By Miles

New Musical Express, January 3, 1976

You have just heard Captain Beefheart shattering glass objects with the astonishing pitch of his voice

Actually, it didn't work. However, something that did work was the re-uniting of THE CAPTAIN and FRANK ZAPPA a few months ago for a tour and an album, “Bongo Fury”. To mark the occasion, MILES recalls the duo's strange collaborations in earlier times.

The last time the Captain and Frank worked together (until their recent tour) was on “Hot Rats”, September 1969. I know. I was there.

It was 2am and the Captain's face was green in the fluorescent lighting of the 24-hour snackbar at T.T & G. Recording studios. The edges of the formica-topped tables were serrated with cigarette burns. The room was overlit and bleak. The microwave oven emitted a low hum.

Out the window the magic starlit skyline of palms and the distant Santa Monica Mountains covered with lights was broken only by the floodlit painting on the theatre playing Hair. It was done by Simon & Marijike Koger, “The Fool”, and was billed as the “Biggest psychedelic mural in the world”.

We were taking a coffee break.

“I can break glass with my voice,” said Don (The Capt.) conversationally.


“I once blew out a 1,200 dollar Telefunken microphone.”

I had heard the story.

Don gave a demonstration: “BLLLAAAAaaaaaaahhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

We inspected the window. Not a crack.

“I'm feeling a little tired.” He looked it.

The door burst open. “What the hell was that?”

Frank Zappa had heard the noise in the soundproof control booth on the floor below.

“We were seeing if Don's voice could break a window,” I explained, but already Don was thinking about something else and Frank's sudden entry seemed to have disturbed his chain of thought.

“Come and listen to this track,” said Zappa. “It looks like we'll be able to put your vocal on tonight.” But Don didn't think so. His voice was not in top form and it wasn't till later that he sang “Willie The Pimp” so nice.

Frank was recording “Hot Rats” and Johnny Otis was leading the band: Otis stamped his foot ferociously, just ahead of the beat, revealing beautiful black silk socks held in place by suspenders. His late '50s Tony Curtis hairdo, oiled, black as a Lincoln Continental, bobbed staccato with the beat but not a hair moved out of place.

A little sweat appeared on his brow as he grinned and grimaced with the beat, leaning over and clapping his hands a fraction of an inch from the drummer's ear. The drummer did not look pleased.

Johnny had been working for the Musicians Union for the past few years but was soon to make a comeback. His massive injection of energy soon made this band rock and it wasn't long before Frank was twiddling the knobs and explaining:
“I'll just make a test mix before we go.”

Frank goes out into the studio to discuss the positioning of the microphones:
“We'll put the Electrovoice there, pointing upwards to catch the sound of the saxophone as it bounces off the ceiling, after bouncing off the wall. That's how they made it sound so greasy in the '50s…”

The sax player was positioned facing the wall.

Frank's cigarette burned a brown line in the formica.

He stood alone in the studio with his guitar, his wah-wah pedal and his cans on. Not quite alone, sitting in the far corner, absolutely still, maybe even asleep, sat Don Van Vliet.

Frank played a fine solo, listened to it back and then edited on a new ending.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Gail showed up in the big soft Buick. Steering with the palm of her hand she spun the huge air-conditioned powerbraked and steered monster effortlessly up the twists and bends of Laurel Canyon Blvd until we made the final turn at the top and caught a catherine wheel glimpse of the necklaces of light laid out in the valley below before plunging into the dense foliage which conceals all the inhabitants of Laurel Canyon from each other.

“He's burned them all,” muttered Frank.

“You didn't have photocopies?” Frank and Gail talk privately.

“No…Years of work.”

“Are you sure he's done it?”

“Yep. He told me tonight. He did it two weeks ago.”

Captain Beefheart had burned the only copies of hundreds of the songs that he had written. Frank continued to lament. It was obvious from his distress that Beefheart is just about the only contemporary of his that he regards as a creative genius. Happily a few days later there seemed to be some doubt about whether the songs were really destroyed or not.


Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa were to have a business meeting. Hours went by before they emerged and Frank immediately took Herb Cohen, master of Bizarre business, aside for another one. Beefheart and I took a walk out on the back lawn. Georgia, Frank's Alsatian dog, sniffed around us. It was 4am.

“Everyone is out to burn. All artists get burned.” It seemed as if he hadn't really grasped what had been going on at the business meeting at all. He looked worried and distracted.

The problem was “Trout Mask Replica”. The Capt. didn't like the way it was being marketed. “They were selling me like a freak alongside that madman Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs.” At the time Beefheart was not even happy about  the album itself. In a later interview he said: “Zappa wanted to pretend that he had done 'Trout Mask Replica', on which he had done nothing but go to sleep at the mixing board.

“It was way over his head. Not really over his head, just too unstructured and telepathic for him because he's so formed and regimented…”

Frank did have problems producing the album, such recording techniques as singing in one room with the door closed and having the microphone in the other offended his sense of studio professionalism as well as giving a lot of hiss from the high levels needed.

When I asked him about this example Beefheart maintained: “Well to me, that's just the way it is.”

Last week I asked him if “Trout Mask” was really a Zappa album.

“No, he let me have completely what I wanted to do on it. He wanted to make it more, you know the way he is, he wanted excellent recording techniques and stuff but I wanted to do it the way it is so… He threatened to remix that album! He's funny!
“It was released again here you see. I like that album a lot. And I definitely appreciate Frank allowing me that out. Nobody else would have.

“At the time I was naive to money, as I am now, and naive to business and whatnot and I would have liked to have taken a lot longer to put that album out, I would have liked to… but I would have probably ruined it if I'd had the time!” He roars with laughter.

The Zappa-Beefheart friendship is well-known to one and all but just in case you've forgotten I'll run through it real fast:
Zappa invented Captain Beefheart's name around the time that Beefheart moved to Cucamonga to work with Zappa on those two unlikely projects, a film called Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People and a rock and roll group called The Soots, an idea they had first kicked around when they were at Antelope Valley High School out near the Edwards Airforce base, north of Los Angeles.
Zappa had a little studio out in the desert, called Studio Z, and here recorded hours of tape of himself and Beefheart playing together – sounding like early Rolling Stones R & B except with Beefheart's powerful four and a half octaves roaring over everything.

Zappa now has plans to release them as a 15-record set (of course).

Beefheart: “Just before I came on this tour Frank and I had a get-together thing, a happening. It was really interesting because he was finding out if I remembered these things, and of course I remembered everything.

“I even remember the little mouse that was living in the place he was living. It was a quiet little mouse. We used to feed it cheese.”
Zappa was finally busted for making a pornographic tape and went down for ten days. His little five-track studio didn't have much business and he was starving.

Beefheart remembers: “I was there when he picked his first guitar up, 15 years ago. That was in the desert – it was over on a little street by the fairgrounds where they have the rodeos and things.”


“I hadn't spoken to him or seen him for five years. I was up painting and writing and doing all those things and I just hadn't come down to Southern California. The minute I came down there we went on a big tour. Ha, that was fun! I'd been with a group for so many years that it was nice to get away and be free again with a very intelligent person. A very old friend, let's see, he's a little older than me. I think one month. He's a Sagittarius and I'm a Capricorn.

“I just called him up and told him I'd like to see him and he says, 'Well great, come down and hear this album I'm working on', and I said, 'Well, yeah, I'd like to, but I've gotten out of the business. I'm not gonna be in the music business anymore', and he says, 'Oh no, you can't do that', and I said, 'Well I think that's what I'm gonna do'. So Frank said, 'Well come down and hear some records, you know, we'll go on a tour!'

“I said, 'No, I couldn't do that! I couldn't do that!' but when I went down he talked me into it real quick, because he started playing the guitar and I thought, 'Well, hell. I'm going!' Like the Pied Piper, I mean to hear that thing every night? Hoho! … I think he's probably the best guitar player on this planet!”

Zappa's story about the reunion is of course quite different: “He apologised for all the garbagio and asked for a job.” He was auditioned just before Hallowe'en. “He flunked. See, he had a problem with rhythm and we were very rhythm orientated. Things have to happen on the beat.

“I had him come up on the bandstand at our rehearsal hall and try to sing 'Willie The Pimp' and he couldn't get through it. I figured if he couldn't get through that I didn't stand much chance of teaching him the other stuff.”

But Zappa tried him again in the spring. “Although he still has trouble remembering words and making things happen on the beat, he's better. Just before the tour I tried him again and he squeaked by.”

At Knebworth Beefheart was surprised to hear the above. “Imagine there being an audition for people who've known one another for that many years. If he did audition me I didn't notice!”

Well, they say that the first 20 years are the hardest and now that they had so much fun together on the tour, maybe Frank and Don will settle down together with all their holes open and stop bad-mouthing each other.

Brilliant as it is, “Bongo Fury” is only a beginning of what this pair could do together.