[alert_box type=”info”]This review was taken from the January 1981 Down Beat.[/alert_box]
Of all musicians loosely considered rockers, Captain Beefheart is the most original. Because his music is a genre unto itself, it’s particularly difficult to describe. Analogy, the efficient critics tool, gets nowhere near the heart of Beefheart’s creations.
Beefheart’s late ’60s work was virtually all self composed, and he taught it note by note, beat by beat, to his Magic Bands. This is probably still true; on Run Paint hear Bruce Fowler, occasional db Pro Session writer, whinny on trombone like a rabid equine. In the beginning, Beefheart relied heavily on blues forms and his own intense, rasping vocals – the closest known voice is Howlin’ Wolf’s. Beefheart also dabbled in pop, soul and folk forms, adding jazz-like reed parts, electronic studio effects and odd meters. His innovative earlier work hasn’t become MOR, but sounds far less peculiar to 1980 ears.
The Captain has continued forward, and still makes all other rock music seem tame. He’s beyond merely modifying the blues and even scorns the work of the new wave rockers who claim him as an influence (“Why should I look through my own vomit?” he asked Lester Bangs in the Village Voice). Though his vocals retain blues mannerisms and his lyrics employ a wacky (yet still traditional) blues hyperbole, Doc At The Radar Station displays throughout Beefheart’s own voice: a coarse, incredibly intense speak-singing.
This album may be the most successful utilisation of the harmolodic ideas articulated by Ornette Coleman. The Captain’s working method is different from Coleman’s; instead of seeking ideas from sidemen, Beefheart claims to dictatorially control his Magic Band members. In description, the music reads like jazz, though. Rhythms are carried by the singer and by all instruments – most often by electric guitars. Drums and percussion usually create subordinate, overlapping patterns. Conventional melody and harmony aren’t prime features, but what exists is played by all the musicians. For most tunes here, Beefheart writes catchy ostinatos which, since several are played simultaneously, seem to undermine each other. As these lines persist, they become more compatible, sometimes resolving into jagged unisons. On the most successful tunes, like Sheriff Of Hong Kong, listeners can’t help stomping.
Dirty Blue Gene is one of the highest evolutions yet of composer – arranger Beefheart’s technique. The opening frantic guitar chording soon gives way to blister fingered single note runs – separate lines by two players. At times, the drummer tightly supports a soloist; at others, he seems to he ignoring the band completely. Controlled feedback shrieks from nowhere; rhythms shift and stop altogether, to he reintroduced by guitar power chords; churning slide guitar drives the tune toward its end. Over it all, Beefheart sings one of the great love songs, about a woman who’s “not bad … just genetically mean.” The Captain’s howls of suffering and the brutality of the woman “swingin’ a sponge on the end of a string” are hilarious and somehow, simultaneously, heartfelt. This tune (and others here) will remain on my playlist for at least the short decade until I’m as old as the Captain (39).
Doc is thoughtfully programmed. Hot Head, even with its highly percussive guitars, is structured like a Top 40 tune. Ashtray Heart features guitar-drum “unison,” and, like all the tunes, off the wall lyrics that are funny or empathetic, depending on the listener’s mood. Two brief instrumental numbers function mostly to relieve the tension of the Captain’s strange sprechesang.
Beefheart is least successful where music and words aren’t well integrated; Sue Egypt and Brickbats come off as poetry recitations with musical backgrounds, although each element has its interest. Every tune contains nuggets, and in spite of its initial density, repeated listenings prove that this album wears well.
Most db reviewers are too liberal with stars, especially for rockers. Since journeymen like the Clash garnered five stars (London Calling) and won the Readers Poll for best rock album, and since I’ve awarded four and five stars to passionate tunesmith Elvis Costello, four and a half stars to Doc may seem insulting. It’s not. The U.S. government can’t control its inflation, but we can control ours. Next week, when London has stopped calling, hear the Captain howl.