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Captain Beefheart

+ {Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band}

Born Don Van Vliet on January 15, 1941, Glendale, Los Angeles, California, the young Don started out as a child-prodigy sculptor who, between the ages of five and thirteen, had his clay animals featured on a weekly TV show hosted by Portuguese sculptor Augustino Rodriguez. An opportunity to develop his art skills were halted when his parents declined a scholarship on his behalf to study art in Europe, preferring instead to move to Lancaster in the Mojave desert. There, he met FRANK ZAPPA at the local high school, setting up a few local bands while ZAPPA started to write a script for a B-movie `Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People’. When FZ went to Los Angeles to form The MOTHERS OF INVENTION, Vliet adopted the name CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and set about recruiting his Magic Band.
Almost immediately (early 1964), the group signed to A&M Records, releasing their version of BO DIDDLEY’s `Diddy Wah Diddy’, which sold enough copies to encourage the label to buy studio time for an album. When completed, president Jerry Moss rejected the tapes, citing it too strange and anti-commercial. Undaunted, the Captain and a revised set of musicians (including RY COODER on two ditty wah ditties), re-recorded most of these masters, the prevailing album SAFE AS MILK {*10} finally surfaced in 1967 on the Kama Sutra label. This was a masterpiece of its time, full of full-on BEEFHEART on a HOWLIN’ WOLF-style trip; the great tracks being `Electricity’, `Abba Zaba’, `Autumn’s Child’ and `Zig Zag Wanderer’.
COODER had already took flight for safer than milky pastures when Van Vliet/Beefheart exited the stage halfway through the group’s set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, leaving the band to play to a bewildered but carefree hippy audience. Beefheart often showed signs of outlandish behaviour, actions which would split the band up as much as his erratic personality.
Late in 1968, the band recorded a follow-up album, MIRROR MAN {*8}, although this LP was shelved until his popularity had grown in the early 70s; the classic – and lengthy `25th Century Quaker Man’ nearly lost in musical cyberspace somewhere.
However, one album did appear that year, STRICTLY PERSONAL {*6}. Lambasted by Beefheart for its radical remix by producer Bob Krasnow, it still managed to reel off the odd classic, `Kandy Korn’, `Gimme Dat Harp Boy’ and a previous outtake, `Safe As Milk’.
The production still riled him so much that he signed a new contract with old friend ZAPPA (to his new Straight Records imprint), who gave him complete artistic control. Having written about thirty songs in a day, Beefheart took his new bunch of weirdo musicians (Antennae Jimmy Semens, Drumbo, Art Tripp III, Zoot Horn Rollo and The Mascara Snake) to rehearse in a near-by house owned by an old friend, Jimmy Carl Black (drummer for ZAPPA). The group stayed there for a full eight months, only one of them at a time venturing out if they were in need of food, drink or er… other vitamins. This was Van Vliet’s tyrannical way of keeping the band “tight”, so as to establish virtuoso musicianship while he got on with some soul-wrenching vocals. The resulting album (a double!), TROUT MASK REPLICA (1969) {*10}, was subsequently delivered to Frank Z – much to his surprise – after surfacing from only a four-hour stint in his studio. When released at the turn of the decade, it was initially given the thumbs down by many critics and fans. Those hardy enough to give it a few tolerant spins, however, were convinced of its genius. The record even bubbled under the UK Top 20, having been played to death on John Peel’s Radio One night-time show. Its virtual insanity was not of this world, utilising the complex structures of jazz legend Ornette Coleman; the best tracks to break through – to the sane among us, were `The Blimp’, `China Pig’, `Pena’, `Dali’s Car’, `Ella Guru’ and `Old Fart At Play’, although one could find solace in any piece given its complexity and longevity; look out for a rare studio version of `Orange Claw Hammer’ on his `Grow Fins’ 5-cd boxed set. The Captain returned the thank-you to ZAPPA, when he sang the track `Willie The Wimp’ on his pal’s `Hot Rats’ LP, although it was said that their friendship was fraying with every subsequent meeting – two egos too big for one small room.
In 1970, with The Mascara Snake superseded by Ed Marimba-man Art Tripp, Beefheart settled down to a more conventional avant-garde Delta-blues album, LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY {*8}. It was another awesome set; combing as it did, the depths of his unearthly roots. Tracks such as `Doctor Dark’, `I Love You, You Big Dummy’ and the title track, revealed the band at work and playfulness. Okay, there was a few odd instrumentals hanging about like `Peon’, `Japan In A Dishpan’ and `One Red Rose That I Mean’, but it was his madness-a-la-carte served up via `I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have A Go’, `Flash Gordon’s Ape’ and `Space-Age Couple’, that secured the belief that Beefheart was still on another planet.
1972 saw yet another great album THE SPOTLIGHT KID {*8}, a self-produced solo set featuring the bluesy delights of `Click Clack’, `Grow Fins’, `I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby’ and `When It Grows It Stacks’. Why it was credited to a solo set was anybody’s guess, as his trusty Magic Band players were still the main core of the album’s maniacal rhythms.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND’s follow-up came by way of CLEAR SPOT (1972) {*8}, an LP that covered almost new territory courtesy of softer tracks such as `Too Much Time’ and `My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains’, reason enough to tempt his worthy sidekicks to subsequently bail out and form their own outfit, Mallard. The album did however, include another powerful Beefheart special in the shape of `Big Eyed Beans From Venus’; the avant-garde showed up on `Golden Birdies’ and `Low Yo Yo Stuff’.
In 1974, with another new line-up, the Captain signed to UK’s burgeoning imprint Virgin Records. His work at this point was to say the least, erratic, especially on the first of two albums that year, UNCONDITIONALLY GUARANTEED {*7}. At just over half an hour between the grooves, the 10-song platter was disappointing for many devotees, although on reflection stuff ’n’ nonsense tracks (all penned with wife Jane Van Vliet and producer Andy DiMartino) were hidden gemstones. `Upon The My O My’, the pop-fuelled `Sugar Bowl’, the swaggering `New Electric Ride’ and the celestial `Magic Be’ were essential additions to the band’s effervescent repertoire. Although croaky and almost romantic in places, `Happy Love Song’, `This Is The Day’ and the uptempo `Full Moon Hot Sun’ and `Peaches’ paved the way for its uncompromising follow-up.
BLUEJEANS & MOONBEAMS {*8} was not everyone’s cup of char, but for the more astute fan, it was indeed a classic – and probably his most accessible record to-date – or ever! From the opening bars and rasps of `Party Of Special Things To Do’ to the title track finale, this was prime quality Beefheart. Not known for too many covers, JJ CALE’s `Same Old Blues’ (also known to LYNYRD SKYNYRD acolytes) was given a positive treatment, while band members Elliot Ingber (aka the Winged-Eel Fingerling) and newcomer Mark Gibbons were upgraded to co-credited songsmiths on `Rock’n’Roll’s Evil Doll’. And how could one escape the almost kaleidoscopic `Observatory Crest’ or the pleading heartache of `Further Than We’ve Gone’ – pure classics of the era.
Given the man’s numerous record label ties between America, Britain and beyond, Vliet tried to escape yet another restrictive deal – it was said he would sign anything – and teamed up with his old pal FRANK ZAPPA and the MOTHERS. Their collaboration, BONGO FURY (1975) {*5}, set the ball rolling for a litigation battle between him and Virgin UK, resulting in another deal, this time with the mighty Warner Brothers. Delayed for a few years, SHINY BEAST [BAT CHAIN PULLER] {*7}, eventually saw light in 1978 (1980 in the UK), an altogether Beefheart-meets-jazz-disco affair featuring the mariachi-fuelled `Tropical Hot Dog Night’ and disjointed `Candle Mambo’ – was OINGO BONGO’s Danny Elfman (now film composer extraordinaire) listening? From the sombre-noir `Love Lies’ to the delights of the earthy and organic title track to the mouth-organ-friendly screech of `Owed T’Alex’, this LP was as funky and fucked-up as any ol’ Captain B performance.
With newcomer guitarist Gary Lucas and the returning John French at the helm, DOC AT RADAR STATION (1980) {*7}, meanwhile, was another raw and avant-garde piece of alt-rock; just as satisfying to post-punks or masochistic musos from the late 60s. As ever volatile and outrageously dangerous, tracks that shone out for the Beefheart-ians were `Hot Head’, `Ashtray Heart’, `Run Paint Run Run’, `Sue Egypt’ and the manic jangle in `Dirty Blue Gene’; if only for its title `Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Back’ (parental guidance a must) was a multi-layered poetic finale to yet another gemstone of unadulterated cosmic blues.
Considered a tad more friendly and freewheeling than its predecessor, ICE CREAM FOR CROW (1982) {*6}, was to be Beefheart’s final musical epitaph. Rolling along in its choppy rhythmic blues beats, its raucous title track opening salvo took centre-stage. Jeff Morris Tepper and Lucas were again on hand to bring its wayward quirkiness, while the final Magic Band heralded two further rank and files, Richard “Midnight Hat Size” Snyder on bass/guitar and Cliff Martinez on drums. `The Host, The Ghost, The Most Holy-O’ and the catchy `Semi Multicoloured Caucasian’ instrumentals were works of art (or the art of workouts), addictive to the nth degree; could be said it was like `Light Reflected Off The Oceans Of The Moon’; the final nail in the Captain’s musical box of tricks.
The Captain subsequently became Don Van Vliet again and retired from the music business, setting up home with his wife Jan in a trailer park located inside the Mojave desert. Still an avid sculptor and painter, with the help of fan Julian Schnabel, he began exhibiting his primitive canvases, which, ironically, made him lots more money than his records ever did. In the mid-80s, a host of young British indie acts including STUMP, The McKENZIES, The SHRUBS, et al, took on the mantle of the Beefheart sound. Always asked if he would return, artist Van Vliet repeatedly refused to get back on the music bandwagon; having fallen into ill-health, both physically and mentally, a return to the recording studio was always unlikely to say the least. A remarkable figure of his time, CAPTAIN BEEFHEART exemplified the glory of not worrying about the exploitation of the music industry, only happy with his own, and of course the Magic Band’s projections. Sadly, and without much of a whimper from the mass media outside the confines of his all-knowing and ever-growing multitude of fans, Don Van Vliet died of complications to his multiple sclerosis on December 17, 2010.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2012

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