[alert_box type=”info”]This excellent introductory article was taken from the April 1998 edition of The Wire.[/alert_box]
Mike Barnes follows the pioneering trail blazed by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band.
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, was born in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1941. 16 years after his last record was released, he is still one of the most talked about musicians of his generation. His most famous work, the double album Trout Mask Replica, inevitably makes an appearance in any chart purporting to feature the best albums of all time (most recently it featured in Channel 4’s Music Of The Millennium) and he is still cited as an influence and inspiration by musicians of all persuasions, from Henry Kaiser to Mark E Smith. But ironically for someone so influential, his mark is usually only detectable in superficial traces in the music of his admirers. The paths lie mapped towards a new musical language have rarely been explored and lie largely neglected
Like all musicians, Beefheart had his own roots and influences, although they were often fiercely denied. Indeed, while still keeping them in sight, he transcended them in spectacular fashion. His most impressive music and lyrics sound like they are the direct outpourings of a creative well-spring with little predetermined structure or ‘experimental’ game plan to staunch the flow. His work is so strongly personal that even those inspired by the sense of freedom at its heart rarely sound like him – that would be missing the point anyway. This doesn’t mean that his recorded legacy should be viewed as a collection of untouchable museum exhibits. Musicians from Tom Waits to the early 80s Swedish group Kraldjursanstalten have taken element thrown out from his music and made them their own. But as Beefheart’s name is still hip currency, those who can’t even come close to the spirit, the flash, that ignites his music have little option but to namedrop. DJ John Peel comments from the receiving end of this particular trait: “I get so many tapes and records from people. They get someone who growls a bit and say, ‘Oh, you’ll really love our singer, he sounds just like Beefheart’. And you put it on and think, ‘No he doesn’t; more like the antithesis’.”
Beefheart would undoubtedly have released more material had his career not been robbed of its momentum by so many contractual and legal problems, and endless line-up changes for his group, The Magic Band. But then again, as one ex-Magic Band member commented, maintaining a 16 year recording career on major labels with the sort of music that Beefheart produced was an impressive achievement in itself. He didn’t create or define any genres but was aware of the worth of his output, suggesting in the ‘70s that he needed “a new artform”. Beefheart always felt that he should have been more commercially successful, and feeling that he’d done what he set out to achieve, he made a complete break from music in the early ‘80s. He had always been a gifted artist, exhibiting since 1972, and is now, as plain Don Van Vliet, a successful painter. On the subject of his music, he prophesied in 1980: “50 years from now you’ll wish you’d gone, ‘Wow’.” A significant number of people have been exclaiming thus all along.
Safe As Milk
Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band formed in the desert town of Lancaster, California in 1964. Initially influenced by the British Beat group invasion, they were a popular act, attracting a local following, and getting their first break at the Hollywood Teenage Fair in 1965. According to John French (who joined as drummer in 1967, the early Magic Band played Rolling Stones covers and blues songs, and Beefheart – as the obligatory upfront harmonica-totin’ singer – danced like Mick Jagger. The group’s first commercially available recordings are collected on The Legendary A&M Sessions (Edsel BLIMP902 CD), a sequence of singles and B-sides which were originally released in 1966. The first Magic Band single, a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”, is characterised by Beefheart’s feral blues bellow and a monstrous fuzz bassline. The A&M sessions were produced by David Gates – later of MOR giants Bread – who also composed the group’s second single, “Moonchild”. The best and most significant track from this period went unreleased at the time (but appears at last on The Legendary A&M Sessions): Beefheart’s own “Here I Am I Always Am”. The song’s R&B structure restlessly changes metre in a way that anticipates the developments on the forthcoming debut album, Safe As Milk.
Beefheart’s voice was already astonishingly well seasoned for someone in his mid-twenties, and it became more confident and potent on the Safe As Milk material. 18 year old John French joined the group, along with Ry Cooder, slightly older at 20, and fresh from playing guitar with Taj Mahal in The Rising Sons. Released in 1967, Safe As Milk is a potent mixture of old and new Delta blues, psychedelia, pop, rock ‘n’ roll and a shot of soul power. “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do” filches the rift of the blues standard “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, while the poppy “Yellow Brick Road” and the more radical “Zig Zag Wanderer” could have been written and performed by a number of contemporary groups.
“Electricity”, on the other hand, exists in a universe all of its own. Ry Cooder recalls that in composing the song Beefheart avoided a standard ‘four’ beat because he thought it was “corny”. In addition, immediately before recording the track, Beefheart decided to completely change the drum part into a shifting pattern of syncopations. Unfazed, French rose to the challenge of this eleventh hour revision and the results are stunning. The song is loosely based around a square dance, and Cooder and rhythm guitarist Alex St Clair are magnificently incisive. Beefheart’s singing peaks at the scalp-raising roar that blew out a studio microphone during the recording sessions – a feat he later repeated on TV.
Before The Magic Band, Beefheart – initially a reluctant singer – hung around with school friend Frank Zappa, adopting the Beefheart persona from a mooted film project, Captain Beefheart Versus The Grunt People and recording some tracks with Zappa at the latter’s Studio Z in Cucamonga, California under the name The Soots. In the 70s, Zappa announced that he was planning to issue a ten album set of Studio Z recordings, but to date only a few tracks have been officially released. The compilation Frank Zappa: The Lost Episodes (Rykodisc RCD40573 CD) contains half a dozen interesting Beefheart / Zappa collaborations, including the earliest Beefheart track in existence, the repulsive, scatological tour de force “Lost In A Whirlpool”, recorded at Antelope Valley in College, Lancaster in 1958 or 59. (In the song, Beefheart is flushed down the toilet by his girlfriend, and comes face to face with a big, brown, eyeless fish.) Other rare early material, including Safe As Milk outtakes, live recordings and more Soots material, can be heard on the bootleg CD “Captain Beefheart – The Early Years” (Beefmusic BF5969 CD).
Mirror Man and Strictly Personal
In November 1967, Beefheart and The Magic Band went into TTGs studio on Hollywood Boulevard to begin recording an album – provisionally a double – under the working title It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper. The initial sessions yielded four lengthy tracks that would eventually be released as Mirror Man, and around ten other pieces which were released in 1992 as the compilation I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird – The Alternate Captain Beefheart (Sequel NEXCD215 CD). Mirror Man is still erroneously dated as being recorded “one night in Los Angeles in 65”. The live-in-the-studio setting provides a close representation of The Magic Band in concert, where they would explore a few ideas at length.
“Tarotplane” takes its title – but little else – from Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues”, and during its 19 minutes includes references to Blind Willie Johnson’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond” and Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” This funky avant-Delta blues sounds like a jam session: the group are impressive, but don’t seem to be heading anywhere in particular. (Mercifully, this version doesn’t reach the half hour length of the version played at Middle Earth in 1968.) Also featured are exploratory versions of “Kandy Korn” and “Mirror Man”; both would be edited and re-recorded a few months later for inclusion on Strictly Personal. There is an exquisite moment during “Tarotplane” when Beefheart first blows into the shenai – which was reputedly given to him by Ornette Coleman – producing a garbled series of squawks in some distant key. This performance helps explain John Peel’s recollections of the effect Beefheart’s shenai playing had on live audiences: “When he started playing that strange instrument about half the audience would leave.”
I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird is a vault–robbing exercise par excellence. It features some rough 8 mix alternative versions of tracks that ended up on Strictly Personal and some previously lost outtakes – though the lengthy “Korn Ring Finger” from the same sessions isn’t included. Tracks from Safe As Milk, Mirror Man and I May Be Hungry make up the compilation ZigZag Wander – The Best Of The Buddah Years (Wooden Hill HILLCD6 CD).
Strictly Personal was recorded six months after the above-mentioned sessions. Notoriously, it features phasing effects and backward tapes which were added surreptitiously at the mixing stage by manager and Blue Thumb label boss Bob Krasnow – who released the album quickly in an attempt to cash in on the burgeoning acid tuck market. Counter-rumours claim that Beefheart, having already experimented with modulated vocal effects and phasing on the introduction to “Korn Ring Finger”, sanctioned the production, only disassociating himself from it when it was criticised by the US music press.
From the strange chorales at the lengthy “Trust Us” to the untrammelled bellowing of the re-recorded “Mirror Man” and the image-streams of “Beatle Bones ‘N Smokin’ Stones”, with its infamous “Strawberry Fields Forever’ refrain which irked John Lennon, the Strictly Personal compositions exhibited the rapid broadening of Beefheart’s musical scope. Although Cooder had left the group, St Clair and incumbent guitarist Jeff Cotton were an impressive duo, grappling with increasingly serpentine lines, while John French’s use of tabla rhythms carried the music ever further from the four-square beat of blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Beefheart still clung to his blues roots, however, as demonstrated by “Ah Feel Like Ahcid”, a fantastic mutation of a foot stompin’ blues holler based loosely on Son House’s “Death Letter”, and “Gimme Dat Harp Boy”, which utilises the riff from Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”. The phasing is occasionally intrusive, but overall it detracts little from the music, which, as Beefheart put it, shines through “like a diamond in the mud”.
Trout Mask Replica
Trout Mask Replica was released in late 1969, but it still sounds like a signal retrieved from another time and dimension. Put more prosaically, it was a quantum leap from its predecessor in terms of structure and musical complexity. The difference is simply explained: Beefheart had recently had a piano installed in The Magic Band’s communal rented house in Cunoga Park, San Fernando Valley, and began using it to generate new material. As he had no piano technique to speak of, the resulting ‘compositions’ were characterised by relatively short lines, inevitably in different metres. It fell to John French to capture the moment and transcribe these keyboard studies for the rest of the group to play. Building these heterogeneous layers into a structure and then coming up with drum parts to bind them together nearly drove him “nuts”, French admits. The process wasn’t made any smoother thanks to Beefheart deciding on a whim that parts should be played backwards.
The Magic Band now consisted of French and Cotton (rechristened Drumbo and Antennae Jimmy Semens respectively), plus two new recruits, teenagers Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) on guitar and Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) on bass, who thought they were joining a psychedelic blues outfit. In the months leading up to the Trout Mask sessions, the group lived and rehearsed in the house in Cunoga Park in conditions of grinding poverty, with French, at least, practising for up to 14 hours a day. The group members were definitely malnourished at times, although rumours (or allegations) circulated by the group that Boston lived on dog food and was too weak to leave his bed sound mischievous. Fist fights broke out and the atmosphere soured as Beefheart became increasingly tyrannical. “A comic book Mansonish gestalt therapy kinda thing,” is how Harkleroad remembers the time. The first track that was written on the piano with clear illustration of how it could be translated into parts for other instruments (in this case two guitars) was the astringent chamber piece “Dali’s Car”. Often, Beefheart’s initial ideas would run out of steam, and the group had to make aleatoric leaps to complete the journey from A to B. “You guys know what to do,” was his prosaic response to queries about how to tie up a particular song’s loose ends. Gary Lucas (Beefheart’s manager and guitarist later in his career) likened his compositional process to throwing a pack of cards into the air, taking a snapshot as they fell, then getting the musicians to reproduce the frozen moment.
“I got musicians who had never played before,” explained Beefheart. “To get them past the ‘I’ consciousness, you know? That endless ‘me, me, me’. Or do-re-mi, whatever that stuff is” This claim is fanciful to say the least; French and Harkleroad could both read music, and all four Magic Band members had been playing for years. But it is true to say that these musicians had never before played music like that on Trout Mask Replica. Although it travels a long way from its sources, Trout Mask is still infused with the essence of the blues. In isolation, some of the guitar lines aren’t so different from the stranger articulations of Robert Johnson or Hubert Sumlin, Howling Wolf’s guitarist. In addition, Beefheart threaded the music’s tangled structure with strands of rock ‘n’ roll, avant garde jazz and poetry that looked back at the American cultural mythos through a kaleidoscope. When questioned about the record in 1991 he said that he had been “trying to break up the mind in many different directions, causing them not to be able to fixate”.
The majority of the 28 tracks were put down in about six hours at Whitney Studios in Glendale, Los Angeles, with Frank Zappa producing. With time added on for the vocal tracks and mixing, the record was completed in just four days. That was going it some, but the recently unearthed bootleg tape, The Trout Mask Replica Rehearsals, which features tapes of The Magic Band playing (without Beefheart) at the Cunoga Park house, highlights what an awesome unit the group had become.
There is too much on Trout Mask to summarise here, but two particular highlights are “Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish”, a delirious stream of sensual / sexual imagery (including “Meate rose ‘n’ hairs”) declaimed over a spectacularly convoluted backing, and the a cappella “Orange Claw Hammer”, a beautifully wrought sea shanty-style yarn about an old sailor’s reunion with his long lost daughter.
American critic John Ellis bemoaned the fact that this mighty album was often just used as a “pot party” novelty record. The fact that it works on that level and also stands as one of the most staggering pieces of music produced in the last 30 years is some kind of achievement.
Lick My Decals Off; Baby
Just to prove that Trout Mask wasn’t a fluke, Lick My Decals Off Baby – Beefheart’s favourite of his own albums – came just over a year later. Ex-Zappa drummer Art Tripp (aka Ed Marimba) joined, adding marimba to the group’s instrumentation, and locking into a spectacular twin-drummer combination with French. Jeff Cotton departed to rejoin his former group mate Merrel Fankhauser in MU, despite shadowy rumours of coercive tactics to keep him in the fold. The result was a Magic Band sound that was by turns more open – with Tripp’s marimba leavening the sound – and at times even more extreme than that on Trout Mask. The album contains some of Beefheart’s most original music. The “Dali’s Car” piano-transposed-to-guitar template was expanded for the sublime bass and guitar piece “Peon” (composed in one take!), and the flamenco-inflected guitar solo “One Red Rose That I Mean”. “Doctor Dark” is at first a barely fathomable composition. The musicians seem to inhabit free time before cohering and then shooting off on a number of tangents simultaneously before regrouping again. As the track fades, Beefheart, in fine voice throughout, sounds uncannily like Van Morrison. The pitching of Harkleroad’s thorny guitar against double percussion and Boston’s flat, hollow bass produced a sound and form that pushed even further into new territory. “What the music is going at is complete absence,” Beefheart explained. “That’s the way I did it You can’t think about that music. That music is moving so fast that if you think about it it’s like watching a train go by and counting the cars. It’s better to hear it without the mind so active.”
The Decal lyrics moved on from the environmental warnings of Trout Mask into the apocalyptic landscapes of “Petrified Forest”, where dinosaurs take revenge on the human race for their desecration of the planet; but there was humour, too – and sex, on the title track. Practising the saxophone was anathema to Beefheart, and while on Trout Mask it sat in the mix, here he blasts at cacophonous full throttle all over the instrumental “Japan In A Dishpan” and “Flash Gordon’s Ape”. “That’s his ego,” reckons guitarist Moris Tepper, who joined the group in 1975. “He wrote this music and then he hears the band do the track and the track sounds amazing and he doesn’t feel he’s part of it. I think he covered up a lot of great music, but at the same time, watching him taking out his big fire hose and spray was real boss!”
The Spotlight Kid
“I hate that album, it sucks,” said Bill Harkleroad of The Spotlight Kid. Beefheart claimed to have written it more for the group, meaning that it was far removed from the sound and fury of Trout Mask and Decals and more overtly blues-based. And easier to play. Harkleroad recalls that when the group started rehearsing the material, “tempos got down to this zombie state”. This is rather overstating the case. True, the album has a lugubrious feel, especially on the bleak “There Ain’t No Santa Claus On The Evenin’ Stage”, but there are plenty of highlights, such as the sexual jousting of the characters on “I’m Gonna Booglarise You Baby”, which rides out on an irresistible hi-hat and snare groove with Boston, Harkleroad and new guitarist and ex-Mother Of Invention Elliot lngber skidding around on top. Many of the songs would become live show favourites, including the awesome “Click Clack”, a take on the perennial train-kept-a-rollin’ theme set to a shuffle beat that really does sound like it’s played backwards.
Beefheart’s blues roots were obvious and he had often slipped playful blues references into his songs – deliberately misquoting Howling Wolf’s “Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy” on “When Big Joan Sets Up” from Trout Mask, for instance. But having retreated temporarily from the innovations of his previous records, Beefheart became increasingly defensive in interviews, describing attempts to link him to the Delta blues, or worse still, to Howling Wolf himself, as “just ignorant thinking”. “A lot of those English boys copy people,” he said later, referring to groups that came to prominence in the 60s blues / R&B boom. “I don’t Never did.”
Beefheart claimed that he had written 35 songs for The Spotlight Kid – which must have seemed like typical exaggeration. But the sessions before and after the record was released in January 1972 produced an enormous wealth of material, from bare sketches to fully formed tracks, that were adapted and reworked extensively on subsequent official albums. The finished outtake “Funeral Hill” was pencilled in for inclusion on a triple CD box set on Sequel, which remains unreleased. But a number of unissued tracks from this period feature on the German bootleg CD Puller Man, along with other rarities from throughout Beefheart’s career.
In 1972 Beefheart told Creem magazine that the music for what would become Clear Spar had been written during an eight hour journey from Boston to Yale. If asked, The Magic Band would no doubt have disputed the time scale and perhaps the mechanics of composition. They were beginning to get dissatisfied with the lack of financial (if not critical) recognition for their contributions. Without claiming authorship of the material, Harkleroad claims that with less overt teaching by Beefheart, both he and Mark Boston helped to shape much of the Clear Spot material. Producer Ted Templeman, who had worked with other Warner Brothers acts including Little Feat and Van Morrison, was drafted in to oversee the sessions. He wasted no time letting Beefheart know who was in charge. Fall outs ensued, and there were rumours that Beefheart was denied access to the studio at crucial times. Recently, drummer Art Tripp said of Templeman, “We had him come in there and make it more commercial”. Tripp also suggested that half the tracks on the record were “just like the normal crap you hear every time you turn on the radio. Except we had a kind of unique sound”.
On Clear Spot that unique sound is warm and spacious, a world away from the dry angularities of Trout Mask and Decals. The group are at their most muscular dealing with this funky hoodoo music. “Too Much Time” with The Blackberries on backing vocals, is pure Otis Redding, so much so that the track was a hit on a Boston soul station, until they discovered that Beefheart was white. “Low Yo Yo Stuff” and the horn-powered “Long Necked Bottles” are both witty and lascivious. And the album contains Beefheart’s best known (and best) song, the thunderous, polyrhythmic “Big Eyed Beans From Venus”. Clear Spot is avant pop/rock and a massive success on its own terms.
Then came two albums that really did sound like the normal crap you hear every time you turn on the radio: Unconditionally Guaranteed (Virgin CDV20 15 CD) and Bluejeans And Moonbeams (Virgin CDV2023 CD). By 1974, desperate for the commercial success that Clear Spot should have yielded, Beefheart put his career in the hands of MOR svengalis the Di Martino brothers and went around extolling the virtues of Rod Stewart and The Stylistics. A handful of decent tracks are spread across the two albums, but most second-guess what commercial music should be like and come out sounding unbelievably lame. Ironically, they both failed to chart as high as the previous four albums. The Magic Band mutinied on the eve of a tour to promote Unconditionally Guaranteed, and a hastily assembled substitute group back Beefheart on the dismal live album London 74 (Movie Play Gold MPG74025 CD). There is little point in trying to construct a revisionist apologia for this music, as Beefheart later advised anyone who had bought the studio albums to try to get their money back.
The former Magic Band members became Mallard and hooked up with nightclub singer Sam Galpin. In 1975 they released a fine album, Mallard, which was close in feel to Clear Spot, and a lesser follow-up, In A Different Climate, both now available on one CD (Virgin CD0VD442 CD). Then they disappeared.
Beefheart disappeared, too, disillusioned arid seriously thinking about giving up music. But his old friend / enemy Frank Zappa threw him a lifeline and in 1975 he toured with The Mothers Of Invention, a meeting which is documented on the sporadically brilliant Bongo Fury (Rykodisc PCD 10522 CD) As well as featuring on Zappa’s material, Beefheart contributes two compositions, “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” and “The Man With The Woman Head”. After his recent nadir, these image-rich recitations boded well.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
Beefheart was interviewed in 1976, saying that he had recorded an album, titled Bar Chain Puller, with “the greatest band in the world”, a young Magic Band that he’d taught from scratch. The group’s keyboard player John Thomas clarifies: “Don was very fond of saying that he taught each of the musicians to play their instrument. But he virtually had to teach them how to play the music the way he envisioned it because there was no precedent for it. You bowed your own will in order to serve his vision.”
Bat Chain Puller was a totally convincing return, powerful with a full, multi-faceted sound. The Magic Band now comprised Thomas, French on guitars and drums, and guitarists (Jeff) Moris Tepper and ex–Mother Denny Walley. The title track with a rhythm famously adapted from a cassette recording of a train going past Beefheart’s car which was parked with the windscreen wipers on – is colossal, and the tale of an old hobo set to stunning music on “Odd Jobs” was equal to anything he had recorded. The big problem is that the album still hasn’t been released. Frank Zappa was executive producer of the sessions, but the recording coincided with his lawsuit with manager Herb Cohen. He owned the tape but couldn’t put it out. Neither could Warners, nor Virgin. That didn’t stop Virgin from circulating some premature promo tapes, which subsequently became the source for numerous bootleg versions of the album. Now it is slated for official release by the Zappa estate, remixed by Denny Walley. Quite why a remix is necessary is anyone’s guess. The creator is allegedly very unhappy.
More contractual problems meant that the re–recorded version of Bat Chain Puller, retitled Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), was only released in early 1980. About half the material is reworked from the Bat Chain Puller tapes, and there are a couple of brilliant new tracks, the Zappa-esque “Ice Rose” (initially composed in 1967) and “When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy”. The album features Art Tripp’s marimba and Bruce Fowler’s trombone in a beautifully orchestrated, gloriously colourful sound. Perhaps it lacked the bite of the original Bat Chain Puller, but the airy production (by Beefheart and Pete Johnson) allows this joyous music to dance.
Doc At The Radar Station
One thing Doc At The Radar Stanon didn’t lack was bite: it was Beefheart’s most abrasive record since Decals. The basis of Beefheart’s creativity was always his spontaneity; he’d often likened the process to going to the bathroom or combing his hair, and he was keen to share this turbulent mental throughput with the world: “I hope it gets people up and makes them move like I have to. I do it out of irritation – that’s my drive I have to do it. It’s like sandpaper on a shrimp,” he said. Once again the album recycles and remodels ideas and material from earlier sessions, including The Spotlight Kid, and a re-recorded take on “Brickbats” a cut from the original Bar Chain Puller. The new material is even better. “Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee” is a compelling monodrama set to a group hacking which included a mellotron, an instrument that Beefheart had taken a liking to, played in the iciest, spikiest way.
With Beefheart back on sole production duties the sound is flatter; he stated that old blues records had no added reverb, so why should his music be “drowned in heavy syrup”? In addition, he wanted the music to be two-dimensional, like a painting. But The Magic Band members had been listening to groups they had supposedly influenced, such as The B-52s and Devo, and wanted some of their production values. Keyboard and bass player Eric Drew Feldman recalls that when Beefheart left the control room, “I had the audacity to ask the engineer, ‘Could you make it a little warmer?’ and he did. Don came in five minutes later and immediately said, ‘Sounds different. The bass sounds different’, and smoke came out of the ears a little bit.” During takes for “The Best Batch Yet”, Beefheart decided to make some last minute adjustments, including reversing the drum patterns. The group struggled through the new arrangement for half an hour as the track fell apart. “Everyone was seething but not saying anything,” Feldman remembers. “Then he says, ‘OK, good. Now go back to the way you were playing it before’. He was totally manipulating us. We were playing it too smooth, so his way was to get everybody pissed off, angry. And then everyone played it like they hadn’t played it for quite a while.” The whole of Doc has this kind of edge.
Ice Cream For Crow
With the benefit of hindsight, Ice Cream For Crow, Beefheart’s last album, released in 1982, sounds like the subconscious tying together of a bundle of loose ends. New tracks sit alongside old, reworked material, and the original plan, in order to keep the album’s budget down, was to include same of the tracks from the Bat Chain Puller sessions. But Frank Zappa, who technically still owned the Bat Chain Puller master tape in his capacity as executive producer, refused to let Beefheart use any of the material unless he bought the tape outright. An argument ensued and Beefheart came away empty-handed, which meant there was a shortfall in material for the new album. Fuelled by anger from his confrontation with Zappa, Beefheart began composing that night, producing an abrasive piano piece, “Oat Hate”, which later became “Skeleton Makes Good”. Along with another ‘filler’, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, it’s one of Ice Cream’s best tracks.
Ice Cream features some fine music. The title track, a video of which is now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art was a minor hit, and “Evening Bell”, a showcase for Gary Lucas, was Beefheart’s most challenging guitar composition yet. The reason the album doesn’t quite match up to Doc is exemplified by “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat”. It sounds like a track from Trout Mask (complete with roughly contemporaneous poem). But whereas on Trout Mask Beefheart belted out his vocal over The Magic Band’s turbulent backing and achieved an intuitive sort of coherence, here he sounds hesitant and that vital union isn’t quite achieved. Then again, the group was mostly new, and amazingly learned the material in a few weeks.
Virgin were still keen to take up their option an another album, but Beefheart had already tired of the recording / touring routine, and apparently didn’t think the terms were good enough. They even tried to guide him into acting by provisionally landing him a part in the killer bear movie Grizzly 2 – with guarantees that Magic Band material would feature in the soundtrack. Beefheart wasn’t interested. It was just “too corny”. He was more concerned with pursuing his art career, which took off in the mid-80s. Before he gave up music completely, he made some unreleased, abandoned recordings with artist Julian Schnabel. In 1984 he also began planning an album with Gary Lucas, which would include new material and an old, unreleased gem, “Hoboism”, but when Beefheart visited Lucas’s apartment to start working on ideas he seemed “unfocused”, and nothing was realised beyond rough drafts. Typically, Beefheart’s appraisal of his departure from music was quite different: “I retired. I had to,” he said. “I got too good on the horn and I got to the point where I thought I was going to blow my head right off. So I started a second life.”
Castle Classics distributed through BMG; Liberty and Virgin through EMI; Reprise and Rhino through WEA. Mike Barnes is writing a critical biography Of Captain Beefheart to be published by Quartet in 1999.