“Art is rearranging and grouping mistakes.” So the late Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, is quoted on the cover of the fourth disc of Rhino’s new box set SUN ZOOM SPARK: 1970 to 1972. It’s appropriate and ironic that the aphorism is featured on the sleeve of that disc, a collection of never-before-heard outtakes from the Captain and his Magic Band. But the tracks are far from mistakes; instead, they offer a window onto the process with which Van Vliet created his unmistakable brand of art. In addition to that disc, SUN ZOOM SPARK presents long-overdue, beautifully-remastered versions of Beefheart’s three albums released during the titular time period: Lick My Decals Off, Baby; The Spotlight Kid; and Clear Spot. The resulting compendium is a must-have for diehard Magic fans, and a surprisingly solid introduction for the more casual fan looking for a solid place to explore Van Vliet’s discography beyond the twin cornerstones of Safe as Milk and Trout Mask Replica.
1969’s Trout Mask, produced by Van Vliet’s lifelong frenemy and collaborator Frank Zappa, solidified his credentials as a true avant-garde pioneer with its highly experimental, frequently surreal blend of blues, free jazz, folk, rock and roll, and every other style that he could throw into a blender in pursuit of something new and something real. With Beefheart himself producing, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, recorded for Zappa’s Warner Bros.-distributed Straight label in summer 1970, continued in the avant-garde style of Trout Mask. It recalls elements of Ornette Coleman (reportedly a Beefheart inspiration), Tom Waits and of course, Zappa, but is too original to withstand many comparisons at all. Like Trout Mask, Decals was an unabashedly countercultural statement, but not in the traditional sense circa 1970. In fact, there’s nothing “traditional” at all about the record, which accounts for its out-of-time quality and ability to still confound and fascinate in equal measure. Van Vliet was unencumbered at this point by conventional notions of songcraft and determined to do it “his way,” and also managed to achieve a homemade sound despite recording the album for a major label in a major studio (Los Angeles’ United).
Regarded as one of the good Captain’s personal favorites of his recordings, the title of Decals reportedly referred to his desire to see objects for their merits rather than according to labels (or “decals”) placed upon them. For this LP featuring both instrumental and vocal tracks (most of which are quite short, with only two tracks exceeding three minutes), Beefheart – whose personal musical arsenal included clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and chromatic harmonica – was joined by the Magic Band line-up of Bill Harkleroad on guitar, Mark Boston on bass, Art Tripp on percussion (including marimba, which adds vibrant color throughout), and John French on drums – all of whom utilized their considerable musical skills in service of Beefheart’s vision. The liner notes to this set fascinatingly detail Beefheart’s modus operandi. Onetime Magic Band member Bruce Fowler observes that “I knew too much [about music]. I was trapped in my practice. He’d pick up a sax and start wailing, and he could not play a scale or anything, so he’d just paint with the soprano.” The resulting music from Beefheart and his Magic Band often sounded improvised, but was in actuality, carefully planned and rehearsed. Though Beefheart wasn’t the trained musician Zappa was, they both pushed the boundaries of their art.
Decals shares with Trout Mask Replica a sense that the artist has rendered his vision with no compromise; its aural assault – of jagged rhythms, stuttering guitars, surreal, word-association lyrics (sometimes with an ecological bent, however hidden), growled, near-spoken vocals and clattering soundscapes – still jars today. Some moments are more accessible here than others, if “accessible” is the right word, such as the happily goofy “I Love You, You Big Dummy” or the bizarrely catchy “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop” and “The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig).” Those familiar with free jazz will likely be riveted by “Japan in a Dishpan,” or by the solo guitar piece “One Red Rose That I Mean” dazzlingly played by Harkleroad. “The Buggy Boogie Woogie” has one of Beefheart’s most vivid vocals, more like a beat-era monologue than a song with lyrics. There’s a peculiar, childlike quality to “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye).” Lick My Decals Off, with its lack of conventional melodies, was – and is – doubtless a challenging record, but it set the stage for The Spotlight Kid.
Recorded at Los Angeles’ Record Plant during the summer of 1971 and issued in early 1972 on Reprise with a self-mocking cover of Van Vliet in a Nudie suit, The Spotlight Kid is the only album credited solely to Captain Beefheart rather than as a collaboration with his Magic Band. It features Harkleroad, Boston, French and Tripp, plus Elliot Ingber on guitar and drummer Rhys Clark (on one track). Produced again by Van Vliet, this time in collaboration with engineer Phil Schier, the album features slower, simpler and more fluid compositions, as Beefheart was in pursuit of a (slightly) more commercial sound. (He was “aware of the need to, um, eat,” quips Rip Rense in the SUN ZOOM SPARK liner notes.) He largely achieved it, as The Spotlight Kid isn’t as in-your-face or confrontational as Lick My Decals.
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The blues-rock style that had always been an element of Beefheart’s music came to the fore on Spotlight. It also emphasized vocal “songs”; only one track, “Alice in Blunderland,” is an instrumental, featuring scorching rock guitar from Ingber over a hypnotic marimba-driven groove. In Dan Hersch’s stellar new remaster, the interplay of piano, guitar and harmonica on “Click Clack” shines anew, with Beefheart’s harmonica also taking center stage on the amusing “Grow Fins” (His baby’s giving him the blues, so: “I’m leavin’…/I’m gonna take up with a mermaid!”). Indeed, Beefheart’s lyrics and recitations – still characteristically drawled and snarled – are also more direct, as on “Blabber ‘n Smoke” with its worthwhile admonition to “Clean up the air/’n treat the animals fair…” or the evocative imagery of “There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evenin’ Stage” (which, natch, has sleigh bells in the arrangement). If the Captain’s edges were smoothed out on The Spotlight Kid – guitarist/manager Gary Lucas mentions in the notes the absence on the record of Beefheart’s theory of playing each musical note “as if it has no relation to the note that came before or after” – they certainly weren’t dulled altogether.
Music makes strange bedfellows, and such was the case when Don Van Vliet met Ted Templeman. Clear Spot, the third album on SUN ZOOM SPARK, was recorded in summer 1972 and released that autumn on Reprise, a co-production by Van Vliet and the sonic auteur whose C.V. included The Doobie Brothers and Harpers Bizarre. With Templeman on board to guide Van Vliet in an even more FM-friendly direction, Clear Spot was the most accessible Captain Beefheart album to that point, with succinct and even somewhat conventional tracks including love songs, soulful ballads and driving rock and roll. Harkleroad, Boston and Tripp all played on the album along with onetime Mother of Invention and Little Feat founding member Roy Estrada.
Beefheart’s vocals are up front on the opening track, “Low Yo Yo Stuff,” and rendered with more precise diction than in the past. The herky-jerky blues rhythm hadn’t disappeared, but under Templeman’s aegis, the overall sound on the album was more detailed, the style more approachable. A typical rock fan could chew on “Circumstances,” with its wry lyrics and storming power chords, or the freight train attack of the dryly humorous “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man” (“…to make him know she’s there”). Beefheart is using a dollop of irony in this defense of the opposite sex, which is accented by boisterous, New Orleans-style brass and Harkleroad’s searing guitar: “None o’ my women have tears in their eyes/You can ask ‘em about me, I swear…,” he pleads.
But to fully appreciate Templeman’s contributions to Clear Spot, just take a listen to “Too Much Time,” chosen as the A-side of the single release on Reprise. The song – save for its offbeat spoken interlude – is altogether friendly pop-soul (“I’ve got too much time to be without love”) with guest Russ Titelman on guitar plus radio-ready horns and The Blackberries’ backing vocals. (The Blackberries also appear on the edgier “Crazy Little Thing.”) Beefheart even ditches his familiar Wolfman Jack-esque rasp to channel the blue-eyed soul likes of David Clayton-Thomas! The B-side of “Too Much Time,” however, might be the finest track on Clear Spot – and one of the best in the entire Captain Beefheart canon. “My Head is My Only House Unless It Rains” is, sonically, straight out of the seventies soft-rock playbook, with a smooth and gentle arrangement. The off-the-beaten path lyrics are quintessentially Beefheart, but the sentiment is a lovely, romantic one – top-notch songwriting and production by any standard. This “softer” side of Beefheart also manifests itself on the soulfully haunting “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles.”
The title of the box set is derived from the ferocious Side One blues-rocker, “Sun Zoom Spark,” with its rather Doobie Brothers-esque opening notes. Even more aggressive – and aggressively odd – is “Big Eyed Beans From Venus,” which must have reassured long-term Magic Band fans that their avant-garde hero hadn’t gone entirely glossy. “I have to run so far to find a clear spot,” Beefheart sings on the album’s opening track. But Clear Spot, the album, proved that he didn’t have to run too far at all to find a happy medium between the avant-garde and the (hopefully) commercial. Clear Spot was the best of both worlds.
The fourth disc of this set, expertly produced by Steve Woolard and Bill Inglot, has fourteen selections – alternates, rehearsal takes and outtakes – from the Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot sessions. Many of these illuminating, previously unreleased sketches would take final form on Beefheart’s later albums such as Shiny Beast (the charmingly vaudevillian “Harry Irene,” complete with Van Vliet’s whistling, and “Pompadour Swamp/Suction Prints”), Bat Chain Puller (“I Can’t Do This Unless I Can Do This/Seam Crooked Sam,” which became a spoken-word-with-accompaniment piece but is a more “proper” song in this early version), Doc at the Radar Station (“Best Batch Yet” in instrumental form, “Dirty Blue Gene”) and his studio swan song, Ice Cream for Crow (“The Witch Doctor Life,” and “Little Scratch,” an embryonic version of “The Past Sure is Tense”). Beefheart’s music may have sounded spontaneous, but these previously unreleased tracks reveal how the composer and his Magic Band refined and shaped them.
SUN ZOOM SPARK is packaged in a classy, flip-top box style similar to Rhino Handmade’s recent Monkees box sets, and includes a 20-page booklet with two essays from Rip Rense, a poem from Beefheart fan Tom Waits, and photographs of Van Vliet. His artwork is also used to illustrate the booklet as well as the box and the CD sleeve of the outtakes disc. The CDs are housed in mini-LP sleeves except for Clear Spot. To replicate the original plastic sleeve, Clear Spot isn’t in a cardboard sleeve but rather a simple plastic one with an insert (on which the front and back covers of the LP are reprinted). There has been some controversy over this set, with John French having passionately spoken out about Magic Band members’ financial disputes with the label relating to this project. But such issues notwithstanding, SUN ZOOM SPARK is a potent testament to an uncompromising artist and his collaborators. The music of Captain Beefheart may be an acquired taste, but as far as acquired tastes go, it still remains startlingly, defiantly, happily original.