...'Harry Irene' is the most touching song about lesbian restaurant owners ever recorded.
Chris Jones 2002-11-20
For years scholars (well, guys with beards stuck in bedsits with their laptops and too much time on their hands) have argued over the existence and provenance of the original Bat Chain Puller album. A rumoured Zappa production, with a different line up and tracklisting from the subsequent replacement album Shiny Beast, it became a kind of Holy Grail with seemingly no chance of ever seeing the light of day. Well, Beefheartian disciples rejoice! The object of legend and hearsay has come to light! And if you got ears, you gotta listen...
The facts are still obscure (even Ozit Records who, last year released the excellent live document Mersey Trout, have not got all the facts). Yes, the album was recorded with Zappa's help but only in terms of him providing studio time (and a couple of part-time Mothers of Invention, Denny Walley and Bruce Fowler) in order that the Captain could secure a new record deal. The studio was in California (not as the press release says, Virgin's Manor studio in England). When Zappa's business affairs fell into disarray, the original tapes were locked away, supposedly until hell froze over. Two years later, with a new deal with Virgin and having veered perilously close to commercialism, Mr Van Vliet returned to these songs and Shiny Beast was born: a comforting return to ornery form. But what of the original?
The tapes (from Don's very own collection) present us with the rough mixes of the album along with contemporary live material and the differences (or lack thereof) are, at once, startling and strangely comforting. When listening to Beefheart it's always tempting to imagine that such noise can only be born of extemporising and that all the tales of a hard taskmaster drilling musicians to extremes of precision are simply nonsense invented by those wishing to confer musicianly credibility on Ol' Dustsucker himself. This album disproves that notion completely. Tracks replicated on Shiny Beast and later albums are both rawer and punchier (due, in no small part to the elephantine 'air bass' of trombonist Fowler) but in terms of arrangement are note for note duplicates. The man certainly had the vision and these songs represent the widest range of his dadaist genius since Trout Mask Replica.
"Bat Chain Puller" is a squalling blast of ecological agit-prop, "Floppy Boot Stomp"; a growling beast of a song ripping at the throat of the bloated corpse of swamp-blues and "Harry Irene" is the most touching song about lesbian restaurant owners ever recorded. The sound is a little rough in places, yet sonic quality is a small consideration in the face of such a masterwork. What this album contains is a spontaneity and wisdom that was largely lost by 1977, the world having turned away from Beefheart's increasingly relevant warnings concerning our place in the natural order of things. It's our loss, but Dust Sucker (remember, Don used to be a vacuum cleaner salesman!) still has the power to set us right. Buy this album, it's safe as milk.