In 1970, Warner Bros. Records had an unusual philosophy: they'd sign artists and, instead of wanting a hit single immediately, they'd develop them over several albums. This way, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, and Randy Newman got big career boosts. They also took a chance on Captain Beefheart, and although neither a hit single nor a hit album resulted, some very interesting music did. Fresh Air rock historian Ed Ward has the story.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1970, Warner Bros. Records had an unusual philosophy. They'd sign artists, and instead of going for a hit single immediately, the label developed the artist over several albums. That approach gave big career boosts to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat and Randy Newman. Warner Bros. also took a chance on Captain Beefheart. And although neither a hit single nor a hit album resulted, some very interesting music did. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART SONG)
ED WARD, BYLINE: Art, Don Vanvliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, once said, is re-arranging and grouping mistakes. Apparently he was referring to his paintings when he said it, but it's certainly applicable to his compositional technique and the way he recorded his music. Some might find the music disjointed, and, in fact, nearly everyone does on first listen. But there comes a moment when it snaps into place. The groupings make sense.
Certainly nobody was prepared for "Trout Mask Replica," the infamous double album Beefheart and the Magic Band cut for Frank Zappa's Bizarre label, but the controversy of its accessibility, plus the fact that it had rabid defenders, made Warner Bros. think it might be a good idea to sign them and see what happened. What happened was "Lick My Decals Off, Baby," featuring a new lineup of the Magic Band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU, YOU BIG DUMMY")
DON VAN VLIET: (Singing) I love you, you big dummy (laughter). I love you, you big dummy. Nobody has love. Love has nobody. I love you, you big dummy. Breathe deep. Breathe high. Breathe life. Don't breathe a lie. I love you, you big dummy (laughter).
WARD: "I Love You, You Big Dummy" is about as straightforward as the songs on this album get lyrically. But as always, Beefheart reached back to his concept of the blues for others.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BUGGY BOOGIE WOOGIE")
VLIET: (Singing) Oh, that buggy boogie woogie sweeps me off my feet. What this world needs is a good retreat. What this world needs is a good $2 room and a good $2 broom. What this world needs is a good $2 room and a good $2 broom. One day I was sweeping down by the wall. I bumped a mama spider and the babies begin to fall off of my broom.
WARD: Although many Beefheart fans, many of them musicians, declare "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" as their favorite of his albums, it didn't set as well with the general public. But for Warners, this was no big deal. A lot of their artists weren't shifting units, and they had enough who were that it wasn't an issue. So he went back into the studio in the summer of 1971 and recorded "The Spotlight Kid." The song structures were way more conventional here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLICK CLACK")
VLIET: (Singing) Two trains, two railroad tracks, one going and the other one coming back. There goes my baby on that ole train. I say come back, come back, baby, come back.
WARD: In many ways, a rewrite of the classic blues song "Two Trains Running," "Click Clack" was a train song ala Beefheart, hardly avant-garde at all. Beefheart, an animal-lover from childhood, also wrote a nice song about the environment that's still as sharp today as it was when he wrote it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLABBER 'N SMOKE")
VLIET: (Singing) All you ever do is blabber and smoke. There's a big pane in your window, and all your waters turn to rope. It's going to hang you all, dangle you all, dang you all. If you don't hurry, there will be no hope.
WARD: After "The Spotlight Kid" failed to ignite sales, Warners gave Beefheart the treatment. Ted Templeman, who produced the Doobie Brothers, went into the studio with him. There was a horn section and backup singers, and they packaged the record pressed on clear plastic in a transparent plastic sleeve. "Clear Spot" was going to be the breakthrough. It even had a single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO MUCH TIME")
VLIET: (Singing) I got too much time to be without love, too much time. I got too much time. I got too much time, too much time to be without love. In my life I got a deep devotion, white as the sky and deep as the ocean. Every war that's waged makes me cry. Every bird that goes by gets me high. Sometime when it's late and I'm a little hungry, I heat up some old, stale beans, open up a can of sardines and eat crackers and dream about somebody that can cook for me.
WARD: Alas, it had the luck of the others. And although it had some of his best work yet, Warners eventually cut him loose. Don Van Vliet would wander in the wilderness for a few more years of bad choices and bad records. But he'd eventually get rescued by a new Magic Band, a new label and, most importantly, a new generation raised on punk that had a better idea of what he was trying to do - not that he sold any better, but he was making great music again.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Austin. He played music from Captain Beefheart - "Sun, Zoom, Spark: 1970 to 1972" on the Rhino label. Tomorrow on our show, my guest will be Russell Davies, the creator of a British TV series about two middle-aged gay men.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BANANA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Will you marry me?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (Laughter) OK.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Where did that come from? We've never even talked about it. I mean, why on Earth would we do that?
GROSS: The series, "Banana," is about the premier on American cable along with Davies's companion series "Cucumber," about young LGBT people. He also created the BBC series "Queer As Folk." I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.