A Beef With Beefheart?

I want this blog to be a place where I sometimes actually try and think about rock music: what it’s like, what it means and what it’s for. While my original plan was to try and write intelligently about the big and dumb (and we’ll get to my new found love of Whitesnake soon enough), sod’s law would have it that I just so happen to be reading Mike Barnes’ excellent biography of Beefheart right now. And it seems I now want to kick things off with a few thoughts on the good Captain.

It might yet prove a happy accident. Perhaps by writing about an artist who has always prioritised the sort of questions that I want to explore, and has pushed the boundaries of ‘rock’ further than any other, I will be revealing more about my intentions in post one that I ever intended. By trying to tell you why I love the almost universally derided Bluejeans and Moonbeams; and appreciate, but very rarely actually listen to, the ‘masterpiece’ Trout Mask Replica, you’ll get a hint of where I think the enduring appeal of rock music may reside (SPOILER ALERT: in the fact that it’s not fucking jazz).

Let me begin by restating the fact that Mike Barnes’ book is bloody brilliant. Captain Beefheart/Don Van Vliet is so bat (chain puller) shit insane that it thankfully manages to bypass the usual ‘we did lots of coke and slept with lots of groupies, aren’t we naughty’ anecdotes that even the most dedicated of hard rock fans get tired of hearing. As a child prodigy turned bluesman turned psychic cult leader turned abstract artist, the story of his life is never, ever boring. Barnes’ criticism of his work is also excellent, for the most part; making me spend some much needed time with albums I had neglected, such as Strictly Personal.

A good book.

A good book.

That’s why it was a shame for me when one of the albums that provided my introduction to Beefheart, and that remains a firm favourite to this day, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, was once again hauled over the coals. Barnes is in good company when dismissing this record, and its predecessor Unconditionally Guaranteed, as a disappointment. Most of the reviews were negative and Beefheart’s own opinion of them was so poor that he famously suggested fans take them back to the shops and ask for their money back! I think he’s wrong. Not that I’d have ever said that to his face of course.

'Don't look it in the eyes!'

Maybe it’s because I wasn’t there. Growing up with Captain Beefheart’s excursions to the ‘far out’ reaches of rock as an established ‘fact of life’ for any 70s rock obsessive, the impact of his mellowing and the more commercial nature of his mid-decade work forms just one shift in a now completed career narrative full of twists and turns. Being free from that contemporary sense of disappointment, however, I truly believe that both these albums, but Bluejeans and Moonbeams in particular, are ripe for reappraisal.

The negative view that surrounds them seems to centre on the fact that they’re not very ‘Beefheart-y’. This is a point with which it is very hard to argue. He had managed to alienate most of ‘His Magic Band’ by this point and instead recruited a selection of slick, skilful session musicians (usually dubbed ‘The Tragic Band’) to replace them. Toppled from the dictatorial position he occupied in his original group, therefore, these albums are perhaps more collaborative; robbing them of his singular artistic vision but also allowing a tantalising glimpse into an alternative universe where Beefheart actually made it big as part of a commercial group.

The complex rhythms and free jazz improvisations are replaced by bluesy, groovy workouts. It’s easy to characterise these as workmanlike when compared to the sonic assault of an album with the Magic Band proper. One listen to opening track Party of Special Things To Do, however, and it becomes clear that The Tragic Band’s polish and experience allows them to form a coherent, funky and, above all, sexy unit; adding a lithe swagger to blues jams that it would be unfair to dismiss as merely competent.

This, in turn, encourages Beefheart to give his truly impressive ‘singing’ voice a bit more of an outing; rather than alternating between Ornette Coleman referencing sax solos and Howlin’ Wolf barks. And while the album doesn’t exhibit the ‘recorded over two days in our back garden’ rawness of earlier work like Trout Mask Replica, it is beautifully produced. I’m a sucker for what my friend Mark used to call that ‘sticks to the record’ production sound now most associated with 70s soft rock (think Steve Miller Band for the ultimate example). To me, Bluejeans and Moonbeams’ sheer, sensual sonic perfection makes it worth a regular listen.

I think it’s that old distinction between the raw and the cooked, between the ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ that makes many people dismiss these albums as Beefheart ‘selling out’. While that was his stated aim, I seemingly disagree with both the man himself and much of his fanbase on the question of whether this makes the work any less valid. The edginess of his experimental work may imbue him with a more imperviously cool aura of primal artistry that transcends fashion, explaining the reverence with which he is rightly regarded today. The fact remains that his attempts to work within the parameters of blues influenced rock music (the genre, after all, to which he must surely be added) yielded equally delightful, but perhaps disarmingly different, results.

The experimentation of Trout Mask Replica is, unarguably, a bold and exciting fusion of the complexity of jazz with the simplicity of the blues, and one that rewards careful listening. As I’m sure the teenage blues obsessive Don Van Vliet would be the first to admit, however, not all music is about careful listening. Some of it is about dancing. And even more of it is about sex.

This why it is a shame that some simply dismiss these albums as Beefheart’s move away from a ‘pure’ form of musical experimentation towards a compromised position of ‘selling out’; even if that is how the man himself chose to remember them. I prefer to think about the fact that Beefheart decided to work within the simplicity of rock music, rather than commit full-time to the complexities of jazz that already existed outside of it. These albums aren’t perfect, but then neither is Trout Mask (two ‘bakes’ of Hair Pie anyone?). People will always, quite rightly, appreciate the aspects of Beefheart more alien to ‘traditional’ rock music, and the way in which they revive and refresh the genre. While trying to create a whole new musical language is interesting and entirely admirable, my enduring love of these albums proves that he was also fairly fluent when it came to speaking mine.

PS – The White Stripes covering Party of Special Things To Do. Raw and rocking or lithe and funky? Which is better. FIIIIIIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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