There’s no middle ground with Captain Beefheart, so this review is for those who have already taken the big leap into the man’s polarizing body of work and are looking for the next step.
The assumption here is that you started with Trout Mask Replica, the massive document captured by Frank Zappa that’s perceived to be Beefheart’s crowning achievement. That perception is debatable, but I won’t argue its brilliance and I won’t fault anyone who chooses it as their first ride on Beefheart’s off-the-map journey. It’s the first Beefheart album to capture his off-center compositions, a train ride that’s piloted by an engineer under the influence of tainted moonshine and too many Howlin’ Wolf and Ornette Coleman records.
Trout Mask Replica gets people’s attention because it had the benefit of the Zappa affiliation. That in itself was a weird form of commercial appeal, but not in the sense that Zappa made the album accessible enough that you’d actually hear the good Captain on the airwaves. His work on the album got people to take notice, in the same way you’d want to go check out Serrano’s “Piss Christ” because you heard Annie Leibovitz developed the negative.
So let’s assume that you’re like me: you’ve got your Trout Mask Replica record and you’re blown away by it because there is nothing on Earth quite like it and all you know is that you need more of that.
Where do you go next?
The next logical step is to get going forward from Trout Mask Replica, right into the follow-up album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. This single l.p. offering follows the same pattern as its predecessor, but it features more of the primordial weirdness that completely eliminates the jokester aspects that Zappa tried to display on Replica with false starts and studio novelties.
If Replica was recorded “through a flies’ ear,” then Decals uses legitimate recording technology, with microphones, tape machines and combo amplifiers. It takes the inherit weirdness from its predecessor and streamlines it, packaging the off-kilter arrangements into nice Van Vliet stomps.
It’s that foot in the blues that leads me to think that Beefheart fans can become jazz fans, but not the other away around. He’s an accomplished blues shouter, which makes lines like “She stuck out her thumb, and the fun begun!” so much more authoritative than if it were uttered by Zappa, Alice, and whoever else was on the Straight record label at that time.
Beefheart fills Decals with matters of the flesh, saving the smart stuff for those incredible moments of interplay and impossible chord progressions. Listeners might not accustomed to this kind of “wrong” playing, but there are real images within those challenging passages. And when the Magic Band breaks into one of its recognizable grooves, you are very aware of how passionate their performances are, regardless of the measure.
And then there’s Vliet himself, who smartly positions political statements in between lines of absurdity. The sarcasm that fills his anti-Aquarius barb “Space-Age Couple” sounds like a prediction of the entire counter-culture crash a full half year before Altamont even took place.
Ironically, Lick My Decals Off, Baby was released during the same month as Altamont, and it died as quickly as Meredith Hunter. It seemed that there were very few people who were still interested into seeing where this strange cat was going after his bulbous double l.p.
But for those who did, and for anyone wanting to see where’s the good Captain’s ship was heading after stirring up the waters, this record is a sturdy vessel to navigate this artist’s weird waters.
It also shows that Vliet’s brilliance was not a fleeting thing. He was by this point a certifiable artistic figure that could shine very consistently. And he did so on future records.
And you didn’t need a “fly’s eye to see it” with Lick My Decals Off, Baby.