Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ludwig Van Beethoven. Bob Dylan. The Beatles. Captain Beefheart. Can you spot the odd one out?
Yes, I’ll agree that whenever you’re thinking of some of the greatest musical geniuses of all time, Captain Beefheart isn’t exactly someone you might consider including. In fact, I imagine that few people reading this have actually heard any of his music, and those that have probably hated it. But I firmly believe that Beefheart was one of the greatest musical minds of the last century, and is as innovative and exciting as any of the above.
Given his association with Frank Zappa, both personally and professionally, one would be inclined to think that the two artists are fairly similar. In ways this is true; dedication to musical experimentation, tight control over the musicians they worked with and their avant-garde, complexly percussive compositions are all hallmarks of both artists. Yet to compare Beefheart to Zappa can be misleading. One may think that Beefheart is the type of musician who is known for his comedy songs, a la Zappa’s Bobby Brown or Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow. (Although this is misleading for Zappa as well) Similarly, Beefheart’s music, while containing strong jazz elements, isn’t the full-fledged jazz workout a la Hot Rats or The Grand Wazoo. He was influenced by jazz, blues, rock and contemporary Avant-garde music, yet his music does not strictly fit into any of these categories. In fact, by combining elements from all of these genres and more, combined with his own growling, unfriendly voice, his music is outrageously different from anything you’ve ever heard before. Trout Mask Replica, his most famous (and notorious) album is a good example. However, I’m not going to talk about Trout Mask Replica, enough has probably been said already, and said much better I’m sure. Instead I’d like to focus on the album immediately proceeding TMR, the shorter, more consistent and superior Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
The name, according to Beefheart, is an encouragement to rid the music of its labels (decals) and judge the music according to its merits, rather than the preconceived notions of the listeners. Given what I’ve just mentioned above, this would probably be a good idea. No matter what anybody tells you about this album, you can’t be fully prepared for it.
The album opens with the title track, beginning with a short flurry of drums and guitar before the beat slows down and Captain Beefheart’s twisted, menacing vocal comes in, proclaiming “Rather than I want to hold your hand/I want to swallow you whole/and lick you everywhere it’s pink.” Perhaps a love song in the loosest of definitions, the ever-changing riffs and drum beats are perhaps some of the least complex on the album. Certainly the instrumentation is fairly sparse compared to what is to come. Yet Beefheart’s cutting voice, going from jittery to mad to humorous (“She stuck out her tongue and the fun begun”) is what sets this track apart.
The following track, Doctor Dark, begins with a more complex and off-kilter series of beats and riffs before descending further into musical madness, although much like the first track we can only hear drums, bass and guitar. One of the most “normal” tracks on the album.
I Love You, you Big Dummy is where things start to get a bit more interesting. Starting with a harmonica that sounds like it came right from the Mississippi delta, accompanied intermittently by Beefheart’s insane wolf-like falsetto, the track progresses with the title refrain repeated with varying degrees of seriousness, changing the implication of the implied love from ridiculousness to mockery to dedication in less than three minutes. Meanwhile the harmonica never ceases, with an intensity to make James Cotton proud.
Peon is an odd interlude-type track featuring a guitar and bass duet. Bellerin’ Plain features Beefheart using a more Sprechgesang vocal delivery and features a few breakdowns for bass, drums and marimba. The marimba plays a prominent role in this track, adding a more organic feel to it. A free jazz-type saxophone solo brings and end to the track. Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop continues in much the same feel as the previous track, with prominent use of the marimba and a fairly monorhythmic drum beat, unlike the previous songs. Beefheart’s voice descends into the very low registers with this song, and when he proclaims “Woe is [uh] me [bop]” it sure sounds like he means it.
Japan in a Dishpan is another instrumental workout, this time with drums and an eastern-sounding feel. Beefheart (this time on bass clarinet) sounds like a snake charmer on a very bad trip, slithering his sax quickly through flurries of notes like the snakes he commands, becoming ever more frantic, more desperate, more mad.
Another “love” song is the hilariously named I Wanna Find Me a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go. The sparse lyrics involve the repetition of this phrase combined with ramblings about sweet potatoes and their “golden hair.” A very odd, very short track. In one of the most shambolic sounding tracks, Petrified Forest delves further into the surrealism of Beefheart’s lyrics, with lines such as “If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/And eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumbling through/Your petrified forest.” The One Red Rose That I Mean is another short guitar and bass duet, being a bit more aggressive and angular than the previous Peon. The Buggy Boogie Woogie, a more understated song in terms of instrumentation, but Beefheart delivers a pained, angry vocal about the monotony of sweeping the floor with a cheap broom. Blues-like in its subject matter; Beefheart turns it into something else entirely.
The next three tracks continue in much the same way; with odd vocal inflections from Beefheart, prominent use of the marimba, frantic drums and the by now familiar odd guitar attack. The final track, Flash Gordon’s Ape, is by far the most “out there” of the tracks on this album. Beginning with a blare of saxophone sounds, the track shifts into a frantic pace with the continued honks and screeches of the horns in the background. Beefheart’s vocals become more jittery, not seeming to match the backing track at all. Meanwhile the horns continue their relentless assault on the ears, with no particular discernible melody. A short, very jazzy, very avant-garde marimba interlude occurs in the middle of the track, perhaps to give your ears a brief respite from never ceasing screeching of the horns. The song continues in its intensity before an unexpected ending.
There are two travesties about this album. The first is that it’s difficult – there’s no doubt about that. That’s not to say that the difficulty demerits the album – quite the contrary, actually. The travesty is that Captain Beefheart has acquired a reputation, mostly from young adults who think they know it all because they read Rolling Stone, for being inaccessible. If you ask someone about Captain Beefheart, they probably checked out Trout Mask Replica because Rolling Stone put it in the top 100 of their 500 greatest albums of all time, and they probably hated it. Because this is a lesser-known Beefheart album, and with Beefheart’s reputation before him, it’s not likely many people will have checked this out. Secondly, the album isn’t on CD. At all. Goodness knows why. Thankfully it’s available on iTunes, but for us old-timers who still enjoy checking out the album artwork and having a physical copy of the music, this is a sore disappointment. Despite the difficulties though, I think it’s well worth everybody’s time if they hear this album, even only once. Yes it’s difficult music, but don’t back away from it because of that; it’s time you took the Captain’s advice and lick his decals off, baby.
Words - Adam