WHILE nobody questions his status as one of rock’s great originals, Captain Beefheart’s madcap variations on the blues are an acquired taste. Armed with a voice like Howlin ‘ Wolf, a band he claimed to have taught himself and an imagination that just went thataway, Beefheart did not set out to be easy listening. The unhinged adventurousness of his 1969 masterwork, Trout Mask Replica, appeals mainly to critics and students of musical weirdness.
More approachable and ultimately more satisfying is the album he recorded three years later with a new producer. Ted Templeman, whose clients included Van Morrison and the Doobie Brothers, was drafted in to address Beefheart’s chronic lack of commercial success. He failed miserably in that, but he coaxed some electrifying performances out of a band who had boasted that they were into “anti-music sound sculptures”. Now, they were into guitar arrangements of orchestral complexity, as evidenced by the majestically noisy Big Eyed Beans from Venus; and where Beefheart had once seemed hellbent on avoiding the beat, on this album everybody, guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo included, was part of a topsy-turvy, funk rhythm section.
The horns and backing singers did not get them played on American radio, but neither did they get in the way – in fact, My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains turned out to be one of the most affecting songs Beefheart recorded. Placing that alongside the surreal horseplay of Golden Birdies was madness and, thanks to his hilariously gruff charisma, it worked.
– Robert Sandall (c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 1997.