A sad day. But happy memories.
My first encounter with the Captain was back in 1971. I had formed a quaintly titled “progressive music society” at school where members could bring in their albums and play them and then fellow school mates would comment, criticise etc. On one particular day I think we were wallowing in some prog-rock miasma – a double Focus album if memory serves me right, when it was swapped on the “dansette” for something called “Trout Mask Replica”. I was far too young, frankly stupid, and narrow-minded at the time to understand what was going on. I knew Frank Zappa was involved somehow, so it ought to be good, right? But I just didn’t get it.
Two years later I was living in a shared student flat in South Manchester and we had just brought in a new flat-mate – whose name I cannot recall – who asked me, as I was going into Manchester City Centre one day, to pick up a couple of albums for him. “The Spotlight Kid” and “Clear Spot” – Don’s two great releases from 1972. That evening we sat and listened and I was hooked. I couldn’t quite see the link between this blues drenched rock and the stuff I had heard in ’71 but I recognised a great voice when I heard one.
Roll on another two years and I’m sat in a field at Knebworth listening to an amazing performance by Don and the Magic Band. Another sad admission is that was the only time I got to see him live. Since then the love, admiration, and affection for the man has grown, as has the collection of CDs, live recordings, studio out-takes, and various books. And of course the impact of the Beefheart sound has reverberated through any number of bands over the last forty years including my favourite The Fall whose Peel Session version of “Beatle Bones and Smokin’ Stones” has to be heard to be believed.
I guess once you get past the canonical “Trout Mask” my favourite album has to be “Clear Spot” as that’s the one that really got me hooked but trying to single out one album over the other is a little silly as they are all different in one way or another, and in saying that all as good as each other. Getting hold of some of the Beefheart albums back in the 70s/80s was a bit of a trial and it wasn’t until the advent of CDs that a sensible collection could be put together. A revelation once this had started was the earlier albums and their content. Just looking at “Safe As Milk” one has to wonder why this was not a massive hit. Another memory from back in the school days was the Edgar Broughton Band’s mixing of the Shads “Apache” and “Dropout Boogie” but I didn’t the connection back them.
And what a change with “Strictly Personal” where any pretensions towards a pop career were quickly abandoned for a journey of significant psychedelic weirdness. Short but full of wonderful and exciting sounds it clearly put the marker down for the masterpiece that was to follow.
Reading John French’s autobiography reveals the madness and emotional roller-coaster that went into making “Trout Mask Replica” and can perhaps distract from the album. I fondly remember John Peel deciding to play a track on every one of his shows during the 1980s (I think- although it might have been earlier). There will never be anything as challenging and inventive although some have tried.
The out of order release of “Mirror Man” demonstrates the bridge between the early work and the emerging sounds and there is some Don’s most accessible melodies buried in the free form jamming that dominates. I came late to “Decals” as it was damned hard to get hold off but I was struck, when I finally got to it, by how the subject had become more polemical and little darker. No “Old Fart’s” at play here – more real than surreal as it were. The guitars on this album alone are a primer for any aspiring musician on how to break the boundaries of convention.
As mentioned above “Clear Spot” and “Spotlight Kid” were my epiphany and each of the tunes on these two albums (now usually sold as a two-fer on one CD) is a classic. Don is in fine voice and the band plays some of the most exciting music you will ever hear. Some might argue that the releases were a slow move towards commercialism following the extremes of “Trout Mask” and “Decals” but I argue there is still enough weirdness in there to satisfy the lovers of the unusual. And I defy anyone not to fall in love with “Grow Fins” as just a marvellous piece of music with stunning imagery in the words.
Opinions are divided on “Blue Jeans and Moonbeams” and “Unconditionally Guaranteed” – I have a vivid recollection of Don and Co on the Old Grey Whistle Test doing “Peaches” – which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be anywhere on You Tube. I think you need to place these albums against other contemporary sounds and then you will see (despite them not being the best in the Beefheart canon) that they still hold their own. Some will hold that as heresy – so be it. Of course The White Stripes revived interest in “Party of Special Things To Do” with Jack doing his best Don whoops and hollers.
Don’s amazing work with Zappa on the “Bongo Fury” album demonstrates his ability to confound the exacting and precise Uncle Frank. Listening to some of the live recordings of the tour from which the album was culled it’s clear that Zappa’s almost musical theatre formula approach didn’t sit well with Van Vliet’s free spirit.
A couple of years off and then Don was back with yet another lurching change in direction with “Shiny Beast” – listening to the original versions one has to mentally curse the legal wrangles that prevented the release of some stunning material. There are some classic Beefheart tunes on this – none more so than the memorable “Tropical Hot Dog Night”.
There were to be only two more studio albums and there was a depressingly long two year wait for the first of them. The “new” Magic Band was stunning with Gary Lucas being a perfect interpreter of Beefheart’s music. Regarded as the great “come-back” album “Doc at the Radar Station” modernises a lot of the material from a decade earlier and gives it a lean vital sound.
Two more years on and another version of The Magic Band saw the final studio album “Ice Cream for Crow”. A particular favourite of mine the album has some exquisite playing from Lucas which again should be required listening for any fledging guitarist. The great videos that accompany the album are well worth tracking down on You Tube especially the title track which is plain bonkers but great fun.
Since then a ceaseless outpouring of live albums, compilations, anthologies, homages, and dodgy bootlegs means that the serious Beefheart collector needs significant shelf space to keep up with the releases. The highlight though was the 1999 Revenant 5CD set “Grow Fins” which has pride of place in my collection, and contains a marvellous history of the man’s work.
Beefheart off-shoots have also been created as a filler for the absence of the man from live performance – the run of Magic Band albums demonstrates John French’s uncanny ability to mimic his former boss, and Phillip Johnston’s “Fast n Bulbous” band, featuring Gary Lucas features amazing jazz versions of Van Vliets work – the “Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind” album being particularly memorable.
The music remains as a lasting legacy to one the great iconoclasts – and although he had not performed live for many years the memories and affection of this most singular of artists remains strong. He broke the mould and then he kept breaking it again and again making music overall a better place for his sharing his genius with us.
Rest easy Don.
The show which celebrates the man is here……..