1967: Safe as Milk
1999: Grow Fins: Rarities (1965–1982) (1965–1982)
2002: Magnetic Hands. Live in the UK 72–80 (1972–1980)
Safe as Milk
Rated as: Album
Album Status: Classic
Specific Genre: Blues Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Main Genre: Rock, Psychedelia
Undertones: Rhythm&Blues, Doo-Wop, Experimental Rock
Label: Buddah Records
I may be hungry, but I sure ain’t weird
Captain Beefheart takes the swampiest aspects of blues, the fun and energy of garage rock and a whole mouthful of avant-hooks to come up with one of the freshest and idiosyncratically enduring pieces of blues, rock and/or psychedelia. Starting with a mudslide-sliding blues riff on the opening track (Ry Cooder’s slide guitar), Beefheart takes you for a ride careening through danceable weirdo-rhythm&blues („Zig Zag Wanderer“), ominous slo-mo garage romps („Dropout Boogie“), mangled doo-wop soul („I’m Glad“) and jaded bubblegum blues that simply isn’t Kansas anymore („Yellowbrick Road“).
Don Van Vliet belies his oddly persistent reputation as a pure savant by competently incorporating a number of styles south of soul and blues but north of experimental curiosity – he in fact sounds rootsy and totally far-out at the same time. Take the theremin (?) on the stomping buzz of „Electricity“, or the odd jungle groove of the psychedelia-masterpiece „Abba Zaba“, listen to that fat hook with that fat break with that fat blues-harp on „Plastic Factory“ – everything is just so affecting.
What I especially enjoy about this record are the musical performances – everybody really digs in deep on all the tracks, the bass is always super-heavy, the drum rolls are full-bodied, everything feels so three-dimensional you can wallow in it, and of course Beefheart’s amazing Howlin’ Wolf-holler never ceases to amaze. This is psych-blues using riffs that sound rootsy at first, but you hadn’t heard them like this, and you haven’t eversince. A top top top album, John Lennon was a fan, I’m a fan, you’ll be one if you have the slightest interest in any of the mentioned music styles. Look out for the re-issue with the bonus tracks.
Grow Fins: Rarities (1965–1982)
Rated as: Archival / Box Set
Box Set Status: Must for Fans
Specific Genre: Experimental Rock, Blues Rock
Main Genre: Rock
Undertones: Experimental, Psychedelic Rock, Field Recordings
CD 1: Just Got Back from the City (1965–67) 1.1 Obeah Man (1966 Demo) 1.2 Just Got Back from the City (1966 Demo) 1.3 I’m Glad (1966 Demo) 1.4 Triple Combination (1966 Demo) 1.5 Here I Am I Always Am (Early 1966 Demo) 1.6 Here I Am I Always Am (Later 1966 Demo) 1.7 Somebody in My Home (1966 Live) 1.8 Tupelo (1966 Live) 1.9 Evil Is Going On (1966 Live) 1.10 Old Folks Boogie (1967 Live) 1.11 Call on Me (1965 Demo) 1.12 Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1967 Demo) 1.13 Yellow Brick Road (1967 Demo) 1.14 Plastic Factory (1967 Demo)
CD 2: Electricity (1967–68) 2.1 Electricity (1968 Live) 2.2 Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1968 Live) 2.3 Rollin N Tumblin (1968 Live) 2.4 Electricity (1968 Live9 2.5 Yer Gonna Need Somebody on Yer Bond (1968 Live) 2.6 Kandy Korn (1968 Live) 2.7 Korn Ring Finger (1967 Demo)
CD 3: Trout Mask House Sessions (1969) 3.1 (Untitled 1) 3.2 (Untitled 2) 3.3 Hair Pie: Bake 2 3.4 Hair Pie: Bake 2 3.5 (Untitled 5) 3.6 Hobo Chang Ba 3.7 (Untitled 7) 3.8 Hobo Chang Ba (Take 2) 3.9 Dachau Blues 3.10 Old Fart at Play 3.11 (Untitled 11) 3.12 Pachuco Cadaver 3.13 Sugar N Spikes 3.14 (Untitled 14) 3.15 Sweet Sweet Bulbs 3.16 Frownland (Take 1) 3.17 Frownland 3.18 (Untitled 18) 3.19 Ella Guru 3.20 (Untitled 20) 3.21 She’s too Much for My Mirror 3.22 (Untitled 22) 3.23 Steal Softly Through Snow 3.24 (Untitled 24) 3.25 My Human Gets Me Blues 3.26 (Untitled 26) 3.27 When Big Joan Sets Up 3.28 (Untitled 28) 3.29 (Untitled 29) 3.30 China Pig
CD 4: Trout Mask House Sessions (Storytime Portion) (1969) 4.1 Blimp Playback 4.2 Herb Alpert 4.3 Septic Tank 4.4 We’ll Overdub It 3 Times
Video 4.5 Electricity (Live Cannes 1968) 4.6 Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (Live Cannes 1968) 4.7 She’s Too Much for My Mirror (Amougies, Belgium, 1969) 4.8 My Human Gets Me Blues (Amougies, Belgium, 1969) 4.9 When Big Joan Sets Up (Detroit, MI, 1971) 4.10 Woe Is Uh Me Bop (Detroit, MI, 1971) 4.11 Bellerin Plain (Detroit, MI, 1971) 4.12 Click Clack (Paris 1972)
CD 5: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band Grow Fins (1969–82) 5.1 My Human Gets Me Blues (Live 1969) 5.2 When Big Joan Sets Up (Live 1971) 5.3 Woe Is Uh Me Bop (Live 1971) 5.4 Bellerin Plain (Live 1971) 5.5 Black Snake Moan (Radio Phone-In 1972) 5.6 Grow Fins (Live 1972) 5.7 Black Snake Moan II (Radio 1972) 5.8 Spitball Scalped Uh Baby (Live 1972) 5.9 Harp Boogie I (Radio 1972) 5.10 One Red Rose That I Mean (Live 1972) 5.11 Harp Boogie II (Radio 1972) 5.12 Natches Burning (Radio 1972) 5.13 Harp Boogie III (Radio Phone-In 1972) 5.14 Click Clack (Live 1973) 5.15 Orange Claw Hammer (Radio 1975) 5.16 Odd Jobs (Piano Demo 1975) 5.17 Odd Jobs (Band Demo 1976) 5.18 Vampire Suite (Worktapes/Live 1980) 5.19 Melltron Improv (Live 1978) 5.20 Evening Bell (Piano Worktape 1980) 5.21 Evening Bell (Guitar Worktape 1982) 5.22 Mellotron Improv (Live 1980) 5.23 Flavor Bud Living (Live 1980)
I should dip myself into that Coca-Cola
This box set is subject to the box set-curse more than any other I’m aware of. There are musical pearls next to bits recorded from the back of the studio (minutes of mumbling, chair clicking, airplane noises from outside the window), there’s historically indispensable stuff next to, well, just stuff. Also, it manages to seem expansive and inomplete all at the same time: There is so much previously unreleased material here that it doesn’t really leave you asking for even more Trout Mask outtakes or even more radio snippets. But then, this hardly fulfills any criteria of a ‚historically comprehensive‘ box set: It’s just a huge ragbag of anything that could be interesting to the fanatic followers of Beefheart. These, though, will be delighted, because in a sense, this doesn’t plays as a box set but, more fitting, like very precise representation of Beefheart’s career: Full of bursts of energy and brilliance, full of holes and frustration – but extremely rewarding for those that listen closely.
This mostly doesn’t make for a coherent listening experience – but just mostly. The five CDs thankfully all follow an at least chronological coherence. This redeems some drawbacks in the sequencing per CD. The true problem is: To issue any of this stuff only makes sense within a larger context. There is no way they could have split the „good stuff“ from the scraps, you have to take in the whole sludged affair or just avoid it.
The first CD is a bunch of early blues rock numbers that never made it on an album (and some that did). The sound is similar to Safe as Milk, and since these are all complete demos or live cuts, you can actually listen through the whole thing with excitement. It’s a primal, terrific version in that rousing mid-1960s style between R&B, psychedelia and deep blues. For Beefheart fans, this first CD is inexpendable. The band is already in full flight, Beefheart is already all there. The sound quality is mostly murky (but the swampy approach lets you accept that), and the band’s playing is basic but they rock hard and fierce. Given that the early cuts are from 1966, this must have been one of the heavier bands at the time – raw, ramshackle. This CD also satisfies the box set-buyer in all respects: You get cuts of later album tracks („Call on Me“, „Yellow Brick Road“), which are inferior to the later album tracks, but interesting from an evolutionary perspective. You get awesomely grooving rhythm/blues/rock numbers that are every bit as good as the ones on Safe as Milk („Here I Am I Always Am“, „Obeah Man“). And finally, you get Beefheart performing numbers of his idols („Evil is Going On“, „Tupelo“, „Somebody in My Home“) – all absolutely terrific swamp blues in imposing John Lee Hooker- and Howlin’ Wolf-manner.
The second CD is in a similar vein, collecting live records from apparently European tours. Manic versions of standards like „Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’“ are here, as well as some Mirror Man-era pieces. Hard, driven, uncompromising blues rock. This is also listenable from beginning to end.
With the third CD, the promised box-set-problems start. The whole CD comprises evidently the leftovers they could find in the trashbin of the studio where Trout Mask Replica was recorded. You start of with fifteen minutes of documentary style noises which seem to stem from a recording device pickin up sounds while the band members were still preparing. Okay, you can skip this, so I don’t mind. The rest is purely instrumental versions of Trout Mask Replica. These are practice runs of the album tracks, there is no ‚evolutionary‘ aspect here. I must say that I like to listen to these compositions bare-boned, without Beefheart’s voice-beef, so to speak. You actually get a very direct approach to their immediate groove and compositional structure. And for these like me which are at least as interested in his compositional skills as the vocals, this remains an interesting listen. So, while this is far too long as a CD (i mean, this basically is all of Trout Mask Replica without the vocals plus some additional scraps and tuning-up), I still am happy with this. For some, this probably is expendable. Why listen to the relatively unedited, non-vocalised version of Trout Mask Replica? Why should I listen to the band tuning up for minutes? I understand the questions. But hey, at least you get to witness how the conversation with the kids who just moved here from Reseda ended up on the album. The most obscure quasi-gem I could find on here is the untitled 29th track – before the band goes to record „China Pig“, you can hear a jam of the blues standard „Candy Man“ for about a minute. Why is this interesting? I don’t know. I just never knew that the Captain had done at least one minute of „Candy Man“ in his life.
Then, CD 4. Just forget the musical aspect: There isn’t any. It’s Beefheart talking, some noises, Beefheart joking about Herb Alpert, and that’s it. 12 minutes of unedited documentary studio babble (incomprehensible for the most part). Don’t get upset though, in the original package, this is actually a VCD. With moving pictures. So, no reason to listen to this on your CD-player. But you do get to see video clips, comprising live versions of songs (2 from Safe as Milk, 3 from Trout Mask Replica, 2 from Lick My Decals Off, Baby and „Click Clack“ from The Spotlight Kid, taken between 1968 and 1973). These are great, the live setting showcasing how musical everybody involved with Beefheart was. You can watch these on Youtube nowadays, of course.
Finally, the 5th CD. This is the most imbalanced piece of the whole affair, I guess because they just threw anything on there from his post-Trout Mask Replica period they couldn’t fit anywhere else (with a time span of 1969–1982). So, in no particular, haphazard order, you get a lot of live recordings (nothing exceptional), Beefheart performing short pieces of blues harp and acapella blues on the radio (terrible quality, but cool stuff), some more live recordings which border on performance art or futurism „sound machines“ and were not actually meant for the CD-format, I presume („Spitball Scalped Uh Baby“), and some weird demos for more complex avant-pieces.
And buried in the middle of this looong CD, you get the most stunning record of the whole box set, which is the Captain performing „Orange Claw Hammer“ with Frank Zappa on acoustic guitar for the radio. Zappa’s simple strumming fleshes out that this song follows the actual structure of a sea shanty (which could only be guessed at with the acapella version on Trout Mask Replica), but that’s good, because now we have both: an avant-garde acapella version of a surrealistic sea shanty and a beautiful acoustic guitar version of that same sea shanty. Then the mixed bag continues, many experimental live recordings, Beefheart messing with a mellotron in Sun Ra-manner – with the result that you realise Sun Ra actually could play the instrument. Some of these are improv-sketches, frustrating Beefheart and audiences alike („Sun Ra!“ someone keeps shouting on „Mellotron Improv (Live 1980)“, causing Beefheart to yell at the crowd, violently batter the keys and ask „Who was that, Liberace?“). Some others, though, are quite interesting. I dig both the versions of „Odd Jobs“, while I admit that this is already hardcore Beefheart-ology. Nothing to convert people. The „Odd Jobs“-piano demo is strangely forlorn and beautiful – you find the most realised and best version of that lost piece on the reconstructed Bat Chain Puller album from 2012. Most of this CD, naturally, comes in just about bearable sound quality.
So. What we have here then is a box set which contains enough to make it essential for the fan – both from a historical (CD1 and CD5) and a musical (CD1 and CD5… and partly CD2 and even 3) perspective. Everyone else should stay well away from this. This is the last territory of Beefheart-land one should turn his attention to. If you’re the enthusiastic explorer in the old spirit, you’ll find plenty of adventure and condiment on this wild, wide, dangerous and tedious jungle continent.
Magnetic Hands. Live in the UK 72–80
Rated as: Collection / Live
Compilation Status: Must for Fans
Specific Genre: Experimental Rock, Blues Rock
Main Genre: Rock
Undertones: Blues, Psychedelic Rock, Avant-Prog
1. Click Clack 2. Old Black Snake 3. Grow Fins 4. Peon 5. Golden Birdies 6. Electricity 7. Sugar Mama 8. Orange Claw Hammer 9. Gimme Dat Harp Boy 10. Dalis Car 11. Beatle Bones ’n‘ Smokin‘ Stones 12. Flavor Bud Living 13. Nowadays a Womans Gotta Hit a Man 14. Abba Zaba 15. Hothead 16. Safe as Milk 17. Drop Out Boogie 18. Kandy Korn
You know I’m gonna do exactly what I want
These are previously unavailable live cuts of Beefheart gone wild from seven shows between 1972 and 1980. While these are all tinny and unequalised bootleg recordings, through all the hissing and static, there’s enough left to let you hear these must have been truly magnetising performances.
There is no track here where the terrible sound quality truly ruins the aura for me – even the jurassic cackling of “Sugar Mama”, stomping along at eight minutes, is a bit like finding a dinosaur fossil: not the real living thing, but how cool is that skull? Besides the tracks that are relatively tolerable to the ear and well-performed (a fierce „Grow Fins“, „Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man“ and a deadpan „Drop Out Boogie“), there’s a mind-blowing definite instrumental (!) version of „Electricity“ – six ferocious minutes of pure blues-goes-prog fury delving into a riff section that wasn’t on the album cut and worth every cent of this whole CD. A huge bass, barb-wire guitar riffs and wild harp jamming.
While these are different incarnations of the Magic Band, you couldn’t really tell from their sound and repertoire: Abstract instrumentals, croaky interludes of blues shouting, hard hitting psych-rockers. There’s some entertaining stage banter, but mainly this is interesting because of its raw and unpolished quality. The lengthy primitive blues stomp of „Sugar Mama“ is interesting in this aspect as Beefheart wouldn’t do this particular thing on record after 1972 (or more precisely, after the Mirror Man sessions) anymore. Not that it is a great blues or any such thing, it’s just intriguing to hear how he gets the audience to clap along to the rhythm as all the instruments stop and he dives into a witch doctor blues persona, working his own voice like a synthesizer, squeeling, murmuring and chanting to an audibly mesmerized audience.
One note about the repertoire: The compilation shows us a programme of early 1970s material, with actually just one track dating from later than his 1972-albums (it’s „Hothead“), even though more than half of the tracks date from perfomances later than 1975. Now, given the fact that he took a forced break from releasing between 1974 to 1978, this isn’t really surprising. Still: Seven songs from a show late in 1980, meaning this is the Ice Cream For Crow band, and, except for „Hothead“, they basically play Safe As Milk . And: It’s all great! Even the sound quality for the 1980-show is quite decent. Anyhow, it is absolutely worth seeking out for fans, to get a picture of live-Beefheart during his lost mid-1970s period, to get some unholy blues shants, and to be blown awa by that “Electricity”-take.
Trivia: I don’t know if the two things are related, but the amazing (and definite) other live album available titled I’m Gonna Do What I Wanna Do might have taken its title from an incident here: After „Flavor Bud Living“, a guy from the audience calls out for „Glider“ (just pause a minute and imagine being at a Beefheart-concert. Is that what you’d request? No offense though, „Glider“ is great), to which the Captain replies: „You know I’m gonna do exactly what I want!“
Recording dates: Tracks 1-5 (1972); tracks 6-7 (1973); tracks 8-11 (1975); tracks 12-18 (1980).