Saturday, 4 October 2014

Captain Beefheart: Electricity (Single Review)

Released in: September 1967
Genre: Blues psychedelia/Desert rock
Record Label: Buddah Records
Medium: Vinyl, CD, Cassette, Digital Download 
Recorded at: RCA Studios, LA

Let's dive back to the past for a slice of quintessential, late-sixties madness from the Captain and his Magic Band. Released on their stunning début album, Safe As Milk, (the album which I still see as Beefheart's magnum opus, in spite of what the general consensus might say), this track is a perfect example of the insanity of the Captain being held down and vocalised in a way more accessible than his later material by a band of only slightly less crazed musicians. 

The track opens with a tumbling open riff, before sliding into eerie, reverberated slide guitar accompanied by atmospheric cymbal crashes and the morose vocal delivery of Beefheart himself (this is an opening phrase typical of the group, juxtaposing one lively upbeat melody with another, more sinister, one). Once these first few lines are finished, Van Vliet cries out the tracks namesake in his signature, Howlin' Wolf-esque tone, plunging the track into momentary silence. However, this purely works as a precursor to the kick off of the main body of the track, the thumping bassline picking up and driving the percussion and guitar sections into more familiar blues territory. 

Beefheart's vocal is now accompanied by wailing theremin, an instrumental display which evokes the soundtracks of many 50's, and 60's, horror and sci-fi films (it is said that Beefheart originally wanted the sound of grinding buzzsaws, but due to to limitations in technology had to settle for theremin instead). The lyrics of the songs are, like much of Beefheart's music, mostly nonsensical, and strive more to conjure up a wild atmosphere of electricity and thunderbolts, than a distinct vocal narrative.  

The pace of the song picks up at certain points to give the song a more structure feeling, but descends into a dust-covered freak breakdown in the end, with the theremin adopting a wobbling, staccato attack, and Beefheart simply groaning and wailing along to the beat. 

It is worth noting that the grounded feeling of the song is largely due, I believe, to the bass work of Jerry Handley, whom actually left the group when he felt the music being created for Trout Mask Replica, widely accepted as Beefheart's greatest work, was too avant-garde. It is also worth noting that the track suffers greatly from the fact that it is recorded to 4-track tape (apparently due to the engineer finding the higher-track equipment in the planned studio for the record too confusing), making it sound quite thin and weak. For this reason, searching out a live version, or a demo of the song, is a worthy endeavour. 

Review written by Daniel Sharman.

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