Sun Zoom Spark ****
Lick My Decals Off, Baby is finally officially released. Allegedly remastered, it's embedded within a de-luxe 4-disc boxed set of material, much of which was already easily available.
I would really like to post a rave review of this release, as some other Beefheart fans have done. But I don't feel I can honestly do so. It's an expensive set, and a lot of the content - two of the four discs: The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (i.e. two albums, or 50% of the material) - has long been easily available elsewhere.
The only stuff that forms the exclusive 'previously unreleased' material, falls into two categories: Lick My Decals Off, Baby has never until now had an official release on CD, whilst the out-takes, officially at any rate, have never been released at all. I already had the vinyl release of Decals, so for me that doesn't constitute the great undiscovered gem type of stuff one might've wished for. But it might well do so for any gams of Trout mask Beef who haven't heard it before. For those lucky listeners, I'd say this is undoubtedly a five star affair, simply for making Decals more easily available.
The reason I bought this lavish and expensive boxed set was to finally own an official CD release of Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the post Trout Mask album that really is a work of maverick musical genius. That album, on its own, would certainly have merited five stars (or ten, frankly). As mentioned above, I already had these recordings, on vinyl (see my previous post about it here), but I had long wished for the day when it would come out as a decently remastered CD. But, frankly, I just wish it had been put out as a standalone entity. Being forced to buy The Spotlight Kid (a 3 or 4 out 5 album) and Clear Spot (5/5) again, when I already had perfectly good versions of them, was annoying. And the CD of our-takes has nothing on it that makes me think, 'wow, here's some long lost jewels to admire!'
For those who don't know much about the Cap'n and his cohorts, a brief synopsis of the contents:
Disc 1: The absolutely sublime and totally essential Lick My Decals Off, Baby, featuring the Trout Mask era band, plus second drummer and percussionist Art Tripp. If you know Trout Mask Replica, this follows on nicely, being equally intense and crazy, but more focussed and tightly executed. All the musicians involved are brilliant - witness such beautiful instrumentals as Peon and One Red Rose That I Mean - but the much put upon and recently ignominiously ejected (literally!) John 'Drumbo' French deserves special mention.
French had acted as musical director on Trout Mask and, under the brutal dictatorship of the Captain, he helped give birth to a totally unique and new style of music, and also of drumming, both of which have never really been properly understood or absorbed into the mainstream. Despite being fired - Beefheart also, very meanly, left his name off the Trout Mask credits! - and replaced as musical director (Zoot Horn Rollo took on that mantle), French recorded the brilliant drum parts, sometimes augmented by Art Tripp on a second kit. Some of the twin-kit rhythmic chemistry, on tracks like Bellerin' Plain for example - a wonderful example of this band at the peak of their powers (film footage of the band from this era is really somethin' else) - is, well... I'm listening to it now, and words fail me... genius!
Beefheart's lyrical muse is in full spate as well. This isn't music for all occasions, as it's mostly really quite intense. But it's tremendously wonderful, and there's nothing else on this good earth quite like it. The band practically explode under Beefheart's free jazz sax solo on Bellerin' Plain: I'm a fan of some of the intense near free jazz such as late Coltrane, but most of what is usually referred to under the banner free jazz is, frankly, aural torture. Here the squalls of sax over the tempestuous rhythm section are simply sublime.
Just as Alice Coltrane made certain experiments (Infinity is a beautiful album) whose ideas were destined not to be fully explored, thanks to adverse critical and popular reaction, Beefheart and co. pointed a way that could have been usefully further explored. Japan In A Dishpan finds the Cap'n and the band doing just that, but, for my money, it works better when it's a small moment within a much bigger musical conception, as at the end of Bellerin' Plain.
There's plenty of lyrical humour ('I want to find me a woman that'll hold my big toe till I have to go'!), and there are even some tender or relatively mellow moments; the two aforementioned instrumentals are beautiful jewels, and titles such as Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop and The Buggy Boogie Woogie show that even in his 'weird' period Beehfheart and his band could vary the feel and turn down the weirdness without losing the intensity.
Beefheart's pessimistic eco-philosophy is expounded on the lyrically poignant and musically wild Petrified Forest, and his interest in evolutionary history as it feeds into these ideas is further worked out on The Smithsonian Institute Blues. Although it's not an even or easy listen, Decals is truly brilliant. Even the cover artwork is great, and they also recorded a weirdly surreal black and white promo video for the album (not, sadly, included in this package).
Disc 2: The Spotlight Kid - This might perhaps, by ordinary standards, be a fine album. But in the Beefheart canon it's merely pretty good. Beefheart and the band don't sound like they have the same extraordinary focus and zeal they had during the Trout and Decals era. The album is more patchy, confused, and less intense.
Some of the tracks here, like 'Glider' (a personal favourite) even sound like they're returning to the pre-Trout riffing blues of the Safe As Milk and Strictly Guaranteed period. Essentially the hyper-intense experimentalism of Trout and Decals wasn't landing the band any economically sustainable work, and so they were drifting back towards a more 'normal' sound world. There's plenty of good music here, but it's not Beefheart or the Magic Band at their best.
Disc 3: Clear Spot - Rather interestingly, Beefheart and his musical minions showed incredible flexibility, and could be at their very best at seemingly contradictory musical poles along a widely divergent spectrum - from the Dadaism of Trout and Decals, or the tightly focused and more commercial sounds that can be found on Safe As Milk (I'm Glad), here on Clear Spot (Too Much Time, My Head Os My Only House Unless It Rains, and Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles), or even on Bluejeans and Moonbeams (Observatory Crest).
Clear Spot manages to mix some of the most mainstream sounds these guys would make with some of their still quite experimental stuff. So you get the sweetness of the three aforementioned ballads, the ballsy New Orleans bluesiness of Low Yo Yo Stuff, Crazy Little Thing and Long Neck Bottles, through to the weirder numbers like Circumstances, Big Eyed Beans From Venus, Golden Birdies, and the superb title track. Where The Spotlight Kid was all over the place in a slightly unconvincing way, this is all over the map but still has real focus and conviction. It's also, thanks to Ted Templeman, one of the best produced albums in the Beefheart oeuvre.
Disc 4: Out-Takes - Some artists have material lying unused that makes you think, once you hear it, 'why the hell was that kept under wraps?' As a Beefheart nut, I find all this out-take stuff interesting. But, in all honesty, it's not like being a Steely Dan fan and then discovering the sublime 'Canadian Star', a Becker and Fagen track that Steely never recorded, on Dr Strut's 1979 album, or hearing Tom Waits doing his early pre-Foreign Affairs version of Burma Shave, live at Austin City Limits, over a chord cycle nicked from Summertime.
Instead this is like a glimpse into the Beefheart/Magic Band musical sketchbook, fascinating for diehard fans, but not necessarily throwing up much stuff that stands strongly on its own feet in comparison with the officially released material. One thing thing that might surprise newcomers, but won't surprise died in the wool Beef fans, is to see how much of his latter period stuff (e.g. Harry Irene, Dirty Blue Gene, etc.) had its roots way back, about a decade before it would see commercial light.
So that's the music. Why else might you fork out for this de-luxe set? The four discs come in nice card facsimiles of the album covers, and there's a pretty little box - well, it's quite chunky actually - with a red ribbon to help pop out the discs and the booklet. The booklet is okay, if a bit cloyingly and even self-consciously hagiographic. Having interviewed John French for Drummer magazine (the interview, alas, was not used ), and read books by him and Bill Harkelrod... well, as much as I admire Beefheart the artist, I'm not sure how nice a man he was!
If you're new to Beefheart, I wouldn't suggest starting here, and if you're already a big fan you might feel complicated, as I did, about duplicating stuff you already have. But then again, you might feel, as some of the other reviewers over at Amazon UK clearly do, that Beefheart's genius, and the talents of his musical sidekicks, merit the expense. Despite my misgivings I did. And I am glad to have Decals as a remastered CD. But, despite Decals and Clear Spot both meriting the full five stars, I don't think the whole package does. So, this is an essential release, for me at least, but it's not perfect.
 If you're interested, you can read the Drumbo interview here: [link]
Friday, 22 May 2015
Sunday, 10 May 2015
'Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves.' Tales of Brave Ulysses
Napoleon famously said "the only immortality is the memory we leave behind in the minds of men." Well, aside from expanding that to include both the lives and minds women, of course, I think he was dead right about that. And, speaking of being dead right (right?), I was terrifically saddened to read today of the passing of Jack Bruce, singer, bassist composer and more.
Cream were a band of fundamental importance in my development as a musician, thanks to a record in my dad's collection, The Best of Cream. I was drawn to the album both for the music and for its unusual cover, including the moody looking trio of hairy hipsters pictured on the back of the sleeve. The assortment of veg on the cover turned out to be a painting by Pop artist Jim Dine; it's arguably the least dated looking album cover to grace a Cream recording.
Jack Bruce was a real gem. I must admit I was rather slow to appreciate his role in the group. And perhaps I only truly appreciated it with his passing? Upon learning of his demise I began seeking out and watching various YouTube clips of him in action, amongst which I found footage of him playing upright bass in a trio with drummer Jihn Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith (a number called 'Over The Cliff').
You see it was Ginger Baker that had really turned me onto the Cream sound, thanks to his baggy syncopations on the cover of the Albert King song, 'Born Under a Bad Sign'. I can pinpoint that specific song as being what got me started as a drummer! Much later I recall thinking Ginger Baker was a cocky mutherfocker when, as shown in Beware Mr Baker, he boasts of tag-teaming with such jazz drumming luminaries as Art Blakeyn, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams (and others). 
I'd long known that Baker saw himself as a jazzer slimming itmin the rock world. I even knew that Bruce had played in a group with John McLaughlin and Tony Williams. I like music that all three had done in other contexts, but the sounds they made together have yet to 'reach' me. However, seeing Bruce holding his own on upright in a frenzied near-free-jazz mode with a couple of British heavyweights of the UK's jazz scene, was both an eye-opener and a reminder that many musicians back in those days were rooted in a jazz background, even on our perhaps more parochial side of the pond.
But because Clapton went on to so throughly eclipse both Bruce and Baker, and because, as a drummer - and not just any drummer, but the one who got me started - Baker held a privileged position in my life, Bruce was kind of squeezed out of the picture, in my mind. Indeed, whilst I admired his muscular electric bass playing with this early power trio, I was never all that keen on his singing. No doubting he had a good strong voice. But unlike Clapton's occasional and very straightforward vocal features with Cream, whose straight-ahead delivery would ultimately form the basis of his charm, Bruce had a rather strident and, I felt, mannered vocal delivery.
And indeed, although there were some bona fide classic in their small catalogue, much of the music Cream made, like Bruce's voice, their clothes and their record covers, was really rather too '60s, almost to the point of cliché. As open-minded and omnivorous as I am musically, yet it was only really Clapton of the three who went on to do any great work, post Cream. Both Bruce and Baker, whilst they remained active musically, never really attained the dizzying heights their younger promise had suggested. It must have been hard for them to watch Clapton's ascent and compare it to their own fates.
One certainly senses anger and bitterness with Baker. But, to his great credit, Bruce always came across, post Cream, as a decent solid guy, with a ready wit, a gleam in his eye, and an essentially positive vibe. Of course with Bruce this is based on very minimal sightings, usually on BBC music docs! Clapton and Baker are still with us, the former in vigourous health, the latter looking and sounding pretty ropey.
Okay, so I'm not one of those who spouts only the most positive of hyperbole here. But nevertheless he was an essential part of some truly magical music, and so, without overdoing it, I can trouble say I loved the man and what he brought to the music. And so it is that hearing of Bruce's passing was very sad news, as it adds him to the roll-call for the great jam-session in the sky, beyond the reach of my email or phone. I had, and still have, vague plans for a book on music of the late sixties to early seventies, and would've loved to have interviewed him for that. And every month brings new losses: Alice Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello... I think Bruce would be pleased to be counted amongst such august company, even if it was attained only in passing.
I'll conclude with a quote from Bruce's family that I read in an online Guardian obituary: 'The world of music will be a poorer place without him but he lives on in his music and for ever in our hearts.'
I found this on YouTube. A 30 minute (or thereabouts) German program from 1971 called Swing In, dedicated to Brucey and his band du jour (or der tag?), which includes Soft Machine sticks-man John Marshall. Not watched it yet myself! As soon as time permits...
 From Ginger Baker's Facebook page: 'I battled Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Phil Seaman, Max, Roach [sic], and Tony Williams. Bonham played in Zeppelin. If he was still alive today, ask him! How I am grouped with Bonham and Moony....is laughable...'