CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: GROW FINS: JUST GOT BACK FROM THE CITY / ELECTRICITY (1965-1968; 1999)
CD I: 1) Obeah Man (1966 demo); 2) Just Got Back From The City (1966 demo); 3) I'm Glad (1966 demo); 4) Triple Combination (1966 demo); 5) Here I Am I Always Am (early 1966 demo); 6) Here I Am I Always Am (later 1966 demo); 7) Somebody In My Home (1966 live); 8) Tupelo (1966 live); 9) Evil Is Going On (1966 live); 10) Old Folks Boogie (1967 live); 11) Call On Me (1965 demo); 12) Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1967 demo); 13) Yellow Brick Road (1967 demo); 14) Plastic Factory (1967 demo);
CD II: 1) Electricity (1968 live); 2) Sure Nuff N Yes I Do (1968 live); 3) Rollin' 'N' Tumblin' (1968 live); 4) Electricity (1968 live); 5) Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bond (1968 live); 6) Kandy Korn (1968 live); 7) Korn Ring Finger (1967 demo).
Since the idea of «self-discipline» was about as alien to the Captain as it was so totally integral for Zappa (may have been the one chief distinction between the two of them after all), his vaults were predictably left in a much less user-friendly state than Zappa's, and the stream of archival releases after his retirement from music has been notably thinner than Frank's, even if, judging by the sheer number of various bootlegs produced over the years, there's a huge amount of goodies there for poor starving fans.
On the official circuit, the single largest dig into the vaults consists of the 5-CD set Grow Fins, lovingly prepared by fans with the assistance of John French (who also wrote a lengthy history of The Magic Band for the liner notes) and released on the Revenant label that normally focuses on retrospectives of various old blues and folk artists — and thus, accepts Beefheart into the same pantheon with Charley Patton, Doc Boggs, and John Fahey; then again, who's to say the Captain was not an American primitivist when it comes to understanding American pritimitivism? He certainly preserves and carries on the spirit of Charley Patton far more loyally than oh so many «polite» blues-rockers who think they cover Charley Patton when in fact they do not.
Anyway, even though, technically, the entire boxset should count as one single album, its 5 CDs logically fall into three (maybe even four) distinct subdivisions, and it would make sense to comment on them separately. The first CD, subtitled Just Got Back From The City, covers outtakes, demos, and occasional live performances from the Captain's formative years (1965-66) and all the way to the sessions for Safe As Milk; thematically, it is barely separable from the second CD, subtitled Electricity and containing primarily live performances of Safe As Milk and Magic Man material from 1968, so we will talk of them together, and leave CDs 3-4 (TMR-era outtakes) and CD 5 (a messy mix of later era live performances) for later.
The first disc here is clearly the most surprise-laden and instructive for all those who have not had that much experience with Beefheart in his pre-Safe As Milk days, barring maybe a brief acquaintance with ʽDiddy Wah Diddyʼ from the Nuggets boxset. You might have guessed that in those early days he may have started out as a blues singer — but the first ten tracks here actually confirm that guess with solid musical evidence, such as, for instance, the Captain not just being inspired by Howlin' Wolf, but actually covering Howlin' Wolf, live from the Avalon Ballroom in 1966, where you could really confuse him with the real Howlin' Wolf for a moment, except that, once you put two and two together, Beefheart's voice is still too high and thin to perfectly match the thickness and depth of the Wolf's delivery. He also does a great John Lee Hooker on ʽTupeloʼ, four minutes of dark, sludgy blueswailing that's probably as good as the best white boy blues effort in America circa 1966 — well, not exactly blowing away the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Beefheart was never as obsessed with his harmonica-blowing skills as Paul, and none of his early guitarists were Mike Bloomfield), but still doing a good job of conveying the creepy menace of hardcore electric blues.
In fact, the opening number, an unreleased self-penned demo called ʽObeah Manʼ, introduces us to the beginnings of Beefheart as a swaggery blues-rocker just dying to make a flashy introduction — much like Paul Butterfield on ʽBorn In Chicagoʼ, which introduced the world to the Butterfield Blues Band one year before; leave it to the young aspiring Captain, however, to make things a little more complex by introducing us to the Igbo word "obeah" that was probably unknown even to the likes of Muddy Waters. There's also ʽJust Got Back From The Cityʼ, a wannabe ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ imitation with lots of squeaky harmonica, and some strange attempts at Stonesy pop-rock songs (ʽHere I Am I Always Amʼ) that at least show you how Beefheart was no sworn enemy of accessible pop stuff, and how, in a way, what he did in the unfortunate year of 1974 could be seen as a sort of «return to childhood». (For some hardcore childhood, you can go all the way back to the 1965 demo ʽCall On Meʼ, a folk-pop ballad that is so sweet, you'd swear it was commissioned from Sonny Bono — unfortunately, the sound quality on that one is about as bad as on your average Charley Patton track from 1929, so you'll have to press your ear real hard to be able to laugh all the way to the bank).
As we advance towards the «official» Beefheart years of 1967-68, things become less interesting: the Safe As Milk demos, besides also being featured in bootleg sound quality, disclose no new secrets, and the live performances from 1968 never reach the intensity of the Mirror Man jam sessions, more like the wobbly muddiness of the re-recordings on Strictly Personal. In particular, there's an 11-minute jam version of ʽRollin' 'N' Tumblin'ʼ which Beefheart uses as an excuse to practice his atonal soprano sax — I don't know, it just does not seem to me a good idea to mix Muddy Waters with Albert Ayler, as brave as it might seem on paper, because if I want psychotic sonic mess, I pick Ayler, and if I want a rollickin' piece of blues, I pick Muddy, and do I want to have both at the same time? Not sure. Much the same happens with ʽYer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bondʼ, except there he does the same stuff with harmonica, and it's even messier. Then again, it might just be the sound quality — all these tapes sound flat and bootleggish. So I'd say that the only track on the second disc that should be of considerable interest is the studio demo ʽKorn Ring Fingerʼ from 1967, a psychedelic waltz with nicely seductive slide guitar work, although taken at a very slow tempo for the Captain — but at least you get to hear it in superb sound quality, with a clear stereo separation of the instruments.
This is a bit disappointing, because while inferior sound quality is always to be expected of the earliest recordings, you'd think that by 1967, once the Magic Band really went professional, those problems could have been overcome. But then again, I guess nobody ever took any serious care of the tapes anyway — safeguarding Beefheart's dirty underwear was on no record label's top shelf of priorities, so don't expect Beatles Anthology sound level for any of these demos; as for the live performances, I guess people were too terrified to record the Captain much in 1968 — one of the few exceptions being Frank Freeman's Dance Studio in Kidderminster, UK (according to one source, The Magic Band was "pleased the venue did not sell alcohol, as this meant there were no beer bottles that could be thrown at them" — more than that, somebody was kind enough as to bring a tape recorder along). So, basically, you just get what you can get, and ain't no use complaining.