Captain Beefheart's real avant garde masterwork

Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, died on Friday, December 17, 2010, at the age of 69, from complications caused by multiple sclerosis. Beefheart recorded 11 studio albums between 1967 and 1982. On his 1967 debut album Safe As Milk, Beefheart came across as a blues-rocker in the Stones/Animals mold. But his sound became more avant garde on the albums that followed. He and his sometime collaborator Frank Zappa had been friends since boyhood; amazingly, Beefheart’s off-the-wall recordings tended to be more bizarre than Zappa’s. Beefheart has been cited as a major influence on many artists, especially from the alternative rock genre. In 1982, Beefheart quit the music business to focus full-time on painting, and never recorded another album for the remaining 28 years of his life. Some people interpreted his refusal to re-enter the music biz as a telling statement about that industry. Although it is easy to believe that Beefheart disliked the “business” side of the music business, it is likely that his departure from recording and touring also had much to do with his health. At the time his final album (1982’s Ice Cream For Crow) was released, the Captain appeared to be growing weary, physically and otherwise.

As of this writing, Beefheart’s 1970 album titled Lick My Decals Off, Baby is out of print. This was the album which followed Beefheart’s 1969 double album Trout Mask Replica, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Before I discuss the out-of-print album, I want to say a few words about Trout Mask Replica, which is currently available. Trout Mask Replica appears on many lists of the best albums of all time, and seems to be the album most discussed in recent articles about Beefheart’s death. I want to advise anyone who is new to Beefheart’s work that Trout Mask Replica is a very difficult album to understand and appreciate. Even some of the pundits who sing its praises have admitted that it took them more than six listens to finally “get” it. The album’s 28 tracks were recorded over the course of about five hours – after Beefheart and his Magic Band had rehearsed them for eight months! The resulting album completely deconstructs everything we know about music, and consists of mutant blues-rock combined with free-form jazz. At first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds like an endless cacophony of random noise; in truth, the songs were constructed under the unique vision and rigorous control of Beefheart, who spent several months teaching his band how to play his musical oddities. It is not my intention to trash this album. I am well aware of the album’s importance as Beefheart’s creative turning point, as well as how it paved the way for many other musicians who have defied convention. But I want to make it clear that Trout Mask Replica is not the place to start discovering Beefheart. Where is the best place to start? It’s hard to say, because a musician who is as unconventional as Beefheart can be hard to approach from any angle. My advice is to start with 1967’s Safe As Milk before investigating Beefheart’s more avant garde works.

Now that I’ve said my piece about that much-acclaimed album, I want to discuss its follow-up. Lick My Decals Off, Baby is the logical successor to Trout, because it continues in the same audaciously strange vein, but is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Beefheart produced this album himself, clearly taking a more hands-on approach than Zappa did on Trout, and (understandably) realizing his intentions better than Zappa could. This album’s free-jazz chord progressions are just as illogical as those on Trout, but somehow the surrealism comes through clearer this time. Decals can hardly be described as “no-nonsense”, because the music is the audio equivalent of abstract painting. But Decals takes far less time than Trout does to get where it’s going, and the ride is easier despite its uncompromising unconventionality. Vocally, the Captain alternately growls and moans like a deranged blues singer; on some tracks, such as “Bellerin’ Plain” and “Space-Age Couple”, he talk-sings his strange poetry with delirious vivacity. The instrumental “Japan in a Dishpan”, which closes the first side, is propelled by Beefheart’s wild saxophone playing; the album’s final track, “Flash Gordon’s Ape”, is a no-holds-barred saxophone orgy. Although Lick My Decals Off, Baby probably could not have been made without Trout Mask Replica being made first, Decals is a more finely tuned example of Captain Beefheart’s twisted artistic individuality.

9/6/14 update: Lick My Decals Off, Baby will be one of three Beefheart albums reissued on November 11th, 2014, as part of the box set Sun, Zoom, Spark: 1970 to 1972. Also, the proper Decals album is currently available as an mp3 download.

Captain Beefheart - Lick My Decals Off, Baby

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” (Straight RS 6420) 1970

Track Listing:

1. Lick My Decals Off, Baby
2. Doctor Dark
3. I Love You, You Big Dummy
4. Peon
5. Bellerin’ Plain
6. Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop
7. Japan in a Dishpan
8. I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go
9. Petrified Forest
10. One Red Rose That I Mean
11. The Buggy Boogie Woogie
12. The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)
13. Space-Age Couple
14. The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)
15. Flash Gordon’s Ape