Maybe you know the good Captain’s music, maybe not. There probably ought to be two separate reviews for those who do and those who don’t, because your approach to this album will be different based on whether you know what you’re getting into or not. Those in the know can skip ahead a bit; those who don’t have any Beefheart in their heads yet should read on.
Captain Beefheart’s music has a reputation – completely earned, of course – of being weird and difficult. This is, in part, due to the reputation of the titanic 1969 double album Trout Mask Replica, an album I have a hard time listening to all the way through without getting a headache (even though I enjoy it in smaller doses) and one that is often the album people come to first to hear his music – sometimes never to return. It placed #60 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and is a regular feature of other such lists. Encouraged by his producer and friend Frank Zappa to indulge his wildest musical and poetic impulses, Beefheart and his crack band essayed a bizarre combination of guttural Delta Blues, experimentally primitive rock, surrealist poetry and psychedelia that certainly sounded like nothing else that existed at the time, and still sounds like nothing else except the Captain’s own music. He’d make a slightly more user-friendly version on his next album and continued to make more accessible work over the next few years. But by the later part of the 70’s he was again on track with an album that hit a good middle ground between his compromises and his artistic impulses (1978’s terrific Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)) and that leads us right to this 1980 album. Realizing that his watered-down versions of Beefheart weren’t making him any more money than the undiluted Beefheart, he stripped his music of the pop trappings (psychedelia had long since fallen by the wayside) and left only this corraded version of his music, winnowed down to its weird and exciting core of blues-influenced art-rock.
Where Trout Mask and its immediate follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby flaunted their jagged and shifting rhythms and colored their ensembles with fruity instrumentation, spoken word interjections and sound effects, by the time of Doc, Beefheart et al had streamlined their music to an efficient machine and Beefheart’s own production managed to make even the most challenging rhythms and strangest poetry and vocal inflections here sound like they flowed naturally. Take "Sheriff of Hong Kong" here: it never settles into a groove that lasts more than a few bars, the Captain screams and growls his head off, uses weird words and dissonance at will, and yet set alongside some of his challenging earlier works it sounds positively rocking, as opposed to some aural art piece to be appreciated by connoisseurs and hipster cognoscenti and closet surrealists only. And though there are frequent and unexpected Mellotron intrusions throughout the album, the art quotient here seems subservient to the rock values, which makes it a fine entry point into the Captain’s catalog for the uninitiated. Even though it doesn’t sacrifice its basic weirdness and angularity, somehow the jaggedness grooves here where it's at cross purposes on Trout Mask, highlighting the alienating strangeness of it all. And it doesn’t hurt that it kicks off with four killers in a row – “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart” are simply two of the Captain’s finest songs, period, while “A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” gives a lovely breather for keyboard and guitar and “Run Paint Run Run” again finds the band in a rocking groove that you could even dance to, if so inclined. They run through two artier numbers and the first side is done. Second side kicks off with another killer in “Dirty Blue Gene” with its rocketing guitar riffs and double-tracked screams and then moves into the oddly optimistic “Best Batch Yet.” Next up is the uber-paranoid “Telephone” and another gorgeous interlude with Gary Lucas’ solo guitar piece “Flavor Bud Living” before the six-plus minutes of “Sheriff of Hong Kong” move us up to the finale – the utterly bizarre and profane “Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee.” And that’s it – a cool 38 minutes and change, not the nearly 80 headache-inducing minutes of Trout Mask Replica. And though the band’s back cover/insert photo looks like they’re daring you to give the album a try, none of them smiling, it’s actually quite absorbing and accessible – well, within the Captain’s weird world, anyway.
Maybe there will be another album in his catalog that speaks to you more – Trout Mask’s uncompromised weirdness certainly has many admirers and even I tend to lean toward the friendlier Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) or Clear Spot when I want to play something that other people can enjoy more readily, but Doc at the Radar Station is, for me, the perfect mix of the Captain’s best artistic impulses and his ability to allow others a view of his weird world that won’t scare them completely off.