Yes, it has been a while since I last posted on this here blog thing. But I’ve finally found the time to pick an unfairly maligned subject and try to prove that they have some worth. This time, it’s the turn of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band’s 1974 album Bluejeans and Moonbeams.
I have been a massive Beefheart fan since I was a teenager, going in right at the deep end with 1969’s monumental Trout Mask Replica. Even now, there’s still so much to unpack, savour and marvel at – one-of-a-kind arrangements, supremely intricate musicianship and a truly mad genius front and centre, throwing words and musical notations around the room just to see what happens.
Enough has been written about Don Van Vliet – ranging from Bill Harkleroad’s revelatory “Lunar Notes”, Mike Barnes’ wide-ranging biography “Captain Beefheart” and John French’s long-winded “Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic” – that there really is nothing worth adding, and let’s not forget Elaine Shepherd’s 1997 documentary “The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart” and the impeccable Captain Beefheart Radar Station website (www.beefheart.com) which is chock-full of information and resources. So instead, let’s turn our attention to an album of his that is considered the lowest point of his musical career. One that’s glossed over as quickly as possible.
The infamous Andy DiMartino came on board and got Van Vliet and co. signed to Virgin (in the UK) and Mercury (in the US). The band at this time featured Trout Mask/Decals-era stalwarts Bill Harkleroad, Mark Boston and Art Tripp, as well as the returning Alex St Clair Snouffer, the man behind the original Magic Band’s formation. The resulting album Unconditionally Guaranteed is a disaster. To me, this album is THE worst Beefheart record. There is no life or spark to the album whatsoever. The songs are trite, the band have been shorn of their edge and creativity and even Don sounds bored and tired.
The Magic Band then quit on him prior to a European tour, so DiMartino corralled some last-minute replacements who then had to scrape together a set within days of departing. The resulting line-up has often been referred to as ‘The Tragic Band’ but to be fair they did the best they could at such ridiculously short notice. In fact, their performance of ‘Upon The My-O-My’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test is far superior to the LP version, if only for the more powerful and snarling vocal performance. A live version of ‘Full Moon, Hot Sun’ from a French gig, while pedestrian is still more lively than the official cut.
In an interview for the “Captain Beefheart: Under Review” documentary from 2006, Ira Ingber explained: My brother, myself and a fellow named Mark Gibbons, a very gifted keyboard player, got together here in Los Angeles and I think at the time Don was still living in North California…so we started writing songs. It seemed innocent enough…Don had some ideas, he had lots of lyrics as I remember. We ended up rehearsing then started recording…I think consciously we were staying away from [the] Magic Band because I think anything even remotely resembling Magic Band for Don was something where he didn’t want to go…but because of who he is they went that direction anyway.
Hitching up with Tragic Band members Michael Smotherman (keyboards), Dean Smith (guitar) and Ty Grimes (percussion), as well as Jimmy Caravan (keyboards), Bob West (bass) and Gene Pello (drums), this makeshift unit were shoved into Stronghold Sound Recorders, a budget studio within North Hollywood in August 1974 to put an album together. Smotherman later recounted that the album took 2 days to record.
When interviewed for Mike Barnes’ 2000 book, Smotherman said: Don was just as confused as he could be throughout the whole process. He would sit there in a chair and sing, and he had no idea when to come in or when to stop. Count-offs didn’t mean anything to him, One time, about two o’clock in the morning, I had to go out and sit beside him in a chair. When it was time for him to sing, I had my hand on the back of his neck and I would push his face up to the microphone and he would start singing. And when it was time to stop I would pull him back gently.
Of particular note, you may notice that aside from two co-writing credits, Elliot Ingber is absent from the credits on the album. Van Vliet himself claimed that Elliot’s parts were wiped from the tapes by DiMartino, but as the man made bizarre and contradictive remarks about the same subject many times over who knows what the real story is. If his claim is true and Dean Smith is responsible for all guitar parts, he does a more than serviceable job, with some neat Spotlight/Clear Spot fuzzy slide work throughout, and unlike his contributions throughout the ill-fated 1974 tour, he kept his proto-Knopfler licks to a minimum.
If Van Vliet was considerably disorientated throughout the sessions, his voice (for the most part) remains in fine fettle and is a damn sight more convincing and confident than on the previous album, particularly in the opening number: ‘The Party Of Special Things To Do’. Even if the opening verse (“the cowboy wore a nightie in the party of special things to do”) doesn’t have the same original spark of Trout Mask the song is more than serviceable and still full of Southern-fried boogie involving the Red Queen and the One-Eyed Jill (“all the cards”).
A serviceable cover of JJ Cale’s ‘Same Old Blues’ comes up next, featuring a reasonably gruff and moody Van Vliet vocal accompanied on the choruses by Smotherman, who later elaborated to Mike Barnes that “All those obnoxious vocals that you hear in the background – that’s me. There were supposed to be some other people singing background and then DiMartino thought he could get me to sing all the background for cheaper.”
‘Observatory Crest’ follows shortly after and is possibly the highlight of the album for me. The musical accompaniment is full of open space and the guitar playing is appropriately tidy and tasteful. Van Vliet sings about him and his missus watching a concert where they “heard all the best” before stopping near an observatory where “the sand was hot/she wanted to dance.” Simple enough, but it has a nice laid-back melody and was often picked out by reviews as possibly being the brightest spark on the whole platter. Mercury Rev later covered the session for a BBC Radio session in 1999, and even my wife loved the song (this song was playing in the registry office while everyone was being seated, so go figure…)
“Is he talking to me? Right…” asks a befuddled Captain as ‘Pompadour Swamp’ starts up. Another pleasant (noticing a theme here?) number which is not as disposable as some reviewers claim. For an album that was recorded in a hurry almost as an afterthought, this track is a fine example of some effort being made in song arrangement. On the whole, the album has a bit more spark and life to it than the repetitive, uneventful plod-plod-plod of Unconditionally Guaranteed. Van Vliet is in fine form with the rasping delivery of yore conjuring an abstract tale, the title of which was borrowed from one of many works-in-progress originally demo’d back in 1972 (the original music was eventually revised as ‘Suction Prints’ on 1978’s Shiny Beast).
The closing track on side 1 is still a bone of contention and somewhat of a mystery. ‘Captain’s Holiday’ may not even be a Magic Band recording. Smotherman: “As a matter of fact, I think that track was on a 24-track reel that nobody had picked up.” As an unidentified chorus of ladies coo “Ooh captain, captain/play your melody” the instrumental track goes on as some half-hearted harmonica playing and soft-rock guitar action take turns popping up here and there. Maybe it’s me living in hope, but there may be more to the song than that: Smotherman’s main choice of keyboard during the Tragic Band tour was a clavinet which can also be heard on the track, and the harmonica playing does have a slight hint of Van Vliet. There’s no doubting Andy DiMartino’s pragmatic pilfering of the multitrack, but overdubs may have been attempted as a way of trying to make it blend in with the rest of the album. Is it worth elaborating further? The track is nothing special. As Don himself sang on the previous album “lazy music’s got me laying back and laying down.”
‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Evil Doll’ greets us at the start of side 2 with some fuzzed and wobbly slide guitar playing and squelchy clavinet as Beefheart weaves a simple tale of said doll chasing him down “rock ‘n’ roll’s evil hall”. Yet again, nothing special but it’s serviceable enough. Co-writer Ira Ingber makes a good stab at some bass work near the end, as does Dean Smith’s multi-tracked guitar work.
Don Van Vliet transmogrifies into the Walrus of Love for ‘Further Than We’ve Gone’, a self-penned ballad that honestly cannot hold a candle to the genuinely beautiful and tender ‘Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles’ from Clear Spot. There’s no denying that this song goes on a bit and while frothy and syrupy it’s superior to the same year’s horrid ‘This Is The Day’.
‘Twist Ah Luck’ brings the pace up a bit and is like a livelier version of Unconditionally Guaranteed’s closer ‘Peaches’, as if the latter has had a quick gulp of Lucozade to get some energy going.
The closing number ‘Bluejeans and Meanbeams’ is a nice and gentle little slow burner, replete with acoustic guitar picking and what sounds like a Mellotron. Like the rest of the album, there’s not much substance to this number but is a welcome change of pace to the usual Beefheart aural assault (or the “exploding note theory” as he later described it). It really is quite lovely with some delicate electric guitar runs and a basic-as-basic-can-be snare and bass drum accompaniment. Even the prominent synthesizer twinkles near the end don’t spoil the overall atmosphere of the track and is more proof that Beefheart could genuinely sing in tune when the mood took him.
Upon its release in November that year, reviews for Bluejeans and Moonbeams leaned towards the negative. Melody Maker’s Allan Jones (and future alt country-enabler) mentioned that the title track was “almost worth the price of the album” but apart from that, he wrote that “this album has some difficulty in justifying its existence”, all under the headline “NO MORE MAGIC.” Lou Reed’s best mate, Robert ‘Toefucker’ Christgau gave it a B-, preferring it to Unconditionally Guaranteed.
Retrospective reviews are still considerably negative but are not content to write the whole thing off. In a 1999 review on the Perfect Sound Forever website, Scott McFarland remarked “the record has its moments of minor-league charm, but bears little relationship to the rest of Beefheart’s extraordinary catalogue” and also says that Bluejeans is much more preferable to its predecessor, though is still greatly flawed: “The songs are less overtly maudlin, and the sound is more relaxed…the music is well recorded, which at times just highlights the vacuousness of the whole project.”
As for the musicians present in the sessions, Ira Ingber later commented: I was disappointed…it sounded like there [were] way too much gratuitous effects – there was some early synthesizer stuff that sounded just godawful to me. The crispness and the tightness of Clear Spot was gone. It seemed very watery to me, it didn’t seem to have the impact that I remember it having in the studio…I was very disappointed [with] the way it sounded and very disappointed obviously with the reviews that I saw here because they were predominantly very, very negative. (Under Review, 2006)
As for the Cap? Once the album was done and dusted, he immediately went out into the desert and DiMartino exited the picture. Before simply refusing to discuss his DiMartino-produced albums entirely, he moaned that Mercury put Bluejeans out without his knowledge, that the original drum parts he arranged were wiped and re-recorded by someone else, etc. For all of his unique talents, Don Van Vliet had a most unfortunate habit of blaming others for any faults in his work – read up on his underrated 1968 LP Strictly Personal for more details – but as Barnes pointed out, Van Vliet should’ve been more honest and take an equal portion of the blame for how the record turned out. He wanted a stab a commercial success and despite the dispiriting path it took him down, it was his decision and no-one else’s.
After retiring to the desert to think about things (and not become a lumberjack as he reported to the press at the time), he decided to put together another iteration of the Magic Band (featuring John French, Elliot Ingber, Jimmy Carl Black and Bruce Fowler) in time for a triumphant performance at Knebworth Festival in 1975 followed by a short European tour. With these performances considered a true return-to-form, the reinvigorated Beefheart and his conveyor belt of Magic Band inductees recorded four more wonderfully inventive and spiky albums up until Van Vliet’s decision to retire from music in 1982 and concentrate on his art.
In French’s book “Through The Eyes Of Magic” he recounts a story of bumping into Don not long after the album was released. Don remarked that “the only good thing about this album is the cover”. Painted by Van Vliet’s cousin, Victor Hayden, the cover is quite delightful and seemingly features what could be a deer jumping or gliding over a fence. Yet again, another plus over Unconditionally Guaranteed, whose cover was messy, poorly executed and with borderline unreadable text plastered on the bottom. The Bluejeans cover, like ‘Observatory Crest’ is uncluttered, full of space and pleasing.
Over the past decades, a few affectionate nods towards Bluejeans and Moonbeams have appeared. In an interview with Smash Hits Magazine in December 1980, Kate Bush nominated the album as part of her top ten favourite albums, claiming “…this is the Beefheart album where he writes love songs like nobody else.” As well as Mercury Rev’s aforementioned cover listed above, The White Stripes covered ‘The Party Of Special Things To Do’ for a 2000 Beefheart tribute EP bearing the same title.
While Bluejeans and Moonbeams certainly does not represent Captain Beefheart’s oeuvre as a whole, and I am certainly not trying to claim that it is, it is certainly worth reinvestigating and it has been a fun experience examining it and noting that it does have some redeeming features. In fact, if you squint a bit, it can comfortably sit beside 1978’s First Taste by Juicy Groove, another gang of misfits including Mars Bonfire of Steppenwolf as well Beefheart alumni Gary Marker and Elliot Ingber.