Tom Waits Celebrates 40 Years of Swordfishtrombones with New Reissues

Also available today are remastered editions of Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years

Tom Waits 1983 (Image: Anton Corbjin)

What do you think Tom Waits would’ve sounded like had he never met Kathleen Brennan on the set of Francis Ford Copolla’s One From The Heart?

Do you think he still would have been creating classic barstool singer-songwriter fare similar to his acclaimed work on Asylum Records in the 70s? Or do you believe he would have gone underground into the realm of experimentation regardless?

“A remarkable collaborator, and she’s a shiksa goddess and a trapeze artist, all of that,” Waits once said of his bride, who introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart among other things. “She can fix the truck. Expert on the African violet and all that. She’s outta this world. I don’t know what to say. I’m a lucky man. She has a remarkable imagination. And that’s the nation where I live. She’s bold, inventive and fearless. That’s who you wanna go in the woods with, right? Somebody who finishes your sentences for you.”

Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones, Island Records 1983

Since their wedding, Brennan has collaborated with Waits on every album he’s done since his Island Records debut Swordfishtrombones, released 40 years ago today. And while the couple have no doubt ventured further and further down the rabbit hole of avant-garde expressionism on later albums like Rain Dogs, Bone Machine and Mule Variations, the charm of Swordfishtrombones remains steadfast all these years later.

“The edge goes to Rain Dogs, but it was the album prior that found Waits coming out of the cocoon as a death’s head moth,” Rob Mitchum wrote in Pitchfork on the site’s 2002 piece ranking the 100 Greatest Albums of the 80s, where Swordfish was no. 11. “With Swordfishtrombones, the Black Rider was thrown out of the nightclub into the alley and, finding himself in his true element, he made its trashcan residents and urine stink the genetic code of the rest of his career. ‘Underground,’ ‘Shore Leave,’ and ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ all convey this mission nicely, with Waits embracing his inner Cookie Monster and divine guitar clang. There’s even time for a few pint-swinging shanties to boot, and a heart-shaped declaration of dependence (‘Johnsburg, Illinois’) to the woman that preserved Waits’ life, liver, and hipness quotient. Waits’ early career is certainly respectable, but Swordfishtrombones is the corner he turned to become America’s proud hobo laureate.”

SPIN Magazine, in 1989, did one even better when they placed Swordfishtrombones at no. 2 on their list of the 25 Greatest Albums of All Time.

“You begin to see Tom Waits, who claims to have been born in a moving taxi, as a slight white man, growling through a jazzy saxophone breeze in a voice that may or may not be several sheets to the wind,” they wrote at the time. “Like Kerouac or Bukowski, he centers his tales on fragments of overheard conversation, random episodes and the images floating in a short glass of whiskey.”

Assisting Waits and Brennan in their self-produced splendor is a ragtag array of musicians including legendary British jazz musician Victor Feldman on marimba, Canned Heat’s Larry Taylor on bass, Fred Tackett of Little Feat on electric guitar and longtime collaborator Stephen Hodges on drums, among a host of others. Together, this crew helped fashion a symphony of deconstruction that, as of today, has been given a long overdue reissue treatment along with the rest of Waits’ Island Records catalog courtesy of Universal Music Enterprises.

Back cover of Swordfishtrombones (Image: Discogs)

Personally overseen by Waits and Brennan themselves, all of the albums were mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering under the guidance of Waits’ longtime audio engineer, Karl Derfler. Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank’s Wild Years (1987) are out today on CD with the vinyl coming to stores on September 22, while 1992’s Bone Machine and 1993’s The Black Rider are due October 6th. 

Swordfishtrombones was sourced from the original EQ’ed ½” production master tapes while Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years, Bone Machine and The Black Rider were sourced from the original ½” flat master tapes. Bellman meticulously transferred the tapes and then remastered the audio in high resolution 192 kHz/24-bit. The lacquers for all titles were cut by Alex Abrash at AA Mastering.

The new vinyl editions will come with specially made labels featuring photos of Waits from each era in addition to artwork and packaging that has been painstakingly recreated to replicate the original LPs, which have been out of print since their initial release.

These critically acclaimed works remain a monument to an artist’s ability to break creative ground through different directions. And while it has been 12 years since Tom released any new music (his last album was 2011’s Bad As Me), it’s no doubt a wonder to revisit Swordfishtrombones on its 40th anniversary with a fresh set of old fashioned ear trumpets.

Needless to say, we sure are grateful Tom and Kathleen got hitched.



Ron Hart
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Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

One thought on “Tom Waits Celebrates 40 Years of Swordfishtrombones with New Reissues

  • September 1, 2023 at 4:38 pm

    Great article! Love the work of Tom Waits.


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