The reign of Captain Beefheart and how he changed rock music forever
“I don’t even know what sound is, much less what it’s for. It isn’t to make money that’s for sure. I’ve never made any.” – Captain Beefheart
Don Van Vliet, or more famously known as ‘Captain Beefheart’, was born today, January 15th, in 1941. Over the span of 18 years making music as Captain Beefheart and with his Magic Band; he fused blues, free jazz, and the avant-garde with prolific effect. His lyrical content would often contain elements of absurdity and had a kind of music of its own which would often mirror the instrumentation of his songs. When Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s debut album came out in 1967, Safe as Milk, which was preceded by a cover of Bo Diddley song ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’, it prompted music critics to call Don Van Vliet the “best white blues singer”. In an interview with John Letterman in 1982, Don explained the meaning behind his name: “A beef in my heart against society.”
Mike Barnes quotes Captain Beefheart in his biography, revealing: “I was born with my eyes open—I didn’t WANT to be born—I can remember deep down in my head that I fought against my mother bringing me into the world,” he said, before adding: “I remember when the jerk slapped me on the fanny and I saw the yellow tile and I thought what a hell of a way to wake somebody up.” This sense of absurdity disguised as humour definitely encapsulates the mood of many of Beefheart’s records, even his first two which many would call the most accessible. At heart, the man behind his trout mask and who goes by the moniker Captain Beefheart was not much of a musician in the traditional sense, that he didn’t know how to write or play many instruments. He was, however, a true blues singer in spirit.
His overall output as a songwriter and artist is a wild rollercoaster ride of crazy trips and imaginative explorations of where minds have never been before – with a smattering of beautiful, albeit seldom – soul and blues ballads that are not too far away from what someone like Joe Cocker might do.
1967’s Safe as Milk features Captain Beefheart’s most accessible music, and while it is a product of the times, it also exists outside of the influence and zeitgeist of the hippie era. Beefheart’s massive impact and how he changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll, is that he was way ahead of his time. Before punk even existed, it could be argued that Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were already making new wave music with their first album.
The music journalist and critic, Simon Reynolds, called Captain Beefheart’s music ‘Cubist R&B’ and, considering that Don Van Vliet started as a very gifted sculptor (he would eventually retire from music in 1982, and find more financial success with sculpting) at a young age; his genius in music stemmed from his innate creative ability.
By the time it was 1969, he and his Magic Band would go on and record the highly influential and controversial album Trout Mask Replica. This album alone would cement Beefheart as a seminal composer in the pantheon of great composers throughout history. Even though punk had not exploded yet, he laid the groundwork for post-punk, new wave, and no wave, allowing the likes of Brian Eno and David Bowie to pick up from where Beefheart had left off.
By the time 1976 hit, Captain Beefheart would be continuously cited as a significant influence by the likes of John Lydon; Simon Reynolds in his book, Rip it Up and Start Again, explains: “Musically, what (Lydon) loved about Captain Beefheart and the dub producers was their experimental playfulness, the way they ‘just love sound’, they like using any sound.”
Reynolds continues by detailing the comparisons between Beefheart’s far-reaching influence and the parallels between these later genres and Beefheart’s music: “Inspired by Beefheart’s jagged avant-blues, Devo broke up the low with a deliberately groovy, stop-start approach that would eventually become a hallmark of new wave.” If Captain Beefheart’s first two albums, Safe as Milk and Strictly Personal are part post-punk and part new wave, then Trout Mask Replica is no wave. As Simon Reynolds confidently writes in his book: “Scour the history of rock n’ roll and you’ll find only a handful of precedents for what the No Wavers did: Velvet Underground at their least songful and most punishingly abstract noise oriented; Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music; Yoko Ono’s primal screech and John Lennon’s guitar gougings for the Plastic Ono Band; the avant-blues convulsions of Captain Beefheart.”
What is no wave? No wave is a call to disregard form, but specifically, the forms of punk, post-punk and new wave. It was the likes of Captain Beefheart who inspired the aforementioned artists: Lou Reed, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and even John Lydon. In essence, Captain Beefheart is very post-modern. Simon Reynolds provides a definition of the philosophy behind no wave in its more relevant context, as it pertains to the time period it began to develop as a distinction or category of music: “Curiously, it was as though No Wavers felt that the electronic route to making a postrock noise was too easy. It was more challenging, and perhaps more threatening, too, to use rock’s own tools against itself. Which is why no wave music irresistibly invites metaphors of dismemberment, desecration, and ‘defiling rock’s corpse.”
Captain Beefheart can be described as many things, but one can never describe him as taking the easy route. His Magic Band, whose members – funny enough – would sometimes magically disappear because of Don’s overbearing and at times violent tendencies. For example, the fearless leader of The Magic Band once threw the drummer, John French (the sole surviving member of the band) down a flight of stairs, which was intended to be a sacking. This was one of many times that John French left the band but was always followed by a return to Captain Beefheart’s absurd ranks.
In an interview with Samuel Andreyev on Youtube, John French spoke to the interviewer about the chaotic time he spent under the leadership of Don. Andreyev asked French, “What do you attribute the longevity of your working relationship with (Captain Beefheart)?”
“The next time I worked with him was in ’75, and I went in with the idea of doing a couple of big shows he was doing,” he replied. “He was doing Knebworth and then he did a pretty high-paying show at the Roxy. And I needed money. I couldn’t get a gig with bands; bands thought I was horrible, they thought I couldn’t play regular drums. I couldn’t play 2 and 4 all night, or I would go crazy. I’d want to try something different and experiment. Years later, these guys came up to me and said ‘I didn’t realise you were a famous drummer! I thought you were a horrible drummer, but you were just playing over my head’.”
John French was more than just a drummer for Captain Beefheart’s magic band, especially during the writing sessions for Trout Mask Replica. Since Don could barely play an instrument; he played and wrote as much as he could of the album on piano. It was John French’s job to transcribe what Captain Beefheart was plunking out and to write proper notations so the entire band could learn and rehearse the songs.
Despite Captain Beefheart’s lack of ability to play music, he was still able to direct, conduct, and show his magic band the songs that he envisioned. This is where Beefheart’s true genius lay, especially when he created Trout Mask Replica. Composers and music aficionados appreciate the album as much as Captain Beefheart fanatics. While the album itself is very avant-garde, jagged, and angular with no seeming structure to it; the band rehearsed the material for hours, that contrary to popular belief, was actually written.
Captain Beefheart was able to concoct intricate music with not only polyrhythms but also polytonal elements; where typically, a band will utilise two guitars – one lead (foreground), and a rhythm (background) – The magic band did have two guitars, but both were in the forefront, equally as necessary and, at times, playing in different time signatures and keys. These were some of the underlying elements that made Beefheart’s music essential and, whether you like the music or not, made it objectively good.