The music and artistry of Don Van Vliet, known to all and sundry as Captain Beefheart is very black and white – there are no greys here – you either love it and take it to your soul from the first listen onward or you run screaming and never want to hear the name or the sounds emanating from his ensemble, The Magic Band, ever again. I’ve been in the camp of the former since I was 15 or so, when I was first introduced to the man via the eye-opening appearance he did on “Saturday Night Live” in ’81 (performing “Hothead” and “Ashtray Heart”). The thing is, none of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band’s records ever sounded as poppy, linear or accessible again. If there was ever an artist that can be defined as “avant-garde” and “alternative”, it’s Captain Beefheart.
The four CD’s that comprise Sun Zoom Spark are from Beefheart’s post Trout Mask Replica-era: 1970’s masterful Lick My Decals Off, Baby (a perennial Beefheart favorite), 1972’s The Spotlight Kid, which shows inklings of Van Vliet starting to test the waters of a more mainstream direction and later from the same year, Clear Spot – again, showing some more restraint from the usual Ornette Coleman-inspired (an oft-viewed influence/namecheck but valid, nonetheless). The fourth disc is outtakes and some alternate versions that either appeared on these albums or later on. Nonetheless, the three main discs are the fascination – a re-visit to an interesting period in the Beefheart story.
Simply put, while 1969’s landmark Trout Mask Replica was not exactly the most accessible thing to attempt to listen to (I’m not certain if I’ve ever made it through all four sides in one sitting, frankly), Lick My Decals… is, for all intents and purposes, fun, entertaining and a lot easier to listen to. It has all the idiosyncrasies and weirdnesses that you expect from The Magic Band, but there are some memorable tracks – such as “Woe Is Uh Me Bop” (my personal fave), “I Love You, You Big Dummy” (classic – and covered by Magazine), “Doctor Dark” and “Bellerin’ Plain”. It was a tighter Magic Band that played with some conviction and swayed with the Captain’s direction and vocal flutterings.
The Spotlight Kid is a lot less complex – and has an altered line-up behind it as well. Legend has it the members were tired, physically and emotionally; they hadn’t been paid and were living in squalor and fear of Beefheart’s tyranny. It’s also a slower-paced album; “Blabber ‘N Smoke” is a very straight-forward (for Beefheart, anyway) country-rock type of number, but sedate; “I’m Gonna Booglarize You, Baby” is a hypno-groover; “Grow Fins” is a swamp reading of love gone awry – not the usual fare of Beefheart’s lyrical topics. In other words, you actually understood the subject matter.
Clear Spot would mark the last time the core of the Trout Mask Replica group would be together and there was a notion of more commericiality by bringing in producer Ted Templeman and engineer Donn Landee. Of course, that didn’t happen, but there was a definite shift towards radio-friendlier sounds with a very-Stax flavored “Too Much Time” (complete with female backing singers), “Low Neck Bottles”, which fits that early ’70’s galloping rock feel and “Circumstances” which is tight and chugs along with a straight tempo like no previous Beefheart works. If you can make an argument for listenability on the whole, Clear Spot was it.
These three albums are as important as Safe As Milk, Trout Mask Replica, Doc At The Radar Station and Beefheart’s musical finale, 1982’2 Ice Cream For Crow. And if there’s a good starting point to quench one’s curiosity towards the enigma and genius of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, this boxset is a perfect place to start.
Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972 is available now.