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Off the Beaten Tracks: Well-done Beefheart (Part Two)

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IN a previous column we left Captain Beefheart claiming all the credit for his 1969 double-album masterpiece Trout Mask Replica and insisting that his band’s contribution was negligible, much to their chagrin. A grudging acknowledgment of their importance comes on the sleeve of the next LP, 1970’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which is attributed to Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band as opposed to the previous His.

Shortly after Trout Mask, percussionist John ‘Drumbo’ French was literally ejected from the group by the Captain, aka Don Van Vliet, who threw him down a flight of stairs. French returned in time to stamp his inimitable style on Decals although his role as arranger and musical director had by then gone to guitarist Bill ‘Zoot Horn Rollo’ Harkleroad. The method of recording was that Beefheart would tape long, meandering passages of solo improvisation after which Harkleroad would cherry-pick the best bits and turn them into semi-recognisable songs.

The result was what Van Vliet would claim was his best album and certainly his most commercially successful, spending 11 weeks in the UK charts peaking at No 20. Whether it was helped by this bizarre TV advert,  featuring band members playing kitchen utensils and the Captain overturning a bowl of porridge in the road to the sound of the song Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop, is open to conjecture.

The opening title track continues Trout Mask’s approach of several complex rhythms played simultaneously behind Beefheart’s hectoring vocals. Doctor Dark rocks along nicely followed by I Love You, You Big Dummy.

Somewhat easier to assimilate than Trout Mask’s weirder moments, it went down well with the discriminating Brits, particularly when played LOUD. Peon is an affecting acoustic instrumental before Bellerin’ Plain, with inspired basswork from Mark ‘Rockette Morton’ Boston. The aforementioned Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop hasnever been a favourite of mine and neither has the instrumental Japan in a Dishpan, in which the band just about manage to retain order despite Van Vliet’s saxophone noodlings.

Over to side two, and I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go kicks it off in better style. Another instrumental, One Red Rose That I Mean, is about as romantic as the record gets. The Buggy Boogie Woogie harks back to the Captain’s early work while The Smithsonian Institute Blues is also relatively simple. Not so the final track, Flash Gordon’s Ape, a furious dissonant jumble.

For many, Beefheart’s music had by now become just too weird and its minimal sales figures in the US persuaded him into a change of direction. He told a biographer, Mike Barnes, that he ‘got tired of scaring people with what I was doing . . . I realised that I had to give them something to hang their hat on, so I started working more of a beat into the music’.

For 1972’s The Spotlight Kid it was back to the blues, albeit a swampier, grungier form of blues than on Safe As Milk five years earlier. It still features the Magic Band although for some doubtless bizarre political reason their name does not appear alongside the Captain’s. For openers we have the brilliant I’m Gonna Booglarise You Baby, which begins with a choppy guitar riff joined by bass and slide before Beefheart comes in with a deeper, bluesier delivery that really does the business. Things slow down for White Jam, which is more or less a love song, unlike Blabber ’n’ Smoke which is basically a complaint albeit a very tuneful one. Surprisingly, the Captain actually sings, rather than rant or rage.

When It Blows Its Stacks is a return to the more ominous atmosphere of the first track, while the instrumental Alice in Blunderland (great video this) is something which could conceivably have been made by another, more conventional band. The title track is a joy.

Undoubted highlights of side two are Grow Fins and the closing song Glider, both of which feature storming harmonica. So, Beefheart makes a proper rock album. Does it sell? Does it heck. (A few years ago I came across an unofficial three-CD collection of outtakes from the Spotlight Kid sessions. It’s well worth seeking out. Here it is on YouTube. There is also a single-CD version available officially.) 

Still in 1972, it was back into the studio in search of a hit with producer Ted Templeman, whose track record included successful releases by the likes of Van Morrison, the Doobie Brothers and Carly Simon. The Reprise label clearly hoped he would manage to sprinkle some angel dust on the Captain.

Unfortunately, the Clear Spot album horrified die-hard Beefheart fans and critics alike, with its ‘gimmicky’ see-through plastic sleeve and several songs that were actually tuneful. At that time I was still taking heed of reviews in the Melody Maker and was put off by a headline that thundered: ‘No beef, no heart’. It was some months before I was tempted to buy a cheap second-hand copy and realised what I had been missing.

The first two tracks, Low Yo Yo Stuff and Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man, continue in fine style the path set by Spotlight Kid. The first shock for the kind of Beefheart traditionalist who would rock along to Trout Mask while waggling his fingers in front of his face comes with Too Much Time, a soulful ballad with brass section which wouldn’t be out of place on the Stax label. It’s back to blues-rock with Circumstances but then comes another charming soul curio, My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains. 

Normal service resumes with Sun Zoom Sparkthe title trackCrazy Little Thing and Long Neck Bottles. Then comes a little song with one of the loveliest titles imaginable – Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles. This would feature in the 1998 Coen Brothers movie The Big Lebowski.

Still to come is the amazing Big Eyed Beans From Venus, which includes after 54 seconds my favourite Beefheart moment of all time. ‘Mister Zoot Horn Rollo,’ commands the Captain, ‘hit that long lunar note. And let it float.’ Harkleroad duly obliges on slide before the band come crashing in. Sublime, or as Professor Stanley Unwin used to say, ‘Deep joy’. One reviewer described the track as ‘a fantastically strange piece of aggression’.

Clear Spot signally failed to revive the band’s fortunes and it was 1974 before they returned to the studio. By now they had a new British label in Virgin Records. Richard Branson was said to have signed Beefheart because he hoped Van Vliet’s old friend Frank Zappa would be next, although that never came off. Virgin executives have since insisted that there was no pressure on the Captain to sell lots of records but despite this the album Unconditionally Guaranteed was the most commercial-sounding, and reviled, record of his career.

The opener, Upon the My-O-My, is fairly typical Beefheart but otherwise the LP has been dismissed as a relatively lacklustre and half-hearted collection, although I must admit I liked it at the time. Each track is credited to the Captain, his wife Jan and producer Andy DiMartino, whose dubious track record comprised work by such luminaries as the Fleetwoods and Buckwheat.

Immediately after it was recorded the Magic Band walked out on Van Vliet, exasperated by a lifestyle of poverty and his despotic behaviour. They were horrified by the quality of the record, with drummer Art Tripp observing: ‘It seemed as though each song was worse than the one which preceded it.’ They eventually formed their own group, Mallard, making two pleasant albums on Virgin.

With an LP to promote, Beefheart was forced to recruit a new group at short notice; a motley crew of little-known (and cheap) session musicians who became known inevitably as the Tragic Band. They played Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1974 and although it was a thrill for me to see the old geezer in the flesh, he was clearly out of it and a pretty poor show ended after little more than half an hour. The support act were Henry Cow who, not having heard their stuff before, I found pretty impenetrable although I came to appreciate them over the years.

Worse was to come with the Captain’s second album of that year, Bluejeans and Moonbeams. Only two ‘original’ tracks pique the interest, the opener Party of Special Things To Do and the melodic Observatory Crest.

As a measure of Van Vliet’s creative impasse, he resorts to a cover version – a workmanlike rendition of JJ Cale’s Same Old Blues Again. Without a French or Harkleroad to organise him, Beefheart was lost. Keyboard player Michael Smotherman said: ‘Don was just as confused as he could be throughout the whole process. I would push his face up to the microphone and he would start singing. And when it was time to stop I would pull him back gently.’

Beefheart would later repudiate the two 1974 LPs, calling them ‘horrible and vulgar’ and urging fans to take them back to the shop for a refund. Few would take him up on that: hardly any had bought the records in the first place.

At a loose end and with obvious personal problems, the Cap’n was thrown a lifeline by Zappa. The two appeared together on the 1975 Bongo Fury tour, which resulted in a live album of the same name. It includes two Van Vliet originals, Sam with the Showing Scalp Flat Top and Man with the Woman Head. Best tracks are Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy and the brilliant climax Muffin Man, at the end of which Zappa’s presenting of the band to the audience includes ‘Captain Beefheart on vocals, soprano sax and madness’. FZ’s farewell words are: ‘Good night, Austin, Texas . . . wherever you are.’  

John ‘Drumbo’ French was back in the fold when, in 1976, Beefheart went back into the studio to make Bat Chain Puller, produced by Zappa. Recording was complete and demo discs were circulating when there was a big bust-up after Zappa found out that manager Herb Cohen had been using Frank’s own royalties to pay for the project, and it was put on ice. It was in 1978 that the album was reworked as Shiny Beast, with personnel including Art Tripp on percussion and Zappa cohort Bruce Fowler on air bass and trombone. One reviewer described the record as ‘manna from heaven for those feeling Beefheart had lost his way’.

The opener, Floppy Boot Stomp, announces that the old man is back in business, with proper slide and guitar riffs paving the way for some old-style Van Vliet lyrics:

The floppy boot stomped down into the ground
The farmer screamed ‘n blew the sky off the mountains
Eye sockets looked down on the chestbone mountains
‘N the sun dropped down, ‘n the moon ran off.’

Next is Tropical Hot Dog Night  – ‘like two flamingos in a fruit fight’.

Fowler’s trombone features heavily throughout the album, notably on You Know You’re a Man, which rocks out just like the Magic Band of old. Bat Chain Puller is said to be based on the rhythm of the windscreen wipers in Beefheart’s truck. All but one of the 12 selections are credited to Don Van Vliet, with Herb Bermann (who contributed lyrics to eight songs on Safe As Milk) getting a nod on Owed T’Alex

The final, spoken track, Apes-Ma, recorded at home by Beefheart, is said by French to be a tragic depiction of Van Vliet’s worsening physical condition – he had multiple sclerosis.

Remember when you were young, apes-ma?
And you used to break out of your cage?
Well you know that you’re not
Strong enough to do that any more now.

In 1980 came Doc at the Radar Station, whose tougher sound found favour with a younger generation and led to Beefheart being belatedly hailed as the ‘father of new wave’.   

The returning John French is credited with playing guitar, slide guitar, bass and marimba, plus vocals on a couple of tracks. On keyboards is Eric Drew Feldman, sensitively renamed Black Jew Kitabu by Beefheart. Feldman would later join up with Pere Ubu and the Pixies, among many others. A review for Down Beat magazine declared: ‘For most tunes here, Beefheart writes catchy ostinatos [no, me neither] which since several are played simultaneously, seem to undermine each other. As these lines persist, they become more compatible, sometimes resolving into jagged unisons. On the most successful tunes, like Sheriff of Hong Kong, listeners can’t help stomping.’

Van Vliet’s artwork led Doc to be named 49th in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘100 Greatest Album Covers’, and his painting career was becoming his priority in 1982 when he released his 12th and final studio LP, Ice Cream For Crow.

This was described as one of his finest albums by narrator John Peel in the BBC documentary The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart. 

A video made to promote the title track was rejected as ‘too weird’ by MTV but was later snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art.

Beefheart’s paintings, described as having ‘the same kind of edge as his music’, became increasingly sought-after and he rejected appeals to record one last album. He became increasingly reclusive and frail, and by the 1990s his MS left him confined to a wheelchair. He died in 2010, a month before his 70th birthday.  

The Magic Band, however, continue to thrive (or at least they did before lockdown). Here’s a clip of them doing Big Eyed Beans at Butlin’s in Minehead in 2012, with Drumbo on vocals deputising ably for the Captain.

As a child the British singer PJ Harvey was forced to listen to Beefheart’s music constantly since her parents had all his albums. She said they made her ‘feel ill’. Growing up, however, she learned to love him and cites him as one of her greatest influences. Her producer and collaborator John Parish said the Captain’s music was ‘a combination of raw blues and abstract jazz. There was humour in there, but you could tell that it wasn’t intended as a joke. I felt that there was a depth to what he did that very few other rock artists have managed to achieve’.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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