RELEASED: October 1969
CAT NO: Straight STS 1053, reissued as Reprise K 64026 and on CD as K 9271962
HIGHEST UK CHART POSITION: #21, for one week, 6 December 1969
"WHO DOES he think he is?" It's a sight you don't meet everyday: five long-haired and/or bearded fellows standing on and/or under a bridge in what looks like a capacious early-morning back garden. The tallest is wearing a top hat, and pointing the truncated remains of a standard lamp in the general direction of the camera. As back covers go, it's a classic.
DON VAN Vliet, born in Glendale, California, 15 January 1941, was a child prodigy: from the age of four his clay sculptures were regularly featured on a local television show, he moved with his family to Lancaster, California, in the Mojave desert, in 1954 - allegedly a move intended by his parents to discourage their young son's interest in the undesirable music of the day. If this was their intention, modern music owes their foresight some considerable debt, for it was there he met one Frank Zappa, who recalls how the two would drive around in Van Vliet's Oldsmobile, and share their encyclopedic knowledge of and interest in obscure blues, R & B and doo-wop groups.
Legend tells how he followed Zappa to Cucamonga, where the latter produced the soundtracks to extremely low budget movies such as "Run Home Slow", and fashioned novelty singles under assumed names such as Ned and Nelda, Baby Ray and the Ferns and Brian Lord and the Midnighters, in his own primitive studio. The two planned to form a band (The Soots) and make a film ("Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People") that was to utilize a selection of sci-fi film sets that Zappa had picked up cheaply at a studio sale. Nothing came of this, progress frustrated by Zappa's entrapment and imprisonment on charges of supplying pornographic material, and eventually he moved to Los Angeles, where he joined a white soul band called The Soul Giants, persuaded them to change their name to The Muthers, and showed them a few songs he'd written...
Meanwhile, the newly decorated Captain Beefheart returned to Lancaster with the intention of rounding up a posse of desert musicians. In 1964 the first Magic Band - featuring Alex St. Clair (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass), Doug Moon (guitar) and Paul Blakely (drums) - began playing local teen dances where, according to Beefheart, they "were often mistaken for an English R & B group". A biography listed influences such as Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins and Johnny Guitar Watson, and mentioned that Beefheart's tastes "run the gamut from good brandy to falconry with sparrows, from cuisine to National Geographic". After playing the 1965 Teenage Fair at the Hollywood Palladium, audience reaction was such that, according to a contemporary magazine article, "numerous fan clubs sprouted up before they even had a recording contract". But a recording contract was not long in arriving: a two single deal with A & M Records (the 'A' being, of course, Herb Alpert). The Magic Band recorded five tracks in all, with producer David Gates, later of soft-rock band Bread. Collected on the imaginatively titled "Legendary A & M Sessions" mini-album, they do indeed sound like an English R & B group - a high octane Manfred Mann, perhaps - except for Beefheart's hellhound of a voice, an instrument that had a range of between four and six octaves, depending who you believe, and which was to destroy a $1200 Telefunken microphone during the recording of his debut album proper, "Safe As Milk". The two singles were local, but not national, successes, and the good Captain and A & M parted company.
By 1966 Beefheart had signed to Buddah Records, and, with a new Magic Band consisting of John French, Jimmy Semens, Herb Bermann and, most famously, Ry Cooder, recorded 1967's "Safe As Milk". This was a far more focused work, and, as the sleeve says these days, "one of the forgotten classics of rock 'n' roll history". From the first few notes of the opener, "Sure Nuff 'N Yes I Do", where Beefheart's voice blows in on a desert wind of slide guitar, it's obvious that the perfect synthesis of white boy blues has been distilled: the riffs are instantly familiar, yet strangely alien at the same time. "Safe As Milk", the title allegedly alluding to the presence of Strontium-90 in breast milk, and not at all anything to do with drugs, officer (Beefheart, like Zappa, was vehemently opposed to chemical stimulants, saying once that "my music is for people who realize how pointless the drugs experience really is") was the sound of the future crashlanding on the past, its potency only limited by Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry's rather too authentically primitive production. "Electricity" pointed to Beefheart's singular future musical direction: he howls and groans as the Magic Band crash away discordantly on what sound like elastic bands in the background.
Despite being a critical success, especially in the UK, where Beefheart toured, championed by a devoted John Peel (who allegedly ferried the band between dates), "Safe As Milk" didn't sell, and made no indentation on an album chart crammed with "The Sound Of Music", Val Doonican, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. The follow-up, "Strictly Personal", was intended to be another slice of straight-ahead R & B, but between recording and release producer Bob Krasnow (now head of Elektra Records, strangely enough) added echo and phasing effects to make the end-product sound more "far out" and psychedelic. Beefheart was furious, but since the album was in the shops by the time he heard how his meisterwork had been doctored, there was little he could do about it. (Spookily, the spellchecker on my word processor wants me to change Krasnow to crassness...) For all the tinkering and trickery "Strictly Personal" remains one of the great mans most primally powerful albums. Mystery also surrounds another Magic Band album, "Mirror Man", allegedly recorded at the same time (despite what the sleeve says) and intended for release with "Strictly Personal", it consists of four lengthy R & B jams (including "Kandy Korn", one of "Strictly Personal"'s highlights), and didn't emerge until mid 1970.
Beefheart's response to all this misrepresentation was to sign to Straight Records, which, along with Bizarre Records, had just been established by his schoolfriend Frank Zappa, and to rope the mustachioed one in to produce his next album. The result was "Trout Mask Replica". Its twenty-eight tracks were, according to legend, written by Beefheart on a piano in four hours (it would've taken less time if he'd actually played the piano before!), and recorded live by The Magic Band, now consisting of Zoot Horn Rollo (real name Bill Harkelroad, glass finger guitar and flute), Antennae Jimmy Semens (steel-appendage guitar), The Mascara Snake (actually Van Vliet's cousin, bass clarinet), Rockette Morton (christened Mark Boston, bass) and Drumbo (John French on his birth certificate, playing guess what?), in eight. Legend - again - suggests that Beefheart deliberately selected non-musicians for the Magic Band, believing that any kind of formal training would render them incapable of playing his music, and listening to the recorded evidence you can believe it. "Trout Mask Replica" has been called 'two steps behind some kind of fusion of delta blues and free-form jazz", "the sound of five different bands playing at once" and, more commonly, a bloody racket. It's an album of singular appeal - listeners either love it, or detest it with a rare venom. Colin Larkin's "Top 1000 Albums" book places it at the top of the "Best Unlistenable Albums" section, and there's no doubt that a whole generation of bands from would sound markedly different, if at all, without its influence.
Finally, two famous anecdotes that stemmed from the "Trout Mask Replica" sessions: fearing that the trees outside the house the band were using to rehearse in would be affected by the vibrations from their instruments, Beefheart summoned a tree surgeon to ensure their well-being. And, required for the recording session were two dozen sleighbells. When questioned how, given that, including himself, the Magic Band only had five members, with, presumably, no more than the standard-issue two hands apiece, the spare fourteen sleighbells were to be utilized, Beefheart replied, "We'll overdub them".
1: FROWNLAND 1:39
Right from the opening, the change in Beefheart's music is glaringly apparent. The Magic Band pluck and smash away in the background with apparently random precision, possible riffs flying in and out of focus as the tempo lurches like an alcoholic crab. Swirling counterpoint on top of the commotion, Beefheart sounds like Robert Johnson would if he woke up one morning and found his vocal chords had moved into the bottom of a mineshaft, and he's hollering something about not wanting to go back to Frownland, and about trying to find his idealised country "Where a man can stand next to another man without an ego flying". It captures what's so incredible about "Trout Mask Replica": the way the initially unlistenable music actually supports and flows around the words with a suppleness that is almost totally absent from more conventional albums, and how Beefheart's lyrics, although initially couched in vague imagery and whimsical wordplay, actually make a lot of sense. In a roundabout way.
2: THE DUST BLOWS FORWARD 'N THE DUST BLOWS BACK 2:34
An acapella description of another Beefheart idyll, perhaps located in the Land That Is Not Frownland, where "I took off my pants and felt free/The breeze blowing up me". It contains the first evidence of Beefheart's obsession with the sound of words, as well as their meaning, in lines like "Me and my girl named Bimbo/Limbo/Spam". There's a click after every line, as if the track were pieced together bit by bit, although the Captain's occasional stutter would seem to belie this.
3: DACHAU BLUES 2:21
Serious commentary, as the title would suggest: "Dachau blues, those poor Jews/Still cryin' bout the burnings back in World War Two", accompanied by some suitably apocalyptic free-form sax blowing. This track is cited by The Rolling Stone Record Guide as an example of why "Trout Mask Replica" isnt as good as its cracked up to be, the reviewer complaining that Beefhearts vocal is mixed way too high, obscuring the Magic Bands blueswailing talents, before going on to award a derisory three-and-a-half stars! The track ends with some dialogue concerning rats, which could be an excerpt from "The Pied Piper Of Hamlyn", or perhaps something more sinister.
4: ELLA GURU 2:23
A love song? The good Captain is clearly impressed by the eponymous Ella: "Now here she comes walkin lookin like a zoo...She knows all the colors that nature do". Its got a good beat to it! Well, you could almost tap your feet to it, despite the half squealed, half wailed and half chuckled backing vox, until the bridge, over which Beefheart encourages "Thats right Mascara, stay fast and bulbous, tight also". We shall return to this subject later! Literary note: a computer hacker in Robert Rankins sci-fi comedy novel "They Came And Ate Us - Armageddon II: The B-Movie" goes by the name of Ella Guru.
5: HAIR PIE: BAKE 1 4:57
Remember when you were in junior school, and to enliven an art lesson the teacher would instruct you to "take your pencil for a walk", ending up with a sheet full of squiggles and a blunt pencil? Well, thats what the intro to this track sounds like, except the pencils are inexpertly wielded saxophones, one to your left and one on the right. After a few minutes of this (either incredible and inspired or teeth-itchingly irritating, depending on your disposition) the rhythm section arrives and attempts to "get funky", but is trampled on by the Captains exploratory blowing, gradually replaced by two guitars. Tacked onto the end of the track is a glorious slab of audio verité, in which two hippie kids visit their new neighbour.
6: MOONLIGHT ON VERMONT 3:55
Not really sure what this ones about: could it be concerned with the destructive powers of religion, as the debased rendition of "Old Time Religion" towards the end might suggest ("Gimme that old time religion/Dont want your new restriction") or is it about the supernatural powers of the stars ("That goes to show you what a moon can do!"). Whatever, Van Vliet is in fine hollering form, accompanied by some almost painfully bright and brash guitars.
1: PACHUCO CADAVER 4:37
"A squid eating dough in a ployethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?". Thus opens "Pachuco Cadaver", one of the undoubted highlights of this pretty extraordinary album. Its another love song, where Beefhearts lyrical invention and mischievous sense of wordplay is given full reign in a stunning melange of mechanical and nature imagery: "She wears her past like a present...A sedan skims across the floorboard...Got her wheel out of a B29 bomber...She looks like an old squaw Indian...Drives a cartoon around...Her skin is as smooth as a daisy in the center where the sun shines in...When she walks flowers surround her, let their nectar flow into the air around her". About halfway through the Magic Band lock into an incredibly tight rnb groove, and its suddenly blatantly obvious why Frank Zappa was so envious of their (non) musicianship, and why he pushed the Mothers of Invention to achieve similar results.
2: BILLS CORPSE 1:47
Another mystery to this listener, but theres definitely some rum goings on, despite no mention of Bill or his corpse: "The children screaming/Why surely madam you must be dreaming/You couldnt have done this if you knew what you were doing/And the goldfish in the bowl lay upside down bloated".
3: SWEET SWEET BULBS 2:17
Van Vliet goes all horticultural in another rural idyll: "Sweet sweet sweet sweet bulbs grow in my ladys garden/Warm warm warm warm warm sun fingers wave in my ladys garden/Flowers dance, their faces brave/Come talk freely in the garden of my lady". Not only a haven for flowers but for thoughts too: "Her garden gate swings lightly without weight/To anyone that needs a little freedom/Youre free to grow as flowers/Share her throne/And use her toothbrush/And spend some interesting hours". The Magic Band are on their best behaviour throughout, except in the middle when they get a bit rowdy!
4: NEON MEATE DREAM OF A OCTAFISH 2:25
An exercise in punning and alliteration, the captain howling out lines like "In tubes/Tubs/ Bulbs/In jest/Incest/In jest/In just/In feast/Incest" and "In syrup/In semen/In syrup/In semen", whilst the band cheerfully demolish concepts like harmony and tunes behind him.
5: CHINA PIG 3:56
The most conventional track on "Trout Mask Replica", "China Pig" is a straightforward blues lament for the late ceramic pet of the title. Suffering from an excess of "I may be hungry but I sure aint weird" -ness, the pig becomes lunch. Guest guitarist Doug Moon plays on this, another amateurish recording, with the sound of nearby typewriting towards the end. "One little girl even put her fingers in his snout". What can he mean?
6: MY HUMAN GETS ME BLUES 2:42
A fast (and presumably bulbous, also) tune, with more of Beefhearts inimitable wordplay: "I saw you baby dancing in your x-ray gingham dress/I knew you were under duress/I knew you under your dress". I reckon its about the strictures placed on peoples behaviour by society and gender - "He didnt have a doll/Cos everybody made him a boy/And God didnt think to ask his preference" - which, given my interpretative skills, means its probably about caravanning or something.
7: DALI'S CAR 1:25
A mere one minute and twenty-five seconds of intertwining guitar lines. Often raved about by Beefheart fanatics, I find it one of the albums weaker tracks, especially in comparison with his later work in this area. A portion of this track, along with some of Beefhearts other guitar instrumentals, is echoed on 1982s "Light Reflected Off The Oceans Of The Moon", from the EP of the same name. Trivia: Dalis Car was the name given to the short-lived collaboration between ex-Bauhaus vocalist Pete Murphy and ex-Japan bassist Mick Karn.
1: HAIR PIE: BAKE 2 2:23
Another anarchic instrumental workout for the Magic Band, who make the impenetrable juggling of non-rhythms sound as taxing as an afternoon stroll. When Lou Reed wrote, "You cant beat 2 guitars, bass, drum" this probably wasnt exactly what he was thinking about! Note also the virtuoso sleighbell soloing at the end.
2: PENA 2:31
This track begins with another slice of audio verité, with Beefheart and Zappa playing dialogue coaches to The Mascara Snake (another Beefheartian moniker lifted by Robert Rankin in "They Came And Ate Us: Armageddon II - The B-Movie"). The song proper consists of Antennae Jimmy Semens yelping another of the Captains surreal tales ("I enjoyed the sun while sitting on a turned-on waffle iron/Stuff coming up from between her legs made me vomit beautifully") on a backcloth of barking and lazy Magic Band blues.
3: WELL 2:05
An apocalyptic acapella parable of doom and destruction, with Beefhearts voice sounding as if its trying to fight its way out of a particularly deep example of the structure in question. "Thick black felt birds are flying/With capes of solid chrome/With feathers of solid chrome/And beaks of solid bone/And bleached the air around them/White and cold well well/Till it showed in pain".
4: WHEN BIG JOAN SETS UP 5:19
Some levity at last, after the brooding intensity and nonsensical rhyme of the preceding few tracks. The Magic Band groove in a, whisper it, almost conventional fashion, riffing away merrily as Beefheart whoops over the introduction before tumbling into a lyric about imagined ugliness syndrome, of all things: "When big Joan comes out her arms are too small/Her heads like a ball". Halfway through the band down tools for some freeform sax blowing from their patron, and when they reconvene he reveals how he too is too fat to go out in the daylight, and rolls around all night, in an attempt to befriend the eponymous Joan. The band skip lightly over Beefhearts stop/start writing with the kind of howthehelldotheydothat sixth-sense dexterity that characterizes the best Zappa live recordings, or the Velvet Undergrounds "White Light/White Heat" album, for example. The longest track on the album, but not a second is wasted.
5: FALLIN' DITCH 2:03
Beginning with the revelation that Rockette Morton runs on laser beans, "Fallin Ditch" is another gloriously unhinged back-to-nature two minutes, with Beefheart cast as a hobo: "When Im smiling my face wrinkles up real warm/When Im frowning days just turn to stone/ When I get lonesome the wind begin to moan/Fallin ditch aint gonna get my bones". It even rhymes! Sort of.
6: SUGAR 'N SPIKES 2:28
Presumably more by accident than design, The Magic Band stumble within a mile of a tune on this, but their captain has the presence of mind to ignore em and just holler where he wants, and here hes (in my opinion) rumbling on about the bad vibes that accompany city life: "In sugar n spikes/In neon nights/In walk city lights in chains/Coughing smoke/ Whooping hope/Cars and sky rush by". Phil Collins could learn much from Drumbos, uh, exuberant soloing on this track.
7: ANT MAN BEE 3:55
Just a nature boy at heart, the good Captain turns his attention to environmental issues: "All the ants in Gods garden/They cant get along/Wars still running on/Just one lump of sugar they wont leave each other alone...Now the bee takes his honey/And sets the flower free/But in Gods garden only/Man and the ants they wont set each other be". The almost normal tune has its commercial potential minimised by Beefhearts "lets see how many saxophones I can play simultaneously" outburst towards the end.
1: ORANGE CLAW HAMMER 3:35
Like "The Dust Blows Forward N The Dust Blows Back", "Orange Claw Hammer" is an acapella track, with a low-fi recording quality that suggests a home demo. Again, a click at the end of every line suggests it was pieced together phrase by phrase. Beefhearts finest grasp of imagery and understanding of storytelling are on display here, as a man returns to his hometown after running away to sea. The first person he meets is his daughter: "Come little one/With your little dimpled fingers/Gimme one/And Ill buy you a cherry phosphate/Take you down to the foaming brine and water/And show you the wooden tits on the goddess with the pole out full sail/That tempted away your peglegged father...Thirty years away can make a seamans eyes/A roundhouse mans eyes/Flow out water, salt water". Beefhearts voice sounds weatherbeaten, to put it mildly. A few years ago a member of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers chose to extol "Orange Claw Hammer"s many virtues in The Independents "Riffs" column.
2: WILD LIFE 3:07
Another back-to-the-land track, CBs "goin up on the mountain for the rest of my life", no doubt to the relief of brass instruments the world over. "Find me a cave and talk to bears to take me in", he grunts, as the Magic Band make like monkeys with their blunt instruments.
3: SHE'S TOO MUCH FOR MY MIRROR 1:42
Sort of a love song, a cautionary tale about falling for the wrong woman: "I remember my mother told me I would be choosy/That were way back when I thought you were my friend/Now I find out shes a floozy". The Magic Band groove itchily throughout, crashing from tempo change to tempo change with intent. Sheer bliss, from FZs talkback intro to Beefhearts partially audible closing comment, reputedly, "Shit, how did the harmony get in there?". How indeed.
4: HOBO CHANG BA 2:01
Beefheart as hobo again - "The ocean is my mother/Freight train is my Pa", he intones in his best foghorn voice. The sleighbells receive some more severe punishment on this track.
5: THE BLIMP 2:04
Famous(ish) for Rockette Mortons telephone narration, and the presence of the Mothers of Invention (allegedly the only tape Zappa could find when Morton phoned in was one of the Mothers, hence their appearance). "Its the thing thats going to make Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band fast Frank its a big hit Frank its the blimp". Sadly, it didnt, and wasnt, though as Zappa rightly notes at the close of the track, "Its beautiful".
6: STEAL SOFTLY THRU SNOW 2:13
The meaning of this has me stumped - how about a lament for the unbridgeable gap between nature and technology? Nope, didnt think so. "Breaks my heart to see the highway cross the hill/Man lives a million years and still he kills/The black paper between a mirror breaks my heart that I cant go/Steal softly thru sunshine/Steal softly thru snow
7: OLD FART AT PLAY 1:54
More Beefheartian fairytale wordplay malarkey, following the progress of the old fart and his attempts to perfect the breathing mechanism of his rainbow trout mask. (See how it all makes sense now! Er...) As an unidentified voice at the tracks close comments, "Man, thats so heavy".
8: VETERAN'S DAY POPPY 4:30
An anti-war tirade, written from a bereaved mothers viewpoint: "I cant buy your veterans day poppy/It dont get me high/It can only make me cry/It can never grow another son like the one who warned me", whilst the Magic Band ham it up in the background like a deranged Salvation Army parade, before launching into a few seconds of speedy rhythm and blues. This soon fades out, to be replaced by a mellower instrumental, that rattles around for a few minutes before lurching to a close.
Wheres the appeal in 78 minutes of cacophonous instrument abuse and apparently nonsensical lyricism? Well, because its there, for a kick off: officially the most unlistenable classic album ever made (so sayeth Colin Larkin), the open-minded listener may feel that if he or she can withstand, or maybe even enjoy, "Trout Mask Replica" then they can assimilate anything the popular (or unpopular) music world is ever likely to throw at them. Partly true: certainly there is never likely to be a record so abrasive, polarizing and generally unhinged to topple it from the peak of that particular chart, but a love for and understanding of the Captains most resonant statement wont suddenly turn all the bad music youve hidden in the darkest recesses of your record collection into good music. "Trout Mask Replica" is, perversely for an album which presents such an amateurish and unskilled front to the world, a work that repays and rewards careful study and concentration: the depth of Beefhearts lyrical worldview and talent for other-worldly orchestrations becomes more apparent with every spin.
Following the critical, if not commercial, success of "Trout Mask Replica", "Lick My Decals Off Baby", released just over a year later, displayed the same fractured rhythmic sensibilities, with an extra spoonful of bluesiness thrown in. Reaching the dizzy heights of number 20 on the British album chart, it also marked the replacement of The Mascara Snake by Ed Marimba (a.k.a. Art Tripp, ex-Mother of Invention and briefly a member of Tim Buckleys backing band, Buckley being another inductee to Zappas Straight label). Although in no way as adventurous as "Trout Mask Replica", its still sufficiently offbeat to make number eight on Colin Larkins "Brilliantly Unlistenable Classics" list. Standouts include the guitar instrumentals "Peon" and "One Red Rose That I Mean", and the last few seconds of "Petrified Forest". Also note the blatantly (for Beefheart, anyway) sexual lyrics of "I Wanna Find A Woman Thatll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go". Julian Cope quotes "Space-Age Couple" on the sleeve of his "Autogeddon" album. It was to be his last recording for Straight; Beefheart split acrimoniously with Zappa, objecting to the way he was marketed as another of the latters collection of weirdoes, lumped together with acts of even more selective appeal, such as Wild Man Fischer and Girls Together Outrageously. Subsequent releases were on Reprise, the label created by another Frank, Sinatra.
His next release, with another ex-Mother, Elliot Ingber, now dubbed Winged Eel Fingerling, substituting for Antenna Jimmy Semens, was the even bluesier, and far more tuneful, "The Spotlight Kid". Sometimes criticized for being dark and impenetrable, it nevertheless contains some of his most straightforward blueswailing vocals since the "Safe As Milk" and "Mirror Man" albums, notable on the classic my-woman-done-me-wrong rants of "Grow Fins", "Click Clack" and, especially, "Glider". It reached number 44 on its February 1972 release.
"Clear Spot", issued in November, welcomed another ex-Mother (and ex-Little Foot) into the fold: Roy Estrada, now known as Orejon, replaced Winged Eel Fingerling. Continuing in part the bluesier aspects of "The Spotlight Kid" in tracks such as "Long Neck Bottles", "Low Yo-Yo Stuff" and the title tune, it also contains three pure pop songs of such beauty that they make "Clear Spot" the mandatory first Beefheart purchase for those interested in exploring the great mans body of work. "Too Much Time" finds him pining for a woman to help him improve his diet, and both "My Head Is A House Unless It Rains" and "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" are love songs of such understated eloquence and tenderness they make the complete works of Marvin Gaye look like a clumsy fumble at a school disco. Add this to the apocalyptically apocalyptic "Big Eyed Beans From Venus", home of the classic "Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note and let it float" interjection, and you have possibly the second-best Beefheart album. Even Danny Baker has been known to play excerpts on his Radio 5 show.
It was also Beefhearts last fully fledged, unqualified moment of genius. Signed to Virgin, he entered what has become known as his "DiMartino period", where, under the guidance of producer Andy DiMartino he attempted to move even further into the mainstream. "Unconditionally Guaranteed", released in April 1974, featured a cover photo of a grinning Beefheart clutching wads of dollar bills. How apt. Barely (perhaps fortunately) half an hour long, it features pop of such plasticity that you could substitute Beefheart for Little Jimmy Osmond and the material would be no worse off. Wisely at this point, the Magic Band split (unwisely, they chose to continue as Mallard, an act that rock histories recall with a singular lack of affection), and Novembers follow-up, "Bluejeans And Moonbeams" was manufactured with a new Magic Band: Dean Smith (guitar), Ira Ingber (bass), Michael Smotherman, Jimmy Caravan and Mark Gibbons (keyboards), Gene Pello (drums) and Ty Grimes (percussion). Surprisingly, its not entirely terrible, the approach being slightly harder than before (i.e. jelly as opposed to blancmange), the cover of J J Cales "Same Old Blues" and Dons own "Observatory Crest" being listenable. The sleeve, even on my circa 1991 reissue, boasts that its "also available on 8-track cartridge", which says it all really. In later interviews the Captain urged buyers of the DiMartino albums to return them to the shop and demand their money back, an entirely sensible cause of action, since these are Beefheart albums in name only.
Over the next few years Beefheart and Zappa again became friends, and consolidated their new working relationship on the excellent live recording "Bongo Fury", which emphasized both the similarities and differences between the pairs approach to music making. Unfortunately, protracted label-related legal wranglings delayed its UK release, and also that of the Captains next album, "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)". When it finally appeared in early 1980, after almost four years of recording and re-recording, it perversely contained some of Beefhearts happiest and most uptempo material, with tracks such as "Tropical Hot Dog Night" and "Candle Mambo" having a slightly carnivaly feel, believe it or not. Although some songs had been lying around for over a decade, "Shiny Beast" doesnt feel cobbled together, and is certainly one of Beefhearts less demanding works, maybe a bit like the DiMartino albums couldve been if they were good. An almost entirely new Magic Band consisted of Jeff Morris Tepper (guitars), Bruce Lambourne Fowler (trombone, bass), Eric Drew Feldman (keyboards, bass), Richard Redus (guitars, accordion, bass), Robert Arthur Williams (drums) and old lag Art Trip III (percussion).
Tepper, Feldman, Williams and Fowler remained for the next incarnation of the Magic Band, supplemented by the return of Drumbo (guitars, marimba, bass, drums) and new member Gary Lucas (guitar, French horn). "Doc At The Radar Station", released in August 1980, was a much more aggressive work, returning in part to the potency (or offensiveness, maybe) of his late 60s work, but without the lyrical and musical depth to back it up, despite clever titles ("A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond") and exotic instrumentation (Chinese gongs, saxophones, clarinets, synths, mellotrons). It also contains Beefhearts only recorded use of, er, bad language, on "Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee".
The twelfth, and final, Beefheart album was released two years later. "Ice Cream For Crow", which hit number 90 over ten years after his last chart entry, is possibly the most satisfying, or least bad, of his Virgin albums, with groovy stuff like the title track, the guitar instrumentals "Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian" and "Evening Bell", the much quoted "The Past Sure Is Tense" and the narratives ""81" Poop Hatch" and "The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole". The last ever Magic Band consisted of Tepper, Lucas and Feldman, plus the improbably named Richard Midnight Hatsize Snyder (bass, marimba, viola) and Cliff R Martinez (drums, percussion). Anton Corbjins cover photography placed Beefheart (and in outtakes from the shoot, the Magic Band as well) back in the desert, and the music too has a scorched feeling, bleached of the excess aggression or saccharine of recent works.
For the last decade Beefheart has concentrated on his painting. A recent British exhibition of his work, "Stand Up To Be Discontinued", provoked a flurry of colour supplement interest. The occasional coded interview emphasizes his disenchantment with popular music, both his own and other peoples, although he claims to have welcomed the opportunity to hear his albums on CD. (No comment!). Still, his legacy remains, along with that of the Velvet Underground, a part of every group thats attempted to swim against the mainstream, from Sonic Youth and their screwdrivers to Pavements reinterpretation of The Fall for the American market. And "Trout Mask Replica"? Well, as "Q" (I was reading it in the library, honestly!) concluded in a recent five star review, its an album you must own, because therell be occasions, maybe only once a year, when nothing else will do.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND Grow Fins Vol 1: Just Got Back From The City/Electricity (Xeric)
Take a picture of this: "Grow Fins" is a 5 CD box set of previously unreleased Captain Beefheart recordings, also available as a limited edition set of three double vinyl albums (this is the first, covering Don Van Vliet's pre-"Trout Mask Replica" career; volumes two and three are expected during the next few months). This luxurious package features a 24-page booklet - an evening's reading in itself, containing unpublished photographs and extensive interviews conducted by the artist formerly known as Drumbo (John French) with other ex-Magic Band members and alumni - and a selection of essays, including one by Rolling Stone's David Fricke. And the whole kit caboodle comes pressed on what is claimed to be - and surely sounds like - audiophile vinyl.
Spanning the years 1965 to 1968, the first instalment of "Grow Fins" takes in early live recordings, demos and acetates of the material that became the "Safe As Milk" and "Strictly Personal" albums, deep, blues-boom drenched gumbo a million miles away from the sort of music the likes of Cream were churning out at the same time from the same ingredients, all set off by the Captain's guttural howling wolf voice. Just about everything here is terrific (many of the "Safe As Milk" songs turn up in sonically superior form here, confirming my suspicions about Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry's tinny, thin production work on that album), especially a speedy thrash through "Yellow Brick Road" and high octane covers of white boy blues band staples like "Rollin 'n' Tumblin" and "Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bond" (both recorded in Kidderminster, of all places! Another reminder, after MC5 playing Worthing in the last issue and The Byrds gigging at Bournemouth above, of how provincial the underground rock scene must have been in the 1960s - would that it were that way today).
If your Captain Beefheart albums have been gathering dust over the past few years, as, I have to confess, mine have, "Grow Fins" will re-invigorate your interest and blow away the cobwebs, reminding you exactly why you liked his music in the first place. As a sustained listening experience it beats those patchy Beatles Anthologies hands down, without being quite as immaculate in that regard as Van Morrison's mammoth archive trawl "The Philosopher's Stone", mainly because you'll have most of these songs in some form (but definitely not the form presented here) in your collection already. And for the interested beginner, in the continued absence of a decent Beefheart compilation (a CD retrospective of his Virgin years exists, conveniently removing the obligation to waste lots of money tracking down his later, (much) lesser albums) "Grow Fins" tells you all you need to know about why Beefheart fans are Beefheart fanatics. Coming soon: "Grow Fins Vol. II: Trout Mask House Sessions".
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND Grow Fins Vol. II: The Trout Mask House Tapes (Xeric)
This second double album volume in Table Of The Elements' mammoth Captain Beefheart archive dredging concerns itself with recordings made during a productive three day period at the Magic Band house on an Uher 5 inch reel-to-reel stereo recorder. These tapes were intended to provide the instrumental grounding for "Trout Mask Replica" - all songs, with the exception of "China Pig", appear without vocals, which Beefheart intended to overdub at a later date - before producer Frank Zappa moved the ensemble into a professional studio, wherein the bulk of that landmark masterpiece was whipped up in a mere six hours.
So the music on this album is the original, screaming, country bumpkin genesis of "Trout Mask Replica" - in fact the aforementioned "China Pig", recorded live to cassette, is the same version that featured on the finished product, included here in unedited form to allow the listener to trace its mutation from a hollerin' version of "Candy Man". Bereft of their master's voice you can better enjoy the extra-sensory interplay of the Magic Band members, as they lock into Beefheart's extraordinary, intertwining almost-melodies. There are long stretches of near-silence and what the Captain terms his 'bush recordings', and a lengthy 'story time' section on the last side that eavesdrops on a visit from the band's next-door neighbour, complete with some barely printable accusations concerning Herb Alpert's musical ability! If this second volume of "Grow Fins" is somewhat trying at times - you might think the audio verite sections would benefit from some swingeing editing, or the inclusion of myriad untitled takes, some as brief as four seconds and consisting of a single crashing chord, the work of an obsessive completist - it's still entirely in the spirit of its fabled progeny. If the thought of a more awkward, instrumental and undisciplined "Trout Mask Replica" excites you, as it does me, naturally, step right up. If not, this could be the most tortuous 80 minutes you spend within earshot of your hi-fi.
I should note that "The Trout Mask House Tapes" is as immaculately presented as the previous volume in this series, being pressed on not especially heavy but unarguably audiophile grade vinyl, and arriving with the same 24-page booklet and informative sleeve essays as "Vol. I", as well as the poster alluded to in but absent from its predecessor. A must, in other words, if your tastes run in this direction. Next time around: "Vol. III: Grow Fins".
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART The Spotlight Kid (Reprise)
"The Spotlight Kid", Captain Beefheart's 1972 album, was arguably his closest brush with normality since his equally blues-infused seminal debut long-player "Safe As Milk". Eschewing much of the collaborative confusion that hallmarked his previous two outings, "Trout Mask Replica" and "Lick My Decals Off Baby", Van Vliet's songs were still sufficiently skewed to scupper any chance of mainstream success.
There's a fair smattering of classic Beefheart here. "Click Clack" takes the traditional blues subject matter of the railroad, and its potential for taking one's baby away (she's "Goin' down to N'Orleans, t' get herself lost and found", he bellows cryptically), and hitches it up to a restless, onomatopoeic rhythm that does a marvellous job of invoking the spirit of locomotion. "Grow Fins" is a stubby, snub-nosed and not overly politically-correct boogie in which the Captain threatens to ditch his significant other because of her inadequate housekeeping skills and "Take up with a mermaid/Leave you land-lubbin' women alone". "Glider" is the album's triumph: his woman's done him wrong, so he's going into the sun, in his glider, one of rock's greatest valedictory statements.
Unfortunately the remainder of "The Spotlight Kid" suffers greatly by comparison. It's not bad, it just sounds alarmingly ordinary. This one-paced, slow-motion material is further hampered by the Captain's own production work, which leaves it sounding even duller and boxier, a fate from which even this (deep breath) "limited edition high quality 180 gram virgin vinyl from the original master" pressing can't rescue it. There are far worse Beefheart albums - "Unconditionally Guaranteed" and "Bluejeans And Moonbeams", wherein Beefheart's desire to shift product was far more crassly exposed than is ever apparent here, spring painfully to mind - but there are also far, far better ones.
MIKE BARNES Captain Beefheart (Quartet)
After decades of inscrutability, it seems as if the world and his wife are queuing up to offer their angle in the Captain Beefheart legend, the tale of one man and his fifteen year journey through the music business, an odyssey undisturbed by both fame and fortune. Following the BBC documentary "The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart" and the excellent "Grow Fins" box of previously unreleased material, bolstered by extensive sleevenotes by long-time Magic Band drummer John French and Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke, Mike Barnes' critical biography marks the latest attempt to pin down the legend.
A drummer and journalist who regularly writes for Mojo, Select and The Wire, it appears that Beefheart story is safe in Barnes' hands. He recounts the action dispassionately from contemporary publications and interviews, rigorously identifying his sources, and launches into qualitative discussion of Beefheart's music, his fanboy fervour tempered with impressive technical analysis. Such is the quality of Barnes' detective work that it's a shame that Beefheart declined the opportunity to contribute to the book.
"Captain Beefheart" might not deliver anything revelatory, unlike its subject, but nevertheless it encapsulates the entirety of the man's career in a well-crafted package. The overwhelming impression on reading the book is that, given the combined efforts of Beefheart's treacherous friends, misguided management, disinterested record companies and his own talent for self-destruction, it's astonishing that he was able to fashion the recorded legacy that he has, a catalogue that, one way or another, has informed a great deal of activity at rock's cutting edge over the last thirty years.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND Grow Fins Vol. III: Grow Fins (Xeric)
Nearly three years after the series' inception, the final volume of Revenant's mammoth archive trawl through the spare change and offcuts of Don Van Vliet's musical career finally makes it to vinyl. Despite the yawning time gap that followed the release of the second instalment there's evidence to suggest that the release of "Grow Fins Vol. III: Grow Fins" was a rush job, with all sides sporting blank white labels, the only indication being an 'A' denoting which one to start with. Nevertheless it sports a decent, if not heavyweight, pressings, the same hefty booklet that graced its predecessors and an informative track-by-track commentary.
And those tracks the first words you hear are spoken by none other than Beefheart's schoolfriend and occasional collaborator Frank Zappa, advising a festival audience of 15,000 in a Belgian turnip field to "Pay attention to this man's music because if you don't you might miss something important". The 'something important' as collated here is over an hour of frequently thrilling live performances, radio sessions, demos and worktapes. There are some blistering takes of familiar material, in particular the Magic Band chewing through a chaotic, high-speed version of the outsider anthem "When Big Joan Sets Up", wherein Beefheart's soprano saxophone soloing flaps around in an even more unhinged manner than the studio version. There are a few fragments of "Black Snake Moan", a song first recorded by one Victoria Spivey in 1926: on one, Beefheart phones in a wounded buffalo bellow to a radio station, abruptly curtailing it with the comment " that's all I'm gonna tell you, the rest is too nasty to air"; the other collapses with a complaint that the microphone being used is "too little" for the Captain's phenomenal vocal range. In similar territory, there's a 43-second hollering of Howlin' Wolf's "Natchez Burning", a clutch of harmonica solos ("Harp Boogie I", "Harp Boogie II", "Harp Boogie III") and a selection of "Mellotron Improv"s: one is abandoned, with Beefheart yelling at the inattentive audience "If you're gonna talk, forget it"; the other survives a clever-dick crowd member shouting "Sun Ra!" only to crash to a close with its creator's comment "Who's that, Liberace?".
Away from prickly pear performer territory, also noteworthy are a trio of tracks taped at the Bickershaw Festival in Lancashire: on "Grow Fins" he terrorises the landscape and locals with sheets of delta blues harp, whilst the hitherto unreleased "Spitball Scalped Uh Baby" showcases nine minutes of telepathic percussion and saxophone entanglement. Former Little Foot Roy Estrada plays bass on a locomotive "Click Clack", and not even Railtrack could stop this train! The highlight of these four sides, though, and my favourite moment of Beefheart madness, is unquestionably the version of "Orange Claw Hammer" preserved here. First heard on an NME cover CD, of all places, and recorded during a radio program the duo co-hosted, Beefheart winds his crazed poetry in and around an uncharacteristically regimented folky Zappa guitar strum, and it's utterly wonderful, impossibly close to conventional and lunar distances out at the same time.
And so the "Grow Fins" adventure ambles to a delayed but entirely satisfactory conclusion. The sole complaint that can be levelled at "Grow Fins Vol. III: Grow Fins" is that no material from his wondrous "Clear Spot" album receives an airing. That petty point aside, this is magical, raucous, quicksilver music that's nowhere near as fiercely difficult as you might be fearing. In fact, in the continuing absence of a whole-career retrospective, the entire "Grow Fins" package (it's also available as a 5 CD box set, laden with all manner of multimedia enhancement) would make an ideal first step towards Beefheart adoration: it might not be the cheapest method of acquiring the taste, but, as nothing contained herein is exactly duplicated on any of his dozen studio albums neither will it become overgrown and irrelevant.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND Dust Sucker (Milksafe)
As "Smile" is to Brian Wilson aficionados, so "Bat Chain Puller" is to Captain Beefheart cognoscenti. Signalling a creative return to form following a mid-70s career slump that compelled Van Vliet to churn out a pair of catastrophically limp MOR albums under the guiding auspices of the DiMartino brothers, it disappeared in a web of legal and contractual difficulties. Although widely bootlegged and plundered for material by the Captain in the construction of later albums, "Bat Chain Puller" has never officially seen daylight. Mike Barnes' insightful 2000 biography of the man suggested that the Zappa estate, which holds the rights to the masters, had remixed the album for eventual release, to Beefheart's reported displeasure. "Dust Sucker" isn't it, but, possibly as a spoiling tactic, what it is is the man's own tapes of the "Bat Chain Puller" sessions. I should mention the sound quality before we begin, which is not exactly high fidelity, being rather hissy and compressed, but sufficient to let the Magic Band magic come flooding out. In fact, if Beefheart really had spoiling tactics on his mind "Dust Sucker" is something of a counterproductive venture, because on hearing this most Beefheart fans will only be pining for the Zappa-sanctioned real thing even more.
"Bat Chain Puller" begins the album like some kind of primitive mechanical beast hauling itself out of the primeval slime, its long, supple tongue lickety-splitting around the Captain's dancing, dazzling stream of verbal non sequiturs. "Harry Irene" is a summer stroll of a song about two lesbians who run a canteen. They sell "wine like turpentine" and tuna sandwiches that would "turn night into day". Given that Beefheart at his friendliest is roughly akin to, for example, Paul McCartney at his strangest, this song would dovetail quite neatly into "The Beatles". "Brickbats" is as oddly angular as the album gets, Beefheart bellowing the title in blood-curdling fashion. "Owed T'Alex" is one of the album's pungent highlights: without appearing radically different to any previously released version it appears spectacularly re-enervated. It's a jagged, ragged biker anthem with a leering, cackling vocal that, like much of Beefheart's best work, ticks over with its own internal logic. "Odd Jobs" is the better of the two rescued songs presented here that failed to surface on subsequent albums, a chiming, celestial folk song hobo tale that wraps itself delicately around the listener. Later recast as a highlight of the Captain's final album, "Ice Cream For Crow", "1010th Day Of The Human Totem Pole" is a grim foreboding of overpopulation, whilst the short poem "Apes-Ma" that closes "Bat Chain Puller" is an identical rendition to that which ended the "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)" album.
A smattering of presumably contemporaneous live recordings of unknown provenance fills up the remainder of the CD. "Bat Chain Puller" gains greatly, pushing rudely through the sonic fog of the studio take and decorated with odd little sonar cries, blips and echoes. "Owed T'Alex" becomes even more raucous in performance, all burping brass and squealing pig harmonica, swaggering off stage to rapturous applause. "Well, Well, Well" was apparently recorded and rejected for the "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" album, perhaps with good reason: it's a perfunctory song, featuring Rockette Morton's somewhat offhand vocal debut. The disc closes with a barely bootleg quality live take of "My Human Gets Me Blues", as greedily welcome as any other "Trout Mast Replica"-era artefact, but not one that offers anything new in the way of appreciation or interpretation.
If there's nothing shockingly new about the recordings presented on "Dust Sucker", the cumulative impact of hearing these songs in nearly enough the right place and time at last suggests a critical reappraisal of Beefheart's post-DiMartino career is long overdue. We can only hazard a guess as to what might have become of the Captain had this record been released as intended in 1977.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND HIS MAGIC BANDS Magnetic Hands Live In The UK 72-80 (Viper)
It's turning out to be something of a bumper year for the Beefheart industry (let's pause awhile and consider the raft of contradictions inherent in putting those two words so close together!). Recent months have seen the release of a compilation drawn from his Liberty and Virgin albums, and a first official airing for the "Bat Chain Puller" tapes. Now Viper - a company who seem to specialise in albums of immense historical significance and woeful sonics, whose other entry onto my record shelves comes via their recording of Shack backing Arthur Lee at a Liverpool gig - have released this CD of Beefheart live performances recorded in England between 1972 and 1980, and, with the odd important qualification, its fabulous.
The key caveat is the sound quality. True to form, most of "Magnetic Hands" is of telephone standard, hissy, distorted and compressed. Nevertheless, although bootleg (or possibly sub-bootleg) quality sound was a serious disadvantage for the Soft Machine live album reviewed in the last issue, it detracts less from proceedings here, perhaps due to my familiarity with the source material. Nevertheless, don't buy "Magnetic Hands" as a tentative first step to Beefheart obsession, because as an introduction to the great man's great music it will only frustrate and confuse.
The disc begins with never less than competent versions of "Spotlight Kid" material, recorded at 3am in a field near Wigan during 1972, an occasion more grandiosely known as the Bickershaw Festival, a happening organised, barely believably, by Jeremy Beadle, which bookend a spine-chillingly cathartic acapella "Old Black Snake", punctuated by Beefheart's bloodthirsty curdle of "I'm gonna uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse her". A Manchester show from the same year contributes the abrasive guitar house of cards "Peon" and the acid "Jackanory" and virtuoso whistling of "Golden Birdies". There's a predominately instrumental "Electricity", captured in Leicester the following year, seven minutes of sumptuous, scary rolling and tumbling. Some 1975 recordings find the Magic Band confusing the hell out of a Pink Floyd crowd at Knebworth (consider that 30 years ago Jeremy Beadle, Pink Floyd and Knebworth seemed to have been bastions of the counterculture!) with a guttural, loping rendition of the ever-fantastic "Orange Claw Hammer" and a volcanic "Gimme Dat Harp Boy". (And could the lyric "Gimme dat harp boy/Ain't no fat man's toy" be a playful sideswipe at Canned Heat?)
The real delights of this disc are to be found in the half-dozen songs taped at Liverpool's Rotters Club in October 1980. This concert has already been officially released in its entirety as "Merseytrout", but those who have made comparisons between the common tracks report that the excerpts here boast superior sound quality, and certainly they boast the finest sonics of anything on "Magnetic Hands". For once the sound isn't a barrier to enjoyment; although it still appears rather obviously to have been recorded from the audience's perspective, there's even some borderline stereo on these tapes! From the false start to "Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man" - as the Captain comments, "Wouldn't want anyone to think we're commercial!" - with its percussion clattering out of control and harmonica leaking out everywhere, this is fantastic stuff. Kinetic, electric, a legend captured in full mad flight, it even sounds sweaty, littered with droplets of Beefheartian wisdom such as "Reagan'll be here and he'll fix it all up the guy who saddle soaps his hair!". The band attack a sequence of 60s, 70s and 80s classics as aggressively and playfully as if they had been written yesterday, and the astonishment evident from the floor remains undimmed over twenty years later.
In the booklet sleevenoter Bernie Connor indulges in the kind of nostalgic recollections of teenage second-hand record shop experiences and the taming of "Trout Mask Replica" that are almost inevitable whenever two or three Beefheart fans are gathered together, and because you have to be a Beefheart fan to be reading the booklet of a Beefheart album in the first place he knows you'll indulge him. And we do. And that pretty much sums up the whole ethos of this frustrating, fantastic album. If you love Beefheart's music and relish the challenges it sets up, you can forgive the frequently lousy sound and navigate direct to the heart of the dark dream of the man's beautifully twisted soundworld.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND HIS MAGIC BANDS Railroadism Live In The USA 72-81 (Viper)
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND Dichotomy (Ozit)
A companion piece to Viper's earlier "Magnetic Hands Live In The UK 72-80", this self-explanatory set boasts the same foggy sound quality, undeniable historical import and gushing fanboy booklet notes written by one Bernie Connor (for example, "Don could have easily done what Robert Plant did, but there was no way on earth Robert Plant could have done what Don did").
Beginning with an exploratory immersion in the Captain's blues roots, "Railroadism Live In The USA 72-81" opens with a guttural "Old Black Snake", just his voice and harmonica shaping the silence. Next up is a version of Slim Harpo's "I'm A King Bee", so metronomic that you could set your watch by it. (A compliment, incidentally.) Rather more experimental is "The Blimp/Air Bass-Soft Shoe (Sax Improv)", captured at a 1975 LA show: The Magic Band expertly recreate the Mothers Of Invention backing track that happened to be already on the tape when original orator Jeff Cotton phoned in the recitation to "Trout Mask Replica" producer Frank Zappa, and the Captain making more sense of the lyric than can be divined from the album version. Following this, proceedings take a turn towards the strange. Accompanied by deranged laughter, what sounds like a trombone/bass/tap-dancing trio breaks out, before the Captain brings the good ship home, blowing four strong winds from his sax into the sheets of sound. All of which makes the version of "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby" which follows seem conventional in comparison.
Bookended by passing references to the simmering frustration and resentment the artist must have felt at the continued non-appearance of his "Bat Chain Puller" album, a 1977 New York gig offers up a good-natured tussle through "A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond", a relatively straight take of "China Pig" that gradually morphs into the cut-up patterns of "Railroadism" (a song that remains unreleased in studio form, to my knowledge) and a fragmentary recitation of "I Love You, You Big Dummy". Similarly, "One Nest Rolls After" Another", a poem first glimpsed on the back cover of the "Mirror Man" album, slides up against the Radio 2 daytime favourite tale of café owners "Harry Irene" and a theatrical solo performance of "The Dust Blows Forward 'N' The Dust Blows Back", all taped at a 1978 Houston concert.
The final segment of the CD finds the Captain's muse and music couched in frantic, slashing modernity, as if desperate to reclaim it from the imitators who have diluted and contorted his influence during those wilderness years of artistically- and legally-enforced absence. But it's the old songs that hit hardest: the mixed anti-war/anti-drugs message of "Veteran's Day Poppy" remains as potent today as it must have been 34 years ago - and note the dexterity with which the Magic Band negotiate the tricky transition between the song's two sections - and "Big Eyed Beans From Venus" has lost none of its anti-globalisation bite, all dark guitar background magic with the Captain testifying to the power of the eponymous beans in the front. Finally, "Railroadism" closes with a chronology- and title-defying 1966 recording of "Avalon Blues", a sweaty slab of blues-boom-with-a-twist harmonica-led abandon.
It's tempting to become blasé about yet another Beefheart archive trawl: following the exemplary "Grow Fins" box and the release of the Captain's own "Bat Chain Puller" tapes it's hard to imagine that much of interest remains in the vaults. But, as the popularity (well, amongst those in the know, at least) of the reformed Magic Band proves, interest in the Captain's music deservedly remains as strong, if not stronger, than ever, and for all its muffled sonics and barely concealed bootleg chic "Railroadism Live In The USA 72-81" can only help stoke the legend.
And as if by magic (pun unintended), Ozit offer up their second CD of Beefheart rarities, following on from last year's "Dust Sucker", the issue of the Captain's own tapes of the unreleased "Bat Chain Puller" album alluded to above. This time around Ozit have drawn from all periods of the Captain's musical career, but while "Dust Sucker" was at least adequately, if amateurishly, documented, "Dichotomy"'s booklet notes offer up such random noise as " with the continued surfacing of little heard items from across the Beefheart spectrum, we should be able to get a clearer picture of the man and his musical development. The trouble is that where genius is concerned there ain't no making sense." in lieu of any analysis or even information about the music contained within, leaving the listener with nothing to go on save the barely grammatical sub-title strapline "Rarities, out-takes & demos from the 60's & 70's". The cover art, too, is atrocious, 50s sci-fi cartoon images that deign to present the man and his music as some kind of otherworldly freakshow.
Consequently, a decent reference tome is no end of assistance in untangling the contents of this CD, and listening to it in conjunction with Mike Barnes' excellent, exhaustively indexed Beefheart biography was an illuminating experience, from which most of my factual observations were copped. "Dichotomy" opens with a pungent, edgy rendition of "Love Lies" (here titled "This Is Captain Beefheart/Love Lies" for no other reason than the fact that Captain Beefheart announces the song by observing "This is Captain Beefheart" ). Next up is "Comment/Key To The Highway", far closer to the source than Derek & The Dominoes' version, complete with authentic 1930s sound to boot. (Rarely does "Dichotomy"'s sonic achievement struggle above AM quality.) It confirms the Captain's innate understanding of the blues as a musical form before he set about pulling it to bits. "Neon Meat" turns out to be "Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish", presented in a version so similar to the original that you might as well be listening to a tenth-generation copy of "Trout Mask Replica".
The presence of several instrumental versions of tracks from that seminal album might raise the eyebrow of any Beefheart enthusiast who already owns "Grow Fins Vol. II: Trout Mask House Sessions", a double album of instrumental demo versions of songs from that seminal album. Although straight A/B comparisons are confounded by the accelerated pitch of the "Dichotomy" equivalents, it would take ears keener than mine to identify any difference between this album's "Ella Guru", "Sugar 'N' Spikes", "Pachuco Cadaver" and "Frownland" and those presented, at the correct speed and with far superior sound, on "Grow Fins". Similarly, the covers of John Lee Hooker's "Tupelo Mississippi" and Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" seem uncannily similar to those long obtainable on "Grow Fins Vol. I: Just Got Back From The City/Electricity", allowing for the sock-bound sound on the "Dichotomy" versions, including the almost complete excision of the Captain's vocals and harp on the Howlin' Wolf number. Also on a familiar tip are "Blues Jam", which was known as "Avalon Blues" when I first encountered it weeks earlier on the "Railroadism Live In The USA 72-81" CD reviewed above, and "Seam Crooked Sam", identical in all but (inferior, again) sound quality to the version on Ozit's own "Dust Sucker".
Of the fresh material, "Harmonica Blues Rehearsal" is everything its rather blunt title suggests, "Moody Liz" a legendary acetate worked on by producer Bob Krasnow, infamous in Beefheart lore for adding psychedelic phasing effects to the Captain's misunderstood masterpiece "Strictly Personal", an instrumental that tangles into a nearly commercial mesh of guitars. "Scratch My Back" is a bluesy, harpy thing that collapses too soon into studio tanned whimsy concerning pork chops and beer. A spirited instrumental take of "Run Paint Run" impresses, with the Magic Band on split-second telepathic form. And whether it is or not, "Camel Stomp" sounds like the kind of slow, deliberate music the Magic Band were pulling together for 1972's "The Spotlight Kid", a kind of pre-production "Alice In Blunderland". "Little Scratch" is a contemporaneous leftover that would become "The Past Sure Is Tense" in a future life, whilst "I Was A Teenage Maltshop" is the title tune from Don and Frank's mooted rock opera, featuring Zappa on piano. The repetitive instrumental "Deputy's Horse" finds Beefheart tinkering with minimalism, and, at close to six minutes, cannot be said to not outstay its welcome. A closing eight minute "Sun Zoom Spark" is fascinating, a bluesy ramble sharing only the insistent repetition of its title with the version released on "Clear Spot".
So, then. "Dichotomy" proffers 23 tracks of "Rarities, out-takes & demos", a whacking 14 of which didn't already feature in my comprehensive but hardly exhaustive Beefheart collection. Admittedly, there are enough moments of genius in those remaining 14 that make "Dichotomy" a must-have for the Beefheart aficionado, but a modicum of careful tape-sifting and research might have resulted in a far more palatable package all round.
THE MAGIC BAND The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 24 June 2004
Surely the most time-served of tribute bands, this reincarnation of Don Van Vliets backing ensemble coalesced at the behest of Matt Groening - creator of The Simpsons, curator of the All Tomorrows Parties festival and lifelong Beefheart obsessive. Drummer/vocalist/harpist Drumbo (a.k.a. John French), bassist Rockette Morton (christened Mark Boston), guitarists Mantis and Feelers Reebo (elsewhere known as Gary Lucas and Denny Walley) and conventionally monikered drummer Robert Williams had all been Magic Band members at some point during the ever-shifting ensembles 18 year existence, but they had never played together before the rehearsal sessions released last year as their debut album Back To The Front. That disc showed a band in possession of a volcanic power that could turn on a halfpenny whilst recreating the demonic clatter of the original recordings.
Tonight such attributes are initially apparent only in limited quantities. During the opening Diddy Wah Diddy and The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dig) Drumbo captures the exaggerated hand movements once deployed by the Captain on what little performance footage Ive seen of him, but a grungy mix leaves his vocals too far behind the band to permit his actions to make any sense. Following complaints from the front rows hes turned up possibly slightly more than enough and the evening acquires a sense of occasion at last. As on Back To The Front, and reinforced by comments he made tonight, Drumbo has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort studying his former taskmasters vocal style, and in aping it as accurately as his larynx will allow pretty astonishingly, to be honest hes paying both affectionate tribute and releasing these shocking, playful songs from two decades of archival dust-gathering, blood pulsing through them with glorious abandon once again.
Given his vocal prowess, then, The Magic Bands decision to play many songs instrumentally chiefly when, perhaps for reasons of duty or dexterity, Drumbos presence is required at the kit - is distracting and disappointing. Bereft of the Captains turbulent poetry these great works are reduced to things of headnoddingly vague familiarity was that really On Tomorrow that just blew by, for example? And on one of the evenings more straightforward selections, Im Gonna Booglarize You Baby it seems that each member of the quintet is performing a different tune which, for once, probably wasnt quite the composers intention.
Nevertheless, tonights audience rightly go crazy for this slightly paunchy, bearded, balding bunch of musicians acting as a conduit for music seemingly beamed backwards from a future age, the frenetic devotion displayed by certain sections of the crowd suggesting the evening is the culmination of decades of wishing and hoping. And even my residual reservations are blown away by the closing Orange Claw Hammer, the acapella narrative that stands above even all the other swarming craziness that surrounds it on Trout Mask Replica, performed o solo Drumbo with hand actions and a stage-ranging gait, a seafarers tale that generates the mother and father of all collective shivers.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND Live N Rare (Ozit Morpheus)
Like the earlier Dichotomy, this lashed-together double CD is another atrociously packaged Ozit Morpheus Beefheart release. A frightening Day-Glo booklet devotes less space to sleeve notes and credits than to plugging other product (a Bickershaw Festival set and the rare limited edition book The Abba To Zappa of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band In The Early To Mid 1970s). Respectfully dedicating this trash to the late Mr Peel is frankly an insult. The whole kit caboodle arrives in an oversize slipcase (replete with an illegible handwritten limited edition number) to allow storage of the accompanying six postcards, each showing the Captain apparently rooted to exactly the same spot on a 1980 stage.
In covering recordings from UK Magic Band shows taped between 1972 and 1980, Live N Rare immediately tumbles into a potential market already crowded out by releases such as London 1974 and Magnetic Hands Live In The UK 72-80. Tracks from both are repeated here, and the infuriating non-chronological (reasonably close to alphabetical, in fact) presentation makes it a pain to home in on the new material. According to the track listings there are 16 performances taped at a 1980 Manchester gig here, although one (Golden Birdies) is very obviously the same 1972 take found on Magnetic Hands. Even worse, the track list is riddled with errors. What purports to be Sheriff Of Hong Kong is actually Dropout Boogie, and Suction Print utilises both the lyrics and music of Kandy Korn. The accompanying press release takes the form of a photocopy of a Record Collector review of the album, which, amazingly for a publication devoted to sleeve note spotting, entirely omits to mention any of the above errors. Then again, the reviewer does confess to listening to the album whilst watching Strictly Come Dancing.
Behind the sonic fog and misrepresentation theres actually a trove of fabulous music here. London 1974 takes of Abba Zabba and Crazy Little Thing belie their Tragic Band years timestamp: heavy on keyboards and going a bit fusion at times, they still bristle with otherworldly tension, simmering in narcotic sleaze. Wisely, the compilers have chosen to omit the Unconditionally Guaranteed material that formed the bulk of the donor set. The Manchester 1980 tracks suffer from raddled sonics the Captain sounds as if hes singing through a loudhailer but Ashtray Heart is a corrosive manic tango, the brilliance of Big Eyed Beans From Venus shines undimmed through the scratchy distance and even in this slightly thumpy form Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles is always a pleasure.
If youre obsessive about Beefheart youll want to own this, if only for those Mancunian recordings that, to the best of my knowledge, find their first official outlet here. Otherwise, anybody placing this shoddy article above Revenants exemplary Grow Fins box set on their Beefheart rarities shopping list needs to get their ears examined.
THE MAGIC BAND The Continental, Preston 13 March 2012
First I’d like to applaud the venue, The Continental being a kind of gastropub-meets-art centre down by the wrong side of the tracks, and secondly I’d like to applaud them for bringing The Magic Band (tragically now Beefheartless on a permanent basis) to Preston for the first time in 39 years. The last time I saw The Magic Band they were playing in the somewhat more salubrious surroundings of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall; tonight 220 happy, sweaty people are crammed into what feels like a conservatory-cum-sauna.
The 2012-model Magic Band includes in its lineup John French (a.k.a. Drumbo) and Mark Boston (a.k.a. Rockette Morton), and the very fact that these folks played on the mighty ungraspable beast that is “Trout Mask Replica” makes it magical enough in my book. Equally, any gig that opens with the colossal cross-cut currents of “Steal Softly Thru Snow” just has to be a bit special, as this one proves to be. Cavorting through Magic Band history, there is nevertheless little on the setlist that post-dates their previous Preston appearance – just “Suction Prints” and “Bat Chain Puller”, in fact – but equally this is hardly some kind of cosy nostalgia show; familiarity does not breed contempt in this instance, the music being as elbows-outré akimbo as ever it was.
Highlights? How about Drumbo directly serenading a slightly terrified audience member during “Circumstances”, a kolossal “Kandy Korn” or the deep rhythm ‘n’ blues roots of the Captain’s debut single “Diddy Wah Diddy”? Rockette Morton is a giant, affable master of his immense five-string bass guitar, and Eric Klerk blazes out in all directions during his guitar solo on “Alice In Blunderland”. Denny Walley (a.k.a. Feelers Rebo) hits that long lunar note and lets it float during an awesome “Big Eyed Beans From Venus”, and in response to the inevitable enquiry “What do you run on, Rockette Morton?” we’re reassured that yes, he still runs on laser beans.
One of many things about Beefheart is that, as an artist without hits in any conventional sense, or canonical compilations, his key works aren’t really defined. I could have heard more from “Trout Mask Replica” – who couldn’t? – but a setlist drawn predominately from the pre-Tragic Band years (1967-1972) could surely disappoint no one in attendance here tonight. In the interval between two hour-long sets the band mingle with the audience, signing autographs, posing for photos and chatting with those extrovert enough to approach them.
Angular, erudite, charming and chopsy as all get out, the thought of The Magic Band playing a pub in Preston still boggles my mind. Good on them, and good on the organisers of this astonishing event.