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A Tribute to the Legendary Captain Beefheart
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, rock music was undergoing a fascinating transformation. Anyone who lived through that era would have witnessed a huge musical progression from the primarily cheesy teen-pop of the early 60’s, through to the wild, psychedelic era of 1967-69. Not forgetting the game-changing influence brought about by The Beatles, and a number of other British groups.
In the late 60’s, musicians such as Frank Zappa carved out a whole new, subversive musical path, where virtually any kind of musical, and non-musical influence was considered fair game. A sometime cohort and friend of Frank Zappa, Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart), was quietly making a name for himself, and his Magic Band.
Their first album “Safe as Milk”, is a good introduction to Captain Beefheart. However, it only hints at what was to come.
I first heard Captain Beefheart on FM radio in early 1969. It was a song entitled ‘Son of Mirror Man – Mere Man’ (from the album “Strictly Personal”, released in 1968). It was a decidedly peculiar combination of blues, rock and psychedelic production. Although the latter was a cool thing at the time, it sort of detracted from the excellent playing of the Magic Band, and the extraordinary singing voice of Captain Beefheart. A fine album in its own right, and a harbinger for what followed next.
Trout Mask Replica
In June 1969, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band released what is still considered one of the most influential recordings of the time, “Trout Mask Replica”. Produced by Frank Zappa, it captures Captain Beefheart at the peak of his wild musical and lyrical imagination. It is full of all kinds of musical influences, from bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, to the free-form jazz of Ornette Coleman, and a type of rock music turned on its head.
On top of this wild, musical stew, Captain Beefheart has crafted some of the most imaginative, playful, and almost child-like lyrics and word pictures that has ever been set to music. While the result sounds wildly bizarre and random at first listen, all the instrumental parts were carefully devised by Captain Beefheart, and taught to the musicians, and also allows the excellent Magic Band members to play off one another in some very strange and sophisticated ways. It was totally unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
While I must admit Captain Beefheart’s music is an acquired taste, if your interests lead you toward strange and interesting ways of playing music, and are prepared to listen carefully, your efforts will be well rewarded here.
Captain Beefheart’s music and Trout Mask Replica in particular, has been cited as being very influential by such diverse artists as director David Lynch, Matt Groening, XTC, White Stripes and many others.
Trout Mask Replica received a moderate amount of FM radio play (back then, FM radio was much more free-form compared to AM hit radio). Nevertheless, Trout Mask Replica was as far from the usual pop music sensibility as you can get. Despite continuing critical acclaim, success in the form of massive record sales would continue to elude Captain Beefheart throughout his musical career.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby
After a couple of tours of Europe and America, Captain Beefheart released the highly anticipated follow-up to Trout Mask Replica – “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in late 1970. While just as wild as Trout Mask Replica in many ways, the tracks on Lick My Decals… had more tightly refined tune structures. If anything the instrumental parts were even more complex than before. Once again the Magic Band are in top form. Captain Beefheart continued his imaginative lyrical paintings, and vocal gymnastics. Not quite in the same league as Trout Mask Replica, but highly recommended nonetheless (rare, and a bit pricey).
The Spotlight Kid, and Clear Spot
For the next album “The Spotlight Kid” (1972), Captain Beefheart returned to his blues roots. Although it contains many fine tracks, the overall impression is that it lacks a good deal of spark, almost as though the band were just tired and uninterested half of the time. The relatively poor recording doesn’t help matters, either.
The following album “Clear Spot” (1972) is easily the most approachable of any of the Captain Beefheart albums. It’s almost comparatively ‘commercial’. The production is fairly slick, but clean and spare, allowing Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band to really shine, on a fabulous set of tracks. The original vinyl LP came in a clear, flexible plastic cover, with the title embossed on the top flap, and the sparse cover graphics on a cardboard insert, with the vinyl record visible in front.
While some fans thought the Captain had ‘sold out’, because it wasn’t nearly as wild as the previous albums, the top-notch playing and the Captain’s strong vocal delivery is as good as ever. This is far more upbeat and engaging than Spotlight Kid. Highly recommended.
The Captain reaches a low point
“Unconditionally Guaranteed” (1974), has it’s moments, but Captain Beefheart seemed to have lost his way, perhaps under the influence of the record label suits to come up with something more ‘commercial’. The result comes across a bit forced and lame, when compared to his best material. The original Magic Band made their exit following this album.
Still, it's not quite as forgettable as the follow-up “Bluejeans and Moonbeams” (1974).
Captain Beefheart apparently disliked these 2 albums so much that he encouraged anyone who bought the albums to return it to the store for a refund. Enough said. I never bought the album.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
It would be another 2-3 years before Captain Beefheart formed another Magic Band and released “Shiny Beast/Bat Chain Puller” (1978). This album finds the Captain and his new Magic Band in fine form once again.
It compares quite favourably with Lick My Decals... and Clear Spot. The new band featured some of the best musicians to come through the Magic Band. And what a crackerjack bunch of younger musicians too. Captain Beefheart once referred to them as “the best batch yet”.
Doc at the Radar Station
“Doc at the Radar Station” followed in 1980, with some new band members, who are put through their paces with some intricately complex parts. It’s another fine effort, full of interesting tunes, and fabulous playing.
Ice Cream For Crow
His final album “Ice Cream For Crow” (1982) features many of the same band members and many fine and interesting tracks. However, Captain Beefheart seemed to have tired of the whole music scene at this point.
Retiring to a life of art
Captain Beefheart retired from music-making to concentrate on his abstract artwork, many of which are featured on some of the album graphics. Since leaving the music business, he has been much more financially successful in this realm, than the meagre profits from 15 years of album sales. Many of his original paintings are highly sought after by collectors and galleries around the world.
In his later years he suffered from multiple sclerosis, and passed away on December 17, 2010.
There's no doubt about it..Captain Beefheart is a one-of-a-kind artist, whose influence extends far beyond his recorded output. He will be sadly missed.
This article ©2010 by timorous+
Don't miss these other insights into the music of Captain Beefheart...
While much of Captain Beefheart's music is still available, there is also much written about his musical career. These books and the DVD (Under Review), and the CD anthology (Dust Blows Forward..) will give interested listeners a good insight into how Captain Beefheart came to write the music and how he worked with the musicians.
A biography by Mike Barnes (paperback)