Beefheart’s awesome yet idiosyncratic (as well as groundbreaking) talent has deeply influenced bands like Devo, Pere Ubu, the Residents, Public Image and others, each in a different way. Bridging the worlds of free-form jazz and modern rock, Beefheart has demolished conventions and paved the way for much of rock’s recent adventurousness.
Awarded a two-single A&M contract as the grand prize in a Vox battle of the bands, Beefheart — from Southern California’s Mojave Desert — made the first a regional hit with a footstomping version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” but A&M judged his album demos too unsettling to keep him on the roster. (Nearly 20 years later, the two original 45s plus one hitherto unissued track were packaged as The Legendary A&M Sessions; the producer, who also wrote one song, was David Gates, founder-to-be of pap-rockers Bread.)
Another label gave him a shot and, with 19-year-old guitar wiz Ry Cooder, Beefheart spewed out Safe as Milk, which cannily redefined what white boys could do with the blues, not to mention rock’n’roll. Although Buddah released it, the label — then best known as the purveyors of the bubblegum sounds of the 1910 Fruitgum Co. et al. — evidently wasn’t thrilled about it. Cooder departed just in time to force the cancellation of an appearance at the fabled Monterey Pop Festival.
Beefheart got another record deal with a hip, maverick independent label and recorded Strictly Personal, an even punchier and more irreverent version of what he’d essayed on Safe as Milk. But the LP was remixed while he was away on a European tour; Beefheart was understandably disgusted by the results. At this remove, however, the silly effects added without his consent merely date the record a bit; looking past that, it’s virtually the equal of its more celebrated predecessor.
Beefheart may have felt like his third strike had been thrown while he wasn’t looking, but along came childhood friend and former (albeit briefly) bandmate Frank Zappa, who’d wangled a custom label deal that allowed him to offer Beefheart complete creative control. What popped out was Trout Mask Replica, generally regarded as his first masterpiece. The minimalist rock blossomed, mated at times with free jazz. (Between cuts, he can faintly be heard telling visitors that he calls it “bush music.”) The lyrics (and straight-up poetry) received, and warranted, increasing prominence. Decals was a consolidation of artistic gains that suffers only in comparison to Trout Mask. Both attracted enough attention that Buddah brought out Mirror Man, an LP consisting of four extended live tracks (from ’65) that was derided as a sub-par exploitation move. Regardless, it’s damn good stuff, and didn’t do much exploiting, either: all three albums were commercial stiffs. (Two songs from Mirror Man were later re-recorded for Strictly Personal.)
The Spotlight Kid reverted to a simpler, bluesier sound (… la the first two LPs), though sonically enriched by the Captain’s subsequent explorations. Further changes and commercial pressures resulted in Clear Spot, which sported a more stylized, heavy-rock style (varied by an excellent, if uncharacteristic, Memphis-style soul number).
On the other hand, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams are even more simplified, sometimes to the point of inanity, and the musicians on the records don’t seem to have a clue about Beefheart or his music. (The second — allegedly outtakes from the first — is actually better.) He made some money for a change and won new European fans, but some of the faithful felt he’d sold out.
Beefheart cut an album called Bat Chain Puller for Virgin, but legal problems prevented its release. With a new band that included ex-Mothers of Invention trombonist Bruce Fowler, he signed to Warners and released Shiny Beast, which incorporated much of the material first cut for Bat Chain Puller (and therefore used that name as a subtitle). It’s a progression from Decals, as if the intervening albums had never happened, and stands as one of his best. The words are more direct than on Decals; the music smoother and more orchestral.
He then proceeded to top himself with Doc at the Radar Station. A minor shift in the band had toughened the sound, and the LP combined his continuing refinement with a touch of Clear Spot‘s hard-nosed attack.
Beefheart went still further with Ice Cream for Crow, the height of his musical career’s most sustained upward creative swing, despite (because of?) a near-total lineup turnover right after the recording of Doc. Crow is Beefheart at his most distinctively and beautifully melodic, his most frightening and his most danceable. And it’s apparently his musical swansong. The painter/sculptor has made the sad but understandable decision that visual, not audio, art is his best means of support — a depressing comment on the record business and our culture. He has not made a record in more than a decade, and shows no signs of altering that situation.
Fast’n’Bulbous offers twelve (fourteen on CD) versions of the Captain’s songs, by the Scientists, Sonic Youth, XTC, That Petrol Emotion, the Membranes and eight lesser lights. As with all such tributes, the danger is that contributors often haven’t a clue how to do justice to the subject, and wind up trivializing the artist being canonized; in this case, it’s true in spades. Some reduce Beefheart to snappy garage rock, some (like XTC) just simulate the originals with the benefit of better sound. A good idea on paper, it lacks vision and effort in execution.