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Music

The Beatles' lyric that sent Captain Beefheart into a wild rage

@SamWKemp

There are few figured more mythologised in the world of rock music than Don Van Vliet (AKA Captain Beefheart). With his Magic Band, Captain Beefheart recorded 13 studio albums between 1964 and 1982, blending blues, free jazz, rock, and avante-garde to brilliant effect. His legendary album Trout Mask Replica, despite being one of the most absurd and inaccessible rock albums of all time, in 1969, reached number 21 in the UK album charts.

As well as being a one-time child prodigy and notorious teller of tall tales, Van Vliet was also a fearsome and dictatorial band leader. Not being a friend musician himself, he would devise elaborate if entirely impractical arrangements, which the band had to play or risk being fired, or worse, hired down the stairs. With Trout Mask Replica, however, Captain Beefheart succeeded in establishing himself as one of the most significant influences on experimental music, making The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band seem like a straightforward pop record.

Perhaps that’s why he took such a strong disliking to one of its biggest singles. Whilst he had achieved cult status, by 1967, Captain Beefheart hadn’t achieved anything like the success of The Beatles. However, he still believed that it was simply a matter of time before the world caught up, describing how his music: “isn’t so different from the music in their minds. Because I can conceive it so naturally, it’s bound to be in their minds. Sooner or later they’ll catch on; they’ll learn to understand it without asking why. All tongues are connected, you know — we all drink from the same pond.”

But Captain Beefheart’s optimism didn’t stop him from standing in opposition to The Beatles, and especially to John Lennon. Somewhere along the way, Beefheart had become incensed by Lennon, probably owing to his failure to respond to the letter of support Beefheart had written and sent to John and Yoko during their bed-in in New York. Despite already having mocked Lennon in his song ‘Beatles Bones N’ Smokin’ Stones’, Van Vliet continued to express his anger at being snubbed by the musician.

Desciribing his hatred for a seemingly impotent lyric in ‘A Day in the Life’, Van Vliet said to one journalist: “I’ll tell you one thing I didn’t like – The Beatles saying that they were going to ‘turn you on’. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life. No man or woman can turn another person on. The Minute you hit the air you’re on. Like I said on ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ – ‘Jump in the air and hit your eyes/Try to go back and there wasn’t one.’ The idea of trying to turn someone on, that’s the biggest concession stand I’ve ever heard,” he concluded.

Van Vliet did later concede that he’d bumped into Paul McCartney at a party and found him to be immensely likeable, describing him as “a nice person”, and naming him as the creative force behind The Beatles. Still, Van Vliet just couldn’t bring himself to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band more than once.

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