61. JUDY HENSKE & JERRY YESTER – FAREWELL ALDEBARAN (1969)

Baroque Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Psychedelia

imageI was never much of a Zappa fan – for me, ‘Freak Out’ was as good as it got – but I must give Frank some credit for overseeing the formation of Straight Records. It’s small catalogue of only 16 albums and a handful of 45s is amongst the most wildly eclectic distributed by any record label. Initially, Zappa envisaged Straight as an outlet for more mainstream artists, allowing it’s partner label Bizarre to focus on experimental/oddball LPs by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Wild Man Fischer and Frank himself. But somewhere along the line the script got mixed up. That the likes of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ ended up on Straight and not on Bizarre, seems to indicate that, despite honourable intentions, there was no distinguishable musical demarcation between the labels. It is nigh on impossible to imagine two LPs more audaciously ‘off the wall’ than those two.

Which brings us to Jerry Yester and Judy Henske’s ‘Farewell Aldebaran’, released on June 16th 1969, the same day as Beefheart’s magnum opus ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (catalogue numbers STS-1052 and STS-1053 respectively). The latter, regarded by many as the greatest and most adventurous album in rock history, has a far more enduring legacy than it’s comparatively neglected twin. In its own way however, ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ is as peculiarly eccentric: it is a brave record, not at all easy to fall in love with, and yet an utterly unique and compelling listen from start to finish. It is not strange in the same way that TMR is ‘strange’. TMR, if it sounds wholly impenetrable to some, has a singular vision which might defy easy categorisation, but it’s mixture of free jazz, wild delta blues and ecological concerns gives it a recognisable thematic unity. Not so ‘Aldebaran’, which has an insatiable eclecticism that makes it in many ways an even more challenging listen. It has oft been likened to one of those old record label sampler compilations – ten bands, ten very different sounds – but while this is a convenient analogy to draw, it is a little off the mark. It isn’t ten bands, just Jerry, Judy and a small host of guest musician friends. And if the album has an identity crisis, there are still patterns and motifs which lend it it’s own distinctive aura.

‘Snowblind’, a creeping bluesy howler with a fizzing lead guitar, finds Henske returning from the wilderness years of cabaret performance, wailing her heart out like Janis Joplin with some obliquely gothic lyrics: [‘Fallbrook Sedgewynd gave to Nancy/ringnecks for her coachmen’s fancy/Eggs and emeralds, shocking garters/Devilled prunes to stop and start her/Nancy gave to Fallbrook Sedgewynd/neither nods nor time of day/Love is nasty, love is so blind/Love shall make us all go snowblind.’] Upon closer inspection, it could be a proto-glam stomp, and stands in stark contrast to ‘Horses On A Stick’, a slice of pure bubblegum sunshine pop, reminiscent of The Association (Yester had produced some of their albums) or The Turtles.

After that schizophrenic pairing there are a few songs which are closer cousins, featuring both harpsichord and a theatrical vocal performance from Henske. ‘Lullaby’, sung beautifully in a vulnerable quiver, is a darkly melodramatic way to sing one’s child to sleep [‘The end of the world is a windy place/Where the eagle builds her nest of lace/I rock you asleep in the cradle of end/Listen, baby, to the wind’], while Judy’s instinctive comedic impulse gets an airing on ‘St. Nicholas Hall’. Over some bizarre background overdubs, her vocal reaches a near hysterical crescendo during this fiercely satirical attack on the Church [‘Blessed are the pure in heart
(We need a new organ by June)
Blessed are the merciful
(The old one’s badly out of tune)
Blessed are the peacemakers
(Please send us the money soon)
Sincerely yours in Jesus/Your Dean’
]

Vocal duties are shared on ‘Three Ravens’, one of two gorgeous psych-baroque outings telling tales of knights and maidens and featuring a string arrangement worthy of his friend, the late Curt Boettcher (Sagittarius, The Millenium). It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Left Banke album or even The Zombies genre-defining ‘Odessey & Oracle’. The final coda is sublime making it truly a song to treasure. The other, ‘Charity’, is glorious – it’s folksy guitar might recall once again The Association (specifically their ‘Goodbye Columbus’ soundtrack), but it’s orgiastic organ-driven ending is a masterstroke.

The lengthiest track on the album, ‘Raider’, is the strangest of brews, featuring bow banjo and fiddle, both unceremoniously knocked askew by a clunking harpsichord – if one can imagine a buoyant bluegrass version of the theme for The Ipcress File – a toe tapping knee-slapping classic with great harmonising at the finale. It’s followed by the album’s one weak point – the hazy jazz inflections of ‘Mrs. Connor’ mean it’s the only moment that feels contrived here. The rest of the album if stylistically disparate, manages somehow to feel remarkably organic.

Judy’s strident matronly vocal returns on ‘Rapture’ which once again is unashamedly poetic
[‘Lovers who lie/beneath the night sky/neither speak nor hear/in the perfect stillness/She is near/Her voice in the heart’s blood comes roaring/In rapture they die’] It features a wheezing harmonica and introduces  some Moog (but understated, cunningly rehearsing it’s centre-stage performance on the closing title track), all embellished by strange echo-layered vocal overdubs not entirely dissimilar to engineer Herb Cohen’s work on the aforementioned ‘Starsailor’.

Perhaps producing albums such as ‘Happy Sad’ by a star dancer such as Tim Buckley had opened up new vistas for Yester. The curtain comes down with the staggeringly ambitious title track, where he leaves his Lovin’ Spoonful days for dead with what is undoubtedly one of the very strangest songs of the 1960s. [‘See, she is descending now/Starting the slide/The comets cling to her/The fiery bride/She is the mother of/The mark and the prize/The glaze of paradise/is in her eyes/Her mouth is torn with stars/and brushed with wings/She cannot call to us/She does not sing.’] It’s so ‘out there’, at times I find it near excruciating – a mindbending space Moog prog monstrosity. When those Dalek vocal treatments gatecrash the party you’ll know what I mean. But for all it’s crazed nonsense, on most days I love it to bits. It’s the one moment on the album where Yester sounds possessed. Now there were stars – or perhaps asteroids – in his eyes.

I first read about ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ in Strange Things Are Happening, a brilliantly niche retro rock magazine active (pre-Mojo) between 1988-90. One issue contained a feature on Straight Records. I was intrigued, but tracking down the album proved elusive until I hit the jackpot at a record fair in 1993. At the same event I acquired two other Straight releases, Tim Dawe’s ‘Penrod’ and Jeff Simmons’ ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’. Collectively, this set me back about £50, a costly business, particularly as ‘Aldebaran’ was the only one of the three with which I was in any way smitten. I’ve long since parted company with the other two, but the music on ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ was different, bursting with ideas, brazenly ambitious, rich in gothic poetry, subtly sublime one moment and hysterically overbearing the next. It had one foot in the past and one in the future, and was maddeningly difficult to pin down…the kind of album you make your own, because you know no-one else is listening. Every collection – yours included – needs a few of those. (JJ)

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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)