The continuing evolution of Beefheart’s music has been one of the most fascinating developments of contemporary rock. The Captain has seemed an introverted, almost schizophrenic figure, mirroring in his work the apparent dichotomy between the rigorous ensemble playing of the Chicago-out-of-Mississippi bluesmen and the anarchic-sounding sprung rhythms of modernists like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. But the unique facet of Beefheart’s blues playing has always been his understanding of the essentially irregular metric structures of much Mississippi blues, and he has thus been able to translate the abrupt, quirky stridency of the early blues guitarists into abrupt, quirky arrangements for his Magic Band. In this way he has synthesised several diverse strains of American music. Beginning with scrupulous attention to basic rhythmic building blocks, and an equally scrupulous perfectionist’s approach to achieving unanimity of musical intent within his band, he has now arrived at a sound of his own, a lean, mean sound for a lean, mean four more years.
Clear Spot is sizzling 1972 heavy metal flash. It is without a doubt Beefheart’s most commercial album, and if it doesn’t equal the incandescent brilliance of Safe as Milk or Lick My Decals Off it is nonetheless a considerable improvement over The Spotlight Kid. While the latter album stayed close to the blues idiom Clear Spot ventures into areas that are new for Beefheart. Its unqualified successes “Low Yo Yo Stuff”, “Nowadays a Woman’s Got to Hit a Man”, “Crazy Little Thing”, “Long Neck Bottles” are tough, tight bursts of energy. None of them are blues, but they are valid extensions of the blues tradition, with high, whining slide guitar leads; harmonica breaks and gravelly, shouting vocals. The Captain and Zoot Horn Rollo are in front most of the way, but the meat of these tunes is their extraordinarily succinct, kinetic underpinnings. Rockette Morton’s slashing second guitar, Orejon’s bass (which often functions as a booming bass drum) and Ed Marimba’s light but precise drumming merge into a push-pull of contrasting rhythms that is similar in effect to the percussion orchestras of Africa and Latin-Amenca. Each player has a definite rhythmic part and the way these parts fit together is the secret of Beefheart’s art.
Some of the other tunes don’t measure up to the glow of these masterpieces. “Too Much Time” attempts, perhaps too literally, to recreate the Stax/Volt sound of the mid Sixties. It would have sounded fine on anyone else’s album but here it is a let-down. Beefheart long ago absorbed the Delta sound into his approach, but “Time” doesn’t absorb the Memphis sound, it merely copies it. Two love ballads offer a lyrical contrast that is new in the Captain’s cosmology. “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” is an only slightly flawed tour de force. The arrangement is stunning. It begins with a Bo Diddley-inspired beat which soon develops into snarling slide guitar interchanges over thundering, pummeling rhythms. The words are some of the most superficial Beefheart has written, but the music, which sounds as if it might be a reaction to things like Ornette’s “Science Fiction” and perhaps Sun Ra, is brilliantly realised.
Throughout the album, the lyrics introduce a Beefheart persona that is essentially new. The dada-dabbling surrealist has become the teasing, tantalising back door man who entices crazy little things with almost drooling gusto. But the good Captain’s women aren’t the meek domestic mates of contemporary pastoral rock. One of them “got to drinking one night and shot up the town / I’ll be damned if she didn’t bring an airplane down.” And how did “Crazy Little Thing” get so doggone crazy? And how did she get a name like Crazy Little Thing? “Must be the name that drove you crazy all along.”
The Captain’s live shows are dynamic, sizzling, tightly controlled explosions. Clear Spot has its ups and downs. But again and again the weaker songs hit home with unexpected twists in the arrangements and committed, powerful playing from the band. And the stronger songs are clean out of sight.