Captain Beefheart

Trout Mask Replica. Guided by a relentless succession of’recommended’lists, many a zig-zag wanderer has been caught in the fish-eyed glare of this 1969 opus.

To less hardy souls, it’s extensions through the dimensions of a painterly mind are an abstraction too far. Its quite possible that most never come back for more.

During a recording career long left behind for the tenderer comforts of canvas, the bandleader and his browbeaten group of players released 13 albums.
The last five have now been remastered and re-released by EMI. In addition, the label has seen fit to release a Drury Lane performance from a previously maligned era.

Accordingly, musicOMH invites you to the Cardboard Cutout Sundown of Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band.

By 1974, Don Van Vliet (the Captain himself) had come to the proverbial crossroads. Never an artist destined to wear out cash registers, Beefheart had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of serious commercial success. His previous record, Clear Spot, arguably the best of the ‘accessible’ albums, had similarly failed to underwrite the expense accounts of Warner/Reprise staffers.

Though a stranger to the charts, Captain Beefheart was a common presence in the rarified world of ’70’s rock-criticism. When review copies of Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974) arrived in, it was almost universally derided on release. Not helped by the cover image of Beefheart clutching the venerable yankee dollar, the record was dismissed as an undignified lurch to the mainstream.

Modern music industry economics demand that rock’s distant and not-so-distant past is in a consistent state of re-appraisal and reconsideration. Indeed a whole supporting magazine culture thrives on it, particularly in the UK. As such, Unconditionally Guaranteed has found new advocates, and for once not without some justification.

Generally dismissive of the authorative swamp-funk and stax-styled love songs that Ted Templeman brought out of the band on Clear Spot, Unconditionally Guaranteed’s gloopy heart leans much closer to the streamlined country-rock then finding favour with jaded Californian types, where pyschedelia was long since the forgotten fancy of an exuberant youth.

“Now tell me good Captain / how does it feel/ to be driven away from your own steering wheel”
Upon The My-Oh-My Unconditionally Guaranteed

Thankfully sounding nowhere near as slick as was indicated at the time, Beefheart’s dadaist leanings are ever-apparent on surrealist rockers like the Whistle Test clips-favourite Upon The My-O-My, together with Full Moon Hot Sun and Peaches. With a suite of songs dedicated to his wife, Beefheart can be forgiven for crooning like the moon in June on rose-bouquet ballads like Magic Be and Lazy Music, while Happy Love Song’s croaky regret would have found a home on Dennis Wilson‘s Pacific Ocean Blue.

Of course, the ever-supportive presence of Magic Band regulars Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad, guitar), Rockette Morton (Mark Boston, bass), and Ed Marimba (Art Tripp, drums and other stuff besides, including of course marimba) helped matters. Something the autocratic Captain perhaps should have been more appreciative of when it came to the resultant tour.

While new management were whispering sweet financial nothings in his ear, the good Captain’s determination to keep any spare royalties kicking around for himself had finally alienated the long-suffering Magic Band. It was up to the management to leaf through their rolodex and source a pick-up band tasked with the tricky prospect of learning the Beefheart playlist by rote.

Untrained in classical composition and form, Beefheart would prefer to issue metaphorical instructions to his musicians (all far from amateurs) to get the thin wiry sound he sought on the earlier records. Exhortations to “play it like trailer-park trash, inbred, monkey-headed cat” were not atypical.

“Song before song before song blues / Babette baboon / Abba zabba zoom”
Abba Zabba Live In London / Drury Lane ’74

The European tour, ostensibly to promote Unconditionally Guaranteed, was therefore greeted with some consternation by the long term faithful. Despite that, the previously unreleased rough diamond that is Live In London / Drury Lane ’74 finds the Magic Band In Name Only coping admirably enough

Allowed to indulge their own fancies (especially the run-through of the jazz standard Sweet Georgia Brown), the Captain himself is often strangely absent. Far from the electric deconstructions of the blues that underscore even the most esoteric Beefheart numbers, This Is The Day verges on the intimate, while the run-throughs of Peaches and New Electric Ride are as authentically southern-fried as anything by Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers.

Relatively little of either surfaced too convincingly on the resultant album Bluejeans And Moonbeams (1974). Beefheart later claimed that certain elements of the album’s recording process had been wiped out post-production. Whether a figment of his contrary imagination or not, much of the record had certainly left the pressing plant without much of Beefheart’s lycanthropic libido and skeletal soul. On closer imagination, particularly on the lounge-rejects Further Than We’ve Gone and the title track, a viscous smearing of aural cheese appears to have been daubed right across the Beefheart sandpaper sensibility. For once, the Captain is more emmental than mental.

“The camel wore a nightie / At the party of special things to do”
Party Of Special Things To Do Bluejeans And Moonbeams

Seemingly programmed in a sliding scale of quality, Bluejeans and Moonbeams’ opening three tracks offer the albums greatest claims on the Beefheart legacy. The Captain’s sun zoom bark returns in full-five octave range on the libidinal Party Of Special Things To Do while the actually quite lovely and lilting Observatory Crest brings the reverie into Beefheart lexicography. Same Old Blues, a rare Beefheart cover (of JJ Cale) is afforded due respect, but underlines an element of creative stasis and acceding of control. It wasn’t long before Van Vliet was advising anyone who had bought either record to return it to the retailer for a refund.

The ill-advised step into the straight and narrow of the fast lane had yielded none of the dubious rewards promised in the record company brochures. Rather than a lodestone of homespun truths, Beefheart’s music resists conventional contexts. Though the arrangements and animist poetics imply an avant-garde complexity, Beefheart appears inspired by a childlike re-discovery and exoticisation of the fabric, fauna and flora of the environment. Also, though he never claimed direct links to the occult, it’s worth remembering that we’re discussing a man that can hear a telephone call before the ring sets off (as recalled by a surfeit of independent testimonies).

After an unceremonious reunion with old sparring partner and collaborator Frank Zappa (Bongo Fury, 1975), a wiser Beefheart resourced old and new musicians for the proposed release of Bat Chain Puller in 1976. Numerous contract wrangles ensued from the involvement with Zappa, but Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) finally surfaced on his old label Virgin in 1980. As was thought at the time, the record is a revelation in comparison to the banalities of Bluejeans And Moonbeams

Though everything pre-Clear Post had been characterised by a low prioritising of production values, Shiny Beast married the gruff scrape of prime Magic Band to the detail facilitated by modern studios. A fact only exacerbated by the new mastering process, this old, new, borrowed and bluesed-out Magic Band play like they’re walking appendages of Van Vliet’s nervous system.

Right off the bat(!), The Floppy Boot Stomp howls like The Monster From The Lost Delta. Once again his old autocratic self, Beefheart encouraged his Magic Band to ‘unlearn’ their instruments, resulting in a pots ‘n’ pans, rock ‘n’ rolling jazz as angular as anything surfacing from the emerging New Wave. An odd excursion like Harry Irene, the sepia-tinged Bonnie & Clyde-like memoire of sapphic restuaranteurs, provides an unaffected warmth to the Beefheart repertoire. Candle Mambo would find a shack-like home on any of Tom Waits‘ post Swordfishtrombones records.

“Oh woe / When I see Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy”
When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)

Now liberated from the contract wrangles and sparked by the creative rush of Shiny Beast, Van Vliet was ready to blow the dust back and forth again as though neither bluejean or moonbeam had ever settled on planet Beefheart.

A new generation of musicians had now appeared, many citing Beefheart as a prime influence. Cleveland post-punkers Pere Ubu and art-funkers The Contortions were the closest to Beefheart’s style, but the likes of Joe Strummer and John Lydon all paid homage to Beefheart’s singular vision. But most enduring of all were surely Salford’s The Fall. Though lacking his human heart, despotic leader Mark E. Smith’s primacy of the garage-noise aesthetic, biting freeform lyricism and intimations of preternaturalism are sonar-like echoes of Beefheart’s bag.

Doc At The Radar Station (1980) wouldn’t disappoint Fall fans looking for Smith antecedents. Indeed, the penultimate album in the Beefheart canon is as flinty and brittle as the contemporaneous Fall record Grotesque (After The Gramme). Lyrically and musically, this is Captain and band at their most barbed, the familiar surrealism now caustic and harsh, the sound now totally wired.

” The carpenter carpenterised my vent / the only peephole / where is my dent?”
The Past Sure Is Tense Doc At The Radar Station

The likes of Run Paint Run Run and Ashtray Heart (“man on a porcupine fence used me for an ashtray heart”) are flush with an unfamiliar anger. Deciphering the code, Beefheart’s freeform lines verge on the didactic (“I think of all those people that ride on my bones”). The sound, bled of all echo, makes Doc At The Radar Station the most sonically deliberate of all Beefheart records, its gravel textures head-to-toe with Beefheart’s five-octave rasp, a rasp so devastating it once blew a microphone.

Doc At The Radar Station is Beefheart in extremis, a raw, often austere work that despite its intensity can tend to waver. Packaged together perhaps deliberately, Telephone, Flavor Bud Living and Sheriff Of Hong Kong have all the radio-friendliness of a cat’s chorus.

With a cover image by emerging photographer Anton Corbijn, Ice Cream For Crow (1982) even dipped a leathery talon into the similarly fresh universe of the music video. Refused by MTV, the album followed all other Beefheart records into the financial wilderness.

“We don’t have to suffer /We’re the best batch yet / Baked in special / We’re the best batch yet / White flesh waves to black”
Best Batch Yet Ice Cream For Crow

As a last supper, Ice Cream For Crow’s aftertaste is a less bitter than its predecessor. Still, the resemblance to the rumblings of The Fall are once again hard to miss, particularly on The Host The Ghost The Most Holy-O. “I got it at the religious scene” from Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat virtually passes on the agnostic-mystic baton to Smith. As if winding down, 81 Poop Hatch dispenses with this generation of The Magic Band altogether, remaining as an almost accidental echo on The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole.

Like much of the final three albums, Ice Cream For Crow reworked material that strectched as far back as the ’60’s, perhaps an exorcism of ghosts at play. Finally applying the finishing touch to works-in-progress, Beefheart had come full circle. A lifelong sculptor and painter, his attention moved completely away from music, and found wider and more lucrative appreciation in the art world.

Certainly ill, and rumoured to be a victim of multiple sclerosis, Beefheart still lives out in the Mojave Desert, where his blue-collar parents once relocated to persuade him from becoming an artist. When his Evening Bell sounds for the last time, the world may well wonder why it didn’t pay more attention.

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