Having complained that his first few albums hadn't been hits because producers had interfered, corrupting his pure musical vision, Beefheart then wielded nearly complete control over Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. But despite critical praise, these had also not achieved the big sales he wanted (they did reach 21 and 20 on the album chart). He then took his finely honed musical process and equally honed Magic Band and journeyed back from the heart of weirdness into regions closer (if only slightly) to the musical mainstream with two albums released in 1972 (and now available together on one CD).
With The Spotlight Kid, another self-production, Beefheart's music shifted the emphasis back to blues and became relatively more accessible. It wasn't 12-bar blues, however, but a more primitive, harmonically static, droning style. Beefheart's modular construction got all its movement from rhythm; harmonic progression was not necessarily, or often, part of the picture. Marimba is in the mix fairly often, adding a timbre that helps to even further distinguish the music from the many other blues-rock bands of the time.
"I'm Gonna Booglerize You Baby" is straight blues raunch -- Beefheart seems obsessed with sex on this album. I imagine ZZ Top being fans, of this song in particular. "White Jam" can be interpreted as a sexual metaphor ("in the night when I'm full she brings me white jam") or -- more like -- as a drug metaphor ("like a bee she stings me -- I don't know where I am"). It's a brief lyric repeated over and over, seemingly designed as a vocal showcase for Beefheart's display of many voices, notably a keening falsetto. It opens with a quirky guitar/piano duo riff; the whole band joins, and it eventually devolves into relatively straightforward blues enlivened by the way the harmonica part resembles accordion in its wheezing chordal fullness.
"Blabber 'n Smoke" is another romantic complaint ("I can't help but think you treat love like a joke/Time's runnin' out 'n all you ever do is blabber 'n smoke"), with lyrics credited to Van Vliet's wife, Jan; one is left to wonder whether she really wrote them or whether it was another of Beefheart's publishing dodges. Prominent marimba and dramatic pauses make it distinctive. The "it" in "When It Blows Its Stacks" is left ambiguous and undefined, but the sense of menace is palpable thanks to some clanking riffs and an awesomely gritty guitar solo. Similarly gritty, "Alice in Blunderland" is an instrumental, built in the modular fashion of the more radical music on Trout Mask and Lick My Decals, but less angular and herky-jerky and with the guitar solo clearly not pre-constructed. It's a lengthy, ripping solo by guest Winged Eel Fingerling (Eliot Ingber), building in intensity, that anticipates Tom Verlaine's unhinged excursions in Television and somewhat resembles a few of Robert Quine's angular inventions to come with Richard Hell & the Voidoids, if they'd been underpinned by marimba! "The Spotlight Kid" opens with Beefheart declaiming solo, quickly joined by marimba, guitar, bass, and drums in a musical mobile of intertwining skeletal riffs. Over them Beefheart unravels a nature-boy story of surrealistic detail. "Click Clack" is another blues, and takes off on a traditional blues subject, the train carrying away the singer's mate (now ex-mate). "Click Clack" is also a highly sophisticated masterpiece: The rhythms and the riffs all aim at replicating the sound of moving trains; Beefheart's modular style, often suggesting intermeshing cogs, is a perfect fit, and multiple time signatures accent the effect of two trains traveling at different speeds. It was released as a single; it didn't chart.
"Grow Fins" is an ode to returning to nature, not by getting back to the country as a farmer or some such, but by renouncing humanness. Why? Not so much for ecological reasons, but because the Captain's tired of being mistreated by human women and wants to explore the mermaid alternative. The music has one short modular that repeats constantly, with additional modules of completely different dimensions occasionally superimposed -- Charles Ives would be proud. "There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage" sports a low-down guitar riff and, at the beginning, Beefheart's lowest voice, a sort of reverse falsetto, after which he goes into his Howlin' Wolf growl. The lyric seems to be a complaint about the hard life and poor rewards of being a performing artist, but it's most expressive when Beefheart leaves words behind and moans melismatically. "Glider" is so asymmetrical that one wonders whether it's a leftover from Decals, although it becomes more regular by the end. Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) and Winged Eel Fingerling are both heard (unless Harkleroad is overdubbing).
The second of the 1972 releases was produced not by Beefheart, but by Ted Templeman, who had molded the Doobie Brothers into stars. With horn charts and female backup singers on some tracks, this was the Captain's soul move, complete with ballads. That might seem like a really bad idea, yet it worked surprisingly well, and with plenty of gritty blues and angular Magic Band grooves, it's still recognizably a Beefheart sound. While there are a few tracks where Templeman's influence is obvious, it also seems that on the more prototypically Beefheartian tracks, Templeman (or someone, at least) has given even the most eccentric bits a touch of polish, stronger focus, and muscular heft. For arguably the first time, Beefheart was working with a producer who truly knew his way around a studio, truly understood the crafts of production and arranging, and on most tracks -- the exceptions are obvious -- the results are no compromise at all of Beefheart's usual methods. The joints between sections, out in the open before, here are smoothly integrated; the same sorts of pieces flow rather than jerking from one to the next. And the few compromises work too; this album is greatly underrated within the Beefheart canon.
"Low Yo Yo Stuff," a song about seduction technique, gets the album off to a strong start. There's some harmonic movement in the bridge, although more alternational than directional. Despite the heavy slide guitar, this has little relationship to blues, and the arrangement is dense. The strikingly titled "Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man" rides a Bo Diddley beat, jagged guitar chords, and some bleating harmonica; Rollo takes a stinging slide guitar solo. When the massed horns kick in, it's totally swinging. "Too Much Time" is a ballad of loneliness with sweet harmony vocals from the Blackberries, a studio backup group active from 1969 through '75 (they were also most famously on Hoyt Axton's Joy to the World and Ringo Starr's Goodnight Vienna). "Circumstances" is a guitar-powered juggernaut that stops and starts with pounding vehemence.
Beefheart's unexpected ballad artistry resurfaces on "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains." The intricate guitar riff that propels the song is more gentle than usual, with a melodic counterpoint occasionally overlaid and marimba softly tintinnabulating in the background. "Sun Zoom Spark," one of the greatest tracks in the Beefheart discography, has the familiar rhythmic angularity, accented compellingly by a jangling cowbell part and featuring three distinctive Beefheart vocal timbres. "Clear Spot" is another dense modular construction, every bit as good as anything on his best albums. The Blackberries return on "Crazy Little Thing," but with prickly guitar riffs running through the whole song,
"Long Neck Bottles" is a chugging shuffle, blues-like but filtered through soul (low horn accents particularly), on which Beefheart extols the virtue of a hard-drinking girlfriend. The haunting, oddly beautiful "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" is put together in Beefheart's standard modular fashion, but the modules this time have a piquant eloquence, and his vocal tics are put in the service of a pleading emotionality. "Big Eyed Beans from Venus" is another hard-hitting guitar masterpiece, ominous and glowing, with Rollo given a famous name-check for his "long lunar note." The bridge is one of the most glorious tension releases in the Beefheart catalog. Somebody, whether Beefheart or Templeman, displays a magnificent understanding of how to slowly yet inexorably build intensity; where many older Beefheart songs either start out powerfully and then either maintain that power or slip slightly, or else climax on a sudden dynamic peak, "Big Eyed Beans from Venus" moves in ever-mounting waves. The album then closes with a quirky coda, the much sparer "Golden Birdies," with Beefheart poetry alternating with a marimba/guitar duet occasionally accented by bass drum.
This pair of albums' accommodations to what Beefheart saw as mainstream tastes were paradoxically less commercially successful than Trout Mask and Spotlight reached #44 and Clear Spot didn't chart. Funny how these things work out. But it's also worth noting that while (as has already been noted), Trout Mask and would eventually influence post-punk, Clear Spot's influence, while not nearly as wide, turned up in an artist who had the chart success Beefheart was aiming for (with no success). Joan Osborne covered "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" on an obscure three-song EP issued in 1993, and on her triple-platinum breakthrough 1995 album Relish, which reached #9 on the Billboard 200 album chart, Eric Bazilian's opening guitar riff on "Right Hand Man" comes straight from the riff of "Clear Spot," and the songwriting credits include Van Vliet. (Coincidentally [or not?], a later Beefheart guitarist, Gary Lucas, co-wrote and plays on Relish's "Spider Web.") After Clear Spot didn't sell well, Reprise cut Beefheart loose, the Magic Band disintegrated, and he made two disappointingly bland albums released by Mercury in 1974. But, as the last section of my look at Beefheart will examine, he had not nearly exhausted his brilliance. If you'd like my complete historical perspective on Beefheart, click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.