Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band ‘Clear Spot’ Album Review

Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band 'Clear Spot' Album Review

Feature Photo: Jean-Luc, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

50 years ago in October, Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart released what I consider one of his most commercially accessible albums that still maintained the edgy quirkiness that Beefheart expressed on his 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. The album – Clear Spot. And it was just that. A clear spot. Right from its minimal striking black and white cover to the songs on the album containing the Captain’s inventive, bizarre use of the English language, his clear bluesy melody lines, abstract rhythms and song form all functioning in a very accessible way.

The overall production is very polished, unlike the rawness of his two previous efforts i.e. Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. His aggressive raspy  – “Howling’ Wolf” voice rings throughout but there is an uncommon tender side that peaks through on a few of the songs. Unlike his almost sell out albums Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams, this collection comes off as a very original, cohesive artistic statement. Producer Ted Templeman and engineer Don Landee managed to bring the right balance between art and commerce to the project.

For starters, the album opens up with a medium-tempo, swampy, funky track called “Low Yo Yo Stuff.” It’s an inviting number that sort of sets the tone of the album. If Creedence Clearwater Revival had a baby with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band this would be the results. Of note: the drum beat (especially the placement of the snare rolls) is inventive. And throughout this album, we are treated to the wonderfully seductive grooves of ex-Mothers Of Invention drummer, Art Tripp (now a chiropractor in Mississippi). 

Next in line is “Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man.” The Captain’s feminist tune is a driving, bouncy, blues-based track that features expertly played slide guitar from veteran Magic Band member Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harlkeroad) and a very springy r&b horn part that underlines Van Vliet’s spirited vocals. 

This track is followed by the most commercial song on the album: “Too Much Time.” It might be Captain Beefheart’s most radio-friendly song he’s ever released. It’s basically an R&B song of regret and need to be loved. The horn part is catchy and the female background vocals (on a Beefheart record? – Yes!), provided by the famed trio The Blackberries, perfectly support the Captain’s sincere delivery. It was the obvious 45 single released from this album. 

While we are left singing the catchy hook we are then thrust into “Circumstances.” This is an aggressive, philosophical song that is pure Beefheart madness. Van Vliet plays blues harmonica over a gated groove that sounds like someone breathing. Again, the snare syncopations are unique and almost serve as a secondary hook. 

We then switch gears to one of Captain Beefheart’s most mellow and sweet songs he’s ever created; the melancholy “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains.” Though the song form is somewhat conventional with clear verses and choruses the semi-jazzy chord structure shifting from major to minor color the song into more original territory. The highlight is Van Vliet’s tender delivery of his easily relatable, personal lyrics on top of the smooth guitar work and tasteful rolls of the marimba executed by Art Tripp. This is a stand-out track that prompted the Tubes to cover it on their 1977 album Now.  

A bizarre, highly magnetic composition breaking out of the previous melancholy plays next: “Sun Zoom Spark.”  It’s a song of polarity, tension and pressure and the band relays this feeling with snarky guitar and bass parts locking into a frenetic drum rhythm that incorporates an engaging cowbell part. The production is a perfect match for Captain Beefheart’s frustrated, playful vocals. Again, this has the quirky Captain Beefheart stamp on it but unlike most of his catalog the song comes off as pretty accessible blues-rock. “Sun Zoom Spark!” – that is one catchy phrase. 

The next song which on vinyl would be the start of side two is the title track “Clear Spot.” This is a mid-tempo rock song that centers around a limited harmonic landscape mostly between the slight dissonance of E/Bb. Van Vliet keeps the song interesting with intriguing lyrics and a very authentic swampy blues vocal. A perfect setup musically for the next tune, “Crazy Little Thing.” 

“CLT” is about a young girl who has captured Captain Beefheart’s fancy and boy she must be hot because this is the hottest, funkiest tune on the album. The kind of tune you’d want on a loop to dance to because it’s only two and a half minutes! 

A southwestern shuffle follows (in the vein of ZZ Top) with “Long Neck Bottles.” This is another song about a female but one that is perhaps Captain Beefheart’s contemporary. She apparently does not put up with any bullshit. She knows exactly what she wants and the Captain respects and fears her. The groove is infectious and Van Vliet’s vocals are very exciting. His competent harmonica playing is featured on this track. 

We switch gears then to a very beautiful and touching song called “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles.” It has what I can only describe as a warm, American Indian vibe to it cadencing with a descending scale that adds to the song’s melancholy feel.  vocal is tender (probably the most tender in his entire catalog). I speculate he may be singing about his wife Jan who he was married to for decades up until his death in 2010. The song’s claim to fame is its inclusion in the movie The Big Lebowski. 

Next, what might be the Captain’s most popular song played on FM radio at the time: “Big Eyed Beans From Venus.” It’s an electrically charged bizarre song with the Captain proclaiming that a man or a woman without these beans is losing out on the spiritual, sexual wonders of life. These big-eyed beans can disintegrate all the self-imposed boundaries us humans set up between us in our daily lives. Or maybe the lyrics having nothing to do with that. With the Captain’s subconscious approach to music making one never knows. In any event, the song features vicious slide guitar playing by Zoot Horn Rollo layered with many mandolins and supported with pouncing drums and bass. It’s a beast of a tune incorporating a little stop-and-go with a long leaning note held by the slide guitar. Right from the opening riff the level of energy is apparent and it builds to a wonderful climax and then fades out making us ponder Van Vliet’s esoteric observations.  

The album concludes with “Golden Birdies”, an abstract / beatnik spoken word piece set to music. It’s Beefheart at his most subconscious here and it’s not so much what he is saying but the conviction behind what he is saying. The background music seems scored out and is very reminiscent of his old schoolmate and friend and rival Frank Zappa. It is replete with a twisted, heavy low-end bass part played by ex-Mothers Of Invention, Roy Estrada or “Oréjon” as he is nicknamed here and angular guitar lines played in unison with marimba reacting to the words. This is my pick for the most visual piece on the album and a definitive closer.

With more publicity behind it and Beefheart keeping his mood swings in check, I think the album would have reached higher than 191 on the Billboard top 200. His 1976 masterpiece, the slightly less commercial Shiny Beat (Bat Chain Puller) is Clear Spot’s logical successor.  

As avant-garde and “outside” as Captain Beefheart is known, he was able from time to time to take his idiosyncratic singing and songs and create left-of-center yet fairly accessible sounding albums. Clear Spot is one of those albums and a great place to start anyone who wants to explore this highly original, singularly bizarre American music maker.  

Written by John Tabacco

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