Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Captain Beefheart - Clear Spot

Captain Beefheart
Clear Spot

Released 1972 on Reprise
Reviewed by griddell, 24/07/2005ce

‘With Clear Spot…he's gained his ground and looks to hold it for awhile. Which is just another way of saying that the Captain may have a hit on this deck, folks.’ Lester Bangs, Creem 1973.

‘Clear Spot is sizzling 1972 heavy metal flash.‘ Bob Palmer, Rolling Stone 1972.

Do me a favour and buy this album. No really, do it.
It’s part of a double CD, tagged on the end of ‘Spotlight Kid’. A fiver’s not bad for 2 albums worth & when one is as good as Clear Spot, you’re getting more than a bargain – you’re getting the best Beefheart recording.
By now most ‘real’ Cap’n fans will be apoplectic. Weight of opinion is not behind me here. You see Clear Spot is barely acknowledged by most enthusiasts. A BBC documentary narrated by no less than John Peel chose to ignore its very existence! There seem to be 3 main reasons for this:

1. It is by far the most commercial, ‘normal’ Beefheart offering.

2. One song in particular horrifies the average fan - a blatant Stax rip off. Of the three ballads, it is by far the worst, but more about that later.

3. An uninitiated Beefeart listener could actually sit through Clear Spot without disowning you or leaving the room immediately.

Now, lyrically as well as musically it has to be admitted that the sheer originality of ‘Trout Mask’ and other CP albums isn’t matched here. It’s sacrificed for consistency which is a word not associated with the most of Beefheart’s output. While being undoubtedly commercial, we’re not talking mindless pop drivel either: this is Don VV singing about women, sex, love, off kilter observations and…well, pantalooned ducks, so not entirely predictable, eh?
If you check out the full Lester Bangs review, not only is he speculating that Clear Spot might be a commercial success – he’s pointing out that Don Van Vliet is as ordinary as anyone when it comes to wanting mass acceptance & a bit of success. Holy shit, the Captain is human after all!
Finally, how can anyone deny that Clear Spot has one song in particular that astounds the average listener. To these ears, it is by far the best Beefheart song ever captured. Full stop. But more about them beans later.

Still unconvinced? If you have it, get it on now.
Hear that swirling riff from Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo open ‘Low Yo Yo Stuff’ & the rhythm gliding in? It just gets better. Much of this album has delta blues dripping from every groove, albeit the Magic bands’ unique take on blues. And with “Low..’ we’re talking about a swaggering rock song even down to lyrics about sex/masturbation - ‘wait till my girl back home, finds out what my hands been doin’ on my gee-tar since she’s been gone’. Yeah cap’n. Don’t assume this is predictable 70’s rock though – oh, no. There’s a xylophone cropping up & get used to those changing rhythms – it’s an album trait.

For 1972, the lyrics of “Nowadays A Woman Has To Hit Her Man” aren’t just unusual, they are totally out there. Beefheart as a sensitive guy? Well kind of, but its not exactly Morrisey.
Bursts of harmonica from the Captain electrify this track. The rhythm’s once more at odds, shunted along by a brass section that hints at a funkier, soul influenced side. Strange but effective under that blues swamp boogie. About halfway through we get Clear Spot’s first shot of slide heaven from a certain Mr. Horn Rollo, the snare drum rattling beautifully in the background.

Too Much Time – aha!! Poor Stax rip-off or a tribute? Certainly there’s radio friendly brass & a melodic lick Steve Cropper could’ve easily penned. Cheesy sounding backing vocals don’t help, but at least there’s the line about ‘heat up...stale beans, open a tin of sardines, eat crackers & dream of someone to cook for me’. And you know what – DVV’s voice ain’t too bad at all on this track. But let’s not dwell, because next there is …

Circumstances. Guitar & a roaring voice start in unison. Harmonica joins in and we’re off on another blues journey. Bassman Orejon really excels here with a weaving lolloping bass run. What the hell is DVV singing about? “Once you find out, the circumstances…you can go out!” With a voice that good, who cares. This also features one of best CB lines ever. As the music grinds to a halt he growls, “Little girl, don’t you know, the stars up a-bove are runnin’ on LOVE.”
Listening to that backing, frankly it shouldn’t work. Every riff sounds at odds and at various points the song ‘dies’ only to be re-born with stunning phased drum and vocals that launch Zoot’s wah-wah freak out & a lung bursting harmonica. Possibly one of the heaviest rock moments recorded by the Magic Band. Maybe this annoys the purists, but fuck ‘em.

Now the second ballad, My Head Is My Only Home Unless It Rains. Unlike TMT it has no brass/backing vocals and the difference is obvious. It benefits too from top notch guitar work, nifty xylophone and more original ‘love’ lyrics from the Cap’n : “My arms are only two things in the way till I wrap them around you”. This harmony rich tune is almost in Van The Man territory and that’s no bad thing.

Sun Zoom Spark is another highlight and I’d get a cup of cha or a herbal cig at this point -prepare yourself somehow, because from now on there’s no letting up. Introduced by a simple riff, the rollicking bass & drums kick in in a far from simple way with crazy percussion from Ed Marimba. Beefheart begins to sing in his pure deep blues growl and it simply sounds incredible. Twin guitars dual for attention, weaving in & out each other but there’s no place for simple twin harmonics here - it’s rock Jim but not as we know it. This is joyous stuff & it sounds like Beefheart’s add-libbing all over the place. “Ahm gonna magnetize ya!”, “Zip up my geetar”. Yeah! Polished off by a spine-tingling slide solo.

Clear Spot. Chorus laden guitar intro then….THUMP!, THUMP! THUMP!, THUMP!, that up-down gloriously dumb beat crashes in. Lyrically, lines about hot swamp/vegetation conjure up that swamp boogie thang yet again with CP declaring he has to run to find a ‘Clear Spot’. All the instruments lock in for the ‘run, run, run’ before another slide breakdown similar in vein to Circumstances.
Harmonica leads us back in for the 2nd verse and just listen to that band at work – it’s fucking genius. Zoot Horn’s slide brings it to a halt again and just when you think the songs over…
‘’Fraid ahm gonna get hit!”, THUMP! THUMP! Like hefty hobnail boots, this song stomps the listener into appreciation before grinding to a stop.

The slide intro to ‘Crazy Little Thing’ gives way to a cracking Hendrix/funk lick and you’re listening to the grooviest song on Clear Spot. Backing vocals work better here than on, say, Too Much Time and musically it ‘s a real uplifting work-out. Lyrically it’s a ‘Grope fest’ number as Bangs review puts it with tales of a babe “driving all the men crazy” and bringing things up “higher than they could be”. Looser drums give this a fantastically lazy feel and there’s a slide solo to kill for.

Long Kneck Bottles. Back to that muscle flexing swamp boogie. This is Magic Band rock about a booze loving woman who could ‘bring an airplane down’. I love the conversational tone in Beefhearts voice and can’t help laughing at lines like ‘Ah don’t like to talk about my women – but I’m gonna do it anyway.’ No it’s not surreal imagery and jazz-like structures, but it’s fun! Only minor criticism here is that while the horns add beef to the song, are they really necessary? The Captain co-composed the parts with Ted Templeman so there can be little doubt it was a radio friendly move. Again, this is nit picking, especially when you get a lead guitar & harmonica dual that’ll send shivers down your spine.

Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles. The best ballad on Clear Spot and certainly the most unusual. Mandolin & a haunting guitar echo lift this above the norm. Although there’s pretty straightforward lyrics like ‘in her eyes I see the sea’, can you really imagine any of Beefhearts 70’s contemporaries sounding like this? I can’t, particularly in the top-notch rhythm section. It provides the perfect lull before….

Big Eyed Beans From Venus. At last.
THAT slide intro. THOSE rasped blues vocals that the Captain seemingly pulls up from his feet. “Distant Cousins – there’s a limited supply!’’ The rhythm climbs in steadily under the riff with a stereo split of guitars and some fantastic staccato drum rolls. For the next minute or so you’re just getting used to how good it sounds when the break hits you and what happens next is the highlight of not just Clear Spot, but a highlight of all CB & The Magic Band’s recordings.
‘Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long leaning note and let it float….” The sound of Zoot’s guitar is just a mind-blowing heavenly buzz.
The Magic Band crash back with a heavy metal swagger that’ll have your head banging and feet tapping. There's a real power & energy gets conveyed here while Beefheart delivers Freudian lyrics about wallets & purses!
I know I’m labouring a point, but even though this is heavy rock stuff, no one could compose or deliver it as uniquely. I mean, for starters there’s the drum roll (ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta…) that lifts ‘Big Eyed beans..’ onto an even higher level. Violin style guitar is a strangely delicate but effective backing as CB’s howls about being “on the right track.” and “No SNAFU.’ Perfect. The whole section finishes with an earnest, electrifying cry of ‘Check these out! Don’t Let Anything Get Between Us!”, more fantastic drumming from Marimba and a chorus that is one of the finest recorded moments in rock.
And what d’ya know, but then we’re back to the start with a slightly different rhythm. A gradual build up get’s it back to fever pitch before the Captain’s pay off line with a gruff cry of…’Big Eyee---ed Beans From Veee-nus” and Zoots last long, floating note. Astounding!

Just before you can recover, there’s Golden Birdies. What the fuck? A brief spoken intro, then a truly thunderous Rockette Morton bass line the Birthday Party would’ve died for gives the impression it’s a ‘rocker’. Not so. Lines of surreal Van Vliet poetry, bizarre xylophone/guitar, minimal bass/percussion and the brilliant final lyric about “A pantalooned duck…quacked - web core, web core.” A real musical painting from an artist who eventually abandoned music for the brush and easel.
Unlike anything else on Clear Spot, it has to be a deliberate attempt by Beefheart to introduce the listener to his other work and I've absolutely no objections to that. Go check out his other stuff if this album floats your boat, but why not check the Magic Band out live as well. The crowd reaction to Big Eyed Beans alone tells a story and just remember what album you heard it on.

PS – final anorak style note. You can alter the sleeve of the CD. OK, I'll admit he does look spectacularly weird and naffly resplendant on the Spotlight Kid cover but why not look instead at the Captain resplendent in a lampshade hat standing over a Star Trek style recording booth!


Gavin Riddell

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