Former Captain Beefheart musical director and drummer, John “Drumbo” French leads out the latest version of The Magic Band for one final tour of the UK. A faithful rendition of the best of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band’s music is guaranteed.
John French was nicknamed ‘Drumbo’ by Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. British Underground commentator and DJ John Peel described Beefheart as “the most important figure to emerge from the Rock era of the 1960s and 1970s.” Rolling Stone magazine included John French in their 100 Best Drummers Ever (at #48) and declared: “(his) toms-heavy, polyrhythmic style would become as integral to the group as Don Van Vliet’s modernist-blues croak.”
Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart was a visionary in the field of music. His group, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band started as a Blues group. Later, drummer John French joined and they recorded an album for Buddah Records entitled Safe as Milk — referring to the strontium-90 content found in lactating mother’s milk.
Guitarist Jeff Cotton joined and a second album, Strictly Personal was recorded shortly before a tour of the United Kingdom — where famed DJ John Peel had been playing Safe as Milk to a very interested audience. Van Vliet hated Strictly Personal’s production, rapt with phase-shifting, calling it “Psychedelic Bromo Seltzer”.
Though for the most part commercially unsuccessful, the groundbreaking album, Trout Mask Replica was hailed by critics who recognised Van Vliet’s unique and totally original approach to music composition and lyric creation. Produced by Frank Zappa, who gave the musicians six hours to record the bulk of a double album in a single evening, was amazed when The Magic Band recorded it in four-and-a-half.
Rumours create legends, and there are many rumours circulating, some exaggeration was thrown in for spice (“I wrote the album in 8 ½ hours” claimed Van Vliet). The truth was even stranger: the band all shared a two-bedroom bungalow with Van Vliet in Woodland Hills for nine months while the album was created bit by bit, transcribed in piano notation by John “Drumbo” French, and taught to the others by the same during gruelling 18-hour days of rehearsal, often interrupted by sessions of Van Vliet’s own form of group therapy, which turned into what some consider “brainwashing sessions”. It was a very intense and creative time as all the players learned to transpose piano parts to guitar, as well as having had their complete identities investigated on an all-too-personal level.
Another rumour started by the Captain was that he taught the guys to play. Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad, Jeff “Antennae Jimmy Semens” Cotton, and Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston had all played in Rock cover bands and made a part-time living during their high school years before ‘graduating’ to The Magic Band, replacing the original Blues band members one by one.
The music sounded “terrible” to Simpsons creator Matt Groening but, because it was produced by Frank Zappa, Matt decided to give it another try, and then another; finally convinced it was “the best rock ‘n’ roll album ever.” Audiences were confused, however, because of all the rules being broken. Where was the backbeat? Why did it sound “out of tune” and “rhythmically complicated”?
That combined with the obsessive leadership of Van Vliet caused there to be a steady stream of ingoing and outgoing members – which eventually reached about 40 members. In later years musical “fans” of the creations joined the work in progress. Fans such as John Thomas (Keys), Gary “Mantis” Lucas (guitar), Jeff “Moris” Tepper (guitar), Robert Williams (drums), and Cliff Martinez (drums).
Van Vliet retired in 1982, after a career of sixteen years and thirteen original albums plus many bootlegs. He became a painter, withdrawing more and more from the public, eventually succumbing to complications of MS in 2010.
Meanwhile, John French earlier had the idea of re-forming The Magic Band back in 2001, eventually succeeding in 2003, after finding members willing to give it a try. His first attempt was to re-form the Trout Mask Replica band personnel, largely as they were his high-school buddies, but Jeff Cotton was not interested. Denny “Feeler’s Rebo” Walley (1975 -78) took his place. Denny had played on a 1975 tour and also is featured on slide guitar on the album Bat Chain Puller.
Bill Harkleroad initially was interested but then parted ways when the original promoter became a bit flaky. Gary Lucas (1982) stepped in. Gary had managed Don for the last two years of his career and also had been an official member of The Magic Band on the final Beefheart album, Ice Cream for Crow. For a short time, Robert Williams (1977-81) took the drum throne, as drummer John French sang about two-thirds of the set.
After the first promoter started changing the goalposts, the project was put in stasis for a year, until Barry Hogan of ATP came along in 2002 and offered the band good solid guarantees plus created a CD deal wherein the guys could collect themselves in the same studio and rehearse/record. In early February of 2003, they entered Paradoxx Sound studios in the High Desert of Southern California (where the band originated) and recorded Back to the Front, a rehearsal CD. John French played the drums, then overdubbed vocals and harmonica parts, as he had been singing and playing this material for about two years.
Barry Hogan (ATP) had contacted the band about playing two festivals: Camber Sands and The Queen Mary Ship (Long Beach, CA, USA); and also promoted a concert in London @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
By the time the festival in the States came around (November 2003) Williams went his own way and the group contacted drummer Michael Traylor, who played with TMB until 2006. With the economic downturn, interest faded in The Magic Band and they did not pursue the project again until Barry Hogan once more contacted the group for a festival appearance in 2009 – The Ten Year Anniversary of ATP – Barry’s. Gary Lucas, who has a solo career, was already booked, and drummer Michael Traylor had injured his knee in a work-related incident.
John French had, by this time, released his own solo CD, City of Refuge. Although getting rave reviews, it didn’t really sell that well. The bottom came out of the industry, as MP3s became the new medium. He couldn’t get a tour, even though he had a fantastic group of younger players, which included guitarist Eric Klerks, who hails from New Orleans, and drummer Craig Bunch, an LA-based drummer with a great capacity to understand John’s odd drum-style. The only live performance the “Drumbo” group did was for a Jimmy Carl Black (former drummer of the Mothers of Invention) benefit in the High Desert.
With the blessings of Hogan, John invited Eric and Craig to join the Magic Band and play the festival, and the result turned out really well. They were invited again to play at the ATP Festival in 2010, and decided rather than doing a “one-up” that they would book a small tour of the UK and a Dublin show. The tour was well-received and the band clicked as a team. John French’s book, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic was released this same year and the book was rated as “one of the six best music books” in the UK in 2010.
Again, another Festival appearance in early 2011 resulted in another slightly larger tour.
Two CDs were released that year. One is the original Bat Chain Puller (recorded in 1976) that had been in Gail Zappa’s vault since 1975 and was the only album Denny Walley had recorded with Van Vliet. French wrote the liner notes for this set, and a special tribute to Don Van Vliet, who had passed away December 17th, 2010.
The other was a Sundazed release, The Magic Band live in Oxford 2005, which was picked as the best of thirteen performances during the UK tour. This was recorded direct from the board digitally, later uploaded by French and mixed in his studio.
Also, French’s book, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic sold out of the original printing and was reprinted in paperback in both paperback and digital media.
A new album, simply entitled The Magic Band plays the Music of Captain Beefheart Live in London 2013 was released. These are live digital recordings of The Magic Band at Chelsea’s Under the Bridge venue, recorded in March 2013.
In 2013, the lineup of The Magic Band has changed with the inclusion of Andrew Niven on drums, Craig Bunch having decided to pursue other interests. In 2015, Denny Walley left the band, to be replaced by Grandmothers of Invention guitar hero, Max Kutner. John French considers this line-up to be one of the most accomplished versions of The Magic Band ever.
The line-up who will be playing the final tour are:
John “Drumbo” French / Lead Vocals, Harmonica, Sax, Drums
Eric Klerks / Extended Ranch guitar, BKP Vocals
Max Kutner / Guitar and Slide guitar
Jonathan Sindelman / Keyboards