Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) Warner Bros. BSK 3256 (1978)
After a pair of widely panned albums in 1974, a 1975 collaboration, and a few years without any new albums — much of these travails the result of his entire backing band quitting in the face of Stalinist leadership tactics — the Captain returned amidst the punk era with one of his best. He had actually recorded an entire album (Bat Chain Puller) then lost control of the master tapes as part of a tangentially-related royalty dispute between owners of his label. He and yet another reconstituted version of The Magic Band then re-recorded some of the tracks, and some completely new ones, for a different label. Bat Chain Puller tracks omitted from Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) showed up in later re-recordings on Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow.
Anyway, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is something of a summary of many things the Captain had been doing in the 1970s along with a few new hot takes. The delivery is slicker, but, surprisingly, that generally works for rather than against the music. The album opens with “The Floppy Boot Stomp,” which signals that it was going to draw from the sort of idiosyncratic music that the Captain had been making in the Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby era but had abandoned in recent years. But the second cut, “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” channels Jimmy Buffett (and maybe also Flowmotion) in service of a statement of hesitant yet macho sexuality — a song reprised decades on by PJ Harvey as “Meet Ze Monsta.” A latin flavor later reappears on the song “Candle Mambo” too. This version of The Magic Band includes a brassy horn section that is somewhat unique, given that other recordings leaned more on woodwinds than brass. “Suction Prints” even sort of resembles punk — the first part of the song has a rhythm not too far off from Iggy Pop and The Stooges‘ hardcore punk B-side “Gimme Some Skin.” “Harry Irene” is a kind of ironic/nostalgic cabaret song (compare cuts like “Jean the Machine” and “Joe” on Scott Walker‘s ‘Till the Band Comes In). Sure, in “Owed T’ Alex” and “Apes-ma” (the one track held over from the original sessions), there are a few throwaway tracks here. But for the most part this album is great from top to bottom.
So how does this compare to the aborted Bat Chain Puller album (eventually released in 2012) this originally replaced? Well, in a way the original is even better — a little rawer, sparer and unified while still in territory that seems uncharted. But the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) incarnation replaces prominent keyboards with its horn section that adds a new dimension, and the caribbean flavor of “Tropical Hot Dog Night” was completely absent on the original recordings. And the original lacked a song quite that good. The general eclecticism and fullness of the re-recordings is also something different and an asset in their favor. So maybe the new version of the album is better? Frankly, it is pointless to pick a favorite between Bat Chain Puller and Shiny Beast because they are both great. Beefheart fans are going to want to hear both (although the original recordings were officially released in 2012, they fell out of print quickly).
Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band – Bluejeans & Moonbeams Mercury SRM 1-1018 (1974)
Captain Beefheart released two album in 1974 on the Mercury label in the US and the Virgin label in the UK: Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams. They both ventured into MOR (mainstream oriented rock) territory. Most Beefheart fans are appalled by both of these albums. The problem is that Beefheart had released some of the most inventive and abstract rock ever recorded. His turn toward smoothed-over commercial pop-rock is not something music snobs ever accept. On the one hand, Unconditionally Guaranteed is pretty dull, save for bits of a few tracks (“Peaches,” etc.) with horn sections that seem like less energetic versions of material off 15-60-75‘s Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town (1976). A clear parallel to the album’s overall turn toward mediocre conventions is CAN’s Out of Reach (1978). Unconditionally Guaranteed was recorded by the same Magic Band lineup that had worked with Beefheart for many years. They all quit after finishing the album. So Bluejeans & Moonbeams was recorded with any entirely new backing band. Some fans give the new band the derogatory nickname “The Tragic Band”. But all this is a bit wrong. Bluejeans & Moonbeams is a pretty decent album. Sure, it bears no resemblance to Trout Mask Replica. But so what? If this had been released under a new band name rather than being credited to “Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band” it seems likely many who hate it would have an entirely different opinion. In other words, the problem here is one of expectations. While this is definitely not one of the Captain’s best, with an open mind this fits comfortably alongside bluesy MOR rock of the mid-70s. This is definitely not a bad album — the same cannot really be said for Unconditionally Guaranteed. If you expect new frontiers to be crossed you will be disappointed by this. But ask yourself first whether such expectations are appropriate.
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Lick My Decals Off, Baby Straight STS 1063 (1970)
It seems entirely reasonable to look at the career of Captain Beefheart as a microcosm of the entire counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s. His earliest stuff was warped blues rock, sometimes a little psychedelic and sometimes loose and jammy. There seemed to be a genuine belief that the music was commercial enough without overtly trying to be. In other words, it presupposed a market for rock music that openly drew from Afro-American blues without being a part of that tradition. This was right after the formal, legal end of the Jim Crow era. By the end of the 60s, though, The Captain released Trout Mask Replica, which was probably the furthest “out” version of what the entire hippie counterculture was about, moving from blues rock into free jazz and abstract non-sequitur. Into the early 1970s, the abstraction was scaled back, or at least positioned alongside more radio-friendly material. The Spotlight Kid made overt attempts to hold the weirdness in check and slow everything down. Clear Spot went so far as to include a soul ballad “Too Much Time” along with stuff that still recalled the late 60s weirdness. Whether all this was a naive assumption that the counterculture could survive in that rarefied environment, or just a calculated attempt to make some accommodations (with or without sacrificing integrity), is for the listener to decide. Nonetheless, the early 70s still found The Captain succeeding artistically, even as by the mid-70s he seemed adrift — just like the counterculture that rolled back against the backlash of the business class. But unlike many of his contemporaries, who never returned to any kind of relevance, Captain Beefheart made some interesting turns in the late 1970s. Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was a surprising triumph, blending a kind of postmodern panoply of styles that was professionally slick and in touch with contemporary tastes while still remaining inimitably, unwaveringly weird. It was goofy without sacrificing real wit. From there, Doc at the Radar Station accentuated the cerebral, more abstract elements of the music. It accepted a more limited role for this music (even if The Captain was still appearing on national TV to promote the album). His final album, Ice Cream for Crow, confirmed a role of elder statesman of a kind of music that was obviously losing ground and no longer economically viable even at the fringes. But there was still some small space to make the music and Captain Beefheart went ahead and did just that. It was no surprise that the last few albums came along roughly during the punk era. The Captain was fueled by the same independent ethos, even if his music bore little or no direct sonic resemblance to punk.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby had obvious parallels with Trout Mask Replica, but it also was more streamlined and decisive. This was music made by a band that knew precisely what it was doing. The fact that wide swaths of the general population wanted no part of it was beside the point. The album was the band’s highest charting album in the UK. While, from a certain perspective, this might be seen as the pinnacle of Beefheart’s Magic Band, and the counterculture as a whole, it also wasn’t enough. John “Drumbo” French‘s memoir Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic later indicated that the band was surviving on welfare and allowances from parents. Hardly a recipe for the lasting victory of the counter-culture. Nearly fifty years later, this album sounds remarkable for what it saw as possible — the way the album could demand so much concentration from listeners, the way it could afford to revisit a style that was so commercially unpopular on the last album, the obvious aspirations and ambition directed in such a freaky and non-corporate direction, the role of horns and guitars, and the range of material that could cohesively exist on a single album. Looking back, it is quite a shame that everything this album represented failed to carry the day. But this music survives, and there is still time.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica Straight STS 1053 (1969)
Imagine if Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Jack Kerouac, Luis Buñuel and Jackson Pollock joined Howlin’ Wolf’s blues band. The result would probably sound like something resembling Trout Mask Replica. Exuding a disjointed zaniness, the Captain [a/k/a Don Van Vliet] was unlike anything else out there. One of the watershed recordings of the 20th Century, this is essential listening (though his debut Safe As Milk makes the best introduction).
Though the Captain pays respect to free jazz legends, it is more a slapstick homage. He plays two saxophones simultaneously (vaudevillian and/or Rahsaan Roland Kirk-style) on “Ant Man Bee.” This happens while he manipulating textures like early Steve Reich compositions. While he couldn’t really keep up in a free jazz group, the point is that no one had ever combined such seemingly disparate elements into a package so moving.
Beat poetry is subtly and perfectly delivered over a variety of backdrops. Desert-styled blues on “China Pig,” “Dachau Blues,” and “Orange Claw Hammer” highlight the backbone of Trout Mask Replica. Twisted gospel on “Moonlight On Vermont” makes it a standout song. Most of the material doesn’t make sense out of context though. The lengthy 70+ minute album must be digested together. Comparing “Frownland” to “Veteran’s Day Poppy” shows the range in just this one album and why it takes time to absorb.
The most interesting aspect of Captain Beefheart is his zany, surreal approach to American music. A child-like determination fuels his humor. He tackles difficult topics without sacrificing an underlying idealism. His commentary is poignant and always deeply respectful. The clarity of his vision is what seems so unreal. Captain Beefheart was a child art prodigy almost from birth. He only attended school for a half a day of kindergarten. He brought an outsider’s perspective to the table. Trout Mask Replica is music the Captain wanted to play. It takes advantage of every bit of his abilities.
This is Captain Beefheart’s masterpiece. It is a testament to total creative control (Frank Zappa produces, but this one goes beyond Zappa’s world). The Captain’s debut hinted at British Invasion blues-rock. This sophomore effort can only hint at some other dimension of music. The ingredients sound familiar but the soulful mixture is unique. Arty experiments and beat poetry never quite found a stage so absent of elitism. Trout Mask Replica is the kind of album that doesn’t get old.