"Wings on 'Singabus'"?
A reappraisal of Captain Beefheart's Clear Spot
By Richard Mason
Listening to it today (yesterday too, for that matter) it strikes me that I feel pretty much the same way about Clear Spot by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band now as I did when I first encountered it back in '72-' 73 around when it came out. The same emotions spring to mind - exhilaration, bewilderment, disappointment, even anger - when I hear those songs. Of course, it's not the same, really - the feeling of having stumbled across something new and unique, compounded by the fact that I was still a kid as opposed to the worldly-wise and sober individual who now presents himself to you, has long since passed, obviously - but something essential made its mark on me back then, something that's lingered long and hard. Presumably this is what long-seasoned impartial seen-it-all-before 'rock music critics' (proper ones, that is, not charlatans such as myself who, after all, don't even get fucking paid for doing it - though that's an interesting thought, wouldn't you say, Jason, old chap?) mean when they refer to Captain Beefheart having a 'rabid cult following' of fans who 'verge on the messianic'. You know the sort of thing. Beefheart's one o'them folk who somehow get into your bloodstream if you're so inclined and you never get rid of them. Why is this? As good a way to explain it from my own point of view as I can think of is to bang on for a wee while about Clear Spot, being as it was my first encounter with the music of Captain Beefheart.
It came in a clear sleeve; Beefheart apparently wanted clear vinyl but Reprise wouldn't wear it - in any case, my mates and I'd already come across the debut LP by Faust and as such were prepared for anything packaging-wise (and, as we mistakenly thought at the time, music-wise) and announced itself to the world as being "A God's Golfball Production". Watch out, lads, this bloke's a rum cove all right, we giggled. We didn't know the half of it. Looking through the credits in more detail, we observed that Beefheart himself aka Don Van Vliet was responsible not only for the singing and harmonica playing but also "wings on Singabus". "What the fuck is that about?" thought two or three 13-14 year old English kids in Somerset, England. (More than 25 years on, at least one of them is still wondering about half of what Don Van Vliet is on about sometimes.) And we hadn't even got to the music yet!
When we did give it a listen, one thing became immediately clear; this was like nothing we'd come across before. Our perceptions of what music was about were tossed in the air at random and landed on the ground in a very different order from the way they were before is as good a way I can think of to describe the effect it had on us. Some of mine is still up there; it hasn't come down yet. I mean, we'd already heard a fair bit of the rock/pop music of the time and as such were used to folk with crazy made up names like Frank Zappa and Carlos Santana, so if someone wanted to call himself Captain Beefheart, well, that was fine by us. But the music - that was another matter.
We'd certainly never come across Howlin' Wolf or Charley Patton or One-String Jones or Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or any of the other artists Beefheart has professed to admire and as such just didn't know what to expect. When one of us put the stylus down on side one and it got to the bit where we heard this voice that makes you feel like he gargles with Victor Kiam's finest belting out "Fast goes fast/Slow goes slow/Alright now, do the Yo Yo Yo Yo Yo", we knew this was no ordinary music. To what extent we actually went for it varied from person to person, but we all knew this was one of the big curve balls out of left field of all time.
That first track, "Low Yo Yo Stuff," sets the tone for the album as a whole in more ways than one. First, it highlights the main musical features of the record; the uncanny guitar radar that existed between Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton when the latter was employing the six-stringed half of his mighty double-neck, the unobtrusive, subtle bass patterns of Orejon formerly known as Roy Estrada and the magical drum and marimba manipulations of the sublime Art Tripp III all at one sitting. Also, any initial impressions one might form of this verging on something resembling 'normal rock music' go well and truly out of the window on repeated hearing. All that chorus verse business is out for a start; rhythmically, it swings more like jazz and/or blues, and the song's construction follows its own path. "You never know what they're gonna do next!" said a mate of mine back in '72. How true.
Moving on, what on earth, we marvelled, was he on about when he decreed on the next track that "Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man"? By this point however, we were starting to accept the unacceptable more and more. Both harmonica and guitar playing on this track demand a mention; not too sure whether Zoot Horn employs glass finger or steel appendage here, but whichever it is, the effect is shattering. The rhythmic syncopation on this piece grabbed our attention so much at the time that a good deal of involuntary twitching took place. Still does, actually. The horn arrangement works well, not too high in the mix and providing rhythmic rather than tonal variety.
My first real problem with this record comes with the next track, "Too Much Time." For a start, the horns, backing vocals and lead guitar playing all come with a bloody huge sticker with "SESSION MUSICIAN" written on them in magic marker pen. The guitar especially sounds so at odds with the fiery innovation you hear from the guitars elsewhere on this record that it virtually ruins the whole track for me on it own. Otherwise, it's not a favourite of mine anyway; sounds too much like Van Morrison for these ears and apart from the bit in the middle where Beefheart goes on about beans, sardines, crackers and cream the lyrics are uninspired by his standards. "Circumstances" gets the record back on track with some blistering harmonica and guitar, though it fades in and out in the middle with little or no purpose that I can see and at one point the ghastly phantasm of one R. Krasnow is evoked by means of some spectacularly gratuitous phasing on the drums. Again, the lyrics are rather average, and this continues on the next track, a somewhat maudlin ballad whose title, "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains," is the best thing about it. Again, thrilling syncopated rhythms and growling guitars are conspicuous by their absence, replaced as they are by a staid session-musician feel.
We were beginning to think the first two tracks might represent the record's zenith when lo and behold, up popped "Sun Zoom Spark" and we were once more transfixed. "I'm gonna zip up my guitar", announced the Captain, and blow me if he didn't go and do just that, or rather got Zoot Horn to whip it out and then some. Slide guitar was a thrilling new sound to us in those days and its weirdness complimented the lyrics perfectly. If you've got someone giving it "Magnet draw day from dark/ Sun zoom spark!" on the old vocal chords you have to come up with something pretty special in the backing to live with that; that was the underlying wisdom of the time, at any rate. A superb track that rattles along like a squirrel across a dual carriageway, powered by clattering percussion and white-hot guitar. Beefheart employs two of his many singing voices and even though the track clocks in under the two minute mark if my memory serves me correctly, there's more of interest than in the previous three bands put together. A great end to a patchy side, and some kind of preparation for what awaits the unwary listener on the other side of the vinyl; not that it could ever prove to be sufficient, as we shall discover.
Turn it over and the next thing you know a churning tremolo guitar introduces a bass that walks all over your head in hobnail boots for a few seconds before finally accommodating itself to an eccentric shuffle along with the other instruments, at which point this indescribable voice fills the speakers, informing you amongst other things that the "Swamp's all rotten and stinking - eeeeuuuuuuurrrrrhhhhhhh". Phew, thanks for the warning. The voice goes on to tell us about "mosquitoes in moccasins steppin' all around", which does not appear to be a prospect he relishes. "'Fraid I'm gonna get hit," he confides as a sepulchral slide guitar fades into nothingness before re-emerging with renewed vigour and the whole business gets going as before till once again it dies away with the voice reaffirming its need "t'find a cleeeeear spot".
Before you can recover, the slide's back and we're straight into "Crazy little Thing", one of those Beefheart tracks that sneaks up on you over the years. We didn't care for it much at first; it has the same gratuitous backing singers as "Too Much Time" and I guess it just takes a while for the effect of that guitar/bass syncopation thing to sink in sometimes. Now I like it just fine and wobble about involuntarily in sympathy with its lascivious rhythms and lyrical message. Next, a blast of harmonica announces "Long Neck Bottles," in which Zoot Horn delivers the finest three-note guitar solo of all time and the horn section compliments the shuffling rhythm as on "Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man." "I don't like to talk about my women," Beefheart declaims, "But I'm gonna do it anyway" and the harp screeches on to the fade. The mood changes abruptly with "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles," which would have sounded at home on Safe As Milk, being as it is a self-pitying yet exquisite minor key paean to his love featuring mandolin, bells and exquisite guitar. Again, my schoolfriends and I rather dismissed this song at first, but on reflection it is genuinely affecting rather than merely maudlin; also, it provides a lull in the side's mood which then balances neatly between the uptempo romps of the first three tracks and what is to follow.
A guitar careers out of either speaker atop a lightning blues riff. They coalesce as a mixture between a carnival barker and a JA toaster takes over proceedings. For the uninitiated, his spiel is pretty much as follows: "Distant cousins - there's a limited supply/'N' we're down to the dozens - 'n' this is why/Big eyed beans from Venus - oh my, oh my!" Lyrics and music build to a crescendo; Bo Diddley would doubtless put a claim in the rhythm if he heard it but otherwise it's like nothing you heard in your life. Then you go deeper. A guitar rings out like a bell in a church on Mars and the voice exhorts him to "hit that long lunar note...and let it float." He does. Once more the track masses layer on layer of frantic polyrhythm, the drummer getting crazier and crazier until eventually he delivers a tom-tom fill that triggers off music that has never been matched, before or since. "Put 'em out in the sun/'n' when the night comes/You don't have to go out & get 'em" snarls the singer, and from that moment the guitar playing and drumming is beyond words. The music ebbs and flows, mocking any kind of conventional song structure until the vocalist returns to the crux of the matter: "Don't let anything come in between us/BIG-EEEEEEEYED BEEEEEEEANS FROM VEEEEEEEEE-NUUSSSS!" The drums and guitar... Jesus, didn't you hear what I just said? You get back to the middle of the track where it gets deeper and that guitar rings out again, its companion scratching desperately at its heels until once again a piece of glass or metal on a set of steel strings produces an otherwordly glisssando which quivers and sustains for what seems like years, then gently fades into nothing.
Straightway the voice is back. "Those little golden birdies - look at them!" That's an order! A bass guitar played with a plutonium plectrum though an amplifier the size of Madagascar shatters the very foundation of your being and from then on it's an intoxicating mixture of indecipherable poetry, frenetic guitar/marimba duets that sound not unlike the ones at the start of "The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye)" on Lick My Decals Off, Baby and thundering tom-tom interjections. None of it makes any sense whatsoever to me and I love it more than I can say. It ends with those immortal words we have all come to know and love, whether you first heard it in 1972 soon after it came out as my friends and I did or whether you first heard it ten seconds ago:
"And the pantaloon duck/White goose-neck quacked/Webcore, webcore.'
How true. If these last two tracks had not appeared, Clear Spot would probably go down as a patchy attempt at commercial compromise and a relatively low point in Captain Beefheart's career, which is probably unfair, but as it is it remains a favourite of many and deservedly so in my opinion. There is some evidence that pressures on Beefheart to adopt a more sales-friendly approach were bearing fruit to an extent, but thankfully you can't keep a good man down and tracks such as the title track and the last two on side 2 make this a record to remember by any standards. Clear Spot was the last decent Beefheart record until his triumphant return to form in the late '70's, but, more than that, it was the last meaningful appearance of The Magic Band that for so many represent his best group. It's remembered with great fondness and no little awe for that reason alone by many, myself included. I find it hard to talk or write or even think about this record now without recalling how it made me feel back in 1972 when I first came across the incomparable Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. "I know we always been together/But there's more..."
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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