Perfect Sound Forever

Captain Beefheart
The Spotlight Kid
by Dave Lang
(February 1999)

The Spotlight Kid is certainly not Beefheart's best record, but it is one that deserves some rather serious consideration. I first heard a track from it when I was about 17, or I should correct that statement and say that I first heard a version of a song off the record at that time: it was avant-guitar hero Henry Kaiser doing a rip-roaring version of "Alice in Blunderland" on his mostly-covers LP, Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It. It was my fave track on that album, the lilting slide guitar giving it a melancholy edge that perfectly counterbalanced the convoluted rhythms that cluttered up the rest of the song. I knew of Beefheart - after all, my fave band of the time, the Minutemen, hailed him as their hero - yet it took me a couple more years until I finally went out and bought the heavily-lauded Trout Mask Replica. I was hooked.

In the process of my Beefheart frenzy, I picked up a cheap secondhand two-fer double LP with Lick My Decals Off, Baby and the Spotlight Kid on the German branch of Warners. The incredibly dodgy packaging (crap bargain-bin "rendition" of The Man) concealed two prizes to cherish. The first track I played was "Alice in Blunderland," after instantly recognizing the title from the Kaiser LP. This is weird, I thought, it sounds like it's on the wrong speed. The band sounds like it's stoned or something. Where's the manic energy of the Kaiser version? I wasn't disappointed, mind you, coz it sounded great; rather, I was just surprised by the laidback tone of the record.

For some Beefheart afficianados, The Spotlight Kid is a "retreat" from the madness of his Decals/Replica days. Maybe that's true, but it's still no discredit to the record. Taken on its own terms, free of the context of his earlier efforts, The Spotlight Kid is surely one of his most consistent records. In fact, listening to it right now as I write this, after having not heard it in probably 18 months, I'm enjoying it probably more than I do when I listen to Trout Mask Replica (still) a couple of times a week. Maybe it's the lack of familiarity that makes it sound so fresh, but I think it's the fact that it's a very consistent song-based album that possesses a lazy, bluesy, easy-going feel yet still possesses enough experimental oddities to stray it away from being a straight blues-rock record. Play this one to your average Eric Clapton fan, and he'd run in terror. And thank god for that.

I'm listening to the second song on side 2 right now, "Click Clack," a powerful, twisting rocker with an ultra-fuzzed guitar jamming Beefheart's vocals along, and I'm really starting to wonder why anyone would actually consider this a "retreat." What wouldn't be a retreat from Trout Mask Replica?! Metal Machine Music or something? If something is less "weird" (whatever that really means), does it make it lesser for fans of "eccentric" music? I'm beginning to think that The Spotlight Kid is on an equal level with Trout Mask Replica, though by that I don't mean it's as good. What I mean to say is that it's 100% Captain Beefheart product. It's no "sell-out" - you had to wait for the godawful Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams for that - it's simply Beefheart slowing down for a while. It's a low-key effort, and sometimes they can be the best sort of efforts there are.

Given a choice, I probably would have written about Ice Cream for Crow, Beefheart's last LP from 1982 (ED NOTE: Dave gets his wish and does review Crow elsewhere). The reason for that is basically because I think it's an excellent record that few have ever written about in any great depth. Many talk of his spectacular comeback records, Shiny Beast and Doc at the Radar Station, yet Ice Cream for Crow tends to get lost in the rubble. Well, that didn't happen, and now I'm glad I wrote about The Spotlight Kid instead, because it means I had to dig it out again and get my teeth in. It's not an easy one to talk about; it's not considered "seminal" or one of his most important discs, it's usually labelled as simply one of his solid early '70s efforts. Shaking my head to the swampish dirge of the opening number, "I'm Gonna Booglarise You Baby," or frowning my brow in concerntration to the Harry Partch-meets-Howlin' Wolf flurry of "When It Blows Its Stack" - at this very moment - I'll briefly say that I hope this excellent record isn't trivialised to the point where people merely fob it off as "not being as good as his early records... or his great comeback ones in the late '70's". Excuse me whilst I flip some vinyl.

See Steve Froy's review of The Spotlight Kid

See the rest of the Beefheart tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER