(Work in progress... not much progress......)
I first encountered Captain Beefheart when I was around 14/15 years old and mixed with the hip hippy crowd that gathered at The Royal Oak in the old High Street Hemel Hempstead. Strictly Personal was the album that turned me on, and it still remains my favourite. I have read and been told many times over the years that Strictly Personal is not a good album because Beefheart disowned it. But regardless of if Beefheart liked the fade effects that Bob Krasnow put on the album, I like the effects, and I love the music, which for me is his purest and most effective take on the blues, and the songs are amongst his best, if not his best.
Most fans and critics put praise on Trout Mask Replica (1969), but I'm less keen on that album. For me there is too much of the influence of Zappa on it - discordant non sequiturs, jazz breaks, etc.
I saw Beefheart at Knebworth in 1975, though I only have a hazy memory of his performance. Sound quality was poor, and I was preoccupied with selling a dodgy batch of Afghan hash while looking after our two small children, so most of the festival music remains vague in my memory.
Don Van Vliet (15 Jan 1941 – 17 Dec 2010), best known by the stage name Captain Beefheart, was an American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and visual artist. Sometimes collaborating with his teenage friend Frank Zappa, Van Vliet's musical work was conducted with a rotating ensemble of musicians called the Magic Band, with whom he recorded 13 studio albums between 1964 and 1982. His music blended elements of blues, free jazz, rock, and avant-garde composition with idiosyncratic rhythms, surrealist wordplay, and his wide vocal range, commonly reported as five octaves. Known for his enigmatic persona, Beefheart frequently constructed myths about his life and was known to exercise an almost dictatorial control over his supporting musicians.
Van Vliet developed an eclectic musical taste during his teen years in Lancaster, California, and formed "a mutually useful but volatile" friendship with Zappa. He began performing with his Captain Beefheart persona in 1964 and joined the original Magic Band line-up, initiated by Alexis Snouffer, the same year. The group released their debut album Safe as Milk in 1967 on Buddah Records. After being dropped by two consecutive record labels they signed to Zappa's Straight Records, where they released Trout Mask Replica (1969); an album variously described as "unlistenable", "a joke", and a "masterpiece", that would later rank 58th in Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 1974, frustrated by lack of commercial success, he pursued a more conventional rock sound, but the ensuing albums were critically panned; this move, combined with not having been paid for a European tour, and years of enduring Beefheart's abusive behaviour, led the entire band to quit. Beefheart eventually formed a new Magic Band with a group of younger musicians and regained critical approval through three final albums: Shiny Beast (1978), Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982).
Widely regarded as unusual and interesting, critics have had difficulty in pinning down Beefheart's musical style; he has been described as "one of modern music's true innovators", though most see his music as a quirky and idiosyncratic variation of blues music which, while not achieving mainstream commercial success, attracted a cult following and was an influence on new wave, punk, and experimental rock artists. Van Vliet made few public appearances after he retired from music in 1982 to devote himself to his childhood interest in art. His neo-expressionist paintings have been exhibited in several countries, and have sold for up to $25,000. Van Vliet died in 2010, having suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years.
Born Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart was one of modern music's true innovators. The owner of a remarkable four-and-one-half octave vocal range, he employed idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist lyrics and an unholy alliance of free jazz, Delta blues, latter-day classical music and rock & roll to create a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring and fluid creativity. While he never came even remotely close to mainstream success, Beefheart's impact was incalculable, and his fingerprints were all over punk, New Wave and post-rock.
In their original incarnation, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were a blues-rock outfit which became staples of the teen-dance circuit; they quickly signed to A&M Records, where the success of the single "Diddy Wah Diddy" earned them the opportunity to record a full-length album. Label president Jerry Moss rejected the completed record as "too negative," however, and a crushed Beefheart went into seclusion. After producer Bob
Krasnow radically remixed the hallucinatory Strictly Personal (1968) without Beefheart's approval, he again retired. At the same time, however, longtime friend Frank Zappa formed his own Straight Records, and he approached Van Vliet with the promise of complete creative control; a deal was struck, and after writing 28 songs in a nine-hour frenzy, Beefheart recorded the seminal double album Trout Mask Replica (1969). After Ice Cream for Crow (1982), Van Vliet again retired from music, this time for good; he returned to the desert, took up residence in a trailer and focused on painting. In 1985, he mounted the first major exhibit of his work, done in an abstract, primitive style reminiscent of Francis Bacon. Like his music, his art won wide acclaim, and some of his paintings sold for as much as $25,000. In the 1990s, he dropped completely from sight when he fell prey to multiple sclerosis. Van Vliet died of complications from multiple sclerosis on December 17, 2010 in California; he was 69 years old.
|Safe as Milk (1967)|
Beefheart's debut is full of surprises and pop references.
Reissued briefly in 1970 as Dropout Boogie to cash in on the growing interest in Beefheart.
|Strictly Personal (1968)|
|Trout Mask Replica (1969)|
I have historically had problems with this album. It feels rushed and knocked off, and too much under the influence of Zappa. Within the discordant non sequiturs and odd jazz breaks, there is the hallucinatory New Orleans take on the blues that Beefheart was so good at. But the songs are weak. It is a matter of legend that Beefheart wrote all 28 songs in eight hours, but this is typical Beefheart myth-making; the songs were mostly written in an eight month period when the band were confined to a small rented house in the suburb of Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, but not road tested, so there is an insular and self-indulgent feel to them. That is part of the attraction for some people, but for me the album could do with pruning, the songs could have done with being exposed to live audiences, and the whole thing would have faired better under a producer with a firmer grip on Beefheart. Zappa enjoyed allowing unedited oddities to spill out in front of him, such as with Wild Man Fischer.
|Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970)|
|Mirror Man (1971)|
|The Spotlight Kid (1972)|
|Clear Spot (1972)|
Yes, but patchy.
|Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974)|
Rather ordinary soft rock.
|Blue Jeans & Moonbeams (1974)|
Less than ordinary soft rock. There's some soft soul thrown in the mix as well. Not quite dreadful, but surprisingly banal.
|Bongo Fury (1975)|
Live album with Frank Zappa. Songs and music by Zappa - Beefheart just adds his voice. Well, "just" is a misnomer, as he has an extraordinary voice. But this is a Zappa album that Beef sings on, rather than a true collaboration.
|Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)|
There's a return to the approach and sound of classic Beefheart, but there's something missing.
|Doc At The Radar Station (1980)|
There's nothing new here, and the sound is moving away from a new and refreshing approach to the blues toward something akin to a wacky pop version of alt-rock. Beef's voice is not what it was, and the whole thing sounds a little tired and uninspired. Beef and his new band trying hard to recapture some of the magic of the early albums, and sometimes approaching that in sound, but missing out on the spirit.
|Ice Cream For Crow (1982)|
Bat Chain Puller 1976
|Live at Knebworth Park Saturday 5th July, 1975|
I was at this concert, but don't remember much of Beefheart's performance. The recording was a bootleg for many years, but was given an official release in 2016.
|The Legendary A&M Sessions, 1966 |
|Live At The Avalon Ballroom 1966|
|Magnetism: Best of Captain Beefheart Live 72-81 (2009)|
Safe as Milk (1967)
Strictly Personal (1968)
Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970)
Mirror Man (1971)
The Spotlight Kid (1972)
Clear Spot (1972)
Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974)
Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974)
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
Ice Cream for Crow (1982)
Bat Chain Puller (2012)
Best of lists
* BEA* RYM 10 Best
Reviews* Adrian Denning
* The Guardian
* A Beginner's Guide
554 March 2019