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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Captain Beefheart: The Spotlight Kid


1) I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby; 2) White Jam; 3) Blabber 'n' Smoke; 4) When It Blows Its Stacks; 5) Alice In Blunderland; 6) The Spotlight Kid; 7) Click Clack; 8) Grow Fins; 9) There Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evenin' Stage; 10) Glider.

By all accounts, The Spotlight Kid marks the beginning of the era of Artistic Compromise for the Captain — his «going commercial», allegedly in order to at least somewhat alleviate the dire straits in which he and his Magic Band found themselves at the beginning of the new decade. Of course, the word «commercial» cannot be referred to here unless in the most ironic of all possible senses: compared to the real commercial music of 1972, such as Harry Nilsson and T. Rex and The Carpenters, The Spotlight Kid could hardly be believed to attract fresh new crowds of easy-going music listeners. In fact, although I lack any precise figures, I'm pretty sure it could not have sold a significantly larger number of copies than any of its predecessors — even in an era when Close To The Edge and Thick As A Brick could become megahits.

Essentially, what happens here is that the Captain takes one step back, into the era of Mirror Man, when the Magic Band still worked in a more overtly blues-based paradigm. The rhythmic grooves are normalized, returning to more traditional forms and with notably fewer unexpected shifts throughout the song — but the gruffness, darkness, and «avant-sexuality» of Lick My Decals Off are all retained, so, if anything, the results now sound closer to Howlin' Wolf than they ever did before. The only area in which there is very little compromise involved are the lyrics, but as long as the Captain keeps using that spooky tone, it hardly matters what he sings anyway (and besides, if Jon Anderson was able to sell plenty of records with his cosmic gobble­dy­gook, why shouldn't the Captain with his bluesnik fantasies?).

Coming off the uninhibited sonic escapades of 1969-70, the record was clearly a disappointment for the hardcore fans operating on the principle of «the weirder, the better», but as far as I'm con­cerned, it returned Beefheart to the golden middle standard — as the songs become overall more comprehensible, yet still totally far out if compared to either classic electric blues or contempo­rary blues-rock. Sure, Zoot Horn Rollo would later state that he hated what they did on that re­cord; but he sure as hell does not sound disinterested or uninspired on the guitar tracks of ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize You Babyʼ — as the Magic Band discovers the joys of funk, the guitarist is not content to simply play the same syncopated lines all over; instead, he begins by having one funky part in the right channel, then supplements it with a slide lead part in the left channel, then has the left lead part gradually taking over the funky rhythm duty while the right part gradually evolves into a trance-inducing grumbly buzz, hovering over your head like one big fat bumblebee with a particularly nasty hangover. Over this exciting cloud of noise (that honestly gets me going far quicker than anything on Trout Mask Replica), the Captain keeps mumbling how "if you keep beatin' around the bush, you'll lose your push!" — an aphorism worthy of either a sexual and a spiritual interpretation, but we will settle for nothing less than both.

The track forms a terrific opening; the problem is that few of the remaining performances match its gruff force, inventiveness, and humor. A few walks down the line, we find ʽWhen It Blows Its Stacksʼ — slow and ominous rather than fast and bulbous, but a great showcase for the Captain in ultimatum-delivering Old Testament mad prophet mode, announcing the coming of a modern age Messiah: "better watch out, there's a man eater around". Again, Zoot Horn Rollo spins angry rings around the rhythm (I really have no idea how he could have hated his work on these tracks), while Art Tripp is fighting to enlighten the atmosphere with playful marimba interludes. Still later, they return to scary-swampland atmosphere again with ʽThere Ain't No Santa Claus On The Evening Stageʼ, but it is even slower, and the «transform your guitar from rhythm to noise» trick does not work as efficiently the third time around.

Of the remaining tracks, the one closest in spirit to TMR is the instrumental ʽAlice In Blunder­landʼ — starting out with some tricky interplay between drums, marimbas, and guitars, with expected signature changes and all sorts of «blunders» involved; however, one minute into the song the rhythm becomes streamlined, and the composition turns into a normalized jam, with the guitarist stuck somewhere in between Clapton mode and Hendrix mode, something that would have never happened on TMR. Nevertheless, the combination of psychedelic guitars and marim­bas is fun (not unlike something you'd easily encounter on a classic Zappa record), and just about satisfies my personal «weirdness quota».

Some of the material is oddly lightweight, bordering on what might be called «schizophrenic vaudeville» — the title track is an absurdist narrative set to a poppy marimba rhythm, and the whole thing is so carnivalesque, you'd almost expect Alice Cooper in his top hat jump out of the bushes at any moment and do a little tap dance with the Captain. ʽClick Clackʼ, with its train whistle-imitating harmonica and blues-rock riffage, reminds me of next year's ʽSilver Trainʼ by the Stones — but completely unfocused, starting out as an experiment in non-trivial time signa­tures and ending as a half-assed attempt to ignite jam mode. And on songs like ʽWhite Jamʼ and ʽBlabber 'n' Smokeʼ the Captain just sounds sick — confused and whiny instead of being The Wolfman — hardly top pick material, but it is interesting to hear him in such a «vulnerable» state of mind all the same.

Perhaps I used to overrate this album a bit, just because it made me so happy to hear Beefheart return to more sense-making middle ground — in retrospect, The Spotlight Kid suffers from quite a bit of meandering filler, as if the group «got it» that it was supposed to play slightly more acceptable chord sequences, but did not really get what it was supposed to do with them. Clearly, there was no intention whatsoever to do a «normal» blues-rock record, but in this middle-of-the-road mode, for certain winners like ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ you get a monotonous, repetitive correlate like ʽGliderʼ. Still, I insist that the band here is more often on fire than on autopilot, and they would do even better next time in the same mode. To me, this record makes sense, and that's reason enough to give it a thumbs up.

1 comment:

  1. (and besides, if Jon Anderson was able to sell plenty of records with his cosmic gobble­dy­gook, why shouldn't the Captain with his bluesnik fantasies?).
    Yeah, now that would be a trip: Van Vliet singing "The music dance and sing, they make the children really ring."

    you'd almost expect Alice Cooper in his top hat jump out of the bushes at any moment and do a little tap dance with the Captain.

    Oh, I'm glad I reread that. I really thought you wrote "lap dance" which is a little sick even for Alice.