35 Years Ago: Captain Beefheart Seals His Comeback With ‘Doc at the Radar Station’
Captain Beefheart was in the middle of a late-career renaissance when he released Doc at the Radar Station in August 1980. Not that too many people noticed. It wasn't like Beefheart (who was born Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band sold a ton of records, or even enough to make much of a dent in the chart. (His best-ever showing was for The Spotlight Kid, which reached No. 131 in 1972.)
But somehow, quietly and without anyone really paying attention, Doc at the Radar Station arrived and continued the relatively forward momentum of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), a 1978 album that rose from the ashes of a project -- which involved a double-dealing manager, displaced royalty checks and an angry Frank Zappa -- two years earlier.
Shiny Beast was Beefheart's best album since 1969's landmark Trout Mask Replica. In fact. Doc at the Radar Station is even better.
Part of this has to do with many of Radar's tracks stemming from the Trout Mask Replica era, a period in which batches of song sketches, musical ideas and entire cuts were left unused as Beefheart moved on to some other muse. Resurrecting the songs, as well as being creatively jump-started by a new Magic Band that came together during the recording of Shiny Beast, gave Beefheart a sort of scattered focus to his resurrected career, which had been floundering since the mid-'70s.
Even with a handful of numbers pulled from the original Bat Chain Puller -- the 1976 album funded by manager Herb Cohen from Zappa's royalty checks without Zappa's knowledge, that remained unreleased while Cohen and Zappa settled the matter in court -- Doc at the Radar Station sounds like a unified piece, a new-decade-dawning statement by a fringe artist who managed to survive the '60s and '70s, and mostly in one piece.
And it all starts with two of Beefheart's best songs: The opening "Hot Head" and "Ashtray Heart," three and a half minutes of abstract rock 'n' roll (sorta rooted in the blues), surreal poetry and a Mellotron that carries in sampled strings like they were beamed from Mars. It's a head-spinning piece of work, punctuated by stabbing guitars and Beefheart's howled, cracked vocals, more screamed than sung.
For 39 minutes Beefheart and the Magic Band balance their most out-there ideas in years with a few of their most commercial surroundings (again, all of this is relative to the dozen albums Beefheart released in his lifetime; the original Bat Chain Puller was eventually released in 2012, two years after his death). Tracks like "Sue Egypt" and "Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee" are as challenging as they are inviting, semi-updated versions of Trout Mask Replica's avant-whatever.
Not that it mattered much. Doc at the Radar Station got great reviews, and all the right people were paying attention to Beefheart's music again. But the album couldn't even crack the Top 200 (it stalled at No. 203). When he returned two years later with the equally abrasive and innovative Ice Cream for Crow (which didn't chart at all), its release was soon followed by Beefheart's retirement.
For the next 28 years, he focused on painting (his work graced the cover of Doc at the Radar Station), a gig that turned out to be more financially rewarding than the decade and a half he spent making music. Doc at the Radar Station is the culmination of that wildly brilliant part of his life.
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