The Wire

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In Writing

Captain Beefheart – Dust Sucker

Edwin Pouncey reviews Dust Sucker by Captain Beefheart, a collection of demos and sketches from the ill-fated Bat Chain Puller album.


The full story of Captain Beefheart's ill-fated Bat Chain Puller - potentially his greatest musical statement after Trout Mask Replica - has already been admirably documented in Mike Barnes's biography. Scheduled for release in 1977 on DiscReet, the label owned by his producer Frank Zappa and Zappa's former manager Herb Cohen, the album was shelved when DisCreet was shut down by its partners' legal wrangles. Although some tracks were later revised for Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), the original tapes are held by Zappa's estate and remain unreleased. In the meantime, the album's UK licensees Virgin Records had already been supplying Bat Chain Puller promo cassettes to the music press. Much to Beefheart's dismay, bootleg copies began to circulate after Virgin announced the record had been cancelled. However, this Dust Sucker release originates from a newly discovered set of Puller demos that Beefheart had apparently given to UK rock promoter Roger Eagle with his permission to release.

Though the 19 tracks of Dust Sucker should be considered as sketches rather than the finished masterpiece, their release allows the chance to hear how Beefheart intended the original, long lost album to sound. If in this version it never quite reaches the ecstatic freeform highs of Trout Mask Replica or Lick My Decals Off, Baby, there are moments where it gets seriously close. Backed by a Magic Band that includes guitarists Jeff Moris Tepper and Denny Whalley, keyboard player John Thomas and drummer John French, Beefheart howls, hollers and honks through a set of altered swamp blues, mutated free jazz and fractured field recordings, most of it scattershot with his playful poetry.

Captain Beefheart's ability to turn seemingly nonsensical word strings into tangible forms that take surrealistic shape inside his audience's imagination is still a thrilling thing to hear. On "Seam Crooked Sam", "81 Poop Hatch" and the stunning "Brickbats", he joyously works and splashes spoken words like an old master, while his band of apprentices rigorously mix up a seemingly limitless musical palette of colours and tonal textures. But on the seven echo-laden live tracks filling out Dust Sucker, Beefheart sounds worn down by the constant effort to get his music taken seriously by an industry that treated him as an eccentric outsider. Although of historical interest, their inclusion smudges the overall picture, lessening the impact of the studio recordings. For all the vivid imagery of the best Bat Chain Puller sketches here, however, you can't escape the feeling that Beefheart was already seriously considering pushing all his energies into his painting. As the musical side of his creativity began to fade, his desire for acceptance as an internationally acclaimed fine artist was growing stronger.

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