The swampy Delta roots of Captain Beefheart [AKA Don Van Vliet] and his Magic Band are at the musical centre of the bluesy and surreal “China Pig”. Adding to the authentic vibe is the decidedly homemade sound quality -- which in fact was a field recording documented at the Magic Band’s communal residence on Ensenada Drive in Woodland Hills, California -- to help defray the cost of studio time. Frank Zappa, who produced the groundbreaking Trout Mask Replica (1969) album, had the initial flash to record the instrumental tracks live at the house, then take Captain Beefheart into the studio to overdub vocals. However, once Zappa heard the results, he scrapped the idea and took the whole band into Whitney Studios in Glendale, CA. to re-recorded a majority of the material. The austere “China Pig” is one of the performances that survives those initial sessions. This is not a Magic Band track per se, as Beefheart’s vocals are solely accompanied by sometimes Magic Band guitarist Douglas Moon.
Zappa’s production highlights the extreme realism of the recording by prefacing the tune with the audible click of the tape recorder being turned on, joining Beefheart as he instructs Moon to play “one of those slow …” riffs. The guitarist quickly falls into a tangibly funky blues groove over which the Captain weaves his mixed metaphoric tale. As with a majority of the poetry and prose that come from Captain Beefheart, only he knows for certain what his lyrics are supposed to mean. However, enthusiasts and critics alike have speculated that the China Pig in question might actually be a piggy bank, rather than a once sentient animal. There is likewise ambiguity in the suggested lyrical chronology, which initially states “I don’t wanna kill my china pig …” then progresses to “I didn’t wanna kill my china pig”.
In addition to the Trout Mask Replica rendering, there is an alternate take on the highly recommended Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) five-disc box set. The neo-punk White Stripes covers “China Pig” on their Beefheart tribute 7” platter Party Of Special Things To Do (2000). Fans of the original recordings are encouraged to seek out this vinyl-only EP on the Sub-Pop label.