Don Van Vliet – the late singer-composer-provocateur known as Captain Beefheart – was recovering from the deepest nadir of his musical life, two mid-Seventies albums of straight-line rock and sugar-rhyme ballads, when he hit another: the 36-year exile of his comeback shot, Bat Chain Puller (Vaulternative). Recorded in the spring of 1976 with a new Magic Band combining old crew – drummer John French – and two new guitarists, Denny Walley and Jeff Tepper, the album was greasy, muscular R&B with an erotic tang in Van Vliet’s art-wolf baritone. But Bat Chain Puller went straight to purgatory after legal war broke out between Van Vliet’s high-school pal Frank Zappa – who was to release the LP on his DiscReet label – and Herb Cohen, Zappa’s manager.
Van Vliet – and his career – never fully recovered from the blow; in 1982, he quit music entirely for painting. Although he eventually recut all of the material from the 1976 sessions across his last three triumphs, Shiny Beast, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow, the recent liberation of the original Bat Chain Puller – in a clear, vibrant master issued, fittingly, by the Zappa Family Trust – is a blast for me, after years of being grateful for grim-audio boots. The rubber-and-silver tangle of the guitars and French’s buoyant charge suggest an improbable, weirdly commercial blend of the garage-pop on 1967’s Safe as Milk and Doc‘s exuberant surrealism. And there is a delightful new coda: the living-room blues “Hobo-Ism,” a “Hey Joe” story told with Walley’s advanced-Delta guitar and Van Vliet stomping his foot in transcontinental-railroad time.
A Feast of Rare Can
The Lost Tapes (Mute) – three CDs of rare pulse and incantation by the German avant-rock band Can – were never gone, just buried in the lifetime of reels the group amassed between 1968 and 1977. Bassist Holger Czukay, organist Irmin Schmidt, drummer Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli thoroughly documented everything they played – improvisations, tape experiments, gigs – with and after singers Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki, splicing and overdubbing the raw material into gripping propulsion and alien-radio collage. The Lost Tapes actually plays like a more generous, alternate Tago Mago, Can’s 1971 two-LP monument, in its flow and jolts between voices, eras, montages (the tribal rush of “Your Friendly Neighborhood Whore” into Mooney’s monologue with church organ, “True Story”) and long essays in throb (a live “Spoon” with Suzuki). Can’s obsessive scavenging is striking in the prototypes here, such as “On the Way to Mother Sky,” a frantic, jamming preview of the transcendent cllimb in 1970’s “Mother Sky,” and “Dead Pigeon Suite,” an effective splicing of instrumental acid-hymn and a blueprint bash at “Vitamin C” from 1972’s Ege Bamyasi.
A Switched-On Mother
Don Preston was a busy mother in 1967: playing keyboards nightly at New York’s Garrick Theater for Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, then spending his daylight with Zappa in the studio. Preston, a Michigan-born jazzman schooled in Stockhausen and John Cage, also found time, when the Garrick was empty, to design and record “Electronic Music,” the essential 15 minutes on Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 (Sub Rosa). Performed on a motley armory of keyboards and machines, including a homemade synth, it is a hypnotic turbulence of burble, squawk and drone, the rude-birth pangs of Preston’s later electronic roguery on the Mothers’ Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Zappa’s Waka/Jawaka. The seven-part “Analog Heaven” from 1975 and the ’82 improvisation “Fred and Me” are more sculpted confrontation – rough-house kosmiche music served with a Mother’s touch.