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"...Harp Boy..." - The Mirror Man Sessions by CAPTAIN BEEFHEART/MAGIC BAND (1999 BMG/Buddha 'Expanded' CD Remaster)
on 29 June 2017
The story behind Beefheart's 1971 "Mirror Man" LP and this 1999 CD reissue runs to a few pages of convoluted shenanigans - but here goes at a potted explanation so that you know what you're dealing with.
First up - when the US vinyl LP Buddah BDS 5077 was released in May 1971 in a die-cut gatefold sleeve with only 4-tracks (Buddah 2365 002 in the UK) - "Tarot Plane" (19:00) and "Kandy Korn" (8:00) on Side 1 and "25th Century Quaker" (8:59) and "Mirror Man" (19:00) on Side 2 - the liner notes erroneously claimed that the album was live material 'recorded one night in Los Angeles in 1965' – perhaps in some club - which just wasn't true.
Beefheart and his gang of four (see band names below) had gone into TTG Studios in LA in October 1967 and recorded three tracks 'live' in the studio with further rough studio sessions taking place in November. Buddah didn't like what they heard and put the whole project on indefinite hold. They then sent the Captain and his boys over to England (where they were more popular) to be championed by a true fan - BBC Radio 1's most famous DJ John Peel. Some of the songs and sessions were added to, remixed and so on and came out on the second official album "Strictly Personal" in October 1968.
Time passed and with the November 1969 double-album "Trout Mask Replica" and a new LP on Reprise Records in "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" from January 1971 all gaining traction - someone went back into the vaults and chose the above four mentioned tracks to clump together as a new album on Buddah Records - "Mirror Man". Apparently Beefheart knew nothing of its release and as the songs were 'unfinished' or 'crude' – he remained somewhat ambivalent towards their merits - decrying it as some critics had initially done - then being ok with it as the LPs heavy-blues-jam rep began to build over the following years – some even saying it was as good as his blistering and accessible "Safe As Milk" debut from November 1967.
Whilst researching a new release in 1991 - England's Sequel Records went into the vaults once again and subsequently found and reissued more of the previously unissued session tracks - calling their 11-track January 1992 CD compilation "I May Be Hungry But I'm Sure Not Weird – The Alternative Captain Beefheart" on Sequel NEX CD 215 (Barcode 5023224121523).
Which brings us via a circuitous route and several mushroom pies to June 1999 and this new BMG 'Buddha Records' CD reissue of nine tracks (note the deliberately inverted spelling on the last two letters of Buddah). As the liner notes advise - due to time constrictions you get the original four songs of the "Mirror Man" LP and five additional outtakes - all stripped of unnecessary overdubs and as close as Buddha feel they can get to the Captain's original vision. Here are the in-depth details...
UK released September 1999 (June 1999 in the USA) – "The Mirror Man Sessions" by CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and HIS MAGIC BAND on BMG/Buddha Records 74321 69174 2 (Barcode 743216917426) is an 'Expanded Edition' CD Remaster of nine tracks that plays out as follows (76:23 minutes):
1. Tarotplane (19:08 minutes)
2. 25th Century Quaker (9:51 minutes)
3. Mirror Man (15:47 minutes)
4. Kandy Man (8:07 minutes)
5. Trust Us (Take 6) (7:06 minutes)
6. Safe As Milk (Take 12) (5:01 minutes)
7. Beatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones (3:11 minutes)
8. Moody Liz (Take 8) (4:34 minutes)
9. Gimme Dat Harp Boy (3:31 minutes)
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART (Don Van Vliet) - Vocals, Harmonica and Shinei
JEFF COTTON - Guitar
ALEX St. CLAIR SNOUFFER - Guitar
JERRY HANDLEY - Bass
JOHN FRENCH - Drums
In the 12-page liner notes JOHN PLATT (with thanks to Mike Barnes) finally makes available the convoluted history of these amazing recordings - the 'Wrapper' sessions as they're sometimes called (Beefheart wanted the "Strictly Personal" album in a plain brown wrapper envelope sleeve). There are some classy black and white photos of the boys looking suitably Avant Garde and about to upset your Aunty Mavis with some discordant meanderings. You get in-depth reissue credits and the 'One Nest Rolls After Another', and the 'I Like The Way The Doo Dads Fly' poems reproduced. The CD label and inlay beneath the see-through tray mirror that shattered glass effect of the sleeve.
But while all that explanation sorts things out somewhat - what I want to concentrate on is the amazing new Audio brought to us by ELLIOTT FEDERMAN that was done over at New York's SAJE Sound Studios. The LPs were always being accused of being 'muddy' and some excuses were forthcoming because the takes were 'one' and 'live in the studio'. Suddenly even that gruff harmonica warble that opens up the nineteen-minute monster that is "Tarotplane" sounds unbelievably 'right' - like the power has been given back to the gruff. And as Beefheart growls with his 'on your mind' string of consciousness - those vocals are so damn good and those harmonica stretches punchy and mean. This sucker grooves - the band digging into that chug - and even if the recordings are a bit rough around the frothy gills - I'd argue this CD has made the performance feel alive and better for it. Nice work done...
You could argue that the three lengthy grooves here are merely Blues Jams with jerky Avant Garde Jazz rhythms as a side-order that should have stayed in the can or even been refined into something neater and better. Knob I say. When you listen to "25th Century Quaker" and you're grooving to those clear as a bell cymbal and drums crashes, those moaning notes as the Captain mumbles into his Harmonica - I can't imagine any way these could have been 'edited' into something tighter or better. Indulgent I know but it can also be argued that their very expansiveness is their joy. And would we want that mad ending to "Quaker" any other way. And don't get me started on the fantastic groove his ensemble get on "Mirror Man" - the kind of sound no other band could have achieved. I played it to my 22-year guitar-mad son the other day and he was transfixed - and not that just with the 'sound' coming out of my B&Ws - but at the playing and the sheer sonic wallop The Magic Band achieved and seemingly without even trying.
Lean and mean and unbelievably tight – Take 12 of "25th Century Quaker" hits you with a wall of voices and that stabbing guitar beat and it has awesome remastered sound. Don’t really like "Take Us" no matter what Take it is. We go all ‘strawberry mouth and butterfly’ with the Japanese-sounding "Beatle Bones N’ Smokin’ Stones" where the Captain seems to taking a sideways jab at the Liverpudlians and their Forever Fields. The dark – the day – the light – don’t you just love that voice and that sheer bat crazy mentality – and again beautifully remastered. God help us all but "Moody Liz" even sounds vaguely commercial (love those vocal harmonies). And "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" sounds like a piece of harmonica genius that have should been released as a single just to annoy the neighbours...
Hand me down a top hat, a feather boa and a Shriner’s Fez – I can feel a Captain Beefheart moment looming in my sequined ball gown and wraparound underpants. Of course "The Mirror Man Sessions" is not going to be a sonic soundscape everyone wants to go picnicking in. But if you’re down with the mighty hamburger – you’ll be loving it like a guilty pleasure you need to hide from the wife...