Captain Beefheart once said of his music, "I'm just throwing up — in tie-dye." If so, then Doc at the Radar Station, released in 1980, is one of the most colorful, and pivotal, records in his singular catalog. Poised on the cusp of a new decade, Beefheart (a.k.a. Don Van Vliet) poured out his innards in technicolor for Doc at the Radar Station, serving up his most colorful and caustic verse in years on a sprawling, distinctively Beefheartian platter of corrosive avant-rock, jungle-blues squawk, alien-guitar romanticism and willful, yet often playful, atonality. He added a Mellotron to his aural palette as well, attacking it on "Sue Egypt" and "Ashtray Heart" with the vigor of the Phantom of the Opera. His singing, too, was more animated — going from stratospheric screech to subterranean Howlin' Wolf in a heartbeat — and laced with an unmistakable menace.
In short, Doc at the Radar Station is the true emotional and musical heir to Beefheart's epic 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, capturing his remarkable art with power and unprecedented cohesion. Beefheart recognized his own achievement at the time; one Doc rocker is proudly titled "Best Batch Yet." And guitarist Moris Tepper, who joined Beefheart's Magic Band in 1975, still believes that the album was the peak of his tenure. "We were able to pull the goo out a lot more clearly than we had earlier," says Tepper. "There was a density that was not on earlier records."
As always, Beefheart dictated the content of his twelve songs for Doc at the Radar Station to the Magic Band in obsessive detail, presenting tapes of himself playing the piano, or sometimes just whistling a phrase, and telling the band to interpret it, exactly. For "Sue Egypt," Tepper says, there were sections on Beefheart's demo "where he was literally screaming bloody murder into a tape recorder. And then going, 'Here, play this.'"
Guitarist-drummer John "Drumbo" French, who had played on Trout Mask Replica and was already familiar with Beefheart's idiosyncrasies, recalls the rather odd way the band did backing vocals on "Run Paint Run Run." "We didn't have a copy of the lyrics," says French. "We were supposed to be singing these parts, and we didn't know where the heck we were supposed to be singing or what the words were. I think the reason he did that was to get that anger, that kind of screaming out of us. He wanted us to sound really desperate. And it came out real well."
Beefheart's own desperation is evident on the record. "Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee" is a violent lyric climax: "Gnats fucked my ears 'n nostrils/Hit my brain like hones'n numbed t' nothing... Oh fuck that thing... Fuck that poem!" Yet the album also has moments of remarkable tranquillity, such as Gary Lucas's solo guitar performance on "Flavor Bud Living."
Doc at the Radar Station was, in a sense, Beefheart's last hurrah. After Ice Cream for Crow, in 1982, a weary and frustrated Beefheart retired from music to concentrate on painting (he did the cover art for Doc at the Radar Station). But when contacted recently at his northern-California retreat, Beefheart said that he still listens to Doc a lot, often while painting. "I'm the music I'm making when I'm painting," he declared. "I'm still doing the same damn thing. The paintbrush is my pen now."