Captain Beefheart – Bat Chain Puller CD (VAULTernative) –
Early on in my initiatory process with Captain Beefheart, through reading about his various albums, I became aware that the album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) held a mythical status with many admirers. No record stores that I set foot in had any copies of it (or anything other than Trout Mask Replica, for that matter), and none of them could order the import for any less than something like $40. After a few years, I thought to look on Amazon…or whatever it was back in 1999…and found they had it for $30 or thereabouts, so I found the stomach to spend and acquire the sacred piece of art. I loved it of course, but to me it wasn’t amazingly superior to any of my other favorites, as so many journalists had opined. It was on par with Trout Mask, Doc at the Radar Station, and Ice Cream For Crow, which was still quite an achievement and much cause for joy.
I later learned that this 1978 Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) album release was a re-creation of an album that had been recorded and shelved in 1976 and as-of-yet not properly released, just called Bat Chain Puller. There was an unofficial bootleg release of the album, called Dust Sucker, which was from a poor quality dub of the Bat Chain Puller mixes. The original album, in full-form, hi-fidelity is finally here, and we Captain Beefheart Nerds (Matt Groening included: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JxBppgIB0w) are glad.
Of the songs included, the Shiny Beast, Ice Cream, and Doc versions are tighter, likely…no… -obviously- due to years of rehearsal and performance. I still enjoy this a lot. The 3-dimensional fidelity is very welcome vs. the heard-through-the-wall-with-an-oscillating-fan-on-in-the-room fidelity Dust Sucker versions of these recordings. The band is vacuum-seal tight as expected. Some of the slight differences in composition the instruments are great to hear, and in some places I find them to be more interesting than the Shiny Beast, Doc, or Ice Cream versions. I theorize that “Odd Jobs” contains at least one seed of “Tropical Hot Dog Night”. “81 Poop Hatch” I think may be the same recording used on Ice Cream for Crow. “Apes-Ma” is exactly the same recording as the closing track of Shiny Beast. The previously unreleased recording of “Hoboism” is a cool cheaply recorded improvisational blues piece that I enjoy, but isn’t a huge payoff. Glad to have it but overall this disc isn’t a revelation, having (like most anybody who also bought this) heard most of it already, just in distressed lo-fi.
This is definitely for completists, and if you’re not in that category you would likely enjoy the alternate, Shiny Beast, more. Captain on many of the pieces sounds as if he hasn’t yet decided exactly where he wants to put his phrases, sort of like he’s doing a demo of the lyrics, or at least he is under-practiced in his delivery. Since I’m extremely familiar with the versions of these songs that were released on Shiny Beast, Doc at the Radar Station, and Ice Cream for Crow, I do have a basis for comparison, but regardless of this the later more rehearsed versions do seem to show him being more certain of what he is going to say and how he wants to say it. He corrects himself a couple of times, and that might not have seemed so odd if I hadn’t heard versions of the songs wherein he does not. Specific examples of songs he seems kind of shaky on are “Brick Bats”, “Floppy Boot Stomp”, and “Owed T’ Alex”. The band, however, is solidly in place. No hesitations or mistakes there. Captain is sometimes a few steps behind his own ideas as far as performance is concerned. Such quirks of his personality sometimes detracted a bit from his work and caused problems in his personal life, but this is part of the package and I appreciate it’s stark reality. Don Van Vliet was one of the greatest artists of the last 100 years. I hold his creations close to my heart and mind. I’m surely not alone in being thankful for this release.
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