Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) - Bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, chromatic harmonica, vocal; Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) - Guitar and glass finger guitar; Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) - Bassius-o-pheilius; Drumbo (John French) - Percussion, broom; Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) - Marimba, percussion, broom
Captain Beefheart was unique, in the purest meaning of the word. No one wrote music like him before, and no one has since. He defined avant garde rock and people wonder at the surreal lyrics and complex musical rhythms and playing. And Lick My Decals Off, Baby may be his very best album.
Beefheart grew up in southern California in the same high school as Frank Zappa and began forming his Magic Band in the early 60s. After a local hit song, A&M Records signed them to a deal, where they recorded their first album, the blues-tinged Safe as Milk. A&M hated it, but it soon found a home at Buddah Records.* After poor sales, a second album, Strictly Personal, was canceled.** The band seemed to be going nowhere.
That's when Beefheart ran across his old high school buddy Zappa, who signed him to his own Straight Records and let him run loose in the studio. The result was Trout Mask Replica, usually considered Beefheart's masterpiece.
After that artistic, if not popular, triumph, Beefheart started work on his next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
This was my first introduction to the Captain. Trout Mask Replica was a double album, hence expensive, and you couldn't find it in record stores anyway. But I did happen to stumble upon Decals and, having liked Beefheart's "The Blimp" from the Zapped album, I gave it a try.
I didn't like it much. That's probably typical of people who hear the Captain for the first time. His music is insanely complex, with bizarre rhythms and time changes, the Captain's growly voice (with a four-octave range***) and surreal lyrics, with no hooks to latch on to and barely a melody at all (I thought). But the more I listened, the more I began to like it, realizing that this was just something that couldn't be compared with other music. The melodies were as complex as the rhythm.
The songs are difficult to describe. The most notable sound (other than the vocals) is the use of the marimba, which seems to back up every note played. The song titles are wonders of surrealism:" I Love You, You Big Dummy," "Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop," "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go," "The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)" (about the La Brea Tar Pits), "The Buggy Boogie Woogie, " "The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye), " and "Flash Gordon's Ape," among others.
Beefheart continued onward. He put out the albums The Spotlight Kid, and Clear Spot (released originally in a clear vinyl sleeve instead of cardboard), as well as Bongo Fury with his old pal Zappa (he had previously guested on Zappa's solo album Hot Rats, singing on "Willie the Pimp"), but at that point, the band left him to form Mallard****. The new magic band was not up to snuff and Beefheart regrouped for a couple of years before releasing three more albums that returned to his avant-garde roots, but by the 1980s, had given up music all together to concentrate on his painting and poetry.
The strange things is that, although the album was a critical success, and there is a lot of interest in Beefheart these days, it had rarely been available on CD. It's a shame that such an important collection of music is nowhere to be found, even for those who are interested in Beefheart's strange brand of music. Not everyone will like it. But those who take the time to get it are on the road to a real musical adventure.
*Of all places -- Buddah was best known for bubblegum groups like the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company.
**It was released later. Beefheart claimed it was butchered.
*** I listened to one particular for years -- "Electricity" from Safe as Milk -- thinking that there were two vocalists.
****Matt Groening has written about a similar experience. He thought that the band was really terrible and unable to keep a beat. But he was a fan of Frank Zappa and wanted to figure out why Frank produced the album. Finally he realized that they were playing that way on purpose -- that the beat was so complex that it only seemed amateurish.
*****One thing about record companies in the 60s and 70s -- they didn't mind putting out albums that weren't going to make them a lot of money. Some producers were willing to do things for the art and pay for their losses with the hits. That doesn't happen any more.
******The band was always in turmoil. Beefheart was not an easy man to work with.