For all the mess the sixties dredged up, there was no clear response to it by the winter of 1970, when Lick My Decals Off, Baby was released. The ‘Me Decade’ hadn’t yet coalesced. The shimmering cosmic braids of the sixties counter-culture were unravelling in the dismal emotional emptiness we’ve since associated with Altamont a year earlier. Soon the bright colors of the psychedelic era would become the muted tones of post-modernity. In retrospect, The Magic Band’s dense and agitated dadaism captured the cultural rumble deconstructionism was amassing at its base. Contemporarily, however, Captain Beefheart was accused of wasting his potential as the greatest white- blues singer of all time. Whatever shift of perspectives defines the difference between the two eras, it’s more than free love that fractured into New Age or escalating narcotic use decaying into violence. It’s evident in the subtle but significant distinctions between Lick My Decals Off, Baby and its predecessor, Trout Mask Replica.
Trout Mask Replica is a pop record because pop music is it’s only distinct property. Whatever torn, frayed threads may have knotted together in Trout Mask Replica wove themselves throughout American music. On the other hand, Lick My Decals Off, Baby is a pop record because it’s trying to convince you, and succeeds with determinism and grace. As Ed Ward put it in a series of fascinating reviews in the December 1970 issue of Rolling Stone: “From a formal standpoint, musically and rhythmically it is all wrong, but once you’ve heard it, you cannot deny its logic.”
There aren’t many directions after Trout Mask Replica that aren’t a reach for commercial appeal. Few albums have ever stretched the fabric of pop-music so far without it tearing. Lick My Decals Off, Baby plays like it’s feverishly and contemplatively pacing just above that same terrain. Yet, it’s self-conscious. Trout Mask Replica was effortless and groundbreaking, Lick My Decals Off, Baby is a considered classic.
“Rather than I wanna hold your hand, I wanna swallow you whole” the album begins, and by the records end it has lived up to the promise. Beefheart’s improvisational songwriting technique had resulted in longer, darker motifs. The music is furiously weirded out and tightly constructed. Taking Langdon Winner slightly out of context: “…inspired playing keeps The Magic Band from wandering off into the darkness of the void.”
Beefheart’s slanted lyricism was tweaked. “What this world needs is a good two dollar room, and a good two dollar broom” he growls at the climax of the album. He threatens to sweep the entire world off their feet, if there weren’t just too many of them. He laments a “Space-Aged Couple”‘s inability to “cultivate the grounds” since “there the only ones around.” The record is observational; for a moment Captain Beefheart isn’t fighting for his individuality, he’s resting in it.
“I realize,that somebody playing free music isn’t as commercial as a hamburger stand.” Captain Beefheart said during the press for Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The name begs you to strip away the labels you can’t help but apply to it. But there’s something more deliberately accessible about the album, as Robert Christgau puts it: “after some acclimatization you can play it while doing the dishes, and good.” Maybe, when Trout Mask Replica is the comparison, anything is accessible. Maybe it was intentionally commercial. Either way, Captain Beefheart did make an actual commercial for his next record, The Spotlight Kid.
The Spotlight Kid, the heavy centerpiece of the trio of albums that followed Trout Mask Replica, is simple and slow. It plods along, threatening to burst into genuine weirdness without ever breaking. “The moon was a drip on a dark hood” Beefheart describes soon after the needle drops. “I’m gonna grow fins and get back in the water again” he then growls over a jagged and legitimately groovy beat later on the album’s closing side, the sharp treble of the guitars from Trout Mask Replica supplanted by the neck pick-ups. The disorienting whirlpool of noise had culminated into a vigorous methodic deconstruction of the blues. “This is real train music” as Lester Bangs wrote.
Compared to his previous albums The Spotlight Kid is almost safer than milk. He’s menacingly restrained. “…and I don’t know where I am, clouds clinging to us” he sings. The uncredited Magic Band has reached a level where even at their most far-out there’s an undeniable sense of cohesion. It’s a warm slow-motion avalanche of music, and surprisingly fun.
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band capped this terrific run of albums with the reserved, melodic Clear Spot in 1972. A beautiful record by many standards, within the catalog of Magic Band records it is simply sublime. The deep, trudging sonority of The Spotlight Kid had transformed into an almost glistening pearlescent tone. Many of the songs, such as the terrific doo-wop send up ‘Too Much Time’ play off of tropes, opposed to the notation of keyboard hunting and picking that comprised most of the albums to this point.
“Nowadays a woman’s gotta haul off and hit a man, T’make him know she’s there” he sings, pleading that someone else take notice of the distance we are creating between ourselves. “I’d let a train be my feet if it’s too far to walk to you” the Captain sings in the gorgeous ‘My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains’. No matter the distance, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band will traverse it.
The journey from Trout Mask Replica to Clear Spot is sold short when viewed through the lense of increasing accessibility. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band didn’t go from ‘Frownland’ to ‘Afternoon Delight’. Instead we hear a band refining their approach – picking one direction from the endless possibilities in the terrain of 20th century popular music and avant-garde. Accessibility can be seen as regressive. The Magic Band may be a lot of things, but regressive isn’t one of them.