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LPs from the Attic: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Unconditionally Guaranteed

November 16, 2009

Captain Beefheart -- Unconditionally Guaranteed

Enjoy the Captain's New Electric Ride

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Unconditionally Guaranteed (Blue Plate, 1974)

For the most part, critics and fans alike loathe this album. Since I consider myself a little of both when it comes to The Captain (who won’t even claim the album himself), I feel duty-bound to respond to this mass malignment: I think these overly harsh reviews have largely missed the mark and rob its worthy moments of their due.

The reasons seem to be these: everybody loves (or wants to seem cool by claiming to prefer the damn-near inscrutably weird and angular, free-jazz inspired, experimental-blues-rock masterpiece Trout Mask Replica (it really does require a mouthful like that to describe it) and wants more of the same.

Hell, I think it’s a masterpiece myself, but I don’t feel like I completely get the record; I couldn’t exactly justify my opinion, so it’s more of an apprehension–or suspicion–than a true understanding. It’s a brilliant head-scratcher for the most part. In this rare case, and unlike how I look at the seriously out-there music that I can’t wrap my head around, I am comfortable letting the “serious” fans and free-jazz aficionados tell me that the songs I don’t necessarily like or understand are awesome because they are experimental and complicated and unlike anything of their time. Beefheart (born Don Vliet) is on a plane of existence that I can’t board.

I don’t aim to raise Unconditionally Guaranteed aloft at the expense of Trout. But, I have to say that the complexity and disjointedness that make it so compelling to some also make it fairly inaccessible to others. It must be this accessibility–the studied attempt at accessibility clearly undertaken by Beefheart–that bothers the critics and acolytes alike. UG surprises in comparison, given its radio-friendly, pop-blues bent and its open bid for commercial success–and it’s nearly the same line-up as 1969’s Trout. And yet….

There’s something darker behind it: Beefheart’s giving us both what we want and the Middle Finger–not to mention maybe taking the piss out of himself. To those seeking visual proof of the tongue-in-cheekness of this affair, look no further than the inscription under the back-cover photo of Vliet: “Love Over Gold.” What? He places love over gold, but is obviously exploiting love to cash in…?! Just deconstructing the album art tells you plenty about the songs and his attitude towards them. I can’t draw a clear line between insincere sincerity or sincere insincerity in some songs, and given Beefheart’s sometimes lackadaisical delivery, I’m not sure he knew where one ended and the other began.

At any rate, the gambit didn’t pay off, and this grasp at mainstream attention was an anomaly; the new listeners didn’t arrive, and many of the hardcore were turned off by the simple love songs to his wife and the seemingly sappy lyrics and simplistic arrangements of songs like “Magic Be” and intentionally, well, lazy “Lazy Music.” But, I’d put the snaking, trademark slide-guitar-driven “Sugar Bowl”, “Upon the My-O-My,” and “New Electric Ride” alongside anything else in the Captain’s Canon. In short, the good songs are as good as anything he and the band did, if on the shorter, poppier, blues-rock side of their usual muses. The purposely “dumbed-down” tracks, while not up to Beefheart’s snuff, still prove better than, say, the corniest love songs of The Raspberries’ Eric Carmen.

Maybe the critics and diehards would have enjoyed the (new electric) ride more if they’d eased up on the preconceptions and expectations and heeded the word of caution on the front album cover: Check ears and Other Sensory Equipment for Socially Induced Limitations.

Haters of UG would do well to remember that Trout wasn’t popular, either–at least not initially. It was characterized as being too weird and anti-commerical until Radio 1’s John Peel wore the grooves out and it caught fire with those patient enough to dive in and re-listen. Once it became popular, Trout shaped expectations for his future work in a way that almost guaranteed that these fans would shun a more widely palatable album like UG. And, that they did. Beefheart was pretty much damned if he did or didn’t, so I can’t fault him for trying. I am disappointed, though, that he’d divorce himself from it. It does have moments of pure-Beef genius, in an easily digestible, if wryly wrought, package. It deserves some re-listening and kinder reevaluation on its own terms. While not their best work, it certainly isn’t their worst–it’s still Beefheart, if not exactly prime.

No need to kill your china pig–the trivia goodness won’t cost you a cent here at TBTS!

  • Captain Beefheart went to high school with fellow awesome weirdo Frank Zappa; he took his name from a B-movie script that he and Zappa wrote, “Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People.”
  • He made several appearances on Letterman in the 80’s. Letterman generally treated him as if he were some sort of crazed freak (not entirely untrue; not entirely unlike how Dave treated Harvey Pekar) and played him for laughs. I like Letterman, and Vliet is a bona fide eccentric, but these are often disrespectful. Credit is due to Dave, though, for his willingness to show his paintings and music videos.
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