Perfect Sound Forever

If you got ears, you gotta hear....
Captain Beefheart's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
by Stewart Osborne
(February 1999)

Having finally succeeded in alienating his entire band over the recording of the Unconditionally Guaranteed album; and much of his following with the subsequent ill-advised tour and the ill-conceived Blue Jeans and Moonbeams album; by 1974 Don Van Vliet's career had reached an all-time low.

He had fallen-out with yet another record label (Mercury) since allegedly the whole of the Blue Jeans and Moonbeams album was made up of out-takes from the previous record and rough-takes onto which instruments had been overdubbed. The instrumental "Captain's Holiday" in particular was not written by Don or indeed by any of the band members and was recorded on the record company's instructions without his knowledge. The finished product was then released without Don's approval, in a manner strangely reminiscent of what had happened with the earlier Mirror Man and Strictly Personal releases. Don has subsequently disowned both of the albums that he recorded for Mercury!

As a consequence of all this, Don found himself in the by-now-familiar position of being almost irretrievably tied up by more of the legal problems that dogged so much of his career. Of course these legal problems are the reason why he has left such a relatively small and fragmented legacy of recorded work and why it has thus far been impossible for any one record label to compile anything approaching a definitive or representative compilation of his career highlights.

Unable to tour or record in his own name, Don agreed to participate in the 1975 Bongo Fury tour with his childhood friend Frank Zappa, which resulted in the album of the same name credited to Zappa / Beefheart / Mothers.  Following this, later the same year he assembled a new line-up of the Magic Band. This featured two former members of the Magic band whom he was able to entice back: drummer John "Drumbo" French (who had left the Magic Band in 1974 with Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston and Bill "Zoot Horn Rollo" Harkleroad to form Mallard) and guitarist Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber. To them he added two musicians whom he had worked with on the Bongo Fury tour: guitarist Denny Walley and trombonist Bruce Fowler.  This band toured the UK, Europe and the USA during the last quarter of 1975.  Ingber subsequently left to be replaced on guitar by Jeff Morris Tepper and Bruce Fowler's trombone was replaced by keyboard player John Thomas. It was this line-up which recorded the album Bat Chain Puller between February and April 1976.

At this point, Don fell victim to yet another difficult legal situation although on this occasion not of his own making.  In May 1976, Zappa dismissed his manager Herb Cohen after 10 years and began legal proceedings against him, stating that Cohen and his lawyer brother had been stealing money from him and that part of this money had been used to fund the Bat Chain Puller recordings. According to Frank: "One of the things that I argued with Herbie was because he used my royalty cheques to pay for the production costs of Beefheart's album".  This contradicts the widely held belief that it was in fact Zappa who produced the album; Zappa insists that Don produced the album himself with the help of Zappa's engineer from One Size Fits All, Kerry McNabb.

In the protracted legal wrangling that ensued, Frank claimed (and eventually won) legal title to the Bat Chain Puller recordings on the basis that he had paid for them; albeit without his knowledge and consent.  In the meantime however, someone (presumably Herb Cohen) had sent a copy of the album to Virgin, presumably in an attempt to get the album released in the UK. It would appear that Virgin were interested and sent copies out for review. These are believed to be the source of the bootleg versions of the album.  As a consequence of the legal problems that existed at the time, this album has never received an official release and rumours of an impending issue continue to surface periodically to this day.

In fact the majority of the contents of the album did eventually see the light of day, albeit in re-recorded form, on the three subsequent albums.  The track listing for this album (with details of the subsequent albums on which the tracks would eventually appear in parentheses) is as follows:

During the following two years the Magic Band continued to be subject to the usual personnel upheavals.  Don and Drumbo had another of their periodic fallings-out (Don's behaviour frequently created conflicts with John's Christian beliefs) and the vacant drum-stool was temporarily filled by Jerry Jaye. Eric Drew Feldman replaced John Thomas as keyboard player. He, along with Jeff Morris Tepper was to survive until the Magic Band was finally disbanded in 1982.  This line up completed a tour of the USA towards the end of 1976.  John French subsequently returned for more US dates during 1977, before being replaced by Robert Williams prior to a series of dates in Canada, Europe and USA around the end of 1977 and the beginning of 1978.

Around this time Don also recorded a song which had been written by Jack Nitzche for the soundtrack of the film BLUE COLLAR. This song, Hard Working Man, is a really hard-driving blues number with a steam-hammer beat and features an excellent performance from Don. The backing band for this included Milt Holland and former Magic Band member Ry Cooder.

In 1978 Richard Redus replaced Denny Walley.  Bruce Fowler also returned to fill out the band prior to recording Shiny Beast, and his distinctive trombone was to play a significant part in creating a very different feel from the original recording of Bat Chain Puller.  It was this line-up of Jeff Morris Tepper, Eric Drew Feldman, Robert Williams, Richard Redus and Bruce Fowler which was to follow Don into the studio during the Summer and Autumn of 1978 to record Shiny Beast.  In addition, Art "Ed Marimba" Tripp (a former member of the Mothers, who had left the Magic Band with the others who formed Mallard in 1974) was to return to play on certain tracks in the studio, although he did not participate in the subsequent US tour.

Comments made by Don on a live recording made at My Father's Place in New York at around this time indicate that Don in fact wanted to call the album Bat Chain Puller, rather than Shiny Beast. However the legal situation regarding the earlier recordings prevented him from doing so. In fact the sleeve gives the name as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). This has led to the situation whereby this album is alternatively referred to by either name, which creates confusion with what has subsequently come to be known as the Original Bat Chain Puller album!

The name Shiny Beast in fact comes from the song "Dirty Blue Gene": "The shiny beast of thought: if you got ears, you just gotta listen". This would have been so wonderfully appropriate were it not for the fact that although "Dirty Blue Gene" was recorded for this album, it was not included in the final track list and in fact didn't surface until the next album, Doc At The Radar Station!

This was not the first time that this sort of thing had happened however: the title track of the first Captain Beefheart album, Safe As Milk, was not included on that album but on the later Strictly Personal. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that this was done in a deliberate attempt to emulate Frank Zappa's obsession with creating links between recordings from different eras of his career by returning to pick up threads which had been dropped in earlier recordings. It is equally possible it was an oversight!

From the opening moment of "Floppy Boot Stomp," it is clear that this was Don back on form and an incarnation of the Magic Band which was once more truly worthy of the name. The band and Don all come crashing straight in together on the first note and there is no turning back. The vocals are impassioned, like a preacher of fire and brimstone, narrating the tale of a farmer dancing to escape the devil burning his feet; a lyric that clearly betrays Don's blues roots. The song ends with the band chanting "Floppy boot / stomped down / into the ground" over and over again.

Next up is "Tropical Hot Dog Night." The title is rhymed with the gleefully alliterative Lewis Carroll nonsense "Like two flamingos in a fruit fight." The combination of Bruce Fowler's trombone with Artie Tripp's marimbas and a shuffling hi-hat gives an almost calypso, Mardi Gras feel, over which Don cheerfully confides that "I'm playing this music so the young girls will come out and meet the monster tonight". Don was clearly eager to show the ladies his "Shiny Beast"!

"Ice Rose" is an instrumental track, a re-invention of the earlier "Big Black Baby Shoes" which was remaindered from the sessions which produced Mirror Man and Strictly Personal more than a decade earlier. The prominent trombone has the effect of making this track very reminiscent of Frank Zappa.

"Harry Irene" is a fine example of Don's more "commercial", crooning side. This is a side of Captain Beefheart that is frequently overlooked because of the impact of his more outré material, however Don had frequently displayed a penchant for straightforward "pop" tunes before. Examples of this abound, from "Call On Me" on Safe As Milk (and particularly the unreleased slow version from those sessions) to "Too Much Time" on Clear Spot as well as any number of songs on the much-maligned Unconditionally Guaranteed album. This track also includes some fine examples of Don's characteristic mischievous word play: of which my favourite is the line "They sold wine like turpentine to painters" which simultaneously expresses both the quantity and the quality of the house white! Don croons like a renegade Sinatra and the music is a deliberately corny combination of ham-fisted piano with brushes on the snare and hi-hat. The song ends with Don whistling the refrain in a manner reminiscent of Otis Redding on "Dock of the Bay."

The lyric sheet insert that accompanied the album simply states that the lyrics to "You Know You're A Man" are "self explanatory" and much the same is true of the music. It is a pretty straightforward piece of fairly funky blues-rock, with Don really letting rip on the vocals over the top. In keeping with the new atmosphere of mutual respect in the band, each musician in turn gets his turn at a brief solo during the song.

The last track on the first side of the album is "Bat Chain Puller." As well as being the title track of the unreleased album and the unofficial title of this one, this is the undoubted highlight of the album. Despite his ecological concerns, Don was always a great lover of cars and this song was apparently inspired by the sound of the wipers on his windscreen. Robert Williams and Eric Drew Feldman recreate this sound over which Don alternates between an almost whispered delivery and contrasting impassioned howls. Jagged barbs of guitar periodically illuminate the scene like flashes of lightning and the keyboard emulates sweeping sheets of rain. What is more, if the performance here is awesome then some of the live recordings from this period make this seem positively restrained by comparison!

The second side of the album opens with "When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy."  Don's mother was an important figure in Don's life and references to her appear in several of his lyrics. Like "Old 'Fart At Play" on Trout Mask Replica there are unmistakable Oedipus nuances to these words and he seems be expressing resentment of a lack of maternal interest. This is rather strange since we are led to believe that if anything Don enjoyed a rather indulged childhood, so how much autobiographical content should be construed is questionable. The music is brooding and menacing and dominated by the strains of Fowler's mournful trombone. As the song reaches its climax, the band are all chanting "Mummy, mummy, mummy" in the background, like a ghostly chorus of clamouring infants.

Writing credits for the next song, "Owed T'Alex," are shared with Herb Bermann, a poet / songwriter with whom Don had been associated during the late sixties. This seems to suggest that this is a very old song indeed, probably dating back to the Safe As Milk era. In this case it would appear likely that the Alex in question could well be former guitarist Alex St. Claire Snouffer. If so, it would not be the first time a member of the Magic Band had been immortalised in lyrical form: for example the song "Bill's Corpse" on Trout Mask Replica was about Zoot Horn Rollo. However the angular guitar lines and tumbling drum patterns are more reminiscent of later work, so perhaps this was the fruit of a later collaboration. Whatever the provenance of the song, the harmonica solo at the end is without doubt one of Don's finest.

"Candle Mambo" has a similar feel to "Tropical Hot Dog Night" and I would imagine that it was recorded at the same time. Artie's marimbas are once again very much in evidence and combine with the trombone to give a sultry almost Latin feel. The tune itself is upbeat and refreshingly simple and there is an irresistibly romantic feel as Don sings in his most seductive voice "When I'm dancing with my love, the shadows flicker up above, up above the shadows do the Candle Mambo."

By comparison, "Love Lies" changes the proportions of the ingredients in this rich musical gumbo to produce a wailing lament for lost love as Don sings plaintively from the depths of a shattered heart as the "Street lights flutter like fireflies" and the guitar flickers with them.

"Suction Prints" is far more like the Captain Beefheart of Lick My Decals Off, Baby: a punchy instrumental which allows the band to really let rip over a driving drum beat, which breaks off into some classic Magic Band musical diversions before returning to the central theme. This is the track that really gives Robert Williams a chance to shine: the drum patterns are truly inspired, unorthodox and executed with just the right combination of feeling and precision.

The final track of the album is the poem "Apes-Ma." Don has been recorded as explaining that this poem concerns a female gorilla in a local zoo that he visited so regularly she came to recognise him. Apparently Don loved this ape "like a mother" and she was the love of his life - until he met his wife Jan.  I am strangely inclined to dismiss this as just another instance of Don indulging in another of his favourite pastimes - recreational journalist baiting!  It appears to me that this is simply an extended metaphor on a topic which was a long standing beef of 'Fart's, which he has discussed in many interviews and explored in many of his lyrics. Mankind is just another creature, descended from the apes (so "Ape is Ma"). However we consume a disproportionate portion of the world's resources ("You're eating too much....") and pollute the planet (.... and going to the bathroom too much....") because we are so overpopulated ("Your cage isn't getting any bigger, Apes Ma"). Well, at least this explanation seems a bit more likely than the idea of Don falling for a monkey does!

Don's relationship with the musicians who were in his band at this time seems to have been more relaxed than was the case with previous incarnations of the Magic Band. What is more, these new younger guys were in many ways more accomplished musicians than their predecessors were.  I can hear some sharp intakes of breath at this heresy: followed by the sounds of knives being sharpened and guns being loaded so I think I ought to qualify that last statement very, very quickly....

It is certainly not my intention to detract in any way from the achievements of Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Drumbo and the other musicians responsible for creating the Captain Beefheart albums of the late '60's and early '70's. They were responsible for carving a startling new aural sculpture out of previously featureless rock, giving substance to the vision that Don was simultaneously struggling to communicate since there were no words to adequately describe what it was that he was trying to create. Without always fully understanding what they were doing, why they were doing it or where they were going until they got there, those musicians drove back barriers and set the standards for others to follow.

It is certainly far more difficult to create than to copy. As the standards are continually revised, each successive generation of young musicians is expected to assimilate the technical achievements of its predecessors. In this way, what constituted exceptional musicianship for one generation rapidly becomes the accepted norm. of the next and of course this is equally true of many other areas of human endeavour.  I cannot express this concept more eloquently than to quote legendary axe-man Vim Fuego of notorious rockers Bad News when he said "I could play Stairway to Heaven when I was seventeen, Jimmy Page didn't write it 'til he was twenty-six. I think that says a lot"!

The new band had a better understanding of what the music was about and had an example to follow; not least because so many of the songs released on this album and it's successors had originally been written and demo'd before even the Bat Chain Puller recordings. In fact, much of the music on this and the two subsequent albums was originally written during Don's incredibly prolific period in the late '60's and early '70's. Early versions of "Harry Irene," "When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy," "Candle Mambo" and "Love Lies" are to be found amongst outtakes from the albums recorded for Reprise and the origins of "Ice Rose" can be traced back further still.

With the exception of "Old Hat" Fowler, these were young musicians who were fans of Beefheart's music and had been learning to play it long before they joined the band. They manage to make the music flow naturally despite some of the unusual rhythmic structures and arrangements: rather than jerking slightly awkwardly and mechanically as the previous bands sometimes tended to do with the more demanding material.  As Don explained in an interview at the this time; "There's one thing about them - they won't work, which is fantastic! My other groups, in the past, have fallen into work patterns...  These guys just play; it ain't work to them. I'm in Seventh Heaven".

Despite the long gap since his last album release, interest in Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band was running high by this time. The explosion of punk rock in the UK was still reverberating around the globe and this created an enthusiasm for experimentation and innovation and an audience more sympathetic to Captain Beefheart. Indeed he was cited as a major influence by many influential figures at the time. Not least amongst these was John Lydon, who had in fact appropriated lumps of both lyrics and tune from "Big Eyed Beans From Venus" when he composed the Sex Pistols' paean to their former record label, "EMI"!

However legal problems would once again contrive to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.  Although the album was released in the USA in 1979, Virgin disputed Warner Bros.' right to issue it in the UK and in fact obtained an injunction to prevent them from doing so. By the time this had been resolved and Virgin eventually released the album in the UK in 1980, import sales had destroyed any potential impact it might have had on the UK charts, which of course would have helped to generate more interest.

In the absence of a definitive Best Of... Compilation, I would humbly suggest that Shiny Beast represents the perfect starting point for any newcomer to the music of Captain Beefheart. It manages to demonstrate all the facets of his musical vision, from bizarre time signatures to more straightforward "pop" songs. Many of his favourite lyrical topics are explored, combined with his typically mischievous word-play and the full capacity of his voice, both in terms of his extraordinary octave range and the different musical styles he uses it for.

Above all it manages to be relatively accessible without being flawed by excessive compromise. By comparison, his accepted masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica is extremely inaccessible and it requires several listens to overcome the initial shock of its aural assault and begin to assimilate the contents. On the other hand, it is certainly true that repeated exposure to Trout Mask Replica pays huge dividends and indeed it bears more repeated listening than any other album I know.

Shiny Beast was the album that witnessed Don's return to form, which he maintained over the later albums Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, until he lamentably retired from the music world in 1982 to concentrate on his other more lucrative career as a painter.

Sincere thanks are due to Frank Keegan and Steve Froy for their invaluable assistance in researching this article and to Graham Johnston, guardian of The Radar Station; a web-site dedicated to the music and art of Don Van Vliet; from which so much material and inspiration has been derived.

See the rest of the Beefheart tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER