At the Crossroads with The Spotlight Kid
By Steve Froy
Having just produced two albums that redefined the parameters of traditional rock music Beefheart's next album The Spotlight Kid was eagerly awaited. Although not as revolutionary as its predecessors it still proved to be a challenging piece of work. Instead of producing some more of the same Beefheart seemed to have taken a step backwards - to the blues - and a step sideways - towards the mainstream. Although what he produced was a heady concoction of steaming swampy blues like nothing else, many may have thought he'd sold his soul and begun the slippery slope to commercialism.
This fear was not entirely unfounded as the change in emphasis appears to have been a conscious decision. In a 1972 interview with the NME Don explained :
"I've had my fun...now I'm going to make myself far more accessible to the public." (1)
And this attitude has been recently confirmed by Bill Harkleroad in his book, in which he says :
"By the time of the recording of The Spotlight Kid Don had a really good notion of where to go. I think his basic idea was to return to his musical roots [...] I think he had arrived at the conclusion himself that he actually wanted some money." (2)
But nothing is always that straightforward where Beefheart is concerned! His musical roots were the blues. But where another band would have recorded re-workings of blues standards or got stuck in a 12-bar groove Don used the 'feel' of the work of Son House, Robert Johnson, Lightnin Slim, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf as a starting point. Upon these hoodoo, voodoo foundations he was to lay his own unique rhythms and guitar licks that only the Magic Band could play.
What an opening this album has- in some ways echoing the similar striking guitar introduction to Safe As Milk - that killer riff to "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby" starts on one guitar, is joined by the second guitar and then the bass drops in like a megaton weight to knock the bottom out of your speakers before Don's first vocal grunt makes an appearance- this vocal is so low, and mixed so close to the bass it almost disappears. One minute in and we've already been places Beefheart hasn't taken us before. This track takes you by the throat and drags you into a new world which is populated by some familiar elements - the angular slashing dual guitar work (but here it is much heavy than we've grown accustomed to), the shifting rhythms of the drums and the intense image laden lyrics.
But it's the bass that is a shock. In fact, overall there is a heavier, bassier sound to The Spotlight Kid making the album warmer and more physical than previous releases. Don himself said that :
"I was thinking warm and nice when I did The Spotlight Kid and I feel that it has all come through". (3)
I'm not so sure. In some cases this heaviness appears to be holding or dragging the songs down, there is an underlying ponderousness about them that even the use of the marimba cannot lighten. With the benefit of hindsight and from what Zoot Horn Rollo tells us we now know that the Magic Band was at a very low ebb at this point, which explains the lack of spark in many of the songs. (However, I don't think we should dismiss this album as Zoot would seem to want us to). Thinking back to listening to The Spotlight Kid for the first time in 1972 the slowness was noticeable but I thought that's how they wanted it to sound- it wasn't until much later when I heard live versions of many of these songs that I realised how even more dynamic and awesome they could sound when played with conviction. This downbeat quality to the album is epitomised by the song "There Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evenin Stage." Not only are the lyrics depressing to say the least but the Magic Band sound as if they can hardly lift their arms to play and that the next note may well be their last. Even the sleigh bells, usually associated with shiny, happy Christmas songs, sound like the call to 'bring out your dead'.
But maybe this is a case of the playing perfectly fitting the mood of the song, something which the Magic Band manage to do in throughout the album, even if they are not quite as 'magical' as they could be. Listen to "Click Clack" and the band are one hell of a train swaying down the track, on "Grow Fins" the playing is so subtle and evocative you're swimming with the mermaids and on "Glider" I'm sure as hell riding "up n' down through the blues". On "Alice In Blunderland," while Elliot Ingber is soaring off like a demented hummingbird the Magic Band are laying down a constantly shifting yet solid intricate base for him to return to when the time comes.
With The Spotlight Kid Don was supposedly singing for women. As he explained in a 1972 interview in SOUNDS:
"I'm a sexy, healthy male - I've got blood running everywhere. I have a group of men, who play men's music, to women. Other men can enjoy it too, but it is definitely to women because I'm playing to a receiver ..." (4)
In practise not as many women may have listened as he hoped but they are present in most of his songs. Women, sex and relationships, the basic ingredients for most rock and sappy pop songs, are all here but seen through Don van Vliet's singular vision and playful use of language. In "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby," he takes the classic combination of sex and cars and through some sleight of word play creates all sorts of possibilities of what is going on. Is it sex in a car, or the car as a metaphor for sex, or sex as a metaphor for a car? Whatever it is, Weepin' Milly has a parking space for Vital Willy and he's going to get his machine slowed down.. This storming track is followed by an abrupt change of pace- but not a change of subject. "White Jam" begins with a delicate piano piece (played by Art Tripp), which could easily develop into one of those short instrumentals like "Peon," but then the steady drum/hi-hat beat kicks in along with the vocal and we're suddenly into a ballad. This is no ordinary ballad, this is a beautiful subtle, almost throwaway piece in which Don comes close to conventional singing, even at one point adopting a falsetto. This sweet, under-rated song is packed full of wonderful imagery. Once I realized that white jam = semen, it all fell into place. Work out for yourself what "flowers and yams" are.
The next song ("Blabber 'N Smoke") is a radical departure because it is not written by Don. But is written ABOUT him by the main woman in his life, then as she is now, his wife Jan. It is a credit to Don that he includes this song despite the lyrics being far from complimentary. It presumably shows just how much of an influence Jan had/has on his life and she is, probably, the only person who could get away with this kind of criticism. By including it maybe he was trying to prove that he didn't "treat love like a joke."
After these two lighter numbers the next track, "When It Blows Its Stacks" is a heavy, rocking, riff-driven monster trying to take flight. The potential is there but it never soars as some of the live versions did. And I can't decide what the hell it's about! Who or what is the 'it' that has stacks to blow and from whom all the women have to hide ?
Then comes "Alice In Blunderland," the only instrumental on the album. But this isn't a short, delicate instrumental like "Dali's Car" or a backing track like "Hair Pie (bake 2)" this is a full blown guitar solo piece. 'Written' by Don as a showcase for Elliot Ingber (Winged Eel Fingerling) this is supposedly edited down from a much longer piece. It does contain some incendiary playing by Winged Eel but it was disorientating at the time to find Beefheart seemingly taking a leaf out of the Allman Brothers book of endless soloing. However, what this track does do is underline the shift in Don's perspective and it is, presumably for this reason that he wanted someone like Elliot Ingber in the Magic Band (he was inventive guitarist but could add a more conventional dimension to their sound). I think this track more than any others showed that something had changed, because at least with the other songs there were still Don's idiosyncratic lyrics to hang onto. Also, for those of you not thinking in 'vinyl', 'Alice' was the last track on side one. In a way this was significant in that I found I could play the first side to friends who preferred the straighter rock sound but were not too keen on side two ... or on my playing Trout Mask too much.
Side two opens with the title track. At first you think it's going to be one of Don's poetic recitations but then the Band join in with a chugging riff which doesn't quite the lift the song. Although the main character of the song is a 'she' the idea of a 'spotlight kid' has got to be an image of Don's pampered childhood. According to Don:
"The Spotlight Kid is meant as a jest; didn't you notice the more relaxed atmosphere on this record? A jest by way of look at me, after all these years, I made it anyway. But I had to do it all on my own". (5)
"Click Clack" shows how the old blues cliché of playing the sound of a train can be re-invented and renewed. While Don sings of his girl going down to "N'Orleans-uh 'n get herself lost and found" and waving goodbye from the train window there is some fine playing from the drums (wheels on the railway track), cymbals (steam hissing), and guitar (train whistle). Don also plays some excellent harmonica, as we all know he can but has been missing from much of his work in favour of his sax. His harp playing also features strongly on "White Jam," "Grow Fins" and "Glider." In another 1972 interview, this time with DISC, he explained:
"Last year I felt like a harmonica so I wrote The Spotlight Kid on it" (6)
This would help to explain, if true, why the album has a different feel. But it does make me wonder if Jan had hidden his sax so that he was forced to produce some more commercial work. She had seen how Don's sax playing had the unfortunate result of clearing many venues when he played live.
The scenario of "Grow Fins" is another stereotypical blues situation. The man not being loved and properly cared for by his woman. This time it's the man leaving, not the woman as in "Click Clack." Again, Don takes a well-worn subject and adds his own twist to it. He wants to return to the sea (to pre-human days?) and take up with the mermaids. It's a desire to return to a natural state. He's touched on it before - in the song "Wildlife" on Trout Mask he was looking to be taken in by some bears.
As if these 'blues' are not enough Don rubs our noses in it with "There Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evenin Stage." I have already discussed this track. I don't see how this fits in with the "warm and nice" feel Don described he had for this album. It is interesting to note that there is one out-take from this time which is very similar in feel to "There Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evenin Stage" but is even more depressing. It is called "Funeral Hill" and it is just as well this didn't make it onto the released version or it would have been a real downer of an album.
Don seems to have been very prolific at this time. Although The Spotlight Kid only has ten tracks he says there were 35 songs recorded altogether. In fact, there are a number of out-take tapes circulating of material from the 1971/72 period. Much of it is untitled instrumental workouts by the Magic Band, little more than rehearsals or exploring possible riffs over and over again. There are some complete songs, various versions of the song already mentioned, "Funeral Hill," the unreleased songs "Natural Charm" (an instrumental version is known as 'Little Scratch') and "Seam Crooked Sam," early outings for "Harry Irene," "Dirty Blue Gene," and "Best Batch Yet" amongst others. It is all fascinating stuff but much of it does testify to the Magic Band being emotionally drained.
Okay, it isn't all doom and gloom. The album does finish on a note of hope. Well, at least I think it does anyway. The song "Glider" is a real gem. The Magic Band play a subtle and unassuming multi-rhythmic backing that floats and bounces as Don sings of taking off "into the sun in my glider" and never coming back down... although the track ends suddenly there does seem to be something more positive going on here.
The Spotlight Kid is a very easy album to listen to. I can have it playing in the background and it doesn't demand my attention in the way that Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby do. If I want to I find I can drop in and out of listening to it. On the other hand Don's lyrics are as fascinating and ambiguous as ever to mull over and the Magic Band's work is well worth close attention. This is a good Beefheart album. It could so easily have been a great one if the production had been tweaked and the Magic Band had not been so exhausted. Don's vocals are excellent, he uses that amazing voice to its full capabilities. The album contains some songs that were to become live classics. In most cases the live versions caught the Magic Band with more energy. The results being that the originals sound pale and leaden by comparison. Despite this, the album is one I regularly play.
This was an album at the crossroads, if we had but known it at the time. Being blues-based it looked back to the early days of the Magic Band. However, this and the introduction of more conventional rock elements showed the direction Don was to take in the future with the next album. Clear Spot was to be a refining of the elements introduced on The Spotlight Kid. To this would be added lyrics that were more straightforward and the sharper production values brought in by Ted Templeman. But many of The Spotlight Kid songs (especially in their poetic imagery and themes) are akin to those from Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby, while their musical structure and feel, "Grow Fins," "Click Clack" and "Glider" for example, look forward and can be seen as the prototype of what would appear on the (Original) Bat Chain Puller album. The road leading to conventional rock would ultimately prove a dead end for Don and he had to return to these crossroads to reconnect with the 'Beefheart' sound and many of the songs he'd sketched out at this time before he could move on again. No, he didn't sell his soul down at these crossroads... although he may have put it in hock for a while !
(1) New Musical Express: 12th February 1972. Svengali Zappa & a horrible freak called Beefheart. Roy Carr
(2) Bill Harkleroad: Lunar Notes (SAF Publishing 1998) page 84
(3) New Musical Express: ibid.
(4) Sounds: 1st April 1972. Captain Beefheart in the Talk-In. Steve Peacock
(5) Aloha: 6th February 1972 (translated from the Dutch by the Gorillacrow)
(6) Disc & Music Echo: 1st April 1972. Zappa stole my ideas, says the Captain. Caroline Boucher
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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