Come on down to the big dig

Don Van Vliet and Herb Bermann wrote the songs ‘Can Fever’ and ‘Bone Crazy’. The BMI website says so, and BMI should know. BMI keeps comprehensive records of the people who write, compose and publish songs.

You’ll look in vain through the Beefheart catalogue to find ‘Can Fever’ and ‘Bone Crazy’. Even the most hardcore of Beefheart scholars have never heard these songs. So when these titles were found at BMI, years of general wonderment and speculation ensued. What might these songs be?

With Herb Bermann as a co-writer, could ‘Can Fever’ and ‘Bone Crazy’ be missing songs from ‘Safe As Milk’?

No demos or out-takes with these titles ever appeared. No muffled recordings on furtively traded cassettes were ever heard. No lyrics were found. If these songs were ‘Safe As Milk’ material no-one could confirm it.

David Jones was another co-writer listed by BMI for these songs. Davy Jones was in The Monkees. The Monkees shared a recording studio and a sound engineer with Captain Beefheart. The Monkees even recorded a version of something which was markedly similar to part of ‘Safe As Milk’.

Perhaps ‘Can Fever’ and ‘Bone Crazy’ were songs for The Monkees? Neil Diamond and Carole King were co-opted as Monkees songwriters. Had Captain Beefheart been brought in to make the Monkees even more zany?

Nothing could confirm this madcap fancy. Somebody had had too much to think.

More searches on the Internet, endlessly refined, yielded 0 results.

Archaeologists from this Big Dig contacted Barry J Coffing, another co-writer listed by BMI for ‘Can Fever’. Barry didn’t think this was one of his songs, but he had written hundreds of songs for different projects.

Herb Bermann knew nothing about these songs either. Asked about Barry J. Coffing, Herb replied, “I don’t know who he is.”

How could the listed co-writers not know each other? What sort of collaboration was this? How do you collaborate on not writing a song with someone you don’t know and still get credited for it? This story wan’t making much sense.

With Herb Bermann’s interviews about to be published here I thought I’d take another look at this problem. It had been about two years since the last time.

Sometimes Beefheart research is akin to archaeology in a tar-pit. There are bones in there and old tin cans, and maybe even treasures, but until the tar-pit decides to throw them out the chances of finding them are negligible.

My search engine spluttered into life and plunged into the tar-pit. Almost immediately it coughed out the answer.

Prosaically enough, the fact is that these are not Captain Beefheart songs at all. A band called Screeper simply sampled ‘Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do’ on their song ‘Can Fever’ and used part of Beefheart’s song, ‘Electricity’, on ‘Bone Crazy’.

Being conscientious about the use of other people’s property, Screeper then spent a year in complicated legal negotiations before they could release a CD with these tracks on it. This 1998 CD, which is now out of print, is called ‘English Meltdown’ (Mouthy008CD). NME called it, “the best album ever by a Portsmouth band.”

Screeper eventually morphed into a band called Autons. In June last year Autons supported The Magic Band in Portsmouth. For this concert they reprised their old hit, ‘Can Fever’, complete with Captain Beefheart sample.

BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) is a prestigious American music performing rights organisation which issues licences for the rights to perform or broadcast songs. Fees are collected from licence users and are distributed to writers, composers and publishers. Along with Don and Herb, BMI lists the writers of ‘Can Fever’ as Barry J Coffing and Dave Jones. For ‘Bone Crazy’ BMI shows Don and Herb’s co-writers as Alan Buxey, Steve Coffin and David Jones.

Thanks to Alan Buxey for shedding some light.

Read Auton’s account of their meeting with The Magic Band here


  1. The sharing of studio space by the Monkees and Beefheart is good circumstantial evidence, but Davy Jones was never much of a songwriter, even with the Monkees. There was another musician called David Jones hanging around London in the mid-to-late 60s, however — a saxophonist who was also quite a prolific composer. Or at least who became one after changing his name (to avoid confusion with Monkee Davy) — and emerged as David Bowie.

    As long as the fancy’s in flight, why not imagine the future Ziggy Stardust crossing paths with our good Captain? Any chance the timeframes line up?

  2. It is amusing to imagine possible collaborations between Beefheart and his contemporaries. What wouldn’t I give to hear Don Van Vliet and Vivian Stanshall together, but as far as I know their telephone conversations have vanished into the ether.

    Beefheart visited the UK for the first time in 1968. At that time the laughing gnome had shed his Anthony Newly skin and was Lindsay Kemping it up in London. They both played Middle Earth that year, though months apart. It’s not inconceivable that they met, though I’ve never heard that story.

    I couldn’t squeeze David Bowie into my story, but thanks for the suggestion. Herb Bermann was out of the picture by that point and David Bowie is the name of the songwriter in BMI’s files.

    None of this should deter a Hollywood scriptwriter though. Don Van Vliet bumps into Duke Ellington in an hotel foyer (this is the only true part of this story). Duke needs a sax player, says, “Hey Don, you’re just the guy I been looking for.” Don replies, “But Duke, you’ve never heard my thin white friend play sax, have you?” Bowie then takes the A-train to a brand new identity.

    Somebody wrote to tell me that there are some copies of Screeper’s CD, ‘English Meltdown’, at Tesco’s, of all places.|CD

  3. Hi Derek

    Ive read your post with great interest and Im here to say – I am that David Jones! It’s true we cleared the samples with BMI but I cant remember the percentages. You might be interested to know that Can Fever was played twice by John Peel on Radio One.

    Also, playing with the Magic Band last year was a great honour. We spoke to all the members before and after the show and Drumbo told me that his fave Beefheart track was Orange Claw Hammer.

    All the best

    David J

  4. The Monkees even recorded a version of something which was markedly similar to part of ‘Safe As Milk’.

    just out of curiosity, which monkees track are you refering to? (anyone else out there a big fan of their film HEAD? It made sence to me that Zappa had a talking cow in his scene!)


  5. Which phenomenally successful boy band recorded a version of something which is on ‘Safe As Milk’? Name the band, the title of the track and the CD on which it appears. answer here (question 9)

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