Whenever someone mentions how awesome Radiohead is, my mind instinctively turns off. I feel a bit nauseous, my palms get a little clammy, then I regain composure, nod politely, and force my opinion on them. I’m convinced that to ensure survival of the human race, knowledge of Captain Beefheart must be sowed. I’ve been trying to convince anyone willing to listen, within a 10-foot radius, on the wonders of Beefheart. But now with the glory of the Internet, why not heckle everyone within the earth’s radius?
Don’t worry, I’ll assure you that I’m not going to yodel like a pretentious music geek and devote a whole paragraph to drop album references all over or yak about Captain Beefheart being an underappreciated musical genius.
( Ed. note: Andrew will be taking a fresh look at somewhat obscure, underappreciated older music with this regular column. )
Captain Beefheart is an underappreciated musical genius. Despite popular belief, Trout Mask Replica is not where you want to start. Play the first track and nobody wants to sit through. Lick My Decals Off, Baby is too dense to a casual listener. Safe as Milk, Clear Spot, The Spotlight Kid, all very enjoyable albums, but lets be honest, it’s Beefheart-lite. Bluejeans and Moonbeams? God no. So with which album do I start?
While everyone was busy sporting mullets and playing synth pop, Beefheart released Doc at the Radar Station. Produced in 1980, this is definitely his most accessible, yet quintessential, album. Just looking at the album cover foreshadows what we are about to hear: crashing head-on rhythms, conflicting emotions and mingling textures.
None of Beefheart’s songs flow linearly. The instruments seem to be dysfunctional family members, all with their own unique traits, each tugging and pushing to be heard. “Sheriff of Hong Kong” has Chinese gongs, oriental guitars and dragonboat drums, among others, all screaming for attention. “Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee” starts with a soothing wavy melody all while the lyrics, juxtaposed, provide harsh imagery. “Ashtray Heart” has him proclaiming, “I feel like a glass shrimp in a pink panty” and we chuckle: how exactly does that feel? Probably as awkward as the instruments as they tumble forward and then sputter out midway, leaving only the bass to meander, then magically all fuse back together.
Not to say that all of Beefheart’s songs are too “out there”. “Hot Head,” which is probably the most radio friendly song on the album, sounds like a steam train chugging along, while guitars provide bluesy hooks that accentuate the erratic drums. “Run Paint Run Run” announces itself with whimsical guitars jumping everywhere as the drums pound, yet the chorus somehow sticks in your mind. A lone distorted guitar splashes onto the musical canvas, with Sue Egypt, as the bass and horn instruments add finishing touches. When the song seems to fall apart, the main riff comes back in and the song flows smoothly.
Some of his songs are so chaotic that you wonder how they don’t implode. “Best Batch Yet” shows trademark Beefheart, playing around with dissonance and atonality. The guitars and bass are muddy and rude. When the guitar parts start and stop independent of each other, you’ll be surprised how they complement and intertwine seamlessly. With “Brickbats,” the saxophone literally squeals like a bat. The lyrical imagery synchs up perfectly with the instrumentation and as we focus on this interplay, the frantic beat slows down, the spotlight shines on Beefheart and he bellows and quivers: “Brickbaaaaattssssss.” Just as you are figuring the dynamics to Brickbats, “Dirty Blue Gene” charges full force. The abrasive slide guitar sticks out of the overall rhythm, blends back in, then shoots out on a tangent. Yet it’s indisputably a catchy song. When the mood changes at 1:01 and when by 1:22, has subtly altered to a bouncy rhythm, your ears will never approach music the same way.
“Telephone” is dissonance at its best. Utilizing his hoarse grandma voice, we feel his paranoia of technology completely. When at 1:13 the first guitar plays a riff and at 1:17 the second guitar repeats it, then somehow all the instruments come together, you are left to marvel at the surgical precision. Just when you think you can’t take any more, soothing instrumentals rush in. The piano and guitar duet on “A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets To A Diamond” gives us a break with a very straightforward melody. The guitar complements the piano perfectly, in this simple yet charming song. “Flavor Bud Living” provides us a beautiful solo guitar piece that was transcribed – note per note – from piano to guitar.
Don’t worry, hating the album after the first listen is normal for any listener. I haven’t heard of anyone who liked Beefheart at first listen. But when someone considers – even just a hint – of giving it a chance, a second listen, then I have done my duty as an upright citizen. Listening to Beefheart requires full attention. This isn’t background party music or Kenny G smooth jazz. To fully appreciate the nuances of his music, you have to pay full attention to the individual parts and how they interact as a whole.
If you’re used to listening to clap happy indie songs with xylophones and bells all jangling about, this will definitely not be a smooth ride. In fact, it’s going to be confusing, even overwhelming at some points. The songs won’t move forward linearly, the vocals don’t rhyme; the guitars are angular and abrasive. These songs will work your mind more than two hours of progressive rock wankery.
Give it a chance. You’ll be surprised that the seemingly random noise has precise pattern. Listen carefully to Beefheart throwing his voice, high and low, to convey emotion. Pay close attention to the whole album: listen to it once from the drummer’s point of view, then another from the lead guitar’s viewpoint, from the rhythm, from the piano, or let the surreal lyrical imagery guide you through the instrumentation. But please don’t tell me OK Computer is the best album after you’ve properly listened to this.