Wandering about the outer edges of the musical landscape like a crazed prophet defiantly marching to the sound of a different drum, Beefheart’s oblique and occasionally miraculous music has always polarised listeners, inspiring zealous believers to acts of devotion or causing consternation amongst bewildered onlookers who can’t figure out what all the fuss is about.
Taking 1972’s Clear Spot commercial leanings to their logical conclusion, his Virgin debut, Unconditionally Guaranteed, (1974) is a shot at the bigtime that alienated many die-hard fans at the time with its unashamedly commercial overtones.
Falling between two stools, the uneven songwriting isn’t good enough to buy a place at the bar with the likes of Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger (as he hoped it would), nor fully satisfy the hardcore who saw the ironed-out incongruities and smoother timbre of the album as nothing short of a sell-out; harsh though understandable in the face of what had gone before. In truth, this isn’t anything like the bad album that received wisdom reckons it to be.
Perhaps its greatest crime is that it offers a dissenting voice from the avant-garde comfort zone both fans and Van Vliet had painted himself into. A whole different kettle of fish to Trout Mask Replica’s avant-glory, “On The My-O- My” and “Full Moon, Hot Sun” nevertheless retain the expected grit and gravel of the Beefheart thrum.
Minus his old Magic Band colleagues, who’d defected en masse after being screwed (yet again), over money, Beefheart toured with a hastily convened pick-up band promoting Unconditionally Guaranteed.
Previously unreleased, Live In Drury Lane London ’74, shows Don and his so-called Tragic Band were actually anything but. Slicker than the older band, this particular eye witness to that tour recalls an impressive and highly energetic set, though their renditions of old warhorses such as “Abba Zabba” veered toward the anodyne.
Despite having trouble getting it together in the studio, Bluejeans And Moonbeams (also from ’74), when it comes to a straight vocal delivery, Van Vliet’s voice has never been recorded as sympathetically or as lavishly as on here.
“Further Than We’ve Gone” and the exquisite cover version of JJ Cale’s “Same Old Blues” showcase Beefheart the balladeer – a great voice supported by good songs. With its Jaggeresque “thinking about you all the time” chorus line, “Twist Ah Luck” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rolling Stones album of the time.
If this is Beefheart’s gone middle-of-the-road boogie then I for one am happy to be tippy-toeing out there with company as good as this.
The strangulated Yosemite-Sam-on-helium vocals of 1980’s Zappa-infected Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), is a joyful collision of odd-metered, out-thereness, representing his last truly great moment as a recording artist.
Originally titled Bat Chain Puller in 1976, Zappa as producer and financier refused to hand over the tapes when they inevitably fell out, requiring Van Vliet to restage much of the music as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in 1978. Wrangles with labels added another two years to its release date.
Lacking the extraneous filler that mars the later recordings, Beefheart sounds confident and engaged. “Tropical Hot Dog Night”, “Candle Mambo” and “Suction Prints” still astonish and antagonise the senses.
Though the wordplay might be more inclined to arch than acerbic, combined with the high-flying marimba, trombone and rattling slide guitar combo, it fuses into something that remains potent and capable of putting hairs on your chest.
Notwithstanding momentary flashes of that old agitated brilliance, “Hot Head” and the gloriously bellicose “Ashtray Heart”, Doc At The Radar Station (1980) stumbles perilously near self-parody, sounding tired from the regurgitation of his old well-worn motifs and themes.
As musical epitaphs go, Ice Cream For Crow (1982) isn’t necessarily a bad one but it does have the sound of a hollow man looking for the exit sign. Past his best and probably past caring, it’s undeniable evidence that Van Vliet’s instinct to jump ship to become a full-time painter was the really clever thing to do in the circumstances.
Given that so many myths and legends surround these albums and their maker, Beefheart biographer, Mike Barnes supplies excellent fact-packed sleeve notes that help contextualise and decode each release for newcomers and veterans alike.
The crisp newly remastered sound knocks spots off the original CD transfers though the somewhat cursory packaging lets down what would otherwise be an admirable set of reissues.
If you had to choose just one of these six then it would have to be Shiny Beast. If you could get away with two then you could do a lot worse than indulge in the crooning alter-ego Beefheart of Bluejeans And Moonbeams which in an odd way sounds more radical and less conservative than several of its later cousins.