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Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band - The Spotlight Kid Outtakes 1971-1972

It all started here with this quote from the Captain to NME’s Roy Carr:

Don Van Vliet: I was thinking warm and nice when I did that one (The Spotlight Kid) and I feel that it has all come through. Actually, though there are only ten tracks on the album, we recorded thirty-five songs altogether. (Roy Carr: Svengali Zappa And A Horrible Freak Called Beefheart. New Musical Express. January 12, 1972)

So where were the rest? In 2005, a triple CD containing what were outtakes and sessions for The Spotlight Kid emerged. It was a tasty revelation of the Magic Band hard at work. Then earlier this year, the third incarnation of these sessions appeared online, sounding better than ever. This time with the following note:

“Finally, this is how the sessions from 38 years ago surfaced. A very friendly DIME fellow who wants to stay anonymous sent his collection of Spotlight Kid outtakes… Every Beefheart fan has his own version, but this time we are talking about a known 2nd gen!

“A former band member received the tapes on getting the gig, they were made for him in order to learn the tunes. Our guy got them directly from him, he transferred the tapes to CD-R using a stand alone CD burner, no editing or mastering in this step. What I got are FLAC files directly ripped from the CD-R. The sound quality of the tracks is astonishing… You have to hear them!”

It was signed off cryptically - “Shared by ‘unknown’.” You’ll be happy to learn the quality is exceptional.

Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) - vocals, harmonica, jingle bells
Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) - guitar, slide guitar
Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) - bass, guitar
Drumbo (John French) - drums, percussion
Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) - drums, piano, harpsichord
Winged Eel Fingerling (Elliot Ingber) - guitar

What you get though are a rambling of ideas cooked in the studio while jamming. Writer Pete Mulvey describes them as “two C90s, the first of which contains a range of material most of which does not make the album, but gets resurrected on a future release.”

As for the second tape, Mulvey said the music was “more extended, instrumental-based stuff, reminiscent of those tapes of backing tracks”. He said “some are rambling runs, seven minutes of ‘Drink Paint, Run, Run’ and 25 of a blues-based jam which contains the words ‘Sun Zoom Spark’, along with ‘Key To The Highway’ and ‘Baby Scratch My Back’.”

“Hard to hear such work-outs without thinking that if anyone came up with the key phrase, new sound, or decent rhythmic touch, then Beefheart would incorporate it. If not, they take place simply to loosen fingers. If so, the musicians’ claims to have had more than a hand in the writing could carry a little weight,” Mulvey concluded.

We will add that the years when these were recorded were a progressive time. Experimenting with sound as with chemicals was the order of things. To hear them now is to hark back to a different era before precision, computer and digital tools became integral in recording studios. No more time for the hippie or gonzo type. The suits would have been running the sessions recording the titles of every track to ensure “copyright, copyright, copyright”.

Unfortunately, aside from titles and fading memories, no one really knows who composed what. Beefheart’s stylistic rhythms are there but so are the distinctive virtuoso playing of his band. As Mulvey pointed out, “if only (Beefheart)… could have bolted some lyrics onto these, there would be an unreleased album fighting to get out”.

But band members had a different view of these sessions. Referring to The Spotlight Kid, drummer John French has said, “At the time I hated that album… A lot of that stuff was really boring to play, because it was so simple and it wasn’t going anywhere. For another thing a lot of the tracks were just so slow… We just hated it.” Guitarist Bill Harkleroad has said “the music was played and recorded anaemically… the band had been beaten into submission and played like mummies.” This would support the view that it was Beefheart who dominated the sessions.

Highlights include the “twenty-five minutes of Pompadour you can hear pleasure in the band’s playing that does not stay the course to the ‘Shiny Beast’ version.” During this period, Beefheart and band were immersed in the delta blues. Later when Beefheart discarded his rock star pose to paint, it was for landscapes and rural, primitive expressionism.

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