Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
The Legendary A&M Sessions
by Scott McFarland
This EP was collated and originally released by A&M in 1984; it contains the A and B sides of two singles put out on the label in 1966 by Lancaster, California phenoms Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, plus one previously unreleased track recorded for the label. Is this stuff worth tracking down? Yes, I believe that it is.
The 1966 edition of the Magic Band did not deal in the type of jazz-inflected, multi-layered compositions which later editions of the band became known for. They were a hard-edged, straight ahead and muscular band interested in fusing blues with rock in a manner not unlike what the Rolling Stones were up to. The band's focal point was their singer, Don van Vliet, who had an astonishingly powerful blues voice (capable of perfectly mimicking Howlin' Wolf - which would have to that point been thought impossible) and who blew a mean harmonica as well. The band became very popular in parts of Southern California for their live shows, which included impressive electrified renditions of tunes by artists like Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. A box set on the Revenant label planned for Spring of 1999 should bring more of this band's sound to light - at their best they were extraordinary.
During the band's short tenure with A&M, they worked with producer David Gates, later a member of the band Bread. Off the bat, they had a local hit with a rendition of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" (originally cut in 1955). The song could be described as a sleeper in Diddley's original version, which is a bit aimless. But when speeded up, given a vicious bass undertow, and given the benefit of Don's powerful low-register singing and harmonica playing, it turns into something at least mildly interesting. More impressive was the B-side, "Who Do You Think You're Fooling", which was written by Don and played up-tempo in an energetic and somewhat sinewy pop style. The vocal is again impressive, and in fact is catchy enough to make this one of those songs that you could find yourself singing in the shower from time to time over the years. The lyric asks its rhetorical question to some apparently female figure who the singer has lost respect for - the Statue of Liberty perhaps?
The second A&M single was even better. On the A-side we have "Moonchild", written by David Gates. The song itself is melancholy and capable of descending into cliché, however the band gives a strong, angular performance that makes this into a memorable cut. There's a real mix of blues authenticism and rock power present herein. The B-side, a Van Vliet composition entitled "Frying Pan", is an up-tempo scorcher and their best cut yet. The music swings along with a forceful undertow as Don decries (in blues voice and character) the type of society where the (black) man who discovered medicinal use for blood plasma would eventually be left to die outside a hospital for want of treatment. The EP's final track, "Here I Am I Always Am", unfortunately fails to gel - it's the sound of some young men playing with tempo and trying to do something different, but failing to lay down anything memorable, topped off with a strained vocal which approaches romantic cliche.
A & M bypassed on the band after this, figuring (correctly) that the modicum of commercial success obtained by "Diddy Wah Diddy" would not be repeated. The band began the path towards the multi-dimensional "Safe As Milk", which is generally regarded as a progression forward from the blues-rock sound of the band in 1966. If you talk to some residents of Lancaster, though, even down to some members of future editions of the Magic Band, they'll tell you that Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band never sounded better than when they were slamming their way through tunes in 1966. Happily, between the songs on here and the material to be released soon on Revenant, at least some of that magic has found its way onto vinyl and disc.
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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