How unfortunate that a typical induction to the music of Captain Beefheart is the larksome late-night foray into ‘Trout Mask Replica’ by groups of young men, doubtless engaged in further education, determined to establish their credentials as creatures of the left-field. Though the work of a supreme alchemist, Beefheart’s most famous album became a progressively heavier millstone around its creator’s neck. The word ‘Beefheartian’ entered the critical lexicon, to be invoked whenever someone was deemed a bit ‘weird’ or ‘difficult’, and the record’s negligible sales initiated the periods of doubt and frustration that would lead to Don Van Vliet’s retirement from music in 1982.
Yet Beefheart’s legacy is so prevalent that there simply must have been more to this Californian Captain and the members of his various Magic Bands than some freakshow doling out double helpings of noodles with skronk on the side. And so this mighty artefact proves: ‘Grow Fins’ is four hours and 78 tracks of outtakes, demos, live performances and flotsam, a monumental revisionist archive destined to confound sceptics and disciples alike.
One of the key contradictions of the man was that Beefheart considered himself both a serious artist and a viable pop commodity. The closest he ever came to having a hit was the 1966 debut single, a version of Bo Diddley’s ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’, but a newly discovered session from earlier that year on ‘Grow Fins”s opening CD suggests the Magic Band could wipe the floor with any Britbeat-boom upstarts when it came to a snotty, pop-wise take on R&B. As a whole, CD One lays out the base ingredients that would coalesce into Beefheart’s landmark debut album, ‘Safe As Milk’ – an acute appreciation for soul music, the blues and Howlin’ Wolf in particular, magnified by the most intense desire for pure enjoyment – the seismic impact of which is felt on CD Two’s live extravaganza. Recorded mostly in Europe during 1968, here is music to inflame the savage breast, then give it a fearful pounding for good measure. From a gig on the beach at Cannes, ‘Electricity’ and ‘Sure Nuff N Yes I Do’ are pent-up, bullish exclamations of what feels simultaneously like joy and frustration, driven by John French’s exultant drumming and the mesmeric snarl of guitarists Alex Snouffer and Jeff Cotton. ‘Sure Nuff…’ was an adaptation of blues standard ‘Rollin’ Tumblin”, which appears here in a by-no-means-excessive 11-minute version from, of all places, Frank Freeman’s Dance Studio in Kidderminster.
An inkling of the otherworldly kicks to be had from seeing the Magic Band live at their pre- and post-‘Trout Mask…’ peak is afforded by ‘Grow Fins”s CD-ROM facility, featuring the Cannes performance plus amazing footage from a 1971 American telecast where ‘When Big Joan Sets Up’ explodes the myth that these people somehow made this stuff up as they went along. In fact, the Magic Band had to be tighter and better prepared than most, so unprecedented was Beefheart’s muse, as demonstrated by CDs Three and Four, dedicated to the genesis of ‘Trout Mask Replica’. These primarily instrumental takes from a session at the band’s house may be of marginal interest to all but the most obsessive fan, but they do cast the finished article’s ostensibly outre moments in a more comprehensible light. As for CD Five’s version of ‘Orange Claw Hammer’, featuring just the Don and Frank Zappa on acoustic guitar, it’s simply a thing of very strange beauty.
Throughout this package’s awesome sweep, there are moments of revelation, where it’s possible to glimpse the very point where Captain Beefheart must have opened the eyes of