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Off the Beaten Tracks: Well-done Beefheart

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CAPTAIN Beefheart once sang: ‘I may be hungry but I sure ain’t weird.’ The rest of the world might beg to differ.

The cap’n, also known as Don Van Vliet, produced some of the most challenging music of the 20th century, particularly with Trout Mask Replica. This double album released in 1969 has divided critics and fans ever since, with many decrying it as rubbish and the rest hailing it as a masterpiece. It was finally officially accepted as a bona fide work of art in 2011, the year after his death, when it was inducted into the National Recording Registry, a list of sound clips which ‘are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States’.

During his short musical career, Beefheart did his best to create myths around himself and his achievements. Here, I have done my best to separate facts from fiction.

Don Glen Vliet (the Van came later) was born on January 15, 1941 in Glendale, California. His father, Glen Alonzo Vliet, was of Dutch descent and ran a service station.

At the age of three Don began dabbling in art and when he was nine won a sculpture competition organised for the Los Angeles Zoo. He claimed that his parents were not happy about his talent because they thought all artists were ‘queer’ and turned down several offers of scholarships for their son. He also insisted that he had never been formally educated, saying: ‘If you want to be a different fish you have to jump out of the pool’.

However when the family moved to Lancaster, in the Mojave Desert, he attended Antelope Valley High School where he met Frank Zappa, at the time drummer with a part-time band named the Blackouts. The pair shared a love of Chicago blues and spent hours in Don’s bedroom listening to records. They also formed a group called the Soots (pronounced to rhyme with hoots).

Don’s father was by now driving a bread truck for a living and when he had a heart attack his son left school and took over the job for a while. He also managed a shoe store and worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, once allegedly offloading his product on the author Aldous Huxley after telling him, ‘I assure you, sir, this thing sucks.’

Modelling his vocal style on that of Howlin’ Wolf, our hero learned the harmonica and began to perform around the clubs of Southern California. In early 1965 he was invited by blues guitarist Alex Snouffer to sing with a group he was setting up and they became known as Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, releasing two singles on A&M, Diddy Wah Diddy and Moonchild, before signing with Buddah Records the following year. A 20-year-old Ry Cooder joined the group to record the album Safe as Milk, which came out in 1967.

A mixture of skewed blues and rock, Safe as Milk opens with Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do, a rip-off of the Muddy Waters song Rollin’ and Tumblin’. A version of Grown So Ugly, by Robert Pete Williams, was arranged by Cooder. Dropout Boogie would years later be combined in inspired fashion with the Shadows’ instrumental Apache by Britain’s Edgar Broughton Band. Abba Zaba was named after Don’s favourite candy bar.

The album failed to sell despite being heavily advertised, and a planned appearance at the Monterey Festival fell through after Cooder quit the band. As I have written previously, the last straw for him was Beefheart walking off the end of the stage (landing on his manager) after claiming he had seen a female audience member turn into a fish.  

Well received in Europe, where John Peel plugged it heavily, the LP was a hit with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Lennon was photographed in his Surrey home reading International Times with two Safe as Milk bumper stickers on the wall behind him. 

At one point the Beatles hoped to sign Beefheart to their experimental label Zapple. The admiration was not mutual, however, with the American dismissing the Moptops’ music as ‘lullabies’. He mocked them on his next album with a song called Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin’ Stones

The LP, Strictly Personal, had a difficult development. In late 1967 the band began recording with producer Bob Krasnow, intending to create a double album called It Comes To You in a Plain Brown Wrapper, half of which would be captured live in the studio, i.e. without overdubs. The tapes were deemed not good enough for release by Buddah, although it held on to them. After another studio spell in 1968, the group went to tour in Europe. While they were away, Krasnow remixed the later tapes with heavy psychedelic effects including phasing and deep echo and released Strictly Personal on his own Blue Thumb label. Confusingly, the second track is Safe as Milk which was not included on the album of that name.

Highlights include the lengthy Trust Us, which includes the line ‘Such is is and ain’t is ain’t’. I wonder if Bill Clinton had that in mind during the 1998/9 impeachment hearing when he answered a question thus: ‘It depends what the meaning of the word “is” is.’ Somehow I doubt it.

Beefheart was scathing about Krasnow’s handiwork, insisting that the original 1967 tapes were better. In 1971 Buddah would release a selection of them as Mirror Man. This comprises Kandy Korn plus three lengthy tracks recorded live in the studio – the title songTarotplane and 25th Century Quaker

All are brilliant, rolling, swampy blues numbers and show a band at the top of its form. In 1999 an extended version, The Mirror Man Sessions, was released and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Back to 1968, and on their return from Europe the band rented a small house in LA where they began eight months of intensive rehearsal for what would become Trout Mask Replica. The line-up at the time was drummer John French, renamed Drumbo by Beefheart, Jeff Cotton on guitar (Antennae Jimmy Semens), another guitarist, Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), bassist Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) and clarinettist Victor Hayden (The Mascara Snake).

Beefheart assumed the role of not-so-benevolent dictator and made the band practise for fourteen hours a day, berating them and even beating them up if they failed to match his expectations. To make matters worse they were all broke and living in hunger and squalor, relying on welfare plus family contributions. Some of the band were arrested for shoplifting food and Zappa had to bail them out.

According to Beefheart it was he who taught the Magic Band how to play. In fact they were all accomplished musicians while he was the novice. It was left to French to convert his boss’s half-baked ideas concocted on a piano (which he could not play) into the finished compositions.

Finally it was time to enter the studio, with Zappa on production duties, and the bulk of the instrumental tracks were recorded in a single six-hour session. Beefheart was, to say the least, difficult to work with. Zappa told this brilliant BBC documentary

‘It was impossible to tell him why things should be such and such a way. It seemed to me that if he was going to create a unique object, that the best thing for me to do was to keep my mouth shut as much as possible and just let him do whatever he wanted to do whether I thought it was wrong or not.’

The documentary is narrated by John Peel, who makes it clear he thinks Beefheart is the bee’s knees and describes his music as supreme art.

The apparently chaotic, dissonant tone of Trout Mask is set by the opening track, Frownland. In less than two minutes it combines a bewildering set of rhythms, usually all played at once. On first hearing it sounds a terrible mess but this short documentary by an American lass helps to understand it. 

The nearest thing to a conventional rock song is the terrific Moonlight on Vermont,  which was recorded separately from the rest of the album.

Orange Claw Hammer is sung solo but here is a version recorded live for a radio programme with Zappa on guitar. 

All Beefheart freaks have their particular favourites so I won’t single out any more tracks and will instead quote Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. He was fifteen when he first heard Trout Mask and told the BBC documentary: ‘I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever heard. I said to myself, they’re not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn’t believe Frank Zappa could do this to me – and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realised they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I’d ever heard.’

Beefheart, who appears on the cover wearing the head of a carp bought from a fish market, took complete credit for the record, dismissing the band’s contribution as irrelevant.

I’ll return to his story in future columns but for now will leave the last word with John ‘Drumbo’ French, who told an interviewer:

‘If Van Vliet built a house like he wrote music, the methodology would go something like this . . . The house is sketched on the back of a placemat in such an odd fashion that when he presents it to the contractor without plans or research, the contractor says, “This structure is going to be hard to build, it’s going to be tough to make it safe and stable because it is so unique in design.” Van Vliet then yells at the contractor and intimidates him into doing the job anyway. The contractor builds the home, figuring out all the intricacies involved in structural integrity himself because whenever he approaches Van Vliet, he finds that he seems completely unable to comprehend technical problems and just yells, “Quit asking me about this stuff and build the damned house.” When the house is finished no one gets paid and Van Vliet has a housewarming party, invites none of the builders and tells the guests he built the whole thing himself.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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