Captain Beefheart

By ?

Rip It Up, May 1980

Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, is the great musical eccentric. Little is known about the man prior to his emergence in California in 1965. Thought to be somewhere in his 40’s, he is an enigma whose erratic career has been frequently beset by personal and emotional upheavals and complex business hassles.

The Captain and his Magic Band were first recorded live in 1965, but the LP, Mirror Man, was not released until 1971. A quixotic mixture of blues, free jazz and hard rock, it is still regarded as a major and often misunderstood work.

Frank Zappa became interested in Beefheart in 1966, but the first recording sessions were abortive, largely due to personality clashes. Even today, the two have an intense love-hate relationship. Zappa still claims Beefheart has little or no sense of melody or timing, but like many of Zappa’s views, that can be taken with a grain of salt. The fact that Beefheart rates a mention in Joachim Berendt’s presitigious Jazz Book for his sax playing shows how highly he is regarded.

He signed with Buddah in 1967 and produced Safe As Milk, a strong collection of original songs based on rural blues and featuring Ry Cooder on slide guitar. By the time it was released, Beefheart was off in other directions.

He split with Buddah and recorded his follow-up, Strictly Personal, on the Sunset label, showing a stronger trend towards free improvisation. Switching to Zappa’s Straight Records in 1969, Beefheart recorded two classic albums, Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Both works stunned with their virtuosity and unorthodoxy, symptoms of the man’s personal nightmares.

Switching again, to Reprise, Beefheart produced The Spotlight Kid, a return to the blues, depressed and schizophrenic. But as his moods frequently changed, so did his music, and the next release, Clear Spot, was a much happier effort.

His signing with Virgin in 1974 led to numerous American contractual difficulties, with Reprise claiming prior distribution rights. The less-than-satisfactory Unconditionally Guaranteed was released during this time, but not until last year were all problems resolved, Virgin finally gaining-worldwide rights.

The Captain’s new work Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is actually a re-recorded version of slightly earlier material, previously marketed by another company with a slightly different title. (Another earlier work, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, is best forgotten). Shiny Beast is a superb return to form, with Beefheart’s primitive, animal voice snarling with a newfound virility.

His ever-changing Magic Band is largely new this time, with the exception of drummer Robert Williams, and marimba player Art Tripp.

Captain Beefheart is truly worthy of the "years ahead of his time" label, and while he may never be more than a cult figure, those in the know to this infuriating, wondrous man can feel privileged.