“An explosion of otherness. A man who took an orange claw hammer to his influences and rearranged them in his own image. A man, as John Peel once put it, “originally intended for another planet”. Your crazy old uncle sitting in the corner growling to himself. The triumph of deeply human drives over civilisation. A one man Rorschach test. Irrepressibly uplifting. Considering how echoes of Beefheart reverberate through ‘popular’ music, the relative lack of recognition he receives betrays the sad fact that even those who pay lip service to originality often prefer originality to be a category to be filed under, rather than a riotous act of self- expression.”
Born Don Glen Vliet, he started his career together with childhood friend Frank Zappa in local groups such as The Omens and The Blackouts, by which time he had added “Van” to his name and was thus named Don Van Vliet. His artist name “Captain Beefheart” came from an aborted film project by him and Zappa, “Captain Beefheart Vs. The Grunt People.”
In 1965 the first Magic Band came about. They played blues and R’n’B, both covers & own material, and got a contract with A&M Records where they released two singles. The first, “Diddy Wah Diddy” (a Bo Diddley cover) became a minor hit, but A&M eventually dropped the Magic Band, and the band quit en masse.
Nevertheless, new members , and in 1967 Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band released their debut album Safe as Milk on Buddha Records. By now the band’s sound and material had evolved, even though the music was still much rooted in blues, rock and R’n’B. The Magic Band’s line up now included Ry Cooder . The quirky “Electricity” with its heavy use of theremin, and the psychedelic and a little more advanced “Autumn Child” pointed the way to the future.
The next album saw a new record label, as their debut hadn’t been commercially successful enough (although it, upon its release, was one of John Lennon’s favorite albums). Blue Thumb Records released Strictly Personal in 1968, by when Jeff Cotton had replaced Cooder on guitar. This album continues the style from its precursor, if not a bit rawer and bluesier. Over the years it has been criticized heavily for producer Bob Krasnow’s mixing, which include every known psychedelic trick – heavy phasing, reversed parts, heavy delay. The quality of the music shines through this, but even so, due to the over-phased mixing, this was even less of a commercial success than Safe as Milk had been.
It is for the legendary 1969 album Trout Mask Replica that the Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band are best remembered for. Its producer Frank Zappa gave his childhood friend Captain Beefheart full artistic freedom for the album who used this opportunity to the fullest.
The double LP, containing 28 songs, contains a unique crossing of everything, but mostly free jazz & blues. New members entered the Magic Band, including Beefheart’s cousin Victor Hayden (The Mascara Snake) as a part time member who contributed free form bass clarinet and vocal. Wow.
In preparation for the recording of this album they locked themselves in a small house under Captain Beefheart’s lead, strictly rehearsed most hours of the days for approximately nine months in order to manage the extremely intricate compositions.
Most songs have uneven time meters or no meters at, yet the musicians are locked with each other at all time, and sound practiced, but the music is about as far from mainstream as one can get. After this exhausting experience, a sick Jeff Cotton left (with two broken ribs). The album was recorded in a mere four hours.
Instead of replacing Jeff Cotton (or Antennae Jimmy Semens, as he was credited on the album) by another guitarist, Art Tripp III joined on marimba & extra drums. The interplay between guitar and marimba makes Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which is in the same style as TMR, but more focused, a unique record. Due to contractual difficulties, this album hasn’t been offered on CD since the early 1990s.
In 1972, by which time Don Van Vliet had incidentally had some minor exhibits for his abstract paintings, The Captain started on the road to more accessible music, beginning with two more Soul/R’n’B/Blues oriented records; The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot.
After having recorded Unconditionally Guaranteed – an even more commercial attempt than the previous two albums, which included founding Magic Band member Alex St. Clair on guitar, the Magic Band eventually left Captain Beefheart to later form Mallard. Beefheart hired a totally new line up, unofficially known as “The Tragic Band”, for an upcoming tour and yet another commercial album, Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The new group was badly received by the public – especially by fans of Trout Mask Replica – and eventually disbanded.
In 1975, when Captain Beefheart was without a band, record label and audience, he joined Frank Zappa for a short tour as singer and harmonica player, which resulted in the live album Bongo Fury, plus a few guest appearances on Zoot Allures, and One Size Fits All (where Captain Beefheart was credited as Bloodshot Rollin’ Red).
A year later, Captain Beefheart formed a new Magic Band again with whom he began touring. They recorded a new album, Bat Chain Puller, which due to legal problems with Zappa wouldn’t be issued until 2012. The 1978 album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)mostly consisted of re-recorded material from the originally intended release.
It was considered a return to form and continued the style from the old days, and after two more appreciated studio albums in the same style, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow, Captain Beefheart quit the music scene in 1983. Incidentally, a music video made for the title track of Ice Cream for Crow was rejected by MTV while accepted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Known as Don Van Vliet rather than Captain Beefheart, he started focusing more on painting, and had his first solo museum exhibition in 1989. He would remain out of the public eye for the rest of his life, with few public apperances and no new music. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, he was confined to a wheelchair by the early 90s, and it was complications resulting from this illness which led to his death in 2010.