I’m going to go out on a limb here…Clear Spot is Captain Beefheart’s best album. There, I said it! Sure, it’s not as ‘out there’ as many of his other discs but, let’s be honest, we have all listened to it a helluva lot more times than Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby or Doc at the Radar Station. Haven’t we?
I got lucky with Beefheart. I chanced upon Clear Spot whilst I was at university without realising that it is THE gateway drug as far as the good captain’s discography goes. Weird enough to be compelling, tight enough to be thrilling, concise enough to leave you wanting more…yet, crucially, not too difficult. It does sound like music after all! I imagine that if I had bought one of Beefheart’s more avant-garde offerings as my first Beefheart purchase I may have stopped there. If I had bought one of his mid-70s ‘pop’ albums I almost certainly would have given up on him there and then. No, if you fancy checking yourself out some Beefheart and are not too scared about the addictive qualities of his music, Clear Spot is definitely the place to start.
Now, I am a huge fan of Trout Mask Replica and (especially) its follow up, Lick My Decals Off Baby, but I can’t help feeling that in some ways they are less of an accomplishment than Clear Spot. Groundbreaking they most definitely are and both are easy to admire, but they are so hard to love and I don’t think I have ever experienced that chill down the spine listening to them that I did when playing Clear Spot at record club last night – that thing you get every so often with a record when you REALLY listen intently and you are just blown away by how good it sounds, how it twists and turns so unexpectedly yet maintains its groove, its structure, its accessibility. I guess it helped knowing there were two Clear Spot virgins present so maybe I was imagining what they were hearing, as the opener Low Yo-Yo Stuff writhed its way to its conclusion. To use a sadly devalued (in current times) term…just awesome!
As Rob pointed out on the night, Clear Spot somehow manages to fuse so many genres of music that it should be a complete mess. How can a great soul ballad such as Too Much Time, follow the boogie stomp of Nowadays a Woman Gotta Hit A Man and lead into the garagey delta-blues of Circumstances and pull off the trick of sounding so right? I guess there are three things that tie all the disparities together on Clear Spot – the lyrics, the voice and the grooves. The songs on Clear Spot (the only exception being the 90 second afterthought of Golden Birdies) hang together so brilliantly, always on the verge of cacophony and discordance, but pulling back in the nick of time, returning to the groove that so wonderfully underpins the entire album. There was an inordinate amount of head bobbing and foot tapping (about as animated as we get) whilst Clear Spot played and I imagine that is the last thing anyone who only knows Beefheart through TMR would have thought.
Unlike Neil Young (see Round 38), I went on to acquire many more Beefheart albums that I really like..in fact I own eight Beefheart albums and I like every one! His is a fascinating catalogue; a singular artist deserving, to my mind, of every word of praise that has ever came his way but I have always felt it was a great shame that the alchemy he chanced upon on Clear Spot (the album he allegedly wrote partly as an apology to his band for putting them through the two previous albums) was never really repeated, his later albums veering much closer to TMR and LMDOB in style.
Nixk listened: I bought Trout Mask Replica whilst at university and, frankly, hated it. Listened about three times and thought it was unbearable discombobulation rather than music. So I decided that Captain Beefheart wasn’t for me. On the strength of Clear Spot, I may have been hasty and wrong – because it was awesome. I will be seeking it out at some point in the future.
Rob listened: My favourite Beefheart album and has been since I bought it almost 20 years ago. Like Nick and unlike Tom, I started with ‘Trout Mask Replica’ when it was reissued in 1990. Unlike Nick I found it baffling, laughable, fascinating, challenging and, for all those reasons, rather thrilling. I still can’t say it’s ever come fully into focus for me as some of the devout claim it will, but its existence and the fact it holds such cultural cache, is something we should all rejoice in.
‘Clear Spot’ is radically different in so many ways, but as Tom points out, it is illuminated yet further by the radioactive afterglow of TMR. I can’t add much to Tom’s assessment of the album other than to throw in a couple of extra adjectives: tight, gripping, moving, mesmerisingly sung and to mention that the only reason Jo and I didn’t get married to one of the songs from ‘Clear Spot’ is that we couldn’t choose between ‘Too Much Time’, ‘My Head Is My Only House…’ and ‘Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles’.
“I look at her, she looks at me, in her eyes I see the sea…”
Graham Listened: I have tried to appreciate/understand Beefheart in the past and failed miserably. I have sought out footage and recordings to help in the process but never really understood why he is regarded as a genius in many quarters. Maybe tonight I came close to getting it at last. I bobbed my head and tapped my foot appropriately to an overall sound I felt comfortable with. There were moments where I wondered “why has he done that” and “what is going on here”, but not enough to alienate me in the way exposure to Beefheart has in the past. My defenses have been weakened!