Joe Meek, Captain Beefheart, can’t play music, can’t read music, so what!

In last week’s webcast from Collective Voice (7 Feb 2008), presenter Rory mentioned that Joe Meek, the iconic gay gun-toting creative genius couldn’t read or write music notation or even play an instrument. Yet he somehow made iconic tunes that most people will recognise even if they don’t know who did what.

This is the podcast fed from CV:

Because of this reminder, my mind went back to something I read about (specifically) the creation of “Clear Spot”, my favourite “Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band” LP. This interview with Bill Harkleroad (a.k.a Zoot Horn Rollo) is one thing I read that mentions this. There are others. The whole Beefheart thing was like it. He was a control freak who got everyone to do stuff in the same way as Joe Meek; viz. he’s hum or whistle it and the band would have to work out what he (they) meant.

Here’s a small part, quoted verbatim from the website; .

I guess we should explain the topic, which is improvisation – regarding groups versus individuals…

You mean as a solo player?

Yeah, versus working within a group.

Interesting that you’re choosing me.

Is that not a good category?

The reason I’m asking is because all the Captain Beefheart stuff was not improvised, none of it was.

So how did that work, starting with ‘trout mask replica’.

80% of it was done by him kind of beating the shit out of a piano, in a rhythmic sense, and having no idea what any of those black and white things were on the piano. And John French, the drummer, transcribed it, notated it all, and would dole out the parts to the players. So he had a concept of being away from tonality, but using rhythm as the main input, because that’s what he had to offer, right, being a non-musician. So John would transcribe it, and then in the process of us working with John to get the parts – you know, when there were seven notes, you’d scratch your head and say, ‘Well, how do I do seven notes with six strings?’ – so then we would invert things and mess around, and try to keep it as close to what he played. For what reason, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure, because he didn’t know what he played after he played it.

So when you were working on the parts, was he there, or did he just sort of…

No, he would bang the parts out and go to bed and sleep.

So you would figure out how to do it, and then he would come back, and then you would all record it?

No, then we would practice it for nine months.

So would he come around and tell you if you were on the right track?

Not as clean as that. Again, we’re dealing with a strange person, coming from a place of being a sculptor/painter, using music as this idiom. He was getting more into that part of who he was, as opposed to this blues singer, okay? So you’re asking the right question, but it’s not an easy answer, right? It’s not a normal situation. We would get these parts, and they would string together. Usually the tempo would be consistent, because he would be writing parts to go together, so that the pulse at least, three against four, or whatever the rhythm was, would be similar. I don’t know if you’ve listened to that album enough to know how the parts would go. Like, you would play your part four times, go to the next section, the next may be three, or whatever. Usually, we would figure that out. He was not a part of that process at all; he waited until there was a whole thing there, and then he would kind of sculpt it afterwards. But if my part took three times to repeat and your part took five times until we touched down again, that’s how long you played the part, or you would cut it in half, if it came out cool, or whatever – but he was not a part of that process. The whole band just kind of did whatever, to have it come out right. At that point, then you would go into the next section and work it out. Any of the tunes that had repeats in them, he would go, ‘Oh, that’s cool! Let’s do it here again.’ He might whistle a line – he was an expert whistler. Just awesome. He could sit there and blow smoke rings while he was whistling.


It was like a magic show (laughs). But Imean – be-be-du-be-de-du-be-de-ba-da-du-ba-da-du-ba-da-du, I mean he would just whistle like that. Pretty cool. So we would work off the whistling lines for single-line melodies and things like that, but the parts were all just chiseled out. Again, about 80% of it, because there were a lot of other accidental things, like just a blues tune with a cassette deck like this, and he just started looking through poetry, creating songs.

So then when you went to play live, did you just try to play what you had worked on?

We did more than try, we did. Exactly the same thing, every night. Very much so, we were amazingly the same every time. The only thing that would change was, however nervous we were, the tempos would go up, of course. In that time of the band, it was rote.

Did that change during the time you were with him?

It evolved through all the albums, yeah. Each album it changed. So if we were to take Trout Mask Replica, that’s how it happened, other than the phone call, where he did ‘The Blimp’. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

As I said above, check out the full article. It’s a real eye-opener into the world of creativity. “Stinging Gnats”, the Crawling Chaos track was made a bit like this. Each person decided a neat little odd-timed riff to play. By doing the maths the sequence would end up back at square one after something like 35 beats. Then on the nod, it’d slip into a standard 4/4 chorus and then back to the riffs. This was similar to Beefheart’s rhythm generation but without the brainwashing twat in charge!


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