Thursday, March 01, 2012

Bat Chain Puller, finally.

The musical career of Don Van Vliet, known to the world as Captain Beefheart, is filled with some astonishing highs, counterbalanced by some dismaying lows, both artistically and financially. By all accounts a difficult man, he treated his fellow musicians poorly, even as he heaped ever more musical demands upon them, while not fully acknowledging their contributions. By the mid-1970s, he'd already burned through a couple of fine backing groups, and via a series of exceedingly naive and short-sighted deals, found himself starting anew. Frank Zappa lent a hand by signing his old high school buddy onto his 1975 tour as a vocalist, documented on the Zappa/Beefheart 'Bongo Fury' album. Despite this, Don managed to bite yet one more feeding hand and alienated Zappa to the point that they were not speaking to one another by the end of the tour.

Returning to the studio in the spring of '76 with his loyal and long-suffering drummer, John "Drumbo" French, Zappa sideman Denny Walley, and a couple of new recruits, Beefheart recorded what should have been his unassailable return to form, a return which potentially would have resulted in critical acclaim, plus solid sales and touring revenues. But the album got caught in a legal showdown between Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen, who was also the manager of Beefheart, Tom Waits and a few others. Cohen had been playing fast and loose with Frank's money, and the 'Bat Chain Puller' album master got stuck in a vortex of litigation. Eventually Beefheart recorded new versions of the songs, which were released over the remainder of his recording career on the 'Shiny Beast,' 'Doc At the Radar Station,' and 'Ice Cream for Crow' albums. While these tracks have been available for some time to hard-core fans on the 'Dust-Sucker' bootleg, the sound here is clearer and far more immediate. In fact, this album may boast the best-recorded vocals of Don's entire career. (A real accomplishment, as Beefheart was notorious for not staying "on-mic" while recording.)

I would maintain that the recording is one of the best of the entire Beefheart oeuvre. The clarity is immaculate, yet avoiding the desiccated quality of 'Clear Spot.' (While the production on that album is very transparent, I've always found it to be somewhat airless.) BCP has edge, brilliance, and a natural quality that sets the standard for the later albums. John French served as musical director for the recording, coaching the musicians and running rehearsals. No musician better understood Beefheart's intent, and the success of this collection is due in no small part to his efforts. French's direction gave birth to some of the tightest, yet utterly fluid performances of Beefheart ever. Hearing these versions, I'm struck by how consistent the arrangements are on the later albums. It seems possible, if not likely, that these performances were the models from which the later band members learned these songs. Don's vocals are a bit looser and more expressive than on the later versions, noticeably so on tracks like "Floppy Boot Stomp" "Owed T'Alex" and the bizarre standard, "Harry Irene." One previously unheard treasure is "Hoboism," an impromptu improvisatory collaboration between Beefheart and Walley, captured on cassette and astutely preserved by the session engineer, Kerry McNabb.

'Bat Chain Puller' is beautifully packaged, with illuminating notes by John French and Denny Walley, plus a moving postscript by Gail Zappa. Fabled British DJ John Peel asserted that Beefheart was perhaps rock's "one true genius." With this release, the evidence supporting that statement mounts ever higher.

Interested? Order here:

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