions proved a daunting task," Mike Barnes writes in his book "Captain Beefheart The Biography," just published in the U.S. (first published two years ago in England).
"Sometimes the musicians would have to sort out passages where different-length parts in different metres had to hit a cue, or where sections were missing," Barnes writes. "Van Vliet would typically say, 'You guys know what to do,' or would just run his hands over the piano to give the hitherto missing part."
The 28 pieces that were included on the two-record set (currently available as a single CD) were for the most part composed by Van Vliet on piano, an instrument he did not know how to play. Very punk, you might say. But Van Vliet was (is) the exception to the rule, a kind of musical idiot savant; maybe he didn't have the skill to deftly play the music he heard in his head, but he was able to communicate it to the talented musicians he worked with, musicians who were able to play it the way Van Vliet imagined it.
To compensate for his lack of skill on an instrument, Van Vliet developed an unusual way of writing. For previous albums, he had whistled or sung parts that were recorded. Then John French transcribed those recordings onto sheet music so that they could be taught to the musicians. For the Trout Mask Replica material, "French would sit with Van Vliet for hours each day as he played these passages, transcribing them and playing them back to Van Vliet."
The music that Van Vliet composed and his band played is intensely emotional. And Van Vliet's lyrics are poetry to my ears. This was not the crude ranting of an angry kid. The album opens with "Frownland," a devastating indictment of what, in the late '60s, was frequently referred to as "the establishment."
"My smile is stuck
"I cannot go back t' yr frownland
"My spirit's made up of the ocean
"And the sky 'n the sun 'n the moon
"'n all my eye can see"
I've come to think that "punk" is, really, an attitude. It's a way of looking at the world through fresh eyes. Of not accepting that things have to be the way they are. If you go back to the mid-'70s, you see that the bands who were characterized at the time as punk Patti Smith Group, The Ramones, the Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television sounded nothing like each other. But not knowing how to play is not a prerequisite for music to be "punk."
Certainly some punk bands began when non-musicians picked up instruments and began to make noise. But soon enough, those untutored musicians figured out what they were doing. Greg Ginn, guitarist for the '80s hardcore punk band Black Flag, became one of the great electric guitar players.
What the punks rebelled against were decadent and bloated rock stars with musical technique but nothing meaningful to say. There will always be plenty of those around.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were proof that an artist could work with a band of highly skilled musicians and make some of the greatest music we have ever been lucky enough to hear. I wouldn't call it punk. Mind-blowing is the word I'd use instead.