John French (musician)

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John Stephen French
Birth name John Stephen French
Also known as Drumbo
Origin San Bernardino, California
Genres Rock, alternative, progressive jazz, experimental music
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter, music director
Instruments Vocals, drums, percussion, harmonica, guitar
Years active 1964–present
Labels Proper
Associated acts Captain Beefheart, Magic Band, Frank Zappa, French Frith Kaiser Thompson

John Stephen French (born September 29, 1948) is an American drummer and musician. He played on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and on various other Beefheart recordings: Beefheart dubbed him Drumbo. During the Trout Mask Replica sessions, French transcribed the musical ideas Beefheart played for him on piano for the rest of the band.

Early life[edit]

French lived in Lancaster, California, in the same area of Southern California as Frank Zappa, Don Van Vliet and other members of The Magic Band and The Mothers of Invention. He was interested in the local music scene as a teenager, hanging out with Doug Moon and watching The Omens on stage.

Playing career[edit]

Around 1964, he played and recorded with Merrell and The Exiles, a band led by Merrell Fankhauser and featuring Jeff Cotton on guitar. French and Cotton joined Mark Boston in another band in 1966, never recorded, called Blues in a Bottle. Bill Harkleroad aka Zoot Horn Rollo joined later; thus the nucleus of the Trout Mask Replica band was formed.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band[edit]

French was invited to join Beefheart and the Magic Band in late 1966, as a replacement for Paul Blakely.[1] Having played on Safe as Milk (1967), his distinctive drumming style moulded the driving heavy psychedelic blues of Strictly Personal (1968) and Mirror Man (1968, but not released till 1971). Shortly after the completion of Trout Mask Replica, French was booted out of the group rather violently (thrown down some stairs),[citation needed] and Beefheart replaced him with the inexperienced Jeff Bruschell. French was contentiously omitted from the credits of Trout Mask Replica and was largely absent from the band photos taken for the artwork. French was soon invited back, however, and played on the critically acclaimed albums Lick My Decals Off, Baby and The Spotlight Kid, sharing percussion duties with Art Tripp aka Ed Marimba. Then in late 1972, just before an American tour, he left again.

Beefheart's contractual problems in 1975 forced him into joining Frank Zappa's Bongo Fury tour,[citation needed] but when he was able he set to reforming The Magic Band. French was recruited as both drummer and music director. 1976 saw the recording of the original version of Bat Chain Puller, which due to legal ownership problems remained unreleased until 2012. French also played guitar on some of these songs. He walked out on Beefheart when his friend John Thomas (keyboards) was sacked from the band. He was back to help out again in 1977, but had become disillusioned working with Van Vliet.[citation needed]

French visited Van Vliet in 1980 looking for work; he went on to record Doc at the Radar Station with the band, playing guitar (and drumming on two tracks). He left before the band toured though, when Van Vliet handed him a list of 40 songs to learn over a 3-month period. French sealed the walkout the next day by returning the guitar Van Vliet had loaned him.

Other projects[edit]

French was briefly involved and co-wrote some songs with Mallard, a group formed by other Magic Band members who left in 1974 after tensions within the band (reportedly caused mainly by Van Vliet's domineering, sometimes abusive, behavior) finally reached a breaking point.

French has subsequently made solo records, and played with the experimental group French Frith Kaiser Thompson[2] and again with Kaiser in Crazy Backwards Alphabet.

In 2000, he was involved in compiling and writing the sleeve notes for the anthology of Beefheart rarities Grow Fins. He also gave an insight into the problems of working with Beefheart in the BBC documentary The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart.

The Magic Band reformation[edit]

2003 saw him reform The Magic Band as a live act with Rockette Morton, Denny Walley, and Gary Lucas. They divided the show into an instrumental and a vocal section. French handled the vocals and harmonica, handing over the drum kit to Robert Williams. They released an album, Back to the Front, in 2004 and a live CD, 21st Century Mirror Men, in 2005.

City of Refuge[edit]

In 2008, French released a new solo album (under his "Drumbo" moniker) entitled City of Refuge. The album features other musicians from The Magic Band including John Thomas, Mark Boston (aka Rockette Morton), Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) and Greg Davidson (aka Ella Guru). The album was released on UK label Proper records.

Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic[edit]

In 2010 French released this memoir of his time in the Magic Band (Proper Music Publishing, London).



  1. ^ Ankeny, Jason. "Biography: Captain Beefheart". Allmusic. Retrieved May 25, 2010. 
  2. ^ Layne, Joslyn. "Biography: French Frith Kaiser Thompson". Allmusic. Retrieved May 25, 2010. 

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