Rock Primer: How to Start Listening to Captain Beefheart

Much like the efforts we take to write more, exercise more, drink less, spend less, work harder, take more time for ourselves and family, etc. etc., we also make resolutions at the beginning of a new year to change our cultural consumption habits as well. Maybe you’d like to visit more art museums, or read at least three historical non-fictions by the end of the year. Maybe you also want to start listening to an artist that you never really considered listening to before. Here at Electric Comic Book, we are dedicated to helping you get the most out of your musical experience, and so, we’d like to offer this short Rock Primer on how to appreciate a classic artist that can seem daunting to jump right into. Our first subject to this new feature is the notoriously intimidating Captain Beefheart.

Whether you’ve read past essays on this site on the life, times, and death of the good captain (aka Dan Van Vliet), Captain Beefheart still remains a mystifying and daunting figure for both the myths and legends behind his personal life, but also what’s actually on the records. While many of them are worthy of acclaim after years of gestating in the critical back shelf, it seems that since his death in 2010, interest in Captain Beefheart’s music has enjoyed a slight upswing as other critics (namely, Rolling Stone, who, I’ll admit, put together a good list of songs, but not albums) pointed to his ‘best stuff’ in their  eulogies — many of which pointed to his masterpiece, 1969’s Trout Mask Replica.  However, because it does remain a haunting, challenging listen — even now, and after I published last week I would sooner turn that album on at a party before White Light/White Heat — the focus of his ‘best’ is not the intention here. This primer will be a guide for those who still look upon the Captain’s work with trepidation, and need a guide on dipping your toes in first before diving in to the rest of the Beefheart legacy. And even though many of your favorite artists will be quick to cite him as an influence, and usually point to Trout Mask Replica as the starting point (indeed it was for me), there are some who are still unable to make the plunge. Mind you, among the artists who consider Beefheart an influence include (but are not limited to): Tom Waits, Jack White, Kurt Cobain, John Frusciante, Black Francis, John Cale, Little Feat, the Clash, Johnny Rotten, Beck, the Black Keys, Beck, and Matt Groening — who got the Magic Band to reunite for the year he curated All Tomorrow’s Parties. And if you like any of them, chances are you’ll find something to love about the shambling, intentionally mad, silly darkness and intentionally ‘wrong’ music of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. And for that, we don’t start with his most well-known work, but in a some safer territory.  

After the Jump: Loving One of Rock’s Most Difficult Personas. 

Where Captain Beefheart and His (the?) Magic Band are concerned, it’s primarily in the sounds of traditional Blues rather than Rock and Roll. And even though the idea and personality of a Garage Rock band permeates throughout Beefheart’s entire legacy (he was on the re-released Nuggets collection, after all), what’s key is to realize that this is ultimately about the primitive blues at heart. It may go to psychedelic, or arty avant-garde extremes at times, but the Magic Band is ultimately about the blues, mostly of the Delta tradition. With that frame of reference in mind, it’s best to approach Trout Mask Replica as a kind of epicenter that you have to work your way up to, and instead find some of the more popular albums that work up to or follow that masterpiece, depending upon your preferences. If you’re more psychedelic/punk minded, it would help to start with Beefheart’s very first album, Safe as Milk. Released in 1967, and based on the relative success of Beefheart’s cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” (Hey! that, and their B-Side, “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’?” earned them a spot on Dick Clark’s ‘Where the Action Is!‘), Safe as Milk is blues at it’s weirdest possible point. Known for tracks like “Electricity,” that mix electric blues and Beefheart’s brand of desert folk (and dare I say it, a vague sense of Prog Rock to come), Safe as Milk is easily the most successfully commercial of the Magic Band’s efforts. Beyond trademark tracks like “Electricity,” there’s also the brilliant R&B of “I’m Glad,” the sarcastic electrified-and-fuzzy folk of “Dropout Boogie,” and the pure boogie-blues (with some genre-parodying lyrics) in the album’s opener, “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do.” Though, it’s hard to say there was ever a finer moment for psych rock than “Zig Zag Wanderer,” in which Ry Cooder provides all the right color for a psych-guitar freak out, as does Jerry Handley’s bass stays right in your face for a brilliant breakdown.

It merely hints at the avant-garde qualities that would mark the band as outsiders too weird for the hippie set, yet it is not as atonal and arrhythmic as Beefheart’s later efforts — though the grandeur of album closer “Autumn’s Child” certainly does play up that angle simply to fit in for the intensely stoned hippie set. And for the earliest incarnation of the Magic Band (plus Ry Cooder), it shows how tightly they could play together, both as a blues band as a band capable of recreating Beefheart’s crazed vision of the genre.

Yet, Safe as Milk is marred for it’s extremely muddy production qualities. It’s extraordinarily bass heavy, and the mix bag of genres, without Beefheart’s more demanding touches, can make the album come off as simply a weird collection of blues-rock tunes regardless of his surrealist lyrics. For this reason, it may be worth while to first dive into Clear Spot or Spotlight Kid first. Both released in 1972, though with two different rosters of the Magic Band, these would be the most successful-and-moderately-commercial albums released by Beefheart since Trout Mask Replica  and before his efforts in the 80’s. Nowadays, you can find both albums re-released separately on 180-gram vinyl, or sold together on a single CD set. What unites them, beyond the Blues and the record label is that both are slower to reveal their madness, fit to incorporate all of Beefheart’s lyrical ideas. On Spotlight Kid, the surrealism is split between his imagist fantasies and screeds that demand greater attention to environmentalism. Spotlight Kid standouts include the Tom Waits-like “I’m Gonna Booglaraize You Baby” and “Blabber n’ Smoke,” which features the marimba and such political screeds as “clean up the air / and treat the ahn-nee-mals fair!” on top of a consistent, swaying bass and guitar combo.

Still, both Beefheart and the members of the Magic Band were disappointed with what Spotlight Kid came to represent — Beefheart blaming the band for its’ failures, the band blaming Beefheart for trying to do something ‘commercial.’ After firing long-time collaborator, John “Drumbo” French, he hired Ed Marimba to play alongside the rest of the classic Magic Band line-up, Clear Spot has the clean production of Ted Templeton (who made terrific records with Van Morrison and the Doobie Brothers, among others) to its credit. Many critics wonder why the album was not as successful as its production values demanded it to be; with Beefheart reigning in a lot of his more experimental qualities, and even writing a couple of ballads, Clear Spot should have been a contender to break a top-100 record spot at the very least. Chances are, you’ve probably heard some of the covers (or name-dropped song titles) that come from this album, including “Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles,” “My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains,” or “Big-Eyed Beans from Venus.” But beyond that, I consider Clear Spot to be a fine starting point because it’s the most commercial since Safe as Milk — if only for the incorporation of a kind of white-boy funk on tracks like “Sun Zoom Spark,” “Crazy Little Thing,” or like the aforementioned “My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains” — which really should be considered among one of the finer love songs written in the early 70’s, but I understand why it’s not. But this album is chock full of a wide variety of the kinds of music Captain Beefheart could comfortably take on stylistically, with only his own dedication to surrealism blocking him from true success then. Nowadays, the album sounds as fresh, revealing, personal (insofar as that he was willing to write ballads that seem based on true love poetry), and relevant as it ever could, and perhaps as it was intended. If there were a perfect combo to introduce Captain Beefheart, it would be Safe as Milk and Clear Spot before (but not without considering) Spotlight Kid.

After you’ve introduced yourself to the fringe elements of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, then comes the difficult time of becoming better familiar with Beefheart at his most unhinged, and his truest self. If you took in all three of the albums above and took in Safe as Milk as best, then it’s time to dive deep into the double album of Trout Mask Replica. Anything I could say about that album would only be redundant, as it is a masterpiece of exploration and fusion, a deeper, yet more anarchic sound on how rock and roll can cross over in the least accessible ways; and yet, certain tracks will surprise. In general, people tend to look at the album as a whole as a statement of uncompromising rock n’roll at the height of 60’s psychedelic madness. Groups like the Velvet Underground or took psychedelic to mean icy detachment and debauchery to a point of cartoonishness — or how British bands of the era instead indulged in pastoral poetry like modern day Wordsworths — these were bands that were wet with primitive details. There’s a kind of dryness to Captain Beefheart’s music that’s ingrained from his origin and environmental preference for the desert. Where Captain Beefheart does ‘color,’ he does it in repeating his stranger, more irritating ideas, and does so until you like it. As such, the few tracks that stand out from the overall masterpiece are the ones were the experiment is obvious — “Moonlight On Vermont” is the most obvious example, mostly in thanks to the work of the Magic Band. Despite the seemingly unattached vocal from Beefheart that sounds like it was added at the last second in haste, the band’s abstract togetherness — the lone key change in what may be a bridge, Zoot Horn Rollo’s fantastic slide work that keeps it together in another room while John “Drumbo” French does his best to add color with his aggressive, strictly-decorative drumming style. “China Pig” is the lone example of a pure blues that Captain Beefheart ever produced — almost shocking, considering the obvious adoration of the genre and its history, but a radical twist in terms of the Captain’s canon. But if ever there should be a testament to the Magic Band as being among the greatest garage bands of all time, it would be Trout Mask Replica closer, “Veteran’s Day Poppy.” Though it starts as disjointed as anything else on the record, there’s a more cohesive sense of the madness — as if the album were building up just to get to this final shot of dark, absurd madness. It’s the lone track besides “China Pig” where Beefheart’s lyrics line up with the rhythm to the song, and it’s the lone track where there’s a cohesive rhythm section that purely rocks out until the extended, melodically jagged jam at the end that is still chock full of color.

And yet, if you’re not willing to jump right in to the Captain’s masterpiece quite yet (and you should),  it doesn’t hurt to visit his work in the late 70’s and early 80’s first. Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is a return to form after the slower paced and more commercial efforts of Unconditionally Guaranteed and Moonbeams and Bluejeans.  Doc at the Radar Station, meanwhile, is arguably the closest to the ideals of Trout Mask Replica as he could possibly get at the time without the original Magic Band behind him (though, Drumbo French was among the personnel). Anyone with a relative interest in Zappa would appreciate the colorful approach of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), which is also less dependent on the Captain’s rhythmic experiments and jagged melodies. Doc at the Radar Station, meanwhile, boasts some impressive reactionary tracks to the punk movement that the Captain largely ignored (yet obviously influenced). You only have to look at the stuttering, screaming, and irresistible fun, performance of “Ashtray Heart” (later covered by the White Stripes) to realize this — but tracks like “Sue Egypt” certainly have that appeal as well, and perhaps an indication that the Talking Heads were Beefheart’s clue into what ‘punk’ was truly all about, as it’s one of the few times where Beefheart’s vocal is front-and-center, no matter where it goes — and it goes between his trademark Howlin’ Wolf growl and his deep Shamanistic whisper. But perhaps most surprising is how “Sue Egypt” seems to incorporate hip-hop’s sampling technique to bring in an odd, seemingly backwards flute part that sounds patched in from another source.  But where it comes to Doc being more akin to Trout Mask Replica, look no further than “Brickbats” — a disjointed, challenging track that sports an aggressive sax melody throughout.

As for Beefheart’s final record, Ice Cream for Crow, is a magnificent attempt at what may as well would have been his final statement as an artist, as it does a fine mix of his past while making a present and (hinting at) a future simultaneously.  Beefheart’s production finally is as colorful as his lyrics, but retains the cleanliness of Doc at the Radar Station. Arguably his brightest sounding record, Ice Cream for Crow is also the most fun of all of Beefheart’s records. For all of the absurd, surrealist imagery to be found in his lyrics and reflected in the angular jags and ferocious percussion of his output since the beginning, Ice Cream for Crow perfectly mixes the commercial attempts of Unconditionally Guaranteed and Moonbeams and Bluejeans (more on those in a second). With Ice Cream for Crow, Beefheart finally finds that sweet spot between his vision of rock and roll as a personal, primitive exercise, and the bright color that makes for great pop music — the kind of music he achieved with Safe as Milk, but has forgotten since then, chasing a greater art than just making something commercial, or intentionally trying to make his work for a cult following that inevitably followed. If anything can be said for Ice Cream for Crow as a record in and of itself, it is a perfect encapsulation of what Beefheart would have been doing if he weren’t moving on from such a deep, beloved legacy as Trout Mask Replica demanded: it’s uncompromising blues-rock, mixed with skewed takes on punk, funk, and where blues-rock went without him. Look no further than “Semi-Multicolored Caucasian” as an example of his excellent composing skills, and perhaps a parody of himself as he was able to record a song that wasn’t remarkably aggressive or uncompromising in any way, yet still has the hallmarks of his style in structure.

Ultimately, the only places you shouldn’t start with would be the blatent attempts at making something commercial. Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams lack the spark that make Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band not only engaging on an intellectual level, but they’re also stripped of the uncompromising fun that makes a Beefheart record, even with the surreal nightmarish darkness that his lyrics are capable of reaching. However, if there were one album preferred over the other, Bluejeans and Moonbeams at least enjoys a kind of ironic love, as the one record that Beefheart later dismissed so vehemently, encouraging listeners to return it for a refund, or a free live concert in their living rooms as an apology to make up for their wasted money and time. But considering the kind of slowed-down, unchallenging dreck that makes Unconditionally Guaranteed, I can still appreciate some of the weirder elements of Beefheart’s soft-rock approach on Bluejeans and Moonbeams, mostly for his lyrical content being weird even for that realm. “Party of Special Things to Do” may be his weakest, but still popular song, it still enjoys the capable performance of studio musicians taking the Captain’s directions into a funkier place than he previously imagined — through, the White Stripes version is maybe slightly closer to what Beefheart would have wanted.

Though, I’m still on the fence about “Captain’s Holiday,” being a fine example of his skill as a harmonica player, but also what may as well have been the Eagles recording something on an acid trip. But considering the incredibly dense work of Captain Beefheart, that’s damn near a compliment.

And if you still aren’t into Trout Mask Replica, at least watch this documentary, okay!?


2 responses to “Rock Primer: How to Start Listening to Captain Beefheart

  1. I started with Trout Mask Replica (and you can never go back :)), but first album is a good place to start too. Probably the most accesible.

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