43. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND – LICK MY DECALS OFF BABY (1970)

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Greatest Records, Rock Music

The Art of Beefheart


I imagine my affinity for Beefheart followed a trajectory familiar to many. It began with a bizarrely alluring earful on John Peel; leading next to the perusal of a few rock encyclopaedias and the NME and Sounds Greatest Albums lists of the time (1985); followed subsequently by the purchase of Trout Mask Replica; then swiftly by the indignant return of said item to the record store. Even as I handed my tenner over to the hippy at the HMV till, his derisive expression let me know in no uncertain terms that he fully expected me back within 24 hours. He was of course correct. My virgin ears felt like they had been defiled and my brain pillaged by this artless racket, created by people who clearly had not taken the trouble to learn how to play their instruments. I was inclined to steer clear of Beefheart for some considerable time afterwards, but as I became ever more conscious of Trout Mask’s conspicuously lofty critical approval rating, my frustration began to grow. Was I missing something? Perhaps I was the victim of some cruel hoax? I resolved to find another way to appreciate the Captain’s art, if indeed this really was ‘art’ at all?

Art. Don Van Vliet always had a fascination with art, demonstrated most visibly in his own primitively  idiosyncratic paintings, but extending also to his music, the prime expressions of which are the two albums he made for the Straight label in 1969 and 1970, Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. Every Beefheart aficionado has their favourite album and I am no different. In fact, not selecting Trout Mask Replica for TNPC feels in some ways tantamount to a betrayal, but it is a record which has been extensively discussed, written about and salivated over elsewhere, and whilst undoubtedly amongst my own Top 3 Albums of All-Time, I fear there is nothing much else to add to what is a well-worn story. Those who find ‘TMR’ too arduous a listen [I had to strengthen my constitution with the solid meat of the early Fall albums before I persevered and eventually succumbed] tend to plump instead for the crisper cleaner Clear Spot, the warmer more colourful Shiny Beast or more commonly, as in the estimation of the authors of The Perfect Collection, the classic 1967 debut, Safe As Milk, which memorably showcased Ry Cooder’s stunning slide guitar work. While these albums served as friendly pathways to a reappraisal of TMR, my way in to Beefheart actually came with the purchase of Lick My Decals Off Baby. Those who treasure TMR may feel that it’s slick sibling sequel gives it a run for its money as The Magic Band’s greatest moment, despite it having lived forever in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

Indeed, there are some who swear that Decals actually eclipses ‘TMR’ as Beefheart’s finest hour, but be as well comparing Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake. Nevertheless, those will point to the following: Decals – unlike TMR, which bore the imprint of Zappa – was produced by Don himself and is therefore incontestably his own creation; secondly, where TMR is a sprawling mess, Decals by comparison is both streamlined (all killer, no filler) and strangely symmetrical (both sides have overtly lascivious openers, anarchic hornfests to end, and in the centre, two baroque math-folk instrumentals, Bill Harkelrod – aka Zoot Horn Rollo – conjuring that almost medieval lute-ish sound from his guitar); thirdly there is a greater refinement of song composition and structure – where TMR sounds like a bizarre experiment, the playing on Decals sounds more controlled, sophisticated even (visually implicit in the contrasting choice of band costumes for the album sleeves); fourthly, the polished marimba of Art Tripp brings another dimension to the sound, working a similar effect to Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on Eric Dolphy’s classic Out To Lunch. These for some give Decals the edge.

However, the rubbery booglarized guitar sound, which contrasts sharply with the scratch and bite of the guitars on TMR polarises opinion. Additionally, the explicitly carnal lyrical onslaught may not be to everyone’s taste: at times Don sounds almost predatory like a rhinoceros on heat (“Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/’n’ I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/’n’ everywhere you think/Whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle ‘n’ the kitchen sink…”), albeit a rhino with a darkly mischievous sense of humour (check out the even more hilarious ‘I Want To Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have To Go’) and a wild poetic gift…

Yes, the poetry. The lyrics are not all as bawdy but are staggeringly brilliant, full of free association surrealistic impulse (“Glasses look out on the pale hell bent /Moon milk run / O’ lady go home / Lord they done cookin’ done / Black lady, Black leather lady / Done had a white, white, white poor son”) and humane ecological concern (“If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/’n’ eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumblin’ through/Your petrified forest.”)

If the words are wonderful, then the music is a match for them. The album’s most famous song – covered by The Buzzcocks/Magazine – is ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ (‘nobody has love/love has nobody/I love ya y’ big dummy/quit askin’ why!’), a rhythmically straightforward thrash enlivened by Don’s wild harp (it sounds like he’s blown it to pieces), which could be a demented cast-off from Strictly Personal and anticipates the unabashed blues growl of his next studio album The Spotlight Kid, while ‘Woe is Uh Me Bop’ – which ‘crinkles along mechanically like walking Tinkertoys’ (copyright Lester Bangs – I can’t beat that folks) is a virtual blueprint for the triple salvo of Tom Waits Franks Wild Years period, the most obvious comparison being ‘Clap Hands’ from Rain Dogs. The marimba here adds little strokes of light which de-intensify the urgency of the rhythm. Conversely, on ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)’ the sudden change of tempo, with the marimba and guitar scattering in opposite directions, unseats a vibrant footstomper, yet showcases the band at their most viscerally spontaneous and intuitive. Again there is a delightful play on words (“It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur/To be in an old Dinosaur’s shoes/Dinah Shore’s shoes/Dinosaur shoes”). There are other delights and surprises along the way, not least the interval in the closing ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ (great title) where the orgiastic cacophony is halted for a marimba solo.

No-one else in rock music has innovated on the same scale as Don Van Vliet. Oh, The Beatles and The Velvets  could stake a claim, and were undoubtedly even more influential. But with his music, Beefheart invented an entirely new art form. I can’t pretend to be an art connoisseur, and  I’ve never really understood the Jackson Pollock analogy – I’ve always imagined each splash and stroke of his work to be something of an accident. Nor – though I appreciate the visual image it conjures – can I fully agree with Andy Partridge’s contention that Beefheart’s music “sounds like a piece of the Somme, lifted up and put in an art gallery.” Another fairly unsatisfactory comparison would be that of a collection of jigsaw pieces fitted randomly together, as this presupposes a final abstract image without a recognisable pattern or design. Instead, when considering a Beefheart composition from this period, I prefer to visualise four or five light aircraft taking off together which also land simultaneously: but while airborne, the planes might fly at different altitudes; some are faster than others, each creating its own unique flight path, until at certain points, as if jerked by some centrifugal force, their zig-zag wanderings cease and they line up with Red Arrows precision. Again, they may fly off suddenly in wildly different directions before this telepathic convergence repeats itself. From one journey the planes may return to the ground at awkward angles, from the next they arrive in neat lines. This sound has been imitated by many performers of good will – aesthetes, punks and outsiders, but each has been too indebted for true greatness. Beefheart’s innovations are unique in rock history and alongside its big brother TMR, Lick My Decals Off Baby deserves to take its place as a uniquely esteemed example of American art primitivism.

[If there has been noticeable mainstream infiltration by some of today’s more left field artists, it is worth remembering that ‘Decals’ stayed eleven weeks on the UK album chart, peaking at no.20. Sitting imperiously at the summit was Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits] (JJ)

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29. TIM BUCKLEY – STARSAILOR (1970)

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Jazz Rock, Singer-Songwriter

Oblivion carries me on his shoulder: Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver” (‘Starsailor’)

It might sound like baloney to claim that Starsailor killed Tim Buckley, but in his resoluteness to go as far with the voice as ‘Trane went with the horn, he came undone. The culmination of this intrepid expedition to the outer limits was a rejection by his audience and a subsequent descent into psychological chaos, exacerbated by spiralling alcohol and (ultimately fatal) drug abuse.

Starsailor has to be understood in the context of Tim’s recording a career. If you are unfamiliar with his work it would be imprudent to begin here. Having said that, much has been written about Tim’s music, some of which is amongst the best rock literature (for example Max Bell’s NME retrospective (http://timbuckley.net/articles/nme-1979.shtml) and there are even more insightful accounts, such as Chronicle Of A Starsailor by Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend, lead guitarist and along with Larry Beckett, closest musical confidante. (http://www.timbuckley.com/tim-buckley-chronicle-of-a-starsailor/

I suggest you read both of these if you get the opportunity. Underwood captures with particularly incisive brevity Buckley’s remarkable musical odyssey:

“I watched him grow from a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines, into a hurricane-haired rock and roller, into a madman/genius improvisational vocalist who blew all the pups away, and finally into a lowdown, roadhouse, sex-thumping stomper who injected steam and blood and juice into an r&b music nobody cared about.”

And that really just about sums up Tim’s development as an artist. Starsailor sits as the pivotal moment in a riveting musical journey which has few parallels in the history of rock. Chronologically, it comes exactly half way through Tim’s recording career (1970)  – despite being album number six of nine – and marks the peak of an assurgent creative curve from his  self-titled 1966 debut onwards. After Starsailor, musical compromise set in and the artistic merit of his recordings gradually deteriorated along with his mental well-being.

The album’s most famous track ‘Song To The Siren’ was successfully resurrected by This Mortal Coil in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. [Elizabeth of course later had an intense personal relationship with Tim’s son Jeff whose short life bore an eerily tragic resemblance to his father’s]  Buckley’s original is pitch perfect: in the context of the album itself you might say delicate, restrained, and along with the charming Parisian caress of ‘Moulin Rouge’, certainly unrepresentative of the bulk of its content.

Many of Tim’s performances on Starsailor beggar belief, understandably inviting those ‘operatic vocal gymnastics / acrobatics’ descriptions which characterise reviews of the album. But this is over-simplistic journalism. After all, acrobats and gymnasts spend years perfecting rigidly complex routines. The reality for Tim was somewhat different. That’s not to say the musical performances here lack discipline. Far from it, but, liberated from the constraints of the rock idiom, head swollen with Stockhausen, Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, he felt compelled to reach further with his voice than anyone had ever gone, and did so with an unbridled and ecstatic inventiveness. 

It is clear from the outset that there are no rigid routines here. No, this is going to be a challenging listen. ‘Come Here Woman’ is a staggeringly ambitious calling card. It begins an ends with an avant-jazz skulk, redolent of the territory explored on his previous proper album Lorca. After the intro, suddenly the song leaps to life with Lee’s dissonantly funky guitar and Tim’s off key bawling. Moments later the skittish electric piano suggests we could be listening to Bitches Brew. It’s complex. It’s all over the place. It’s a fantastic start…

On the brilliant ‘Monterey’ Tim sounds like a lustily crazed chimpanzee who has broken into a Magic Band recording session and wrestled the mic from the good Captain, his yelps,warbles and shrieks providing a bountiful exhibition of his vocal dexterity.

Side Two takes us to rock’s outer limits. ‘Jungle Fire’s moody improvisational beginning is abruptly brought to a close by Buckley’s ludicrously unhinged “deep insi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-de” Tarzan yodel. What follows next is magnificent: an accelerating riff of earthy funk guitar amidst a blizzard of deranged wails and howls.I picture those kids shaking their hair to the Stones at Hyde Park in ’69 and imagine how much further they would have gone to a soundtrack like this.

The title track is extraordinary, an abstract assemblage of 16 vocal tracks laid over one another to create something that seems to take us into the realm of metaphysics…even as it’s last few notes fade, nothing can prepare us for the headlong rush of the introduction to ‘The Healing Festival’ which is genuinely shocking – goosebumps not only stand to attention but fly off my back in fright, seeking refuge from Buckley’s hair-raising vocal assault, the  aural equivalent of the mass slaughter of 10,000 dolphins. The horns, courtesy Bunk and Buzz Gardner from The Mothers Of Invention are wild and free yet still struggle to keep pace with Tim’s five and a half octave vocal range.

The curtain comes down with ‘Down By The Borderline’ where flugelhorn gives way to the relatively more stoic rhythms that would anticipate the earthy soul of his next album Greetings From LA. A good album that, but by then Buckley had descended from the mountain, reclothed himself in flesh and bone and shifted his energies to the lower half of his body. A brief confused and sweaty future would follow, but he had already taken rock music as far as it could go. 

PostScript: A Personal Footnote

[Misleading album sleeve #429] As a teenager, I had heard of Tim Buckley – his album Goodbye & Hello was referenced as the only one worthy of note in most rock music encyclopaedias, although I had recently spotted an entry for Starsailor in a Critics’ Top 100 Albums book (edited by Paul Gambaccini). I flicked past Starsailor onto the album featured on the next page, which if I recall correctly may have been Private Dancer by Tina Turner!

Instead, my introduction to Tim’s music came while browsing the A-Z in Glasgow’s Virgin Records in February 1987. I had a £10 note in my pocket and back then this was enough to buy two, three, maybe even if one was canny enough, four albums. I was keen to make that £10 go as far as possible before inadvertently stumbling upon a US import of Tim’s Happy Sad. It was priced at a prohibitive £8.99, but the picture on the back of the sleeve was of the coolest man I had ever seen. There were only six tracks, which varied in duration from 2 to 12 minutes. Those  Bowie and Byrds albums would have to wait a bit longer. I simply had to have this. As a devotee of Astral Weeks I was naturally captivated by the music – a bewitching spell of jazz-folk reverie – which matched perfectly the image on the reverse of the sleeve with its hazy forest sunlight bursting through Tim’s Dionysian locks.

 

I returned to the book store once again to gaze at the picture of ‘Starsailor’. Nah, I thought, he looks too happy here – this must have been the contractual obligation album. Its juxtaposition, next to ‘Private Dancer’ did little to allay those concerns. Little did I know at the time that the album would go down in history as one of rock music’s great acts of commercial suicide. (JJ)