Captain Beefheart (Slight Return)

Anyone who read my recent post Of Bob & Beefheart & A Big Old Hat may feel a sense of deja vu. I’m repeating the final section on Captain Beefheart (with a few additions to encourage re-reading) because my earlier post broke the 15+ tag prohibition and consequently didn’t show up on the WordPress Reader. Too many tags and too long-winded (just ask my friends, if you can wake them!) so I’ve cut to the chase, trimmed the fat and left you the juicy bits. Let’s see if this shows up on the radar … 


                                   Key   Brown for sound, big arrow on left to return to text

I like to imagine Bob Dylan tearing pages out of the rule book and feeding them one by one to a roaring fire on the windy beach in Mister Tambourine Man. But perhaps the best candidate for Most Complete Musical Rebel of the 1960s was Captain Beefheart. Don Van Vliet, to use his civilian name, certainly ticks all the boxes … though I can’t imagine he would enjoy filling in the forms.

There’s a filmed interview where Beefheart describes the bom-bom-bom-bom-bom of commercial music as ‘the mama heartbeat’ – a hypnotic that sent people into a trance, he believed, a cataleptic state from which he sought to shake them with his fractured and wildly unpredictable music. And just down the beach from Bob Dylan, here we see The Magic Band pretending to imitate the surf boys but please click on Diddy Wah Diddy to spot early signs of subversion.

Debut album Safe As Milk was conventional by later Beefheart standards with a commercial touch provided by Ry Cooder, whose favourite track was Autumn’s Child. I’ll plump for the even more surreal Abba Zaba, the only song I know that celebrates a private childhood mythology about a chocolate bar. Babbette Baboon was his secret name for the monkey on the wrapper …

The ‘difficult’ second album was Strictly Personal, wrecked or rescued – a matter of personal taste – by its trendy use of phasing effects. In my view, the material was strong enough without fancy production tricks. The controversy doesn’t stop there because John Lennon was reportedly offended by the pastiche of Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin Stones which pokes fun at the childlike elements in Strawberry Fields. This is ironic because the waspish Beatle never showed pity towards the objects of his own barbed lampoons. The irony deepens when you consider how childlike Beefheart was, still the young boy who won the sculpture competition but was prevented from taking up a six-year scholarship in France because his parents thought the art world too ‘queer’. You couldn’t make that up, could you? But it goes some way to explain what drove the guy. Yeah, strictly personal …

Widely acknowledged as The Magic Band’s masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica broke new territory in sheer Dadaist daftness. Almost as weird is the story of this monster double-album’s making as told in the excellent 1997 BBC Documentary – public broadcasting, yay! – narrated by John Peel, the DJ who made the band famous in the UK.

Come to think of it, why are you wasting time reading this when you could be watching the documentary?

trout-mask-replica-501d04ad4c085Oh no, you’re still reading … I expect you want to know what I think of the album. The short answer is, I’m trying hard not to. That front cover gives me the heebie-jeebies and this back cover scares me shitless. Who are these crazy people, that they invade my dreams and point their alien death rays in my direction?


I have it on very good authority that anyone who makes the mistake of listening to these hideous jungle rhythms will never be the same again … so don’t say you haven’t been warned. By all accounts, the follow-up album Lick My Decals Off, Baby is even more scary. Let’s keep Halloween a wholesome family festival, I say … and will therefore take absolutely no responsibility for what might happen if you click on Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop which sounds to me like a foreigner of terrestrial or even extra-terrestrial origin pretending to speak English …

OK, feeble attempts to be funny aside, time to come clean! My name it is nothing (thanks for that, Bob) and I am a Captain Beefheart junky. I like everything he did, the weirder the better. TMR is a bona fide work of genius which should be heard all the way through at one sitting – hence no tracks here – and LMDOB, though it doesn’t always hang together, isn’t far behind.

But if your own strangeness threshold is set lower than mine you may be on safer ground with the album many folk say is the place to start – Clear Spot. Made with the intention of establishing a more commercial direction, its clean sound and crisp delivery can be heard on tracks such as Big Eyed Beans From Venus … but wait a minute, what’s with the weird song title? … and those people on the album cover with that spooky thing that looks like a spaceship command module … I think one of them might be Chinese …


Hang on, unless I’m imagining it, I can hear these like well weird words …

Mister Zoot Horn Rollo / Hit that long lunar note / And let it float …..


By contrast, the cover of Spotlight Kid shows the good Captain as a model of sartorial elegance, albeit a little dandified. But spin the platter and any suspicion he’s become a lounge lizard is dispelled after a few notes. We hear the old brain-mangling rhythms, the wild lyrical pastiche, the whole crazy circus – as here, in a live and dangerous version of the album’s most compelling track, Click Clack.

The mid 1970s were his wilderness years. Soft rock and singer-songwriters held sway and there seemed to be no place for this eccentric genius, never a friend to fashionable formulas. It took the rise of punk to bring him back in favour but Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was no garage record. Adventurous horn arrangements created a distinctive new soundscape for his usual flights of vocal fancy.The title track was an attempt to replicate the rhythm of windscreen wipers on a car at a level crossing with a train lumbering slowly past … his composing method always more like painting, daubing sound in layers. If all art aspired to the condition of music, as the Victorian critic Walter Pater believed, then you could count on Don Van Vliet to be moving in the opposite direction.

For fans of Beefheart’s weird side, Doc At The Radar Station was even more welcome. Here he returned to late 60s demos and created new songs around them, like Dirty Blue Gene, just as good live in 1980. And as for his last ever record, the third of his acclaimed come-back albums … would his newly-diagnosed illness and his return to painting find him muted and mellowed, taking the company shilling, selling out to the man at last? Anyone would have forgiven him for taking it easy.

The opening shot in the next clip looks promising. There he is, silhouetted against the golden evening sun, standing calm and quiet in a big old hat … tell you what, why don’t we give the old reprobate one more chance to prove he’s a reformed character? Let’s hit the album’s title track, kinda sweet idea ain’t it … Ice Cream For Crow?


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