An ornery cuss is Don van Vliet, the subject of next Tuesday’s BBC2 documentary Rock Cults: The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart, introduced and narrated by No 1 Beefheart fan John Peel. Frank Zappa, for instance, was almost literally on his deathbed before he could bring himself to comment in level tones about his former musical partner, the duo having fallen out horribly and infamously almost 20 years before.
Tuesday night’s fascinating programme in fact arose accidentally out of producer-director Elaine Shepherd’s previous portrait of Zappa, when, in the last TV interview before his death from cancer in 1993, the renowned hippie-maverick, satirist, independent record-company entrepreneur, and avant-garde composer opened up about his role in 1969 as producer of Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, a long, wilful, sporadically incandescent, and notoriously difficult album. As Zappa recalls of the album in Rock Cults: “If it had been produced by any famous professional producers, then there could have been a number of suicides involved.”
Similarly, the programme underlines how Beefheart’s autocratic approach to dealing with the members of his peerless instrumental group, the Magic Band, could also have resulted in sudden death: Beefheart’s. “One ex-member of the Magic Band recalls shooting a cross-bow at Beefheart,” says Mark Cooper, the inventor of Later With Jools Holland and executive producer of Rock Cults. “I think that the members of the Magic Band who are in the programme are in general agreement that they found him impossible … and the ones who didn’t want to be in the programme found him even worse. “He played his musicians as anyone else would play a piano. They served his music, and I think it’s fair to say that he simply didn’t recognise the humanity of the people he worked with. That wasn’t in an evil way, but in a single-minded way. He did whatever it took to realise his vision, regardless of the fact that it led to appalling relations with all the labels he was ever signed to, as well as the musicians he worked with. “He was a mad, dictatorial composer, and yet at the same time he could be charming, and innocent, and yet frightening. A benign demagogue. I remember going to see him play live when I was a teenager in the early seventies – and I actually felt frightened, but not threatened, when he started one song with a burst of delta-blues growling.”
Given his fearsome reputation, and the fact that in 1982 he entirely forsook music for a successful career as a painter, Beefheart/van Vliet has no direct involvement in the programme, although his wife, Jan, did grant access to some home-movie footage.
Other insights come from Ry Cooder, who played on the Magic Band’s first epochal album, Safe As Milk, in 1967, and who describes the Beefheartian modus operandi thusly: “The concept seemed to be that you take the raw blues elements – the John Lee Hooker idea, Howlin’ Wolf – down to its purest sound … a grunt maybe, something abstract, and then you take your John Coltrane crazy time-signature, free-jazz thing, and hybridise them, and this is what you come up with. Well, it’s a great idea.”
One unqualified Beefheart fan is Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons. “It’s the culmination of the entire history of the blues, rock’n’roll, experimental music, and free-jazz, combined with extremely talented musicians playing it, and one of the most incredible voices in musical history,” says Groening, before going to recall his first feelings on being confronted with Trout Mask Replica. “It had Frank Zappa’s name on it, so I bought it. Took it home, put it on … it was the worst dreck I’d ever heard in my life – ‘They’re not even trying, they’re playing randomly!’ And so I thought: ‘Frank Zappa produced it, I’d better give it another play,’ and I played it again and I thought: ‘It still sounds horrible, but maybe they meant it to sound that way.’.”He continues: “By the third or fourth time, it started to grow on me, and by the fifth and sixth time I loved it, and after the seventh and eighth plays I thought it was the greatest album ever made and I still do.”
Where can you detect Beefheart’s influence today? In the work of Beck, P J Harvey, and David Byrne. What has Beefheart himself said about Beefheart’s music? “I want it exactly the way I want it … exactly,” he said in a radio interview in 1980. “Any composer would want it that way, and I won’t deviate at all. Somebody like Stravinsky, don’t you think it would annoy him if somebody bent a note the wrong way?”
Listen to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s music today – stuff like I’m Gonna Booglarise Ya, Baby, with many of its notes bent exactly the right way – and know that it’s still gonna booglarise ya, baby, in ways that will always be completely beyond regular tunesmiths, contemporary chaps like Noel and Liam Gallagher, say.