Zappa and Walley, onstage together.
Zappa Round One
Zappa was preparing for the Bongo Fury tour and subsequent album. The project was a collaboration with Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), another Lancaster alum. Why was this small town such an avant-garde breeding ground? “I think something flew very low over Lancaster,” says Walley. “They were doing a lot of experimentation out at Edwards Air Force Base.”
Slide guitar was an obvious timbre choice for a Zappa lineup featuring Beefheart. It conjured serious blues mojo and complemented Beefheart’s blues-influenced style. But Walley hadn’t seen Zappa in years, and by 1974, Zappa was an institution. Walley was ready for his audition, but nervous. “I walked in the door and could’ve dropped to my knees,” he says. “George Duke was on keyboards. Tom Fowler was the bass player. Chester Thompson was behind the drums, plus Napoleon Murphy Brock and Frank. That was what I walked into.”
The audition couldn’t have gone better. “Frank introduced me to everyone and it was real relaxed. He was so disarming. Frank called ‘Advance Romance.’ I’d never heard it before, but it turned out they played it in A, and I had my guitar tuned to open A. As soon as I heard the beginning I started to shake, because I knew that this was so in my wheelhouse. It was like Frank wrote it for me so that I would pass the test. Halfway through, Frank stopped the song and said, ‘Anyone with balls enough to play those lows notes has got the job.’ That was it. I packed my stuff and went with [road manager Marty] Perellis into the office. He got my information and signed me up.”
Although Bongo Fury is still very much a Zappa production, Walley’s slide and Beefheart’s harmonica make it notably raw and bluesy—and weirdly accessible. And Walley’s playing shines. His fat tone and meaty slide on songs like “Advance Romance” and “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” (and his unusual note choices in the guitar’s lower register) create a heavy, earthy feel that stands in dramatic contrast to Zappa’s unorthodox phrasing and effects-drenched tone.
In retrospect, Bongo Fury is considered an important transitional album for Zappa. (Drummer Terry Bozzio replaced Chester Thompson soon after Walley joined the band.) But not everyone saw it that way at the time. As Gordon Fletcher noted in his Rolling Stone review, “In a year that’s seen the release of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, it would be difficult to call Bongo Fury 1975’s worst LP, but … ”
The guitars Walley used during his first Zappa stint remained his mainstays throughout his career, and he still uses most of them. For slide work he favors a Vinnie Bell-endorsed Danelectro Bellzouki model 7020 from 1965—a 12-string with a bouzouki-shaped body. Walley installs only six strings and usually tunes to an open A or G, using a capo to play in other keys. He wears his slide on his pinky. “I can still hold a chord [with my other fingers] but move the slide,” he says. His slide—a metal tube made from the handlebar of a child’s bicycle—is the only one he’s ever owned. “I’ve had this my whole career,” he says. “If I lose it, the show don’t go on.”
His other guitars included a blond 1957 Strat—sold many years ago—and a heavily modified 1962 Telecaster bearing the signatures of Scotty Moore, Les Paul, and Link Wray. Its modifications include a 6-position, Gibson-style Varitone knob, an onboard preamp, and a revolving cast of pickups.
The signatures of Les Paul, Scotty Moore, and Link Wray grace Walley’s heavily modded Telecaster. The large black knob controls a Gibson-style
Walley’s amp with Zappa was an Acoustic 150 head pushing an Acoustic 6x10 cabinet. “Frank wanted me to play through a Vox amp,” he says, “but I just didn’t like the tone. Even though the Acoustic was a solid-state amp, it had a tube quality. When you cranked it up, it had perfect distortion.” Walley says he used few effects: “I only used the pedals that Frank gave me to use, like a Mu-Tron that I used on a few things.”
Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band
Following Bongo Fury—and on Zappa’s recommendation—Walley joined Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Both the music and work environment were unlike anything he’d encountered. “I’d never heard Don’s music before,” Walley says. “Frank gave me Trout Mask Replica to listen to. I put it on and thought, ‘What? Where is my part? Where’s the beat? Where is anything?’ I could not listen with the right kind of ears—I wasn’t ready. Frank’s music was difficult, but there was structure to it. But in Don’s, nothing ever repeated. I listened and listened, and after the third or fourth time I realized, ‘God, this stuff is really just the blues.’ The blues thing was really thick in there, and his voice was amazing. So I decided to give it a shot.”
Walley was a member of Beefheart’s band from 1975 through 1977. They toured Europe and parts of the U.S. and recorded the album Bat Chain Puller, which, due to legal issues and other complications, wasn’t released until 2012. The album—viewed by some as a redemption following Beefheart’s mid-’70s “Tragic Band”—features Walley throughout, notably his stellar slide work on “Owed T’Alex.” Not featured on the original release—although now available for download on iTunes—is the Beefheart/Walley duet “Hobo-Ism.” It’s a mesmerizing blues jam featuring Walley’s acoustic guitar and Beefheart’s raw, uncompromising vocals and harmonica. “It was a one-off, stream-of-consciousness thing that happened in my living room,” Walley says.
But Beefheart’s free spirit, disorganization, and cult-like authoritarian style made Walley’s tenure difficult. “Don used to do this thing where he would play one guy against the other. He would say thing like, ‘Hey man, somebody is thinking C, and you know who you are,’ which would immediately send everyone into defense mechanism. You’d start defending yourself against the indefensible, and this would go on for hours.” Rehearsals were sometimes 14-hour ordeals that didn’t involve playing. Beefheart was brilliant and creative, but difficult and easily distracted. The work environment was frustrating, especially since the band wasn’t getting paid. Walley, not one to be pushed around, stood his ground—maybe one time too many—and was given the boot. “Someone in the band was elected to make the call,” he remembers. “He told me, ‘You’ve made your bed. Now you have to sleep in it.’” But despite his departure, Walley remained on good terms with Beefheart. “In fact,” he says, “after that is when we did ‘Hobo-ism.’”