Perfect Sound Forever

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Doc at the Radar Station
by Bill Bamberger
(February 1999)

The years 1974 to 1979 were a hard ride for Don Van Vliet. The two 1974 albums which were meant to open the door to commercial success nearly ruined his career. 1975 found him asking Frank Zappa for work. In 1976 he recorded a "comeback" album which was caught in a legal tangle between Zappa (who produced it) and one of his team, the album was never released. 1978 saw the relase of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), an album with only a handful of striking tunes, and a number of others which were uncomfortably close to the pop which had caused his 1974 crash and near-burn. 1980 finally saw the appearance of a strong record, Doc at the Radar Station.

Van Vliet may or may not have been aware that the rhythms of the opening guitar part on the album's opener "Hot Head" are nearly identical to the opening of the Marcels' doo-wop classic "Pretty Little Angel Eyes." But there's nothing old-fashioned about the song. Robert Williams does a fine impression of the "Drumbo" drum-style (John French is present on this album, but he plays more guitar and marimba than drums). The rhythm rows like a steel galley slave. This is a hard- chugging, call and response return to Van Vliet's heavy-Americana style: "She's a hobo wire-toaster," refers to the loops hobos used to make out of old coat hangers so they could make toast over an open fire.

"Ashtray Heart" starts and stops, the scrubbing sounds of the guitars thick over French's nimble, thumping drums. The lyrics include some of Van Vliet's most quotable fragments. Many of the words turn on the similarity of the language used for dealing with cigarettes and with love: "crush me out," "brush me off." The phrase "open up another case of the punks" was taken by a number of reviewers at the time to refer to the "punk rock" movement, many bands of which claimed they continued on paths opened up by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. But, in context, the words more likely refer to other senses of the word: as in "feeling punky," for feeling sick, or "punk out," meaning to be overcome with fear.

"A Carrot Is As Close As a Rabbit Gets To a Diamond" is a lovely instrumental duet of guitar and electric keyboard. Its primary motif is a 4- note major scale lick that is reminiscent of "Peon." The intervals here are much smaller, however, and the piece as a whole is less chordal, more pointillistic. "Run Paint Run Run" is thin, the music a simple up/down see-saw; the lyrics not progressing far beyond the title; the vocals an unmodulated shout. The middle section includes a trombone part reminiscent of "Long Neck Bottles," but this is almost the only point of rhythmic interest here.

"Sue Egypt" features one of Van Vliet's most unusual accompaniments. A single slide guitar plays a dirty-sounding chord pattern, over which swoops a melody on the mellotron; Van Vliet said this instrument had for him a merthiolate sound, and that is very much present here. At times the guitar drops out and the merthiolate continues unaccompanied. There are no bass or drums on the track.

"Brickbats" is known to date from the original Bat Chain Puller of 1976, but is a very 1969 - '70 sounding composition in how the guitars wander and clash. Van Vliet's astringent alto saxophone playing is down in the mix further than usual, however. He sings full-throat, deliberately trying to force the edges of his voice to fray for effect. But here, as is true of all the vocals on the album, some of the resonance is missing from Van Vliet's voice. In its stead there is a hoarse cloudiness, a new hollowness in the lower range, making his voice a less powerful instrument than even just two years before.

"Dirty Blue Gene" starts out at top speed, then stops and becomes a frantic badminton game with the rhythm and riffs flying from one instrument to another every couple beats. The track never resigns itself to any groove, but continues as a series of sudden changes in tempo and texture. The pieces are filled with all the jagged beauty of Van Vliet's music at its best. The vocal is again somewhere between singing and reciting.

The music for "Best Batch Yet" is ominous, heavy as hot steel in a rolling mill. The dissonance of the guitars gives way at times to happy- sounding, thickly noted ensemble riffs, like a western swing 45 that's been broken and glued together all wrong. The lyrics tell of the creation of beautiful pearls, done "from the inside"; a parable of creativity. "Telephone" is a throw-away song. Van Vliet sings in a high strangled voice, cursing the instrument he calls a "plastic-horned devil" for the way an old-style receiver looks when set upside down in its cradle. "Flavor Bud Living," the solo by Gary Lucas, is antic, more fragmented than such pieces as "Peon" and "A Carrot," but its Asian-tinged overtones float nicely above the pounding-nails attack Lucas uses (per Van Vliet's instructions).

French plays both bass and drums on "Sheriff of Hong Kong," and this makes a magical difference. The track has a density that none of the others even approach. Despite the excellence of many of the compositions on the album, this is the only track which can be considered an equal to the power of the classic 1969-72 recordings. This is the only track recorded after 1972 to equal the gripping strength of performances such as "Doctor Dark" and "Click Clack."

This song is colored by Van Vliet's enthusiasm for Chinese music. On the tour, a recording of Chinese opera was played as intermission music before the band came on. On this song, Van Vliet plays a pair of gongs (considered "male" and "female") such are used for Chinese opera. The force with which he plays them, however, make them sound like the ricochets of shells bouncing off his hull. This song includes Van Vliet's only lyrics in Chinese: "er-hu," he sings, and "zing-hu." These are the names of Chinese violins. These names and the genders of the gongs may in fact have been the inspiration for the lyrics: they tell of a man and woman struggling for dominance, and whoever is temporarily dominant is "the Sheriff of Hong Kong," all of which could be the story of the two instruments sounding one after the other, each tone dominating in turn.

"Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey On My Knee" is another poem-and-music track. A cartoon steam engine-sound created by a tootling synthesizer and drums powers the opening section of the music. A series of dramatic-cue sound sculptures (again like "Golden Birdies," or "Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat Top") make up the middle, and the steam engine returns before the track abruptly ends---and with it, the album.

At least some of the music here was recycled from 1969 - 70 tapes, but this doesn't detract from the enjoyment of hearing Van Vliet's music at its strongest.

See Jeremy Hepburn's review of Doc At the Radar Station

See the rest of the Beefheart tribute

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