Captain Beefheart and the Magic BandUnconditionally Guaranteed, the universally derided album from Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band is commonly regarded as the nadir of the Captain’s career, the pariah among the pearls. From the cover depicting a weasel-eyed Beefheart clutching fistfuls of money to the lightweight and accessible tunes centring on themes of love, sex and happiness, people claim to hate this album with a burning passion. Even Beefheart wrote it off, insisting that buyers should take it back to the shop and get their money back, taking advantage of the guarantee.
by Graham Johnston
‘Now tell me good captain, how does it feel
To be driven away from your own steering wheel?’
All this I continue to find astonishing- I happen to love this album. It may not be my favourite Beefheart album (though I’d be hard pressed to work out exactly which one is) but I still look on it as a real gem. Call me a big softy, but I love it and so should you. And this is why...
Unconditionally Guaranteed was the final album recorded with the incarnation of the Magic Band that gave us Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. It was therefore the end of the Magic Band that many Beefheart fans came of age listening to; it was this Magic Band that so many young weirdoes would have embraced as a life affirming confirmation that things could be different. Beefheart fans could bung a copy of Lick My Decals Off Baby on the stereo and shout to the world "Hey you dullards - THIS IS ME! Does it scare you?" and if anyone was still in the room to reply, the answer would probably be "yes, very much indeed". That was what made Beefheart so special to many of his fans.
The other was the other and this is this. I like the other but I like this too."
Don Van Vliet, 1974
When Unconditionally Guaranteed made its appearance in 1974, things had changed. This was a very different Captain- gone was the cunning word play and rich visual imagery. Gone were the tunes with sharp corners which gave you a quick jab in the ribs just as soon as you thought you had settled into them. Gone was the cacophony of sound which suddenly twisted itself into a killer hook just when you couldn’t bear the barrage anymore. Gone too was the bone-shaking, microphone-shattering howl of old- Beefheart’s ultimate trademark.
Instead there was a selection of tunes in which the Captain simply expressed his love for his wife Jan, occasionally as thinly veiled double-entendres, and was also hoping to pick up a wider audience. This was the continuation of a process that started with the recording of The Spotlight Kid. Critics had hailed both Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby as being highly original classics, though the record buying public had largely stayed away. What use was critical acclaim to a band forced to live off a cup of dried soybeans every day?
The Spotlight Kid was specifically toned down, the tunes were quieter and much more spacious. Clear Spot, while much more up-tempo, featured brass a-plenty and is probably the Captain’s most accessible album while still being distinctly ‘odd’. The ballads were everywhere on both albums- "Blabber 'n Smoke," "White Jam," "Too Much Time," "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" and the exquisite "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains."
Little surprise (in retrospect) that Unconditionally Guaranteed continued this progression (or regression?). Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo guitarist with The Magic Band) stated "If you just listen to the tunes, I really don’t see this album as being that big a radical change in direction." However the fans of the time wanted a Magic Band that continued to strap electric toasters to their heads and were not impressed by the gentle boogie-woogie. To them this was a serious betrayal.
"I haven't changed the message of what I'm saying, this is just a friendly extension."Don Van Vliet, 1974
Comparisons were, and still are, made with the likes of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Chris De Bleaurggh and any other piece of sterilized bland pap that you can think of. I have to disagree. Much of the music on Unconditionally Guaranteed, rather than being sterile as so many assert, is very emotional, and passionately so, even if also quietly. "This Is The Day" and "I Got Love On My Mind" deal simply and effectively with real emotions, performed by real people, not by some slab of cheese with a big nose and expensive threads. "Lazy Music," dismissed by Harkleroad as ‘embarrassing’, is one of my very favorites (along with all the others). Its only failing in my opinion is that the killer break doesn’t come round once more like I want it to every time I hear it. You know the bit I mean.
A review in Sounds stated, "Something very strong does glow through what would otherwise be an unexceptional album, but its something that I feel rather than can identify." Beefheart himself stated in Rolling Stone, "Since the release of Clear Spot, I've been working on getting a form of music everybody could listen to. I must admit I feel I was being quite selfish about that other music I was playing."
It could be argued that Beefheart was ‘selfish’ in that he produced a form of music which was highly elitist, in that few people were able to listen to it. It was during this period that the Captain proclaimed that he was ‘singing for women’ although very few women were listening. On UG, he appears to continue with his mission, unconsciously creating an album which was far more likely to appeal to a female audience, and he was certainly successful in this. Women Beefheart fans are vastly outnumbered by the men, and whenever male fans talk about the fact that their partners cannot stand his music, at least one will always state that Unconditionally Guaranteed is the one bit of Beefheart that the woman in his life does go for. Someone who was willing to stick his or her neck out a little more than I am could argue that it is therefore Unconditionally Guaranteed on which Beefheart’s vision is truly crystallized.
Of course I’m looking at all this from the perspective of someone who was only 2 years old when the album first saw the light of day. I never had to deal with the disappointment at the lack of anything particularly peculiar on the album after I had rushed home eagerly from the record shop to slap it on the turntable for that first time. The first time I heard it I wasn’t even a Beefheart fan, as such. It was leant to me by a friend in the middle of a big pile of other LPs and I probably found myself thinking something profound like "Hmm... that’s nice," while playing it, and it still produces exactly the same reaction today, every time.
The peculiar thing is that everyone that I have spoken to about it, both as a fan of the album and while writing this article, has agreed with me, it is a very pleasing gem of an album. They all love it, so why the bad reputation? What the hell is going on? Could it be that a fondness for a mellower Beefheart has become a love that dare not speak its name? It’s time to step out of the closet with pride. Listen to it now; I am.
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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