The name "Captain Beefheart" is derived from a never realized movie project called "Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People" by Don van Vliet (pronounced 'vleet') and Frank Zappa (who was living in the neighborhood). From about 1965 onwards, van Vliet used Captain Beefheart as his artistic name. Over the years he worked with various incarnations of the Magic Band. His pretty amazing debut album, Safe As Milk, presents a kaleidoscope of psychedelica, blues, 60s garage rock and tearjerker pop ("I Am Glad"). However, what lifts this album up is Beefheart's amazing voice (a bit like Howlin' Wolf at times), the raunchy overall sound, and the occasional strange phrasing (especially the guitar playing), which results in a much more exciting music than that of your average band playing in the styles mentioned.
The following two albums, Mirror Man and Strictly Personal, see a change toward longer compositions and more experimentation. On these albums Captain Beefheart plays a sort of demented, abstract, blues based avant-garde music, but in retrospect this was a transitional period with Beefheart trying to find a definitive style. On the basis of these two albums, it would have been hard for the listener to expect what Beefheart would present on the monumental double LP, Trout Mask Replica. The abstract blues of earlier albums is liberated by free jazz influences, resulting in an unprecedented, unique take on avant-garde rock music. Trout Mask Replica displays mostly complex compositions with constantly shifting time signatures and unusual chords and chord progressions. On top of it all, Beefheart's thunderous voice sings with great verbal virtuosity, regularly venturing into non-language or new language lyrics (depending on your view). Electric guitar, saxophone, bass clarinet, and a busy rhythm section make up the Magic band's sound. The music is hard to describe: stuttering saxophones, epileptic rhythms, and weird guitar playing may suggest utter chaos, but this is no random noodling: the musical development just takes place on a level that is less easy to grasp. Captain Beefheart basically imprisoned his musicians for almost a year to train them to play blindly the difficult, highly composed scores of Trout Mask Replica. [If you think that this album is utter noise on first listen, don't worry. Give it a few more listens and the intricate structures should reveal themselves over time]. A few of the wealth of outstanding tracks are "Dachau Blues", which is as ominous and macabre in style and performance as the subject suggests, "Moonlight On Vermont" with its biting slide guitar leads and a lovely rambling rhythm section, and the opener, "Frownland", which starts out of the blue with the frenetic playing style that makes up most of the album.
His next album Lick My Decals Off, Baby is a slightly more accessible continuation of Trout Mask Replica, and because it is in a single LP format, it might be a bit easier to digest in one take. The Spotlight Kid shows a return to blues and rock forms, though this is still far from conventional music. A good album, but lacking the originality and elements of surprise of the preceding efforts.
Clear Spot is even more accessible, showing a greater stylistic diversity. Apart from swampy, Beefheartian blues rock ("Circumstances", "Long Neck Bottles" and "Low Yo Yo Stuff"), Captain Beefheart comes up with some Stax soul ("Too Much Time") and a few beautiful ballads ("Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" and "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains"), but "Big Eyed Beans From Venus" is a partial return to his frenetic signature style. As a matter of fact, Clear Spot is a good place to start if you are not sure whether you'll like the more extreme avant-garde style of the previous albums.
Next up, Beefheart recorded two albums of straight rock music, that nevertheless became commercial (and artistic) flops. Beefheart took a few years off to re-think his musical career before releasing a follow-up. His comeback album, the magnificent Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), showed that Captain Beefheart still could create amazingly inventive music. Besides the marvelous snake-like electric guitar playing and excellent freaky drumming, the instrumental palette has been widened with trombone, marimbas, accordion and saxophone. This is a collection of wonderfully complex miniatures starting with "The Floppy Boot Stomp", a driving piece with great slide guitar playing (imagine something like Dr. John on speed). "Tropical Hot Dog Night" is a surprising, non-cheesy piece of "Tropicana" avant-garde. The title track "Bat Chain Puller" has a great pumping rhythm, superb slide guitar playing, and Captain Beefheart at his vocal best. The rest of the album is fantastic as well, with no weak tracks. Perhaps to get a very approximate idea what to expect of the music, imagine a more complex version of Tom Waits (around "Swordfishtrombones"/"Frank's Wild Years")
The Captain's creativity obviously hadn't dried up as the two following albums, Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow can attest. Though neither were quite as diverse as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), they are both still recommended, as the music is just as inventive, strangely meandering, and full of surprises as his early 70s work. Surprisingly, for Doc At The Radar Station, Beefheart's Magic Band pulled out a mellotron which is used to great effect on "Sue Egypt" and "Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee". Unfortunately, Captain Beefheart retired from the music business after the release of Ice Cream For Crow, and concentrated on a career as a painter. As far as I know, Captain Beefheart (aka Don van Vliet) never has returned to make music and is still working as a painter.
In summary, I think the first three
albums mentioned in this review are all interesting albums, but still show
Captain Beefheart developing his style. His fourth album, Trout Mask
Replica, is certainly his best and most original album, but arguably the
hardest one to get into. Almost any album that followed would be a good
place to start, although I personally recommend Shiny Beast (Bat Chain
Puller). However, avoid the two mediocre rock albums Blue Jeans And
Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed from the mid 70s.
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