114. NEIL YOUNG (1969)

The hideous painting on the sleeve was a little off putting to say the least. The song titles too were unfamiliar, but in the top right hand corner the price label read £1.99, so it had to be worth a shot. Yet another bargain from Rebel Records. As soon as I put it on the turntable, it began to crackle away. A good sign. It must have seen some proper service with its previous owner. It’s the unplayed records you want to worry about. But the surface noise could not disguise the fact that something had gone badly wrong with the production – the electric guitar seemed suffocated, its strangulated stabs and squeals occasionally puncturing what sounded like a thick protective quilt. And those trebly tonsils, buried so low in the mix. But here was a record I couldn’t help but fall in love with, and it has been a favourite ever since. 

Even I’m not convinced it’s his best album, but it’s almost universal dismissal I find irksome: “a godawful debut”; a “stuttering false start” to his solo career, or at best a mere “prelude to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere“. It’s as if he was saving everything in reserve, gearing up for the real thing, but that rarely happens with debut albums. Popular music is all about the present moment, and by autumn ’68, Neil Young had a point to prove. The wax on the last Buffalo Springfield album had barely had time to dry before Neil Young hit the stores. The cover of Last Time Around told the story of Buffalo Springfield’s sad and premature demise. The photo montage pictured Young positioned with his back to the others, steadfastly facing in the opposite direction as if he could no longer even bear to pretend anymore. Bruce Palmer’s departure in early ’67 had effectively sounded the death knell for the band. Palmer had been, according to Young, the “soul of the band”, if you will,  Buffalo Springfield’s very own Brian Jones. The clash of egos would play out a familiar battle and everything soon fell apart. Last Time Around was a hastily assembled contractual obligation album, but it had in effect delivered Young’s first solo recording to the world, ‘I Am A Child’, which foreshadowed the bedsit folk troubadour of After The Gold Rush.


By August 1968, Young was back in the studio with David Briggs and Jack Nitzsche. It was in many ways a painful time. In Jimmy McDonough’s bio Shakey, Young recalled: “It was either a lonely experience or a labour of love. I was really glad when it was over, because it was so technical, took so much thinking.”

The instrumental overtures which kick off each side provide scant indication of any ‘labour of love”, at least on Young’s part. The laidback country twang of the first, ‘The Emperor of Wyoming’ is matched to a relatively unfussy string arrangement, while the second, the brief Nitzsche-penned ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’ only hints at some of the complexity characteristic of the rest of the album.

A more explicit benchmark of the album’s ‘everything bar the kitchen sink’ production, is ‘The Loner’ where strings soar beneath meaty chunks of stomping guitar, at times fizzing like a squadron of mosquitos fighting for air in a glass bottle, which has the subtle acoustic interludes running for cover. There’s s parallel performance on the conquering metallic riff of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, which renders as mere subtext the intricate underlay of piano and organ.

Young has stated that he wished his voice on the record to sound “a million miles away, but right there” and in the floating reverie of ‘I Could Have Her Tonight’ his wish is granted. Barely whispered, it’s unassuming country jangle has a strange little twist in the tail which Television may have lifted for the coda of ‘Torn Curtain’.

Perhaps the most polarising track on the album is ‘The Old Laughing Lady’. Jack Nitzche’s overwrought orchestration often comes in for some criticism, but when Ry Cooder’s languid guitar and Nitzsche’s fluid electric piano ooze into the big soul chorus – take a bow Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones et al – the results are utterly euphoric. It’s simply magnificent.

If Nitzsche’s aspirations were ambitious here, then David Briggs’ contributions were equally so. ‘Here We Are In The Years’ – on the surface a stately ballad – weaves little melodic miracles throughout its patchwork structure and features one of Young’s most earnest vocal performances: “Here we are in the years/Where the showman shifts the gears/Lives become careers/Children cry in fear/Let us out of here!” “We got tones nobody’s ever got, even Hendrix” said Briggs at the time, and here – bizarre moog solo aside – the balance was just about right. Similarly on ‘I’ve Loved Her So Long’ the arrangements (vibes, electric piano, soul chorus, even woodwind) are well-balanced, pretty and entirely satisfying. 

The best tracks more than offset the album’s one blatant misstep, the bumblingly neurotic and supremely self-indulgent nine minute acoustic dirge ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’, of which the less said the better.

I am sure I speak not only for myself when I adjudge the best Buffalo Springfield moments to be ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, both transcendent sound collages, as opposed to ‘For What Its Worth’ or Neil’s very own ‘Burned’. That he aimed to crystallise some of that airborne-ness, and twine a few fragments of baroque into the album’s tapestry is most certainly a plus, and not a minus. Neil Young is the last time he would venture quite as boldly in that direction. The great sin from that moment onwards was to ‘overthink’ composing and arranging. That perhaps accounts in part for such a prolific output. Perhaps he was right too, but undoubtedly something  was lost in the process. For the man himself, Neil Young represented a steep learning curve, and if for him it was a failure, for us it was a glorious one. (JJ)

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

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)