(click HERE for part one of Discovering Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band )
Chapter Two: "It Comes To You In a Plain Brown Wrapper" - 1967-68
after the recording and release of their first album, "Safe as Milk," Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band reconvened in the fall of 1967 to lay down a new batch of recordings for their follow up. the project was intended to be a double album titled, "It Comes To You In a Plain Brown Wrapper," a title referencing the shipping of illegal contraband, but Buddah Records balked and the sessions were shelved. several of the songs were rerecorded in the spring of '68 and released that October as "Strictly Personal" on Blue Thumb Records, a new label from the album's producer, Bob Krasnow. it is a controversial album as Krasnow added trendy psychedelic effects on top of the music allegedly without Captain Don Van Vliet's approval. in my opinion, it's not much of a distraction, but Beefheart and his purist fans were outraged. many of the original Brown Wrapper sessions would fortunately find their way into the light of day in the coming years.
left to right: drummer John French, Don Van Vliet, guitarists Jeff Cotton and Alex St.Clair, bassist Jerry Handley
"Strictly Personal" finds the band evolving from their debut, still rooting down into the blues, but taking the sound into uncharted territory. The album starts out with straight country Mississippi Delta blues on the not-so-subtly-titled "Ah Feel Like Ahcid." over Jeff Cotton's slide guitar work, Van Vliet rants about ingesting an LSD-laced stamp and pushing the blues out of his head with the kaleidoscope of hallucinatory colors. the proto-prog metal stomp of "Safe as Milk" is next and it is here that the arrangements begin to warp and stretch into odd undefined areas. the verse/chorus/verse structure is taken apart bolt by bolt and abstraction is introduced. "Trust Us" is still a breathtaking, groundbreaking piece. pure acid rock with no firm structure at all to stand upon, the track is completely unpredictable as it transmutes from one section to the next. about halfway thru, the song's atmosphere turns heavy and foreboding, like a forerunner to Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused." as the song grinds to its finale, Van Vliet's barks, grunts, and growls sound positively demonic. remember, this was written in 1967, the fall after the Summer of Love, and sounds nothing like the trends of the day. this shit almost certainly initiated more than a few bad trips for peace and harmony loving hippies. "Trust Us" ends with a brief snippet of the album's opener, bringing things back around once again and leads the listener into "Son of Mirror Man-Mere Man," a peerless piece of futuristic Delta Blues. once again, halfway thru, things break apart and fragment around Van Vliet and his harmonica, who sounds like Sonny Boy Williamson in a bizarre time warp. and so ends side one.
side two begins with "On Tomorrow" which changes the dark tone with John French's swirling polyrhythmic drum patterns, Jerry Handley's rubbery bassline, and Alex St. Clair and Jeff Cotton's guitars snaking in and out. by this point it is obvious that the only rule Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band adhere to is that there are no rules. Van Vliet officially makes his split from any musical constraints or limitations with "Beatle Bones and Smokin' Stones," a song that mocks the Beatles and Rolling Stones forays into psychedelic music with Sgt Pepper's... and Her Satanic Majesty's Request. Beefheart throws down the gauntlet for freaky weirdness, and the song is still beautifully alien, sounding like an Alice in Wonderland hallucination. next is "Gimme Dat Harp Boy," and all experimentation is thrown out the window as the band churns out one of the rawest gut bucket blues tunes of all time. Van Vliet masterfully channels his blues heroes and manages to capture that unattainable, unadulterated power of the Baby Face Leroy Foster/Muddy Waters/Little Walter classic "Rollin' and Tumblin'." his harmonica skills had become formidable by this point, and the Magic Band is just awesome here. French lays down a spectacular stumbling drum groove and Cotton, St.Clair, and Handley are fuckin' rocking at full tilt as Van Vliet gives a powerhouse vocal performance. there is a moment near the middle of the song where Van Vliet grunts and unleashes a hair-raising shout into his harmonica, reverberating off of the reeds... it's one of the most visceral moments i've ever heard captured on tape. the album ends with "Kandy Korn." starting off with Van Vliet's absurd, childlike lyrics, the song eventually morphs into a radiating wall of guitar noise, sounding like a precursor to My Bloody Valentine or Spacemen 3 which would come decades later. the song ends with one last reference to the album's blues opener, concluding one of the most original and trailblazing rock albums of all time. it was not as sharp and concise as Safe as Milk, but instead widened the scope of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's full potential and ambition. it still sounds like nothing else.
listen to the entire album here, as well as some key individual tracks:
some of the original "Plain Brown Wrapper" recordings resurfaced on the "Mirror Man" album, released by Buddah in 1971. The album is made up entirely of extended exploratory blues jams, often with little vocalization, done in one take with no overdubs. the result is a raw, primordial ooze, a mutant version of the blues that drunkenly staggers along aimlessly. the songs rarely build to any grand finale, but rather meander until the band members call it quits. the album starts off with the nineteen minute "Tarotplane," a twisted homage to all of the blues that had come before. "25th Century Quaker" takes things a bit further as Van Vliet opens the track with some discordant skronk from a shenai, an Indian reed instrument supposedly given to him by the legendary jazzman Ornette Coleman, as French and Handley lay down a heavy, funky groove. this composition sounds like a precursor to the trancey Krautrock that would later come out of Germany by bands like Can. i gotta be honest, "25th Century Quaker" is one of the Beefheart gems i have found in these early album, i just can't get enough of it. Handley and French are just fucking locked in on that knuckle dragging caveman groove. i wish it went on forever. 16-minute "Mirror Man" and an extended "Kandy Korn" would both later be rerecorded and edited down to a more manageable size for "Strictly Personal," but here they are in their wild and untamed early days. "Mirror Man" has several moments where it seems as if the band is going to hang it up, but things crank up again with French and Handley finding some new tight groove to jam on while Van Vliet continues with his harmonica blasts and abstract ramblings. "Kandy Korn" is very much the same as the later version, but with an extended ending.
here is the full Mirror Man album
over the past few decades, most of the remaining Brown Wrapper Sessions have been released. the "I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird" bootleg release and the recent "It Comes To You In a Plain Brown Wrapper" 2 LP set by Sundazed records collects all of the alternate takes and unused instrumental rough drafts. These would later be included on the extended rerelease of "Mirror Man" titled "The Mirror Man Sessions," released in 2008, with the remainder spread out as bonus tracks on the 1999 "Safe as Milk" reissue.
The entire Plain Brown Wrapper Sessions:
note this incredible performance of Gimme Dat Harp, Boy.
Guitarist Alex St.Clair would leave the band disillusioned later in 1968, replaced by Bill Harkelroad. Mark Boston succeeded bassist Jerry Handley, who soon followed St. Clair out the door. Van Vliet's childhood friend Frank Zappa, by now enjoying some critical and commercial success and running his own record label Straight, approached him about creating an album, promising complete artistic freedom. it was a fantastic opportunity, so Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band retreated to a small communal house in the Woodland Hills suburb of Los Angeles to begin writing and recording. the stage was set for the creation of an album that still stands up as one of the boldest, most difficult and savagely original albums of all time: Trout Mask Replica
Next: a Beefheart rookie takes on Trout Mask Replica