Conventional wisdom has it that Captain Beefheart recorded his most groundbreaking music in the 60s, then sought commercial success through the 70s before coming back around to some sort of melding of his avant-garde inclinations in a way that smoothed off the rough edges. Recorded 11 months after the release of his epochal Trout Mask Replica, however, Lick My Decals Off, Baby hit the shelves in December 1970 and found him achieving his biggest commercial success without sacrificing his artistic inclinations. Besting Trout Mask by one place when it peaked at No.20 in the UK (on whose charts it remained for 11 weeks), the album was, as Lester Bangs noted in his January 1971 review for Creem, “sometimes even more complex and angular than on Trout Mask”, though its lyrical content had “taken an added universality”.
Not that this stopped the Captain from filming a bizarre advert for the album. If he was aiming for a new accessibility with Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the 1.04 clip, which featured his Magic Band playing kitchen utensils instead of instruments, would surely have baffled any potential newcomers (though it now resides in the Museum Of Modern Art, in New York – where Beefheart’s finest material surely belongs).
Though musically, the album’s opening title track finds Beefheart firmly in post-Trout Mask territory, the phrase “lick my decals off, baby” was, according to the Captain himself, an exhortation to “get rid of the labels” and let things stand on their own merits. Many would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, however, with such lascivity as “Rather than I want to hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole” and “She stuck out her tongue and the fun begun” seemingly tapping into that most universal of impulses.
“Beefheart may be verbally obtuse and look like a trasher of everything ‘beautiful’,” Bangs wrote, before asserting that he was really “creating a whole new musical vocabulary out of the ashes and dead air left by a crumbling empire of exhausted styles”. Presumably, that also meant Beefheart’s own. He could have chosen to continue down Trout Mask Replica’s path, but instead drew back, ensuring that Decals was shot through with that album’s most vital elements, drawn tighter. Initially composing fragments of melodies on the piano, which he captured on cassette, Beefheart gave the recordings to guitarist Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) to piece together into fully fledged songs.
That likely explains the prominence of guitar on the album – and the beauty to which it’s put to use. ‘Peon’ and ‘One Rose That I Mean’ are among Beefheart’s finest instrumentals, deftly fitting in with anything coming out of the American Primitivism school. Elsewhere, guitar duels with Art Tripp’s newly introduced marimba – which would make itself further felt on subsequent outings – to fuel the intro to ‘The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye)’.
Beefheart, as ever, treats his voice like its own instrument, unleashing a primal howl on ‘Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop’, while ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’, though one of his most straightforward songs, finds Beefheart straddling humour and horror with a vocal that’s alternately cajoling, consoling and faintly threatening.
Beefheart claimed that Lick My Decals Off, Baby was his favourite of his own albums – and many fans are inclined to agree. Indeed, so was Rolling Stone’s Ed Ward, who, after admitting to detesting Trout Mask Replica, found that Decals was, “Approachable, easy – enjoyable, even – to listen to.”
Echoing sentiments from Beefheart fans everywhere, Ward concluded, “You ought to get Lick My Decals Off, Baby and see what it can do for you!”