Captain Beefheart

TrackAlbum
Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I DoSafe As Milk
Tropical Hot Dog NightShiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
Click ClackThe Spotlight Kid
Ashtray HeartDoc At The Radar Station
Moonlight On VermontTrout Mask Replica
My Head Is My Only House
Unless It Rains
Clear Spot
Suction PrintsShiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
ElectricitySafe As Milk
Long Neck BottlesClear Spot
Veteran's Day PoppyTrout Mask Replica

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Contributor: Simon Sadler

He was John Peel’s favourite artist, a childhood friend of Frank Zappa and one of the most distinctive voices in rock and pop. Don Van Vliet adopted the name Captain Beefheart, took the blues and with a twist of avant-garde and his ever-shifting Magic Band turned out some of the most exciting and distinctive music of the 60s and 70s.

A child prodigy and by all accounts a precocious little thing, Van Vliet grew up in Lancaster, California and formed the first incarnation of the Magic Band in 1965, gaining a reputation as a fearsome live act and attracting the attention of A&M who paired them with producer David Gates (yes, that David Gates) to produce a brace of punchy, bluesy singles (check out their take on Diddy Wah Diddy on Youtube).

Released in 1967, Safe As Milk was a stunning debut album, perfectly capturing the band’s heady mix of blues, psychedelia and soul. Sure ‘Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do opened that album, and as a bold statement of intent, and with killer slide guitar from Ry Cooder, was every bit as good as anything the British blues boomers could conjure up. With Electricity, Van Vliet showed off his best Howlin’ Wolf impression on a mighty slab of theremin-soaked psychedelia.

Beefheart’s next project was going to be a double album called “It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper”, but as on many occasions in his career, label wrangles confounded the idea, though various elements of it would emerge over the following years on the Strictly Personal and Mirror Man albums. The Captain’s next concept, though, was fully realised.

Mixing primal blues, free jazz, rock and Surrealist poetry, Trout Mask Replica saw Beefheart going further out than just about anybody in the contemporary music world. Sounding at first listen like random extemporisation, this album was in fact carefully crafted and shaped by Van Vliet and drummer John French acting as musical director, and with Zappa controlling things behind the decks. Beefheart had the band installed, some might say imprisoned, in a house for nine months, while the album was created, rehearsed and honed to its skewed perfection. Here we see two of the more conventional cuts from a sprawling double set. Moonlight On Vermont showcases the sheer power of Beefheart’s vocals (he was well known for blowing out microphones), and also highlights the curious method of recording his vocals, without headphones and with only a playback through the studio wall for guidance. Veteran’s Day Poppy sends out a strong anti-Vietnam War message, and features an almost proto-postrock coda.

Though Trout Mask and its similarly flavoured follow-up, Lick My Decals Off Baby, were both critically acclaimed, they sold next to nothing and by 1972 the band were on the brink of financial collapse. Van Vliet took the decision that he needed to make something more accessible, and initially this paid dividends with the release in quick succession of The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (available on CD only as a twofer). These albums saw a move away from the complex, polyrhythmic and bizarre, but without losing any of the power and musicianship of previous releases. Every great artist needs a train song and Van Vliet weighed in with Click Clack, driven by French’s insistent rhythms. A simple, chugging beat also typifies the bluesy stomp of Long Neck Bottles, blessed with some fine harp blowing. A less frequently heard side of the Cap’s work is exemplified with My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains; a simple but beautiful example of love and longing.

The relative success of these albums then pushed the Cap down an even more commercial route, urged on by new management, releasing the below par Unconditionally Guaranteed. Frustrated with this direction, the whole Magic Band walked out on Van Vliet, forcing him to hastily assemble a new group. This became known as the “Tragic Band” and, despite being fine musicians, were saddled with playing the tamer fare from that album and its follow-up, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, both of which Beefheart subsequently disowned.

Out of contract and with no band to play with (having sacked the Tragic Band), Beefheart was on his uppers. Enter old friend Zappa, who took him with him on his Bongo Fury tour. This experience clearly rejuvenated the Captain’s mojo as he came back to life with the powerful and diverse Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Tropical Hot Dog Night showcases a loose and easy going marimba-driven style, but welded to the Cap’s menacing “meet the monster tonight” lyric, later appropriated by Beefheart devotee PJ Harvey. In contrast, Suction Prints is a frenetic instrumental highlighting just how taut and well-drilled the Magic Band were, the Captain’s soprano sax trading licks with Bruce Fowler’s trombone, while the slide guitars pound away relentlessly beneath.

Now rejuvenated, Beefheart somewhat ironically became something of an icon to the burgeoning punk scene, something his outsider attitude railed against, never more so than on the acerbic Ashtray Heart from Doc At The Radar Station. “Open up a case of the punks,” he screams, “someone’s had too much to think.” Yet of course songs such as this would be influential on a new generation of primordial rockers from The Birthday Party onward.

And then, after the final broadside of Ice Cream For Crow, it was all over. Beefheart announced his retirement from music to concentrate on his painting and, apart from one or two radio performances in the early 80s, no more music was heard from the great man. He died in 2010, leaving behind a unique legacy of innovative and influential music.

 

Captain Beefheart Radar Station

Home Page Replica – info on Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart biography (iTunes)

Simon Sadler is a lifelong music fan and unreconstructed vinyl junkie. Occasionally (i.e. with Stone Roses album regularity) he writes at his own blog here.

TopperPost #286

15 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    May 27, 2014

    I take my hat off to you for being able to narrow it down to ten… a while ago I tried to put a Beefheart selection together and just couldn’t settle on one. I can’t fault yours, it’s all good. We have common thoughts in no Tragic Band, and no ‘Decals’ and ‘Strictly Personal’ era songs. I do like the live album ‘At My Father’s Place’ which has some nifty versions of classic songs, and I tried to squeeze it in to my list. But I just couldn’t commit 🙂

    NB: The Ice Cream For Crow video was pulled from MTV playlists for being “too weird”. What the.. ?!

  2. Peter Viney
    May 28, 2014

    Beefheart. You’ve persuaded me to try again, this being the fourth or fifth time. I listed Diddy Wah Diddy among the best Bo Diddley covers in that Toppermost. I bought Trout Mask Replica on vinyl soon after its release. I read the interviews with the band. I tried sitting listening intently to it. I thought, “Critical Emperor’s New Clothes.” I put it aside and when the CD came out I read the reviews and I knew its legendary status, and got the CD and I tried again, and am too polite to give my assessment. I suppose you get it or you don’t. I really didn’t. It’s a bit like Last Year at Marienbad which I tried to watch twice when engaged in film studies and thought it nonsense. Years later it topped an “anti-poll” of the “worst films ever made” which made me sigh with relief. I guess Trout Mask Replica sits in a similar position. The only people who discuss it are people with wide tastes in the first place, but even so there are two schools: “It is vastly under-rated” and “It is vastly over-rated.” Something that polarizes that much IS interesting.

  3. Merric Davidson
    May 28, 2014

    I’d have to echo Keith, I’m still not sure how Simon did it, how he managed to distil this magnificent body of work to just 10 tracks. But he did it, and he did it well, and no fan of the good captain would bicker. Take only 10 albums to that damn desert island, and Trout Mask is in my bag of goodies. It would also probably be the one I’d take if I could only take one – god forbid that rule would ever apply! It is, as Simon says, “skewed perfection” and it’s an album I’ve been enchanted by since 1969. It wasn’t just a set of songs, there was the dialogue too which became essential for bar room quipping – “fast and bulbous, bulbous also tapered”, “I knew you were under duress”, “I run on laser beans”, “my girl named bimbo – limbo – spam”, the whole of Old Fart at Play etc. If you loved Don, you loved Frank, that’s how it was, and it was great to have those two, good friends then and already legends, working together on TMR. So while some did, most didn’t, but if ever an album will change the way you look at music, and life, TMR is the one that will.

  4. Rob Millis
    May 28, 2014

    That’s right, the Mascara Snake. Also, a tin teardrop.

  5. Peter Viney
    May 29, 2014

    Desert Islands … having pondered many times, I would not take my normal first choices which are Visions of Johanna or King Harvest or Strawberry Fields Forever if I were down to one record. I think it’s down to a gentle soothing instrumental (Ravel Piano Concerto in G 2nd Movement played by Bernstein) or a vocal by a singer one finds particularly and personally attractive with a sexy voice, like Stevie Nicks. I think Beefheart would be a mistake on a diet of shellfish picked off the beach and coconuts. While “If you loved Don you loved Frank” is true, it doesn’t work in the other direction for me. I am still puzzled by the number of people whose opinions I respect who like the Captain. A friend who owns a record shop also considers him the ultimate, but also says that he clears the shop of undesirable browsers pretty fast if need be. The Wikipedia entry quotes Matt Groening and John Harris saying you need more than six listens to get it. By Moonlight on Vermont yesterday (the old side one), I couldn’t listen to any more, I thought it horrible, though The Dust Blows Forward beats Neil Young’s ultra lo-fi A Letter Home by forty-five years, But Neil has far better tunes. I do like “Willie The Pimp” from Hot Rats, but like the GTOs record, it’s Frank manipulating a singer to his needs.

  6. Merric Davidson
    May 29, 2014

    Ha ha. That’s maybe the definitive last word on desert islands – I’m definitely taking Trout Mask Replica to mine, hopefully on the other side of the island from Stevie Nicks. And if I could top Simon’s toppermost up by a few tracks I’d also like to have, because I’m greedy, Big Eyed Beans From Venus (Clear Spot) and When It Blows Its Stacks (The Spotlight Kid) and Bat Chain Puller (Shiny Beast) and and and – and I’m smuggling them on to the damn island too. I’m a little pimp with my hair gassed back…

  7. Rob Millis
    May 29, 2014

    Peter, unlike Hot Rats, TMR is absolutely not a product of Frank manipulating anybody at all. You must have seen the documentary: FZ got the band in the studio, got everybody mic’d up and the band played. When they came to the end of what FZ thought was the band just running through some material, Van Vliet said “The record’s done, Frank” and they started packing up. Zappa was gobsmacked by all accounts. His was NOT the hand on the tiller.

  8. Rob Millis
    May 29, 2014

    My ten: Electricity, Sure ‘Nuff, Ah Feel Like Ahcid, Beatle Bones & Smokin Stones, When Big Joan Sets Up, Tarotplane, Big Eyed Beans, Long Neck Bottles, Crazy Little Thing, Golden Birdies. Yes, I love Clear Spot that much.

  9. Peter Viney
    May 29, 2014

    I know TMR is not Frank manipulating … I only meant Hot Rats. I got Trout Mask Replica, the GTOs and Alice Cooper’s first all at the same time on Zappa’s first label. And I liked both the other two and frequently quote the GTOs (And there are more of those than there are normal people … is one I often quote.) And just to check, I did mean Stevie Nicks voice from 1976. Actually, Blondie 1978 would be fine too. Or anyone of a dozen … the point is “an entrancing female voice” with a pleasant song. I’ll grumpily stick to a Toppermost Two: Diddy Wah Diddy and Willie The Pimp. Though “Hot Rats” was described at the time as “Zappa for people who don’t really like Zappa ” (but I do like Zappa. Well, 50% of Zappa.).

  10. Merric Davidson
    May 29, 2014

    No no that’s exactly what I don’t want to take to my desert island, no entrancing female voice from the 70s on my island, no thanks. You can have the pleasant songs, I want the album that Lester Bangs described in 1969 as “a total success, a brilliant, stunning enlargement and clarification of his art. Which is not to say that it’s in any sense slick, ‘artistic’ or easy. This is one of the few bands whose sound has actually gotten rawer as they’ve matured – a brilliant and refreshing strategy – the most unusual and challenging musical experience you’ll have this year.” And when I’m playing it, providing there’s a player on this damn island, I’ll be hearing more and more things on this great album that I’ve never heard before. And it’ll be perfect company as I’m tucking into the coconuts and berries.

    • Keith Shackleton
      May 30, 2014

      That’s exactly right. I wouldn’t want my desert island to be a comfortable listening experience. I’m potentially on there for a long time, so I’d want the challenging stuff with many layers.. I Wanna Be Sedated? Red Shoes? Love Action? Mama Weer All Crazee Now? No. Great tunes but I’d be over them after the hundredth play. Beefheart and The Fall and Can.. that’s the kind of stuff I’d take.

  11. Rob Millis
    May 29, 2014

    I think I’ll do a Topper 10 on Wild Man Fischer next.

  12. Andrew Shields
    May 30, 2014

    Can’t say I am a huge fan of Beefheart’s music but have always liked the story that when Bono wrote to him asking to collaborate, he sent back a letter saying “Dear Bongo, no.”

  13. Ian Ashleigh
    Jun 1, 2014

    Many thanks Simon for your insights and everyone for their comments so far. I have a goodly collection of Frank Zappa albums but nothing of the good Captain so here is my starting point. I’m looking forward to the journey.

  14. Simon Sadler
    Jun 4, 2014

    Interesting comments about TMR. Not many albums that are that divisive 45 years after their release. Shows the Cap was doing something right. Or wrong. Or just wilfully different. I’m with Rob also, I could have just as easily picked the whole of Clear Spot for this. It was my entry point and the album I’d recommend to anyone avoiding CB because they think he’s just “too weird”.

    Can. Now there’s a band I’d like to have a go at, if they haven’t been covered already. (Off you go, Simon … Ed.)

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