By Tomi Mendel
Frank Zappa’s estate has announced the forthcoming release of Bat Chain Puller, a 1976 work by Captain Beefheart. The long-awaited album has been frequently bootlegged throughout the last thirty-five years, remaining unreleased as a result of an alleged dispute between producer Frank Zappa and his former manager, Herb Cohen. Zappa Records has decided to release the album on January 15th, despite the fact that Captain Beefheart, who passed away in December of 2010, had been reluctant to make it available during his lifetime. As with the Beach Boys’ SMiLE, which received a special release last month, many songs from the Bat Chain Puller sessions showed up in re-recorded versions on later Beefheart albums, including Doc at the Radar Station and Shiny Beast. However, fans will be excited to finally hear an official version of the record from the legendary avant-garde rocker.
Captain Beefheart (left), hanging with his frenemy Frank Zappa.
Beefheart, also known as Don Van Vliet, was a true original, best known for Trout Mask Replica, a sprawling 1969 album that stands as one of the most thoroughly unique and challenging works in recorded music history. Gaining notoriety as one of Frank Zappa’s cohorts in the late 1960s (they were high school friends), Beefheart quickly made a name for himself with his innovative style. His gruff singing voice mixed with an off-kilter combination of blues, rock and free jazz, made for a wacky, often totally noncommercial type of music that had an immeasurable influence on avant-garde and underground artists. “Sugar 'n Spikes” from Trout Mask Replica is a good example of his weirdness - a rollicking drumbeat loosely meets a jagged guitar while Beefheart barks abstract lyrics on top. What sounds like an improvised jam was actually carefully composed, just like the rest of the tunes on the album, which is a testament to Captain Beefheart’s untrained, idiosyncratic musical genius. Music critic Piero Scaruffi said of Trout Mask Replica, “The work is so innovative and complex as to be nearly indecipherable. The rhythm section sounds so polyrhythmic that all rhythm is lost. The singing, vaguely interested in music, travels within alien universes...The album is by all accounts an anthology of chaos in all its musical forms.”
Probably one of the more accessible songs on the album!
While he took an ill-advised stab at commercial success in the mid-1970s with albums like Unconditionally Guaranteed, Van Vliet could never entirely suppress his eccentricity, which especially shines through in his distinctive singing. Luckily for his cult fan base, Beefheart’s final three albums marked a return to form, and built upon the promise of the early records. This creative renaissance, which ended in 1982 with Ice Cream for Crow, his final album, all began with the Bat Chain Puller recordings. This certainly explains the excitement of fans when it comes to the unreleased work. Unfortunately, this second golden period screeched to a halt when Mr. Van Vliet decided to quit the music business in the early 1980s, opting to pursue his equally-acclaimed career in painting. Sadly, he stuck to this decision, and recorded no new music in the twenty-eight years between Ice Cream for Crow and his death due to multiple sclerosis at the age of sixty-nine. In doing so, he denied countless adventurous music fans of a one-of-a-kind hero. As a result, any new material is highly welcome, and despite Beefheart’s own misgivings about putting the album out, this new release of Bat Chain Puller should be a wonderful treat that provides a look at the creative re-ignition of a true musical maverick.
A live performance of “Bat Chain Puller” from 1980.