Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Grow Fins — Rarities (1965-1982)
This five CD set gathers loads of previously unreleased recordings, providing valuable insight into the process which turned a better than average blues/pop group into the most outrageous band of the 60’s and 70’s. Longtime Beefheart fans will appreciate that all phases of his career are represented, except for the horrible Mercury Records period. The hardbound book, packed with detailed accounts from band members, is to be cherished as well. Sadly, the Captain wasn’t involved in the project, which explains the absence of Beefheart’s visual artwork. But that’s OK, the book makes him sound like a prick, so maybe it’s better that he wasn’t involved.
More than the Captain, the Magic Band is in the spotlight for most of this release. Disc three is made up of home recordings the band made while preparing for their groundbreaking Trout Mask Replica album. Captain Beefheart’s vocals are rarely present, as the Captain himself was rarely present at rehearsals. Disc two is mostly live performances that feature lots of instrumental jamming, which is amazing, but does nothing to earn Beefheart his reputation as a genius. The secret to the Magic Band’s greatness is that they were able to transform Captain Beefheart’s seemingly nonsensical whistling and humming into perfectly executed guitar and drum compositions. The Magic Band have never received credit for overcoming that challenge, not to mention putting up with the poverty and abuse they suffered while under his alleged tyrannical rulership. (To be fair, Captain Beefheart was truly one of the greatest blues harpists of all time, and his voice transcended all preconceived notions of what singing should sound like, which is a good thing. That is why he is a genius.) But I digress…
Fans are often bewildered by Trout Mask , but evidence of the abstract direction the group would take on that album is present on their first record, Safe As Milk . “Electricity” and “Plastic Factory” hint at a more bizarre sound that is waiting to break out of the mid-60’s pop sound. The bands next two albums, Mirror Man and Strictly Personal , continue to get farther and farther away from “hit” territory. The jump from Strictly Personal to Trout Mask wasn’t all that far, but Strictly Personal suffered from a bad sound mix, according to Beefheart. Critics accused them of trying to jump on some sort of psychedelic bandwagon. In reality, they were way too busy worshipping Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk to be concerned with the Beatles and the Maharishi, or whoever. The album was subsequently kicked to the curb, with mixed feelings from band members. It is the lesser known album that fans should realize is the missing link between the gentle crooning of “Call On Me” from the first album, and the poetic chaos of “Steal Softly Through Snow” from Trout Mask . Disc two gives ample evidence of these changes, primarily in the form of thoughtfully interwoven guitar parts and uncontrolled horn blurbs.
Though the Magic Band are the heroes of this box set, the Captain does shine on discs one and five. Disc one includes early demos and live tracks that display the Captain’s greatness as a singer/harpist on blues, R&B, and pop songs. Disc five contains several on-the-air appearances that exhibit the power of his voice and harmonica (and many great live performances of various band line-ups.)
For those who want to hear Beefheart for the first time, there are several better choices, but once you have become a fan, you will want this box. The sound is horrible at times, and there are long stretches of almost silence, but as a whole, the contents are very important, and beautifully packaged. Oh yeah, don’t miss CD four, in which the Captain has conversations with various people which are often hilarious.
Revenant Records, P.O. Box 162766, Austin, TX 78716-2766; email@example.com