Monday, 20 December 2010

Captain Beefheart (Part One) - Great Misunderstood Rock'n'Roll Legends No.2 by Andrew Bean

A long time contributor and supporter of the magazine, Andy Bean first heard Captain Beefheart in 1973 and was at the famous Aylesbury Friars show in 1975. He had his own variously named but usually Captain Beefheart inspired fanzine in the late 1970's, and in case you'd not guessed, owes his surname to the man himself. He played "bass (badly) and guitar (worse)" in Nikki Sudden's band before taking over the drums for three years at the end of the 1980's, including playing on Nikki's "Groove" album in 1989. He now lives in London and is manager of a record shop.

Andy Bean & Nikki Sudden

Truth be told, this piece from issue 2 of WANWTTS in 1984, was my real introduction to Captain Beefheart. I had the safe-ish "Safe As Milk" album, but it was only after reading this article that I delved further into the esoteric world of the Captain. It was the second in the series of Great Misunderstood Rock'n'Roll Legends, the first having been Alex Chilton in issue 1 (by Epic Soundtracks) and this was the first part of two.

The Captain & Epic Soundtracks

Its appearance is obviously prompted by the sad passing of Mr Van Vliet at the age of 69 at the end of last week.

Great Misunderstood Rock 'n' Roll Legends No.2
Captain Beefheart – Part One
“A Squid Eating Dough In A Polythene Bag Is Fast And Bulbous”

"If one were to ask the average music fan about Captain Beefheart, you might get one of three replies: many would not have heard of him, while of those who had, most would not see him as anything other than a nutter who makes “difficult music” (joining such similarly categorised artists as Sun Ra, John Cale and so on). This image isn't helped by lazy journalists (hi, David Hepworth) who would rather reel off a few wacky anecdotes than try to enlighten the OGWT viewer as to the man's talent. Then there are the solid core of fans who recognise Beefheart as having made some of the most advanced music of the last twenty years.

He was born Don Van Vliet in California in 1941. At an early age he showed an artistic leaning, appearing on a local TV arts programme exhibiting his sculptures at the age of five. In the late 1950's, he attended the same high school as Frank Zappa. The two became great friends, cruising together and planning various musical ventures, few of which materialised. Zappa had written a film “Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People” which gave van Vliet his new name. Another project was an opera “I Was A Teenage Maltshop” which was rejected by plenty of record companies, but featured an early airing of the Beefheart vocal cords, singing such themes as “Ned The Mumbler” in a voice like a bear with a cold impersonating Andy Williams. One of Zappa's other groups was the Scots, which was basically just he and Beefheart playing basic r'n'b. Zappa once wanted to release a 9-album box set of these recordings, but all that surfaced was a 15 second snatch on his 1967 “Lumpy Gravy” LP. In late 1965 Zappa and Beefheart separated: Zappa to transform the Soul Giants into the Mothers Of Invention and Beefheart to form his own Magic Band.

A&M signed the band in late 1964, and then released two singles. The four tracks were all competent r'n'b, enlivened by Beefheart's exceptional blues voice, and some interesting guitar work. An album was recorded at the same time but rejected by A&M who claimed the lyrics were too unusual. By 1966, the album “Safe As Milk” had been re-recorded and released by Kama Sutra. Although largely ignored in the States, it was enormously successful in Britain, building Beefheart a large following which would last him a long time. Even after 18 years, it's an incredibly fresh sounding album: on a solid base of country blues, the band built up a unique sound. Ry Cooder was in the group at the time, fresh from the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal. His waspish guitar meshed with that of Alex St.Claire, producing a weaving pattern of notes contrasting with Jerry Handley's thumping bass and the mighty John French's rattling drums. The album includes such gems as “Yellow Brick Road”, included on a bubblegum compilation album next to “Sugar Sugar” and also one of Tony Blackburn's favourite records! “Electricity” showcased the awesome power of the Captain's (4, 4½ or 7½ octave, depending on your source) voice...he destroyed a $1500 mike when recording this track, just by singing into it. “I'm Glad” is a slow soul worthy of Otis, while “Abba Zabba”, “Sho Nuff N You I Do” and “Dropout Boogie” were romping hooting psychedelic blues stomps: with all the recent interest in 60's US psychedelia and the like, it's a pity this album hasn't had more attention. It's currenttly available at £3.00 and no home should be without it.

“Safe As Milk” was enough of a success in the States for Beefheart to be invited to play the Monterey Festival. If he had, he would probably have become successful and famous in the same way as, say, Canned Heat. As it was, Cooder left just before the festival and was replaced, too late, by Jeff Cotton. The band set to playing more live dates, including a visit to England. John Peel liked the band and brought them over for a giog at the Middle Earth Club where they were enjoyed by a record crowd. This visit also provided a session for Peel and Beefheart is still the only American artist to have recorded one. Similarly Peel's programme is currently the only place you're likely to hear Beefheart's music on the radio.

Soon after the British visit, “Strictly Personal” was released. It had been recorded before the tour, and mixed by Bob Krasnow (now head of Elektra Records) while the band were away...and that was the problem. Krasnow had evidently decided that the LP wasn't weird enough and added phasing effects. Beefheart was furious but was still convinced of the value of the music. Indeed the album hardly needed any weirding-up by Krasnow; the clean cut besuited young men of the sleeve of “Safe As Milk” were replaced by a bunch of guys with saucepans on their heads, and the music concentrated totally on Beefheart's dark side.

Tracks like “Ah Feel Like Ahcid”, an acoustic blues and “Beatle Bones 'n Smokin' Stones” a sort of tribute featuring the amazing drumming of John French, were matched against long almost-jams like “Kandy Korn” which excels due to a beautiful shimmering multi-layered fade out which is more a band solo than a guitar solo....the track “Safe As Milk” was the world's first psychedelic blues disco record, while “Gimme Dat Harp Box” was a thunderous blues stomp based on the old standard “Spoonful”, and demonstrating that when it comes to Blues, Beefheart is as proficient with a harmonica as he is with his voice. “Strictly Personal” was an important album as it retained obvious links with Beefheart's roots, while showing the direction he was to take in the future, though no-one would have guessed how far he'd go. Many of his fans still regard it as his best album...indeed, after “Safe As Milk” it is his most re-issued.

By late 1968, Frank Zappa had become respected enough to have two record companies of his own, Bizarre and Straight. Beefheart, disgusted with the Krasnow affair, signed to Straight, and began to prepare a new album of music, totally under his own control. Here we enter the realms of legend. He sat down at the piano, never having played it before and wrote a whole new selection of music and lyrics. Next, he re-assembled the Magic Band: Jeff Cotton and John French were recalled and given the names Antennae Jimmy Semens and Drumbo respectively. Two young fans, Bill Harkleroad and Mark Boston (who'd never played guitar before) were recruited and renamed Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton. Beefheart's cousin The Mascara Snake was brought in on saxes and clarinets. Then the whole band had vanished to the Mojave Desert for 9 months living on acid and lizards, where Beefheart taught them to play his new music. On their return, they went into the studio with Zappa producing (although Beefheart claims he was asleep at the controls) and recorded the awesome “Trout Mask Replica”.

“Replica” while relatively unnoticed upon its release, has since been recognised as one of the most innovative albums ever made. Even now, 15 years after its release, no-one has made a record quite like it. Its four sides contain 28 songs, most of which comprise nothing less than a compendium of American culture. Beefheart's lyrics paint a picture of all aspects of American life, from racism and World War 3 to a sea shanty and numerous visions of some mythical small-town middle America in the late 1800'as. The music borrowed from mainly jazz and blues, two of the three pure American musics, but there was little resemblance. The twin guitars meshed so perfectly, it's as if the strings had been woven into a a mattress, while the bass makes oblique comments, and the drums play around with the beat, rather than with it, and Beefheart recites and sings, or duels with a sax or clarinet, tunes changing on a whim, turning on a dime and thundering like all of life. At first the music sounds incredibly indisciplined, but it isn''s just a totally different discipline. At the same time, it's also playful, just like Beefheart's lyrics, filled with puns, outrageous similes and gorgeous language...a remarkable album.

When “Trout Mask Replica” appeared, cloaked in a sleeve which depicted a guy in a silly hat and a fish mask, waving, from the front and on the back, a bunch of weird-looking guys who looked like refugees from the Alpha Centauri Home For The Criminally Insane creeping around in bushes, wearing dresses and waving table lamps aroud, the record buying public were not impressed. A rave review from the late Lester Bangs, which Straight used in an advertisement, helped to save the album from the bargain bins, and it picked up a little. Heartened, he began work on the next album.

“Lick My Decals Off, Baby” (surely one of the greatest titles of all time) featured the additional percussive talents of Ed Marimba (Arthur Tripp). He joined from the Mothers after Zappa disbanded them late in 1969, and was to make an important contribution to the Magic Band with the use of the marimba. It's interesting to note how many musicians have joined Beefheart from Zappa, preferring the more relaxed Magic Band to Zappa's extreme control. This is apparent on “Decal”, an altogether more peaceful, more thought out and less frenetic album than “Replica”. Beefheart's lyrics were as inspired as ever, as in “Bellerin' Plain”, a song about railway pioneers. Some of the songs dealt with philosophical matters, while the title track saw the Captain turn his attention to physical love in uncompromising fashion.

“Rather than I wanna hold your hand
I wanna swallow you whole
n I wanna lick you everywhere it's pink
n everywhere you think
Whole kit n kaboodle n the kitchen sink”

The ideas expressed in “Decals” were fairly similar to those in “Replica”, but the execution was more precise and coherent. Part of the reason for this was that Beefheart had recorded his vocals with the band, whereas on “Replica” he had dubbed on his vocals from memory without the aid of headphones! This dislocation added to the sound of the album.”Decals” may have lacked “Replica”'s impact, but it was actually a better album.

At this point, Beefheart left Zappa amid much abuse, claiming that Zappa had promoted him as a freak. Whatever the truth of this, being on the Straight label meant sharing the catalogue with some fairly, er, unusual acts, from satirist Lenny Bruce, early Alice Cooper and jazz poet Lord Buckley to the GTOs, a band of groupies Zappa had worked with. So the next Beefheart LP “The Spotlight Kid” turned up on Reprise. There was another addition to the band, in Winged Eel Fingerling. As Elliott Ingber, he had been in an early Mothers line-up, and as a blues guitarist had been praised by Jimi Hendrix. Ingber had left Fraternity Of Man, his previous band, after an incident involving his talking to his amplifier during a version of “Rumble”!

The cover of “The Spotlight Kid” depicted Beefheart as a suave nightclub singer, almost...well, if you ignored the fact that he was glowing, anyway....the music was a different mater entirely, sounding as though it had been at the bottom of a river for ten years. There wasn't a single upbeat track on it, musically, though the lyrics were the usual Beefheart wordplay on mostly aquatic themes, apart from”Click Clack”, a marvellously witty train song, “Glider”, a riff looking for a rhythm, and a couple more. The marimba was featured more than the drum kit (Drumbo was in the process of leaving), which combined with the rather gloomy nature of the music makes this album one of Beefheart's most atmospheric. The stand out track “I'm Gonna Booglarize You” is based on a bass riff so evil, it's still wet from coming out of the swamp.

The Magic Band were touring quite extensively at this time, and going down particularly well in Europe. Their stage show mut have been spectacular, with Ed Marimba's green moustache and monocle, Rockette Morton's moustache/antennae and crazy dancing, Zoot Horn Rollo's Chinese hat and peculiar glasses and seven foot tall, and Beefheart in a big embroidered cape prowling the stage and growling like a hungry bear. Rockette Morton had moved from bass to guitar to make room for Orejon (Roy Estrada) fresh from Little Feat and before that the Mothers. Around this time as well, Beefheart began giving strange interviews, using strange wordplay as in his songs,predicting telephone calls and holding forth stream-of-consciousness fashion on everything from whales to Freudian theory in architecture. People started picking out stray quotes (“Everybody's coloured or you wouldn't be able to see them” and “There are only forty people in the world and five of them are hamburgers” are two oft repeated examples) and presenting Beefheart as some kind of weirdo...a reputation he still has I guess. In most interviews, or any conversational or lyrical situation, Beefheart just likes to have a little fun with the language, that's all.

Next time – part two: big-eyed beans from venus, the delights of the shiny beast and it's dinosaur disco workouts and the thousand and tenth day of the human totem pole

Andrew Bean"


  1. “There are only forty people in the world and five of them are hamburgers”

    Funny cuz it's true

  2. I agree with the Hepworth comment- do you know:- in his 1971 book, Hepworth scoffs at the very idea of Beefheart charting. Beefheart charted w/Decals in 1971! You'd think someone writing a book on how exciting music was in 1971 would do some goddam research!