Ahead of a slew of reissues – the classic Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) among them – David Davies profiles the visionary, single-minded and sometimes bloody awkward minded cuss that was Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet.
Overfamiliarity can dull the edges of even the most intriguing music, so it’s good to know that there isn’t even the remotest chance of this ever happening to the work of Captain Beefheart. His chaotic, ratchety, sometimes perverse music is never going to be played on the radio – you have to go looking for it. But beware: the impact on the unitiated of hearing Beefheart for the first time can be dramatic, and certainly this particular writer’s career as a mobile DJ was cut brutally short when he decided to play the dancefloor-evacuating Trout Mask Replica in its entirety..
There’s a blatant untruth in that last sentence which might have pleased Beefheart, real-name Don Van Vliet, who was more than keen on the odd fib. A man who could claim straight-faced that he dreamt up an entire album (Strictly Personal) in one night after a whole year without sleep, for example, was never going to invite total credulity. He wasn’t even inclined to be upfront about his own pseudonym, although it is widely believed to refer to a term used by Van Vliet’s uncle to describe his own, um, appendage.
What we can be fairly sure about is that music didn’t play much of a role in his early life. Born in 1941, Van Vliet’s early passion was for painting and sculpture – which, in the second half of his life, would come to the fore once again – and he only really immersed himself in music, particularly the blues, when he found himself studying alongside Frank Zappa at high school in California. The pair began experimenting with writing pop parodies and a film script entitled Captain Beefheart vs the Grunt People, and finally – after dropping out of an art major course and an unlikely spell in shoe store management – Van Vliet began to play a few small club gigs and dances. His growling vocals, able harmonica playing and generally forbidding presence were always destined to make him a powerful frontman, and so it proved when the first proper incarnation of the ever changing Magic Band took shape in 1965.
The band’s first phase – like all the others to come – was anything but an easy ride, and an early version of first album Safe As Milk was reportedly rejected for being “too negative”. Still, Mk2 – featuring new drummer John ‘Drumbo’ French and a very young Ry Cooder on guitar – would prove to be one of the most incendiary debuts ever made, offering a skewed but accessible take on bluesified rock. In a precedent-setting development, the album was a commercial dud, and Beefheart ended up turning to old friend Zappa to assist with his next album, Trout Mask Replica. There are so many stories about the making of this album – the non-piano playing Beefheart wrote the whole thing in 24 hours on a standup joanna, everyone was fried on acid/drug-free (delete as appropriate), etc – that it’s impossible to know what to believe. What’s beyond doubt is that TMR stills sounds like a cranium-busting sojourn into a parallel musical universe, containing 28 maddeningly inventive tracks that straddle rock, blues and freeform jazz but somehow owe little to any established genre. It was once remarked of the initially low-selling first Velvet Underground album that everybody who heard it went out and formed a band; the same may well be true of TMR.
Some would say that he never topped it, but he certainly had a bloody good go. Following the only slightly less ‘out there’ Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Beefheart – openly frustrated at his lack of sales – determined upon a more commercial course for The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, with the latter’s ‘Too Much Time’ sounding remarkably like a lost Stax soul classic. Recorded during a protracted period of hirings, firings and entire line-ups vowing never to work with the man again, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams continued the move towards mainstream rock. Chart-wise, however, Beefheart still couldn’t get arrested, so he linked up with Zappa once more for the collaborative album Bongo Fury. Their always fractious relationship was tested to breaking point when Zappa then offered to release Bat Chain Puller, and a series of contractual problems led Beefheart to re-record the entire thing as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in 1976. A return to old style, wonky Beefheart, the album restored his reputation and saw him embark on a strong final period that also produced Doc At the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream For Crow (1982).
By this point, Beefheart was again painting feverishly, and his line in abstract expressionism – prompting comparisons with Picasso – drew rave notices when he began to exhibit seriously in the mid ‘80s. In fact, it soon became clear that Van Vliet was going to make considerably more money on canvas than he ever would on vinyl, and so he drifted quietly but permanently away from music. Now 65 and reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, Beefheart’s legend is, in any case, secure. Don’t let his ceaselessly inventive, ‘fast’n’bulbous’ oeuvre pass you by.
Unconditionally Guaranteed, Bluejeans & Moonbeams, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc At the Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow were re-released by Virgin in 2006, Live London '74, a previously unreleased live album, was also released at the same time.