Do you know the Muffin Men (‘the Muffin Men?’ I hear you ask. Yes, the Muffin Men), presumably based in Liverpool’s Drury Lane or Mulberry Place?
Chances are that you might. They’ve been doing the rounds for more than a quarter of a century now, often featuring past members of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention as guests. And this April’s no exception, when Denny Walley will be joining them on the road.
It just so happens that Denny also featured with further avant-garde art-rock success Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, recording and touring with both experimental outfits in the ’70s. Yet he goes much further back with the charismatic duo – to the same Lancaster high school in fact.
That’s Lancaster, California, by the way, although it turns out that this Atlanta-based 74-year-old – nicknamed ‘Feelers Rebo’ by Don van Vliet, aka Beefheart – clearly has an affinity for the North West of England too.
Denny, now 74, was born in Pennsylvania and raised in New York, yet his family’s later West Coast move proved pivotal, his folks settling in the same housing development as the Zappa clan, initially becoming friends with Frank’s younger brother Bobby.
He’d already discovered the blues and taken to the guitar by then, a move that in time led to him going on the road with his two illustrious high school buddies turned bandleaders. And while both are long gone, Denny is helping to keep their legacy alive, not least through his on-stage commitments with a Liverpool band who first got together to mark Zappa’s 50th back in 1990, performing his music as a tribute, along with their own Frank-infused originals.
Until his death in 2008, the band often featured guest vocals and percussion from MoI drummer/vocalist Jimmy Carl Black, and often included a number of Beefheart covers. In fact, they’ve featured no less than several more Zappa band members, also performing with Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Mike Keneally, Ray White and Robert Martin. Yet rather than play note-for-note covers, this is a band more concerned with the Zappa spirit, working to the strengths of a particular line-up, often involving a different slant on the original versions. And that suits Denny fine, as I found out when we talked via Skype before he flew over to join the latest tour.
That schedule starts with a date in Corby, Northamptonshire, the conclusion of two nights of Zappa music at the Moo-Ah Festival on Saturday, April 1st, paving the way for 13 more shows, starting at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on Thursday, April 6th, and winding up at The ferry in Glasgow on Sunday, April 16th.
And while we’re in geographical mode, home has been Atlanta, Georgia for more than 20 years for this treasured guitarist and his beloved ‘Janet the Planet’ (they have one son and three grandchildren, one of whom plays bass and has featured for the Grandmothers of Invention spin-off and also the Project Object band Denny regularly turns out for). Yet there remains plenty of affection for past haunts, including The Muffin Men’s Liverpool. So, born in Pennsylvania, raised in Brooklyn and nearby Long Island, New York, then moving to the West Coast before settling in America’s Deep South … Why the affinity with our own North West coast?
“Well, you know, part of my heart is in Liverpool, part in Brooklyn, and California too. I’ve got great friends all over the place.”
Why Liverpool in particular?
“The people there seem to have the same sense of humour and directness as people in New York, especially Brooklyn. You don’t have to guess what they’re thinking. I like the straightforward approach – no bullshit.”
Was there always music around the house when you were growing up?
“Yeah, records. Dad was a big country and western fan, but I found a couple of blues records in his 78 collection, which I was surprised at – Big Bill Broonzy. I was shocked. That was when I first heard that stuff.”
A generalisation, I know, but I get the impression lots of Americans first properly registered the blues through hearing The Rolling Stones, then going back to the original artists.
“Yeah, that’s true … and really sad.”
Was that the case for you?
“Not at all. In fact, when I heard the Stones, I said, ‘Oh man … these guys!’ I thought it was great but was also pissed off that it took that for people here to wake up to what we had right under our noses. I’d been collecting blues since I was 13 years old when I was living in Lancaster.”
Has Denny ever passed through Lancaster in the north of Lancashire?
“Yes, I have”.
How do they compare?
“Well, I’m telling you, it was probably just a blur. For one thing though you don’t have any desert there, so that’s one big difference … a drastic difference.”
You moved to Lancaster when you were 12, in the mid-’50s. Was that a big change for you?
“It was unbelievable. It was like Cowboy and Indian country. I’d never seen the desert and to see jack rabbits and those types of things running all over the place was pretty cool.”
Those regular moves came about as his Dad was working for an aircraft company and often transferred between sites, Denny going to ‘13 different schools’ en route. Yet a love of music no doubt helped him settle, starting with an accordion at the age of seven.
“I was at a party with my parents and all the kids were sent down to the basement playroom, and I found this box and there was this small accordion, 12 bass. I asked the lady if I could play it, she put it on me and I started messing around, saying, ‘Man, I like the way this thing smells!’ It was pretty cool and I figured it out pretty quick. “
Do you think that gave you the affinity for guitar later?
“Not really. What did that was when I heard Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. That’s when the accordion went immediately under the bed. You’re not going to pull any chicks with an accordion when you’re 13!”
You made a bit of money though, playing for tips, I gather.
“Oh yeah. My father belonged to a fire brigade that threw an annual picnic and he’d drag me with my accordion to play polkas. People would put dollar bills and five dollar bills in the bellows. I’d make more money in that one day than he’d make in a week.”
That’s quite sad really.
“Yeah, it is, but it’s not that way anymore – try making money out of music. If you’re in it for money you’re in the wrong business. But I never have been in it for money.”
Tell me about your first guitar, and how old you were then.
“I was probably 15.”
Did you put in a lot of hours to get to know your way around the guitar?
“I never considered it work. I wanted to get as close to the blues stuff that I could get, learning to play along with the record. That sent chills down my spine when I learned the first little things – to play along with Muddy Waters, the same notes he was playing! You know what I mean? And it’s still like that.”
Do you still have that first guitar?
“Unfortunately I don’t. I wish I knew what happened to it. I did see one at a guitar shop that someone had in for repair. I made an offer to buy it, but it was not for sale. But I still got my eye open for it.”
Were there ever day-jobs to make up the wages?
“Oh yeah, I had all kinds of day-jobs … and some of them only lasted a day!”
I guess you were never in any doubt that it was music that would be your true career path.
“Oh yeah, and I like to work. You don’t always do that playing but I enjoy working. I love carpentry and I love to sculpt, I’ve done a lot for film … But I’ve made money and that allows me to have the lifestyle I have – doing my passion.”
Becoming friends with Bobby Zappa at Antelope Valley High School, northern Los Angeles (where not only Don van Vliet and Frank Zappa went, but also Judy Garland, apparently) seemed to be key to Denny’s progress too. A few more years passed before he hooked up with them professionally, but the die was cast.
“It was unbelievable the way things happened. Frank’s younger brother Bobby became my best friend. A group of around five of us hung out. I’d be at the house almost every day, playing blues records and listening to Frank’s doo-wop stuff.”
Do you remember Don (Vliet) from around that time too?
“Oh, sure. He was a character. Everybody knew who he was.”
But first came Denny’s apprenticeship of sorts, plying his trade with his own band. As he mentioned Liverpool before, I put it to him that he was playing a few Beatles songs by night.
“Well, I started before The Beatles. We’d play blues and rhythm and blues. We would learn a couple of cover tunes to get the gig at some club. But about halfway through the first set we’d be into all the shit we wanted to play. Sometimes we made it through the whole night… and sometimes we got paid too! We wanted to play what we wanted to play, and wanted people to hear it. We thought it was valid.”
And it just so happens that one night in the ’60s he was playing just a block away from Frank in Greenwich Village, New York.
“Yeah, they were playing the Garrick Theater. My three-piece blues band, The Detours, were on a break, I walked past and saw ‘Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – absolutely free!’ I said, ‘Oh man – Frank!’ and right next to the kiosk was Bobby. We had big hellos. It was great. It had been so long. I asked where Frank was and he told me he was down the street having coffee, so I went and saw him.”
I understand he was with a few friends, including the beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
“Yeah, a couple of those guys were sitting there with them. I think everybody knows that story though.”
Fast forward to ’75, when Denny’s successful slide-guitar audition led to a spell with the Mothers, then later a role with Beefheart too, on Frank’s suggestion, carrying on with both bands for a while.
“My first with Frank was the Bongo Fury tour. Terry (Bozzio) was the drummer then, and Beefheart on that tour – the first time I’d seen him since Lancaster. We had rehearsals then went on the road with them. Then at the end of the tour Frank suggested I played with Beefheart. He was trying to get him to get his band together again.
“Frank gave me the Trout Mask Replica album to listen to, which I’d never heard before. I went home, put it on, listened and I’m going, ‘What the hell? Frank must be pissed off at me or something, man! Why’s he doing this to me? We’re friends!”
I’m guessing it took you a while to get your head around that?
“I think it took me until around the third time, when I really started to hear how deep the blues influence was. The most difficult thing for me was trying to find out where my guitar part was. What am I playing? Which way was up!”
Alex Neilson from the Trembling Bells recently told me that once he’d heard Captain Beefheart there was no way he could go back to the indie music he was listening to before. How about you, back then?
“After playing with Frank and after playing with Don, it’s really … I don’t know. What they were saying and the feel of their music had a real strong pull for me. I think they felt that. That’s why they asked me to be in the band. I fit in a certain box. That’s why Frank changed his band so much. That was great. He got guys who really represented the kind of music he was writing at the time. And they’d bring something of themselves to it.”
You’re credited with bringing a harder-edged bluesy feel to both bands.
“Yeah, I did. And Frank never told me not to play anything. I just played what I felt, and he trusted that.”
You got to see a lot of Europe and the US during that period. Interesting times. Any specific memories of gigs in the UK around then?
“Oh man! A lot of it was a blur. Travelling with that large a band – and that popular at the time – you’re doing one night in one town and you see the airport, you see the town, you see the hall you’re going to play in for a soundcheck, you go back, try to eat something and next thing you’re back in the theatre. Next morning you’re there at 5.30, bags in the hall, and you’re off to the airport. So you don’t get to see a lot of days off. When you have 25 people on the road you have to pay for a day off.”
Do you make sure you have more time these days to do a little sightseeing?
“Well, it’s easier in the UK. This time we’re going from Glasgow to Bristol … or Brighton … (Denny shuffles his itinerary in front of him) … well, one of them that starts with a ‘B’. Where the hell are we going? I don’t know. I’m just going to get in the car!”
I think I saw Bilston on the list. That’s in the Black Country – Black Sabbath and Slade country.
“Yeah, playing the Robin 2!”
Did you stay in touch with Beefheart after leaving the Magic Band?
“Oh yeah, for a long time, until he was getting progressively worse with the MS. Then he cut off communication, which you know …”
It’s now six years since we lost him. How do you like to remember him?
“I remember him in so many ways. I play his music every day. In fact, I just played Steal Softly Thru Snow on the guitar.”
You stayed in contact with Frank too, and it’s now 23 years since we lost him.
“That’s unbelievable, isn’t it.”
I’ll ask you the same about him. How do you remember Frank Zappa, first and foremost? Through his music again?
“Yeah, but it was more than the music. If you had something to offer … but if you couldn’t cut it … it wasn’t easy. He wouldn’t hire you just because you were his friend. He did say if his mother couldn’t cut the part he wouldn’t hire her … which is big.
“For me it was like going to college for free, and being paid for it. It was really challenging, which was a great discipline for me. I learned so much about me in that band.”
Are you still learning now?
“Oh yeah, every day! If you’re ever satisfied with your playing, it’s over!”
And the Muffin Men help you with that continued learning?
“Yeah. They’re great. I love those guys. They’re my brothers!”
They’re celebrating more than a quarter of a century on the road around Europe with this tour. They say they’ve played nearly 2,000 gigs altogether. How many of those were with you?
“Probably a couple of hundred. It’s like a travelling circus when we’re together, and those guys are all mad! I love it!”
The Muffin Men play The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, on Thursday, April 6 (7.30pm), with tickets £12, and full details here.
If you can’t wait that long, there’s Orange Claw Hammer plays Beefheart at the same venue tonight (Thursday, March 30th), a revered outfit re-interpreting classic Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band songs, with tickets £8 (£10 door), and full details here.
And for more details on the Muffin Men tour, try this link.
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