'Not Even Real Music'
a reappraisal of Captain Beefheart's
Lick My Decals Off, Baby
by Richard Mason
First Beefheart record I ever bought, second one I ever heard (after Clear Spot, of which more elsewhere.) This record always seems to be judged in terms of its similarities/failings in comparison to its immediate predecessor, Trout Mask Replica. I'll try not to let that happen too much here, but you know how it is... the aforementioned double album will doubtless be dealt with elsewhere in this series by (insert name of PSF stalwart here...). So let's to the matter in hand, namely in my opinion one of the most underrated LP's in not only the entire Beefheart canon but the entire canon of, um, how can I put this without seeming all...oh, what the fuck, rock music itself. Those majestical sweeping literary phrases - how do I love thee! Here's hoping you do, too!
Anyway, as the Bonzo Dog Band would have it in "Sport (The Odd Boy)", 'Let's go back to your childhoodchildhoodchildhoodchildhood...' Well, early teens any road; I bought this record in '74 & was straightaway condemned by, oh, at least 98% of my school contemporaries as being utterly barking. I think it was the final band on side 2, "Flash Gordon's Ape," that really did the trick. Up to then they'd just looked at me as I tapped my foot beatifically to the beat, smirked at some of the lyrical wordplay and got all gazing-out-of-the-window-poetic over the guitar instrumentals; Mason at it again. But when confronted by the vibrant strains of "Flash Gordon's Ape," they rounded on me indignantly. 'Not even real music' was one of the more generous judgements offered, I seem to recall. My mate Simon & I just giggled at this 'heresy.' Music - who gives one? Though I had yet to encounter the cultural icon that was/is/will be the second LP by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, the mighty If Music Be The Food Of Love...Prepare For Indigestion, I had, looking back,
already taken its essential credo very much to heart. The weirder it sounded then, the better I liked it. And so it was with Decals (as it shall be referred to from now on); the fact that it freaked out my boring contemporaries was the icing on the cake. Let 'em endure Deep Purple In Rock for the rest of their days, I gloated; their loss if the Captain don't flex their magic muscle. Typical snob stuff, in other words.
Down to business. Released 1971. Fifteen tracks, three of them instrumentals. In concert performances, instead of announcing 'the next number,' Beefheart would often preface matters by stating that he'd 'like to perform a composition...,' which frequently provoked a few sniggers in the process from those who thought he was aping some pompous classical type. In my opinion, nothing was further from the truth. Like most serious artists (on, and by the bye, if there's one single individual among you who would care to step outside and enter into prolonged and meaningful debate regarding the small matter of whether or nor Captain Beefheart constitutes a 'serious artist,' let's be having you) Beefheart was not averse to a smackerel of pomposity now and again, but here I always reckoned he was saying "Yes, these are my compositions - pay attention!"
With the instrumental pieces on this record, especially the one for Zoot Horn Rollo's solo guitar entitled "One Red Rose That I Mean," the music forces you to take it seriously, to really listen, almost more than at any other time on the album. At times during the aforementioned track the traditional UK folk music heritage is evoked alongside the Delta blues; shades of Martin Carthy popping over to Robert Pete Williams' place for a blast. "Peon," for guitar and bass duet, is darker, more intense and yet resolves itself in uncanny fashion (by no means the only composition on this record so to do) with the most gorgeous melodic finale. The other instrumental,"Japan In A Dishpan," closes side 1 of the vinyl and features breathless childlike saxophone over what a lazier reviewer than this one might deem a typically Beefheartian romp involving guitar, bass and drums.
Talking of drums, the drumming herein is astonishing; from lightning-fast dense sheet-metal thrashing and pounding to delicate brushwork (as on"The Buggy Boogie Woogie") and all percussive points in between, propelling and complimenting the other instruments in furious and inspired fashion. The liberal use of marimba throughout provides welcome tonal/atonal varieties as well as highlighting the awesome musicianship. Opinions seem to be divided as to whether it's John French or Art Tripp (or a combination of the two, individually and/or together) featured herein; you decide. The absence of a second guitar on this record as a result of Jeff Cotton's departure is in fact scarcely missed; indeed the performances of Mark Boston and Bill Harkelroad, better known as Rockette Morton and Zoot Horn Rollo, executing their leader's uncanny melodic and rhythmic exercises in syncopation on bass and six-string guitar as only they knew how, are if anything more clearly defined than on Trout Mask Replica. One thing these ears didn't pick up was the contribution of Victor Hayden (that's right, The Mascara Snake!) to this record; if he's on bass clarinet duties again, I can't hear him. Or is that him in the background on "Flash Gordon's Ape"? (That's him on the front cover though; I'd know that face anywhere.) Anyway, correct me if I'm wrong, but this would seem to be the only Beefheart recording to feature a solitary six-string guitar, and the effect on the guitar/bass balance between left and right stereo channels in the mix is most gratifying to these ears at any rate. "Got me?"
Although this record is so often linked thematically with its immediate predecessor, there are also those that would prefer to see it as a transitional album, incorporating degrees of both the free jazz influence and the more 'straight'(?) blues leanings of Trout Mask Replica and The Spotlight Kid respectively. Surely either view is a mite simplistic. This record has such character, force of purpose and individuality that it stands alone. The mood is dark and at times pessimistic, but personally I find that (a) with most Beefheart records and (b) not a problem at all. What I suspect a lot of people really latch onto in this music is the emotive aspect, the gut-wrenching sound of musicians who give a toss about stuff. For me, "Decals" has this quality as much as, if not more than, any of the other music made by Captain Beefheart, musically and lyrically:
"It makes me laugh to hear you say how far you've come
When you barely know how to use your thumb
So you know how t' count t' one""Flash Gordon's Ape"
"The rug's wearing out that we walk on
Soon it will fray 'n we'll drop
Dead into yesterday""Petrified Forest"
Pretty much your average Beefheartian quirky nonsensical surrealistic wordplay, wouldn't you say? Musically too, the approach is more direct and focussed than it seems at first; so many of the guitar and bass lines are simplicity itself, often involving only two or three notes, yet it's the counterpoint of the instruments, both harmonic and rhythmic, that's so initially unsettling. Arrangements vary in complexity from the startling and subtle variations of "Doctor Dark," "Bellerin' Plain" and "Space Age Couple" to the comparatively simplistic yet no less stunning backing on "I Love You, You Big Dummy" and "The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)," to say nothing of tracks that combine aspects of both such as "Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop" and "I Wanna Find Me A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Until I Have to Go." Overall, the standard is nothing short of peerless.
Despite the passion and commitment so deeply evident in both the music and the lyrics, the childlike element of play so integral to Don Van Vliet's way of thinking and looking at the world is never far from the surface on this record. The way in which "dinosaur's shoes" becomes "Dinah Shore's shoes" on "The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)" is surely one of the finest puns of all time in the English language, never mind rock lyrics. When I first heard it, I had no idea who Dinah Shore was, being English, but still laughed out loud - and still do. The sly joy of "The Buggy Boogie Woogie", the malevolent exuberance of "I Love You, You Big Dummy" and the vivid sexuality of the title track and "I Wanna Find Me A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Until I Have To Go" all gloriously give the lie to the idea that this is a depressive, emotionally one-dimensional record. Far from it.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby remains for this person at least (and I suspect for many others, too) one of the most multi-faceted and rewarding of all Beefheart's recordings. A serious record? "Of course, of course." All his records are serious, serious works of art some would say. Concerned, certainly, as he always was lyrically. But never less than riveting in its content and execution; despite personal reservations about the quality of "The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye)" compared to the rest of the album, I have to say one less than wonderful track out of fifteen sure ain't bad. On certain other Beefheart records it'd be a stand-out track, but compared to the other tracks here the lyrical wordplay seems almost forced and lightweight, the music almost treading water. Oh, by the way, before I forget, the Captain himself pitches in with some superb harmonica and saxophone contributions (his playing on Bellerin' Plain" and "Japan In A Dishpan" ranks among his finest for me) as well as being in as good form larynx-wise as you'll hear from him anywhere.
In conclusion, a wondrous record, and a travesty that it isn't currently available in any format in the UK at least. "Not even real music"? Well, pardon me, as BobMitchum says in the crap remake of CAPE FEAR, all over the place.
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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