Why Captain Beefheart’s worst album deserves better

Why Captain Beefheart’s worst album deserves better

No one’s ever accused Captain Beefheart of being easy to swallow. From 1967’s Safe As Milk to 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow, the late avant-rock icon’s catalog draws on everything from the discordant Americana of Harry Partch to the scabrous blues of Howlin’ Wolf—not to mention the disjointed poetics of Beefheart’s closest contemporary and occasional collaborator, Frank Zappa. But Beefheart’s music has always been its own dish, a thick and murky stew of words and sounds that no two stomachs process the same way. That said, there’s one thing that almost every Beefheart gourmand can agree on: His worst album is Bluejeans & Moonbeams

Beefheart concurred. He disowned Bluejeans not long after its 1974 release, eventually saying that everyone who bought a copy should demand their money back; failing that, he promised to play a private concert in their living rooms by way of apology. In Mike Barnes’ definitive Captain Beefheart: The Biography, the author doesn’t bother to sugarcoat his contempt for the record, calling it “farcical,” “fundamentally flawed,” and “driven by expediency rather than aesthetics.” And that’s just the tip of a five-page evisceration of the album. What Barnes fails to see—and what many fans decline to consider—is that Bluejeans’ defects are exactly what make it so fascinating.

Forty years ago, Beefheart was scraping rock bottom. 1973 was not a good year for the singer and his legendary Magic Band. Unconditionally Guaranteed, the group’s eighth full-length, was in the process of being made, and its relatively mellow vibe spurred Beefheart’s entire band to resign in protest. Two of those members, guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo and bassist Rockette Morton, had played vital roles in previous Beefheart masterpieces, including the sprawling, 1969 opus Trout Mask Replica—a spasm of experimentalism that makes the era’s most epic, psychedelic voyages look like bike rides to the corner store for bubblegum.

Beefheart—a man whose instrumental aptitude began and ended with the harmonica—had always relied on virtuosic, sympathetic sidemen to realize his convulsive visions of rock ’n’ roll. In 1974, without Rollo and Morton, he floundered. Exhausted and jaded by nearly a decade of commercial underperformance, he allowed himself to be pressured into drafting a band of studio musicians and a pair of producers with their sights set on the mainstream. Beefheart doubled down on the commercial flirtation of Unconditionally Guaranteed by turning Bluejeans into a ploy to move units—a plan that backfired, as it alienated the small pool of extant Beefheart connoisseurs while gaining very few new ones.

At least that’s the official line. There’s a whiff of revisionist history to this common account of Beefheart’s creative plummet. It makes for a gripping story—the valiant artist tragically succumbing to the cold greed of commerce—but the facts are less dramatic. Bluejeans shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Beefheart had been steadily sliding toward a more accessible sound since 1971’s Mirror Man, three albums before Unconditionally Guaranteed. Rather than being a mere dip in quality, Bluejeans is guilty of two apparently unpardonable sins: First, it’s credited to The Magic Band—a sacred fraternity in the eyes of Beefheart fans—when it’s really played by a bunch of faceless pick-up musicians that came to be known as “The Tragic Band.” Second, it’s the furthest thing from a replica of Trout Mask Replica that Beefheart ever made.

But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Bluejeans opens strongly with “Party Of Special Things To Do”—a prosaic title by Beefheart standards, but one that sets the laidback tone to come. In fact, the song’s opening line—“The camel wore a nightie!”—is the weirdest two seconds of the entire album. What follows is a propulsive, loosely spooled funk fantasia that leaves muddy footprints in its wake. “Watch out for the Mirror Man,” Beefheart warns in the tune’s middle, and the self-reference isn’t gratuitous. “Party Of Special Things To Do” is the sludgy, Cajun-seasoned cousin of the equally funky Beefheart song “Mirror Man.”

“Party” sounds so earthy, it’s hard to imagine Beefheart wasn’t trying in some way to emulate the shaman of New Orleans R&B, Dr. John. An artist of equal idiosyncrasy and grit—not to mention a true contemporary, born two months before Beefheart—John had enjoyed his breakout hit, “Right Place Wrong Time,” in 1973. If Beefheart had indeed intended Bluejeans to be a serious contender for mainstream radio play, Dr. John was one of the few touchstones Beefheart could have credibly pointed toward. And hoped to follow.

Another unique singer-songwriter stretching the boundaries of blues-rock at the time—and making money at it—was J.J. Cale. Sure enough, Bluejeans’ second track is a Cale cover, “Crazy Mama,” which Beefheart renders faithfully, yet with a loping, hazy atmosphere. That ethereal quality—diffuse and drifting, unhinged and intangible—is Beefheart’s most marked departure from his signature chaos. Where his earlier albums teemed with a zillion riffs, rhythms, and images per square inch, Bluejeans bobs along, ventilated by gaping voids. The best expression of this newfound shimmer is also Bluejeans’ best song: “Observatory Crest,” a haunted, echo-shrouded recollection of a trek to a lookout point with a woman—a post-concert comedown heavy with stoned torpor, exhausted longing, and the disillusioned unlikelihood that Beefheart and his lady might see “flying saucers and all of the rest.”

That exhaustion carries a weary grace. Even at its most energized, Bluejeans is bogged down by the dead skin of deflated dreams, a sense of wonder wrung out and hung up to dry. The Stones-esque boogie of “Twist Ah Luck” is the disc’s most upbeat song, but its litany of clichés—“Think about you all the time,” “Heart beating overtime,” etc.—is inert to the point of paralysis, a far more scathing indictment of formulaic pop than his most abrasive noisemaking. At the same time, it just plain rocks—as does another overtly Dr. John-like track, “Pompadour Swamp,” which sparks and pops like a ceremonial bonfire. The album closes with its title track, a hybrid of ballad and lullaby awash in folk jangle, eerie synths, orchestral flourishes, and Beefheart’s gravelly growl. Only here, he’s paying homage to Van Morrison’s hippie-pagan mysticism. Or poking fun at it. Or both.

Bluejeans’ most telling excerpt, though, is “Captain’s Holiday.” Picking up the solipsism of “Party Of Special Things To Do,” the song lurches drunkenly through winding leads, two-fisted piano, and a staggering shamble of blues-rock pastiche. As the title indicates, Beefheart takes the song’s full five minutes to give his larynx a rest, blow his harp, and let his backup singers sweetly, sarcastically implore, “Ooh, Captain, Captain / Sing that melody.” Melody being, of course, one of the conventions Beefheart gleefully deconstructed in the decade prior.

As much as Beefheart held himself at arm’s length from the ’60s, he was undeniably a part of it: a cacophonous avatar of its angst, its bedlam, and the dark side of its freedom. Like so many others, Beefheart felt the ’70s curdle around him. He could only choke down so much of that cynicism before throwing it back up. In that sense, Bluejeans has more in common with other downbeat, dark-horse singer-songwriter classics from 1974—among them Good Old Boys by Randy Newman, The Heart Of Saturday Night by Tom Waits, and Paradise And Lunch by former Beefheart cohort Ry Cooder—than the apocalyptic clangor of The Magic Band’s ’60s output.

With the cult acclaim that followed Trout Mask Replica in 1969, Beefheart joined the pantheon with his old comrade Zappa—not to mention The Velvet Underground, which was the icy yin to The Magic Band’s feverish yang. Five years later, the American rock avant-garde had lost most of that steam. Lou Reed marked 1974 with the release of Sally Can’t Dance, his slickest and most approachable album to date; Beefheart likewise found himself too tired to fight the omnipresent push of commercialism, and too broke to spend all his time shoving away success. So he dabbled, for the inexcusable length of an album, in a softer, fuzzier, less strained iteration of his sound—a breather before embarking on a new and challenging phase in the late ’70s and early ’80s, one that tapped into the post-punk flood he helped unleash. Like Sally Can’t Dance, Bluejeans suffered an ironic fate: In its half-assed effort to find a broader audience, it actually sold worse than its edgier predecessors. But with his guard down, his wings clipped, and his nerves exposed, he created one of the most daring and contrarian works of his career: a Captain Beefheart album that goes down easy.

Filed Under: Music

More For Our Consideration