Ride Captain Ride

One of rock and roll's wiggiest visionaries

If that quote makes sense to you, or if it intrigues you in the least, Grow Fins will throttle you senseless in every way imaginable. If it doesn't, well, it's your loss. And for the ones who aren't sure, or are merely curious, Rhino has just released The Dust Blows Forward: An Anthology, a double-disc overview of Beefheart's career that includes highlights from his oeuvre as well as a few outtakes and a rare B-side or two. Skimpy to a fault, and dominated by the Captain's more accessible moments from 1972's Clear Spot, Rhino's compendium basically is a nice starter kit. Grow Fins, however, charts the development of Beefheart's vision and, even more important, reveals just how much the ever-changing Magic Band played a part in that development (thus shattering the long-standing belief that Beefheart composed, then taught, every line to the players).

The Beefheart saga began in 1964, when Van Vliet, a prodigy sculptor raised in the Mojave Desert, assembled the first Magic Band, following some failed collaborations with his teenage buddy Frank Zappa (who along the way gave Van Vliet his stage handle). The group debuted in 1965 on A&M Records with a crushing version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy," a garage-rocker propelled by an overdriven bass and Beefheart's growling vocal. Both that tune and its followup failed to crack the charts, though, and the Magic Band was dropped. But as the first two discs of Grow Fins attest, it was a fruitful period for the group. The 1966-68 vintage demos and live material balance blues-rock swagger with vintage-punk ferocity and the trance-boogie of Howlin' Wolf, whose "Evil" receives a savage beating from the quintet. Better than the two albums released at this time (the 1967 Buddah debut Safe as Milk and Strictly Personal, issued by Blue Thumb the following year), these discs capture the mutation of a very good white blues band into a very weird band, period.

Infuriated by the abysmal mix of Strictly Personal, executed without the Captain's knowledge or approval, Beefheart left Blue Thumb and realigned himself with Zappa, who oversaw the chaotic 1969 rehearsals for Trout Mask Replica, recorded at the band's house in Woodland Hills, California, and presented in all their ragged, somewhat underwhelming glory on the third disc of Grow Fins. The sans-vocals rehearsals are staggering musically, with Beefheart's screeching reed blowing intermingling with French's mathematical percussion and the twin guitar work of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton. But without Beefheart's screams and growls and surreal, artful babble, the demos only approximate the genius and brilliance of Trout Mask Replica; imagine an Exile on Main Street without Mick Jagger's vocals and you get the picture. (As for Grow Fins' fourth disc, a brief set of vintage Trout Mask recitations and discussions with a baffled and irritated neighbor, it makes for a fun listen the first couple of times you hear it.)

One of rock and roll's wiggiest visionaries: Captain Beefheart
Cal Schenkel
One of rock and roll's wiggiest visionaries: Captain Beefheart

Following the release of Trout Mask, Beefheart and the constantly changing Magic Band returned to a slightly more conventional approach to melody, arrangement, and instrumentation. They would produce eccentric blues (Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid), quasi-rock-and-soul boogie (Clear Spot), horrid shots at the mainstream (Unconditionally Guaranteed, Bluejeans & Moonbeams), and a triumvirate of albums that were innovatively forward-looking and infused with the brilliance of Beefheart's past: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station, and Ice Cream for Crow, his final release from 1982.

Grow Fins concludes with a dazzling overview of the Captain's last thirteen years in music, culled mostly from early Seventies live work that was far more wiggy than what he was releasing at the time. This is where Beefheart's eccentricities run rampant, with the Magic Band intuitively following their manic leader while cutting their own bizarre path through the riotous noise. Sure, John French's nine-minute drum piece "Spitball Scalped Uh Baby" is about eight minutes too much of a good thing, and the live take of "Click Clack" pales next to the one on The Spotlight Kid. But the version here of "When Big Joan Sets Up," taken from a 1971 concert in Detroit, is a brutal squawker that, like the bulk of Grow Fins, defines the legacy of rock's most unique visionary. It's a loud, ravaging mess, infused with passion and madness, utterly transcendent, mind-expanding, brain-rattling. No acid required.

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