Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Observatory Crest: Looking back at Bluejeans & Moonbeams
by James Paton
After the completion of Unconditionally Guaranteed (Captain Beefheart's attempt to break into the more mainstream market and find that most elusive of all things, success), the Magic Band had finally had enough of their despotic band leader and parted company with him en masse. They did this upon the release of the aforementioned album, whilst on the verge of starting a massive tour encompassing the US and Europe. This left the Captain short of a backing band, but thankfully for him, his new management team quickly assembled a group of musicians capable of filling in, in the short term at least.
Following the completion of the tour, some of these musicians were kept on for the recording sessions of the follow up album, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, whilst several others were quickly drafted in to assist, with the whole album being rather hurriedly assembled in under a week. There wasn't (I believe) enough material to fill out its running time, and to make matters worse, the Captain was now without a musical interpreter to convey his ideas to his band members (i.e. John ‘Drumbo' French), leaving him somewhat at odds throughout the sessions. However, despite these problems, order did eventually arise out of chaos...
"The camel wore a nightie" growls the eponymous Captain Beefheart as his most maligned album kicks into life with the utterly brilliant, "Party of Special Things to Do" (co-written with Ira Ingber, brother of the Winged Eel Fingerling, who played bass on the album). Driven along with a superb guitar riff from the makeshift band's Dean Smith, filling in for the rather notable absence of the incredible Zoot Horn Rollo, who at this point was off with the rest of the real Magic Band forming the underrated Mallard. Filled with subtle wah-wah drenched guitar lines, a simple pounding drum beat and obscure lyrics, the song sets a precedent that the remainder of the album does well to follow, a bizarre mix of Unconditionally Guaranteed and, what the majority of his fans would dub, "classic" Beefheart. This particular song would probably have sat comfortably on either Clear Spot or The Spotlight Kid.
"Same Old Blues" is a brilliant cover of J.J. Cale's beautiful and soulful R&B track, given a bit of treatment from the Captain in what was presumably a desperate bid to assemble enough material for the album, this is not particularly surprising given the length of time that it was knocked together in. The result of this, is a loose and laid back feeling that flows through the album, turning a negative aspect of its production into a positive one for the music itself. Like its much-criticised predecessor, the mood of the album is invariably relaxed, making it ideal to chill out to. This particular track is certainly no exception, as Beefheart howls along with his band expressing genuine feeling, and delivers not only a worthy cover, but a more than welcome addition to the album.
The gorgeous "Observatory Crest" is arguably one of the best songs that Beefheart ever wrote, with its beautiful, delay steeped guitars intertwining majestically with subtle keyboards and a cracking bass line. The arrangement is topped off with a short slide guitar solo and simple, heart-warming lyrics to create a love song of such profound beauty, delivered as only the Captain can. Though not quite up there with the incredible "This is the Day" (from Bluejeans and Moonbeams) it's pretty darn close. Without a doubt, this is one of the album's strongest tracks.
"Are you talking to me?" enquires the Captain as the album progresses into the rather funky little number that is the superb, "Pompadour Swamp". Mostly keyboard driven, guitars fluctuate in and out of the mix with complimentary lines that swell and diminish before propelling into what can best be described as a chorus; this is brought to life with a lovely, slow paced descending run that soon provides the cue for the bass to take over and drive the song onwards again. The song structure is hardly inventive, but it most certainly does the job.
The first side of the vinyl closes with the track "Captain's Holiday", this song is accredited to Richmond, Hickerson and Feldman, though who knows who they might be?! There is a rumour that the song was actually an unreleased track found in the studio, and that the female vocals were simply overdubbed onto the basic track before it was then slapped onto the album. There is some fine harmonica found on this song, most likely performed by Beefheart himself, and I would hazard a guess that the guitar track was surely performed by Dean Smith- it's far too similar to the playing on the rest of the album for it not to be as far as I am concerned.
The second half of Bluejeans opens with "Rock n' Roll's Evil Doll", a short and funky little rocker driven by an excellent, meaty bass line from Ira Ingber, complemented with Beefheart's whining vocals and some more commendable fret work from Mr. Smith, although his best is yet to come. Gene Pello completes the mix by pounding on his kit with both power and precision to create his best contribution to the album thus far, rounding off a very good composition.
Another love song enters the fray, in the form of "Further Than We've Gone"; a slide guitar and piano driven composition to accompany the most gruffly sung, but sweet lyrics ever penned by Beefheart, resulting in a particularly fine love song indeed. Following on from the first verse-chorus progression, a beautiful piece of piano work leads the listener straight into a surprisingly effective guitar solo from Dean Smith. Sounding somewhere between the brilliant work performed by Rollo on the Captain's earlier records and more mainstream material, perhaps even sounding somewhat akin to The Eagles to a certain extent, he slowly draws the listener in by playing some simple lines before building up over the next two and a half minutes into one of the most wonderfully melodic guitar solos that I have ever had the privilege of hearing. The song returns for another verse-chorus again, before the piano leads us off as the song fades out towards its inevitable conclusion.
"Twist Ah Luck" is a brilliant little blues-rock arrangement powered along with an excellent riff and quirky, love song lyrics. The Captain howls his way through its 3:22 running time with gusto whilst the backing vocals of Michael Smotherman provide a nice counter balance, the arrangement is also punctuated with some excellent, though somewhat low key, fills from the Captain's harmonica. This was one of the first Beefheart songs that I remember falling in love with, and it still means as much to me now as it did then.
The album closes with the utterly brilliant title track, and whilst we had to survive the somewhat soggy "Captain's Holiday" to get here, it was certainly worth the wait! Sounding something akin to a country ballad- it sticks to a fairly repetitive chord progression throughout-but once the timer hits the two minute mark, that's where the real magic begins. Dean Smith launches into one of the very finest slide guitar solos I've ever heard in order see the composition out- this incredible piece of musicianship is something that even the great Zoot Horn Rollo himself would have been proud of. Like his earlier solo on "Further Than We've Gone", Smith escorts the listener in gently before gradually building up over the remainder of the song's 5:04 running time to deliver some of the most gorgeous and delicate playing, and as his lines start intertwining with the now prominent keys, it is almost impossible not to get lost in the music. When it eventually fades out, there surely could not be any listener that wont find themselves left heart-broken by the realisation that the song, and indeed the album, has now concluded.
Unfortunately dubbed the "Tragic Band" by many of Beefheart's fans, the harsh and unfortunately enduring criticism that this album, and indeed this band, has come under is grossly unfair and completely unwarranted. Granted the album cover should not state that the Magic Band were in attendance (they weren't), but in no uncertain terms is this a weak album, nor are the hastily drafted in musicians not up to the task, as they were. This is a wonderful, and regretfully overlooked masterpiece that I would encourage any music lover to revisit, and whilst the Captain himself may have foolishly disowned both this and its predecessor (no doubt to appease the aforementioned "fans"), this album is not the concluding segment of a black spot in his career. It may have been hastily recorded, but it was a beautiful segue that not only marked the end of an era for the Captain, but also the beginning of a new one that would witness the emergence of a new Magic Band. Of course, the "fans" didn't have any problems with them, now did they?
See Scott McFarland's take on Bluejeans
Also, see the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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