Disc 1 – Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) [as original release]
Disc 2 – The Spotlight Kid (1971) [as original release]
Disc 3 – Clear Spot (1972) [as original release]
Disc 4 – Out-takes
1. Alice in Blunderland – Alternate Version
2. Harry Irene
3. I Can’t Do This Unless I Can Do This/Seam Crooked Sam
4. Pompadour Swamp/Suction Prints
5. The Witch Doctor Life – Instrumental Take
6. Two Rips in a Haystack/Kiss Me My Love
7. Best Batch Yet – (Track) Version 1
8. Your Love Brought Me To Life – Instrumental
9. Dirty Blue Gene – Alternate Version 1
10. Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man – Early Mix
11. Kiss Where I Kain’t
12. Circumstances – Alternate Version 2
13. Little Scratch
14. Dirty Blue Gene – Alternate Version 3
“This new four-disc collection revisits the albums Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) recorded with the Magic Band in the early Seventies — Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. It includes all three albums, which have been remastered for the first time, as well as a disc of unreleased material. “The fourth and final disc in SUN ZOOM SPARK includes 14 unreleased tracks and is a trove of alternate versions, rehearsals and outtakes from the sessions for The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. The disc reveals just how much some songs evolved before being released. Among the highlights are a sung-version of “I Can’t Do This Unless I Can Do This/Seam Crooked Sam,” which became a spoken-word performance on Bat Chain Puller; a raucous, off-kilter version of “Dirty Blue Gene” that pointed the way to the final version on Doc at the Radar Station; and an instrumental rehearsal of “The Witch Doctor Life” that is nearly unrecognizable compared to the version heard on 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow.”
Radar Station Overview by Steve Froy
It’s great to see Beefheart get the full remastered box treatment especially when it’s three of his albums that seem to have been neglected over the years. None of them having a proper CD release. ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby‘ has been very difficult to find on CD due to the fallout from the Zappa/Herb Cohen legal wrangle. The short run issues on Enigma and Rhino still sell for top prices if they appear on the market. ‘The Spotlight Kid‘ and ‘Clear Spot‘ were released in 1990 as a poor two-on-one CD package but not in a remastered form.
What’s more this ‘Sun Zoom Spark’ package has the blessing of Jan Van Vliet which is good to hear. So this release carries a lot of expectations .. and that’s without mentioning the extra disc of outtakes.
However, along with those expectations I began to feel a few reservations. But first …
So what do we have here ….. let’s look at the packaging first.
Stickers on the front say these sets are ‘limited’ but doesn’t say to what and the boxes are not numbered.
Both the CD and vinyl sets come in well made boxes illustrated with the 1970 painting ‘Bee Top’. The CD box hinges open to reveal the booklet, underneath which the four discs are nestled inside a depression with a red ribbon to pull them out. Each CD is packaged as a mini LP with the original artwork (as does the vinyl version) including the lyric sheet for ‘The Spotlight Kid‘ and the clear plastic cover for ‘Clear Spot‘ although this doesn’t have the embossed title on the flap. There is no lyric sheet for ‘Decals‘. They all have the tan Reprise label except for the outtakes album which has a black label. Also the vinyl outtakes album is the only one sealed with shrinkwrap. Its cover is based on another 1970 painting by Don called ‘Button Down Fashion Bow’. Overall a very handsome presentation.
The 20 page booklet contains lengthy notes by Rip Rense called “Captain Beefheart: The Sky Ran Down My Pencil”. In the first section he discusses Don’s creative processes with contributions from Elliot Ingber, Gary Lucas, Moris Tepper, Eric Drew Feldman and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos). It’s well written, insightful and manages to avoid going over the same old cliches. The second part is a quick spin through the four discs putting them into context but in no great detail.
The booklet has some previously unseen photographs of Don and the band in the recording studio. Unfortunately they’re done as contact sheets and are quite small. A poem by Tom Waits about Don is also included.
But now to the meat of the matter.
It’s taken a while but at last we have three of Beefheart’s best loved albums, bright and shiny new from remastering … or at least they should be. Played next to my original vinyl copies I was disappointed as there is not a huge difference in sound. It’s certainly crisper and cleaner with more clarity in the top ranges and some deeper bass but does not have the opening up of the sound I’d expected. The biggest difference is with the CDs of ‘The Spotlight Kid‘ and ‘Clear Spot‘, compared to the weak sound of the 1990 two-on-one-disc version these are a revelation! Yes, you need these!
Update: Since writing this review I’ve listened to these discs further and realise I’ve been taken in by Rhino. My initial excitement over this release and wanting it to be good meant I was fooled by my first hearing and the comments I made about it are not justified. In fact, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot have only been minimally remastered if you can call making it louder ‘remastering’. Yes, it’s still a good set but the remastering claims should be taken with a pinch of salt.
And now we come to the fourth disc … a bunch of previously unreleased outtakes. Fans have known about these for years so it’s exciting to finally see (some of) them released here. These tracks are probably the main reason for many people buying this set. Let’s take a closer look at what’s on offer:
- Alice in Blunderland – Alternate Version – not that different to the original released version although Elliot’s guitar seems to be mixed lower. Sadly it’s not the original very long jam that formed the basis of ‘The Spotlight Kid‘ track
- Harry Irene – a finished track that narrowly missed getting released this is a lovely floating jazzy version that would be redone for ‘Bat Chain Puller‘ and ‘Shiny Beast‘. Showcases some of Don’s fine whistling
- I Can’t Do This Unless I Can Do This/Seam Crooked Sam – Don sings/recites against a basic backing of harmonica and John French tap-dancing, wonderfully simple
- Pompadour Swamp/Suction Prints – this is a section from a 25 minute jam session that threw up a number of riffs that would resurface along the years as fully fledged songs. Known as ‘Pompadour Swamp’ in the early 1970s this was a show opener and would eventually morph into the full-tilt boogie of ‘Suction Prints’
- The Witch Doctor Life – Instrumental Take – a bass, drums and guitar workout this was a survivor from the Brown Wrapper Sessions of 1967/68 and would finally emerge in a radically different form as the song on ‘Ice Cream For Crow‘
- Two Rips in a Haystack/Kiss Me My Love – a slow love song with some nice marimba but overall, for me, it fails to really take-off
- Best Batch Yet – (Track) Version 1 – a rough instrumental sketch of the formidable song that would eventually appear on 1980’s ‘Doc At The Radar Station‘
- Your Love Brought Me To Life – Instrumental – another sketch which has some good guitar and marimba interplay with the drums moving in and out of the soundstage
- Dirty Blue Gene – Alternate Version 1 – see comments on ‘Version 3’ below
- Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man – Early Mix – a slightly different feel and a longer mix than the final cut on ‘Clear Spot’ with the horns given more prominence
- Kiss Where I Kain’t – a tightly played backing track of what appears to be the old song ‘Frying Pan’ that could so easily be the 1965/66 Magic Band playing. A strange time warp sound compared to all the others on here
- Circumstances – Alternate Version 2 – a slightly slower version that doesn’t quite have the same dynamics as the final cut but has a less produced feel (which I prefer) and a different ending
- Little Scratch – a different version from that included on the 1999 anthology ‘The Dust Blows Forward‘. A jaunty little number that almost made it onto ‘The Spotlight Kid‘ and ‘Clear Spot‘. The tune would be recycled and used on the ‘Ice Cream For Crow‘ album as ‘The Past Sure Is Tense’.
- Dirty Blue Gene – Alternate Version 3– this is another song that had its origins in the Brown Wrapper Sessions before being re-recorded a couple of times here (see also ‘Version 1’ above) before completely metamorphosing into the more familiar version with different lyrics on ‘Doc At The Radar Station‘. Both versions here clatter along at a helluva lick.
A fascinating collection of the new and almost familiar. It’s interesting to speculate how an album would have changed its character if some of these songs had been included while something we are very familiar with now had been left out.
Four great albums, well presented. Quite simply this is a great package, and well worth getting. Or is it?
I could easily leave the review here … but there are a couple of issues that need to be addressed. So here are …
Why is there only one disc of outtakes?
Fourteen tracks lasting 46 minutes 41 seconds, enough for a well filled vinyl album. That seems rather paltry … and there were no extra tracks on the CD version. Why do I think it’s paltry? Well, as most fans will know there are at least five or six CDs worth of outtakes from this period that could have been used and that’s well over 70 odd tracks (if you include backing tracks)!
Where is the delightful ‘Well Well Well’ sung by Rockette Morton, the long slow version of ‘Circumstances’, the early instrumental of ‘Clear Spot’ and the fully-formed atmospheric ‘Funeral Hill’ to name a few? And, of course, the alternate versions of ‘Sun Zoom Spark’ … the box set has the same name after all!
Each of these three albums could have been released separately, each with a CD of outtakes, couldn’t they? Maybe the other tracks are being held back for a another release later on. Let’s hope so!
Although the lengthy article in the booklet by Rip Rense is very good there is a gaping void at the heart of it. How come the musicians who played on these albums haven’t been interviewed? Fair enough that Elliot Ingber has contributed but what about Bill Harkleroad, Mark Boston, Art Tripp and John French? It doesn’t make sense not to have their input. They could have helped make sense of this particularly productive period and maybe thrown light on some of the outtakes. The Magic Band are also missing from the cover of the boxset and the outtakes album as both are credited just to ‘Captain Beefheart’.
I’m hoping their omission is not due to Jan continuing Don’s petty vendetta against these guys.
Some Beefheart fans have taken a rather militant stance against this release and are boycotting it. They say they will not buy it and recommend others boycott it too. This action is intended as an expression of solidarity and support for the Magic Band who have never been paid for their work on these albums and will see no money from this latest repackaging. I’m sure many would agree with the sentiment but Rhino are, of course, legally in the right. Their contracts will have been with Don (now his estate) and not with the guys in the band. Don wasn’t a great business man but he was canny enough to keep the band away from any contract that would give them money, and he also avoided giving them a writing or arranging credit even when it’s obvious that without them he’d have not been able to realise his musical visions.
Some people are quick to point out that without Don there would be no Magic Band so why should they get anything. That’s a fair point and perfectly true but those guys brought their musical chops to the table and made flesh the often strange ideas of the non-musician Don. Without the Magic Band there would only be the Tragic Band … and who would want a disc of those outtakes?
It’s a pity that Rhino haven’t gone down the same moral and ethical route taken by Revenant whose ‘Grow Fins‘ was a superb boxset and an example of how to present outtakes. Revenant were able to pay all the Magic Band members involved some money from the proceeds of the sales. But then they’re not a corporate business exploiting their assets for shareholder profit are they?
At least Jan will be getting monies from copies sold even if the band aren’t … and that’s a reason to be buying it, isn’t it?
‘Sun Zoom Spark’ is what it is. An excellent package of three remastered albums with a great bonus disc of outtakes previously unheard in such good quality. But I can’t help thinking though, despite how good it is, that this has been a missed opportunity. It could so easily have been something more … something really special.
2014 4 CD – Rhino R2 541728 0349790555
2014 4 Vinyl – Rhino 8122795862