Mojo (UK)

David Thomas

Pere Ubu’s trenchant mastermind considers the majesty of Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle (Warner Bros, 1967)


It was more than 18,000 nights ago. The LP? Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks. It changed my life… long before I heard it. Confused?

In the late ’60s, I was tutored at college level. One school buddy liked Frank Zappa, the other Herb Alpert. I had no idea that these musicians didn’t fit together.

At that time Warner Brothers printed LPs with inner sleeves promoting one of their acts. Concerning Song Cycle, the promo noted that it was “weird and unlikeable”. The perspectiv­e intrigued me. Not enough to buy but enough to remember the name… Van Dyke Parks. I kept an eye out for complement­ary input. I noted that Frank Zappa used a singer named Captain Beefheart. I kept searching. For a summer I lived in a White Panther-ish commune. We listened to three albums: the first Wailers LP, Kick Out The Jams and Smiley Smile.

In the linernotes to Smiley Smile, I came across… Van Dyke Parks. In the midst of research into the meaning and art of Rock Music, understand­ing emerged. Following Good Vibrations, the perfect single, Brian Wilson took on the recording of a perfect album. Broken by the task, he was, ironically, successful because the LP, never finished by him, came to exist in a perfect form via the imaginatio­ns of the listeners to dozens of album bootleg demos. His partner was… Van Dyke Parks. That man again!

I became a rock myth, not a scientist. I married a die-hard VDP fan… CDs happened. She bought everything by VDP. I heard Discover America – an LP of calypso covers! My mind split open. But, finally, I heard Song Cycle. I was ready for it.

Years later, we divorced. It was amicable. The only dispute – who gets the VDP CDs. Oh, and the Hank Williams collection. Pere Ubu’s Trouble On Big Beat Street is out on May 26 on Cherry Red.

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