As much as the Antelope Valley has grown over the last 10 years, we are still a small town at heart.
We have produced and exported a few things that have made a significant impact in one aspect of culture or another. These things are celebrated locally with the passion of a small town. Something that has been criminally overlooked is Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Born Don Vliet in Glendale, Beefheart moved to the Antelope Valley in his early teens. From there, he and fellow artist and classmate Frank Zappa went on to create some of the most interesting, complex and challenging music to enter the canon of rock music.
Often considered his Magnum Opus, the album “Trout Mask Replica” released in June 1969 was ranked 58th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
John “Drumbo” French, the group’s drummer, was a constant force throughout its history. His book Through The Eyes of Magic details his time working with Beefheart and is an absolute must-read.
Recently, I caught up with French for an interview:
Jesse Davidson: You’ve got a such a unique sound and approach to playing the drums. How do you feel it evolved from the beginning to the end of your time in the Magic Band?
John French: When I joined the band, in October of 1966, we took a few days to play through their old blues repertoire so we could play local shows in Lancaster. We were rehearsing at Don Van Vliet’s (Captain Beefheart) mother Sue’s house on Carolside Street in Lancaster. Sometimes were rehearsed in the daytime and occasionally at night. Sometimes only one or two members would show at our rehearsals (which) were mostly jam sessions — experimenting to find new combinations of rhythms and chords.
One night, it was just Don and I, and he told me he’d like to see me play a clave (Latin) rhythm on the floor tom while playing a delta (blues) rhythm simultaneously with my left hand on the hi hat, and a rock rhythm with the kick drum. That spurred my interest in the idea of playing multiple rhythms. After all, a drum kit was originally assembled to allow one person to play snare, bass (kick) drum and cymbals simultaneously and it evolved into what it is today from that concept.
On the first album, “Safe as Milk,” I was asked to play an African rhythm. Now, I had not really ever heard recordings of African drumming, but I made up a simple tom rhythm based on two groups of three and one group of two – which equaled eight beats and worked in a four-four time signature. It was complemented by the recording engineer and his assistant as being “unique.” Later, I heard a field recording of African drummers playing the same beat. It had several overdubbed tracks by percussionist Milt Holland and the cow bell part intrigued me, as it was in straight four, so I learned how to play it with the tom beat simultaneously, which was the beginning of the concept of playing more than one rhythm at a time.
The second album, “Strictly Personal” was where I learned how to switch from one time signature to another. Well, we had done this on the first album on “Plastic Factory” but on the second album, it was more pronounced on a piece called “On Tomorrow.” We went straight from a long rolling 3⁄4 introduction into a 4/4 “Delta” feel. By the third album, “Trout Mask Replica,” (which was recorded and released 50 years ago) I was transcribing short passages Van Vliet wrote on the piano into musical notation and then playing it so the other guys could learn it. I started paying attention to just the rhythms in the notations and imagining drum parts.
JD: Where did the discipline/patience to interpret Captain Beefheart’s ideas and translate them into drum parts come from?
JF: I was a draftsman in high school and it was very tedious work, which was a natural for me. That probably gave me the patience. I created most of my own drum parts up until the third album. It was basically just listening to him singing the lines and catching the “feel” of the piece as he was creating it. By this album, I was actually writing drum parts in musical notation, which seemed nearly impossible to play and forcing myself to learn them. The first single measure of this style took me nearly a day to learn and barely lasts 10 seconds on the album. Sometimes, Don would “sing” a drum idea to me and sometimes he would actually play it on the kit. Most were simple to learn, but very clever, catchy parts.