How Captain Beefheart Focused In With ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’
In a few short years, Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, went from making fairly conventional rough-and-tumble R&B music to creating an entirely new and previously unheard world of sound.
His leap from the 1966 single "Diddy Wah Diddy" to his debut album, Safe as Milk, the following year was triumphant and daring, but the next jump, to the totally unhinged Trout Mask Replica in 1969, was a Grand Canyon-sized vault. While scraps of his blues roots were still trying to hold things together, Captain Beefheart was now totally off the rails and clearly on his own path.
By the time of his next album, 1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby, he was starting to pull the loose ends together in a slightly more coherent vision while still letting his musical adventures run wild. He'd continue this direction for his next two albums, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, where the chaos would merge with the somewhat more traditional to form a perfect union. Lick My Decals Off, Baby – which would be Beefheart's last LP with Frank Zappa's Straight label – rode that line to victory.
To many listeners unfamiliar with Captain Beefheart's music, the record probably sounds like insanity on parade, but his poetic and chaotic charge is a thing to behold. And his vision is supplemented by the Magic Band, a group of musicians assembled to make it all work. Just listen to the title track and "Doctor Dark," jarring slaps to the head that reshuffles the blues in brand new ways.
They begin to pull the frayed edges together on "I Love You, You Big Dummy" to form a more straightforward raunchy blues, complete with Beefheart's beastly harp leading a blender spin of Howlin' Wolf, Ornette Coleman and Grouch Marx. Songs like "Space Age Couple" and "The Clouds Are Full of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye)" blast urgency, while "Flash Gordon's Ape" is a crazy burst of free jazz barreling downhill.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby wasn't exactly a commercial hit, but it managed to log two months on the U.K. chart, thanks to the championing of legendary DJ John Peel. The label even made one of history's most bizarre television commercials to promote the album, which is a mesh of primal howl and surrealist slap that burns into the brain. Trout Mask Replica confused (and even angered) fans; Lick My Decals Off, Baby is a more accessible LP that somehow doesn't lose its predecessor's absurdity or humor. It's a pure distillation of chaos and creation, Captain Beefheart style.