Captain Beefheart: Sun Zoom Spark 1970–1972

Box set of ‘low yo yo’ blues and more from Don Van Vliet’s fertile post-Trout Mask period.

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When John Peel first hammered Trout Mask Replica on the radio 45 years ago that album was mainly seen as another freak assault from Frank Zappa’s Bizarre stable. Now it’s hailed as one of the last century’s greatest avant-weird albums while Beefheart’s inevitable posthumous legend after his 2010 death has been joined by the truth emerging about the unbelievably harsh treatment he dealt his Magic Band.

While Trout Mask usually gets singled out for attention, many, including the Captain himself, consider its 1970 follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby his best album. Ex-Mothers drummer Art Tripp had joined on marimba while guitarist Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) took over from John French as musical director, constructing the songs from cassettes of Beefheart pounding a piano. /o:p

The album seemed to concentrate Trout Mask’s most extreme elements, such as Beefheart’s raging free jazz sax, into the maelstrom (described by US rock critic Lester Bangs as ‘a sonic hurricane’) of outings such as I Love You, You Big Dummy and Flash Gordon’s Ape. Bizarrely, the album reached the UK Top 20 in January 1971; Beefheart’s best ever chart position.

After Decals had taken his musical tsunami as far as it could go, Beefheart said he was “tired of scaring people”, returning to a more accessible blues-based sound on January 1972’s The Spotlight Kid. Although recorded by a band then being imprisoned in a rat-infested cabin, it’s packed with highlights, including bass-heaving growler I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby and the derailing train blues Click Clack. Ex-Mothers guitarist Elliot Ingber (aka Winged Eel Fingerling) guested on two tracks, including his Alice In Blunderland showcase.

Vliet had started an album of poetry and music called Brown Star, which morphed into November 1972’s career-peaking Clear Spot, produced as a sparkling blues-rock crossover by vital studio catalyst Ted Templeman (Van Morrison, Doobie Brothers).

While a previously unheard sensitive side (inspired by new wife Jan) emerges on love songs such as Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles, the set also boasts the subterranean voodoo-hump of Low Yo Yo Stuff and mindblowing live set closer Big Eyed Beans From Venus.

Rhino’s spectacular box set presents these albums remastered for the first time, plus a bonus disc of outtakes, including alternative versions and prototypes which showed up on later albums until the Captain retired in 1982, depriving the world of his unique, volcanic genius./o:p

Kris Needs

Kris Needs is a British journalist and author, known for writings on music from the 1970s onwards. Previously secretary of the Mott The Hoople fan club, he became editor of ZigZag in 1977 and has written biographies of stars including Primal Scream, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards. He's also written for MOJO, Record Collector, Classic Rock, Prog, Electronic Sound, Vive Le Rock and Shindig!