Steve on the lonely life of the Beefheart fan.

Why do I like Beefheart? Hmmm……. not easy to answer. Maybe I should start with ‘how’…

I think my story will be echoed by other fans in the UK. In 1966/67 the music scene exploded. Although those years are parodied or ridiculed by many they were critical in the freeing of music and it is difficult to explain how radically things were changed. The frontrunners – The Beatles and The Stones – were experimenting with new sounds, but the most exciting music seemed to be coming from the American West Coast. Weird music played by bands with strange sounding names. The only way many of us got to hear this music was by listening to John Peel’s radio programmes. Firstly from the pirate radio ship, Radio London, and later from his show on the revamped BBC Radio One. Peelie would go on about this band that was greater than them all – Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. The name alone was enough to get me interested. Then he began playing tracks from ‘Safe As Milk’…

‘Yellow Brick Road’ was almost like an ordinary ‘bubblegum’ pop song but just slightly out of kilter with what the charts required. ‘Dropout Boogie’ was heavy metal before anyone knew about it. ‘Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do’ had it’s feet firmly planted in some older darker music, which back then I didn’t really understand, yet the sound was new and exciting and that slide guitar took me to another place. (I have had a passion for slide ever since, but they all get measured against that track). But then came ‘Electricity’ – I had heard nothing like this before. That stomping rhythm, wailing guitars, squealing theremin (although I didn’t know what it was at the time) and THAT VOICE. I bought ‘Safe As Milk’ as soon as it became available in the UK. I didn’t need anymore albums. This was it. It was in a totally different universe from other music, even though the production had tried to sanitise the sound and there were obviously some fillers (but this was common practice at the time and expected by us punters).

But why didn’t the people I played the album to hear what I heard? Why weren’t they moved in the same way? Thinking back now this must have played a part in my becoming a fan. If I was hearing something in this music that others didn’t then maybe I should take notice of it. Maybe it helped reinforce the feelings I had about having different interests and outlooks from those who were my peers. Who can really tell? I’m just glad I went with my feelings.

Luckily, it wasn’t long before the next album was due. I manged to scrape together what was to me a huge amount of money, 61 shillings (about £3.00), to buy ‘Strictly Personal’ on import before its official UK release. I was not disappointed. Again like ‘Sure Nuff…’ this album had its roots in the darker blues but Don’s voice and lyrics took it way beyond any other music of the time. Not to forget Jeff, Alex, Jerry and John storming and swirling behind him. Four separate instruments that at times seemed to spiral off into their own galaxies but always kept a tight and solid grounding around the song. I played my copy to a pulp…

It seemed a longer wait for the next album. Strange rumours abounded about what Don was doing. He had a different Magic Band. He had Frank Zappa behind him. Things were going to be very weird…

The first tracks I heard from ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (again, courtesy of John Peel) were ‘Ant Man Bee’, ‘Ellaguru’ and ‘Moonlight On Vermont’. The sound of the band was different. There was a sax (what!) and surreal humour. Yes, it was different but still accessible as far as I could tell from these few songs. But I don’t think these tracks prepared me for the needle hitting vinyl and ‘Frownland’ leaping out. This track has got to be one of the most uncompromising beginnings to any album in rock history. Four sides and 28 songs later I was bewildered. But I’d come too far along with Don van Vliet to reject it out of hand. Appreciation of all of TMR was a gradual process. I started with the tracks that were more accessible and then track by track until I was more of a fan than ever. I could recite ‘The Dust Blows Forward..’ ,’Orange Claw Hammer’ and some of ‘Pena’ even though the UK copy didn’t have a lyric sheet and I would beat out Drumbo rhythms on the top of my school desk. Once you accepted TMR there was no turning back.

If I couldn’t get people to appreciate SAM what hope was there now. I did try. I loaned that album to many, many people. Some could not get it at all. Others went along with the ‘weird’ and ‘freak’ image that Don had acquired and only said they liked it for that reason (i.e. to appear ‘hip’). I don’t think anyone else I knew had their own copy. I had by now accepted that being a Beefheart fan was a lonely trip.

So, that’s ‘how’. Maybe I’ve partly answered the ‘why’. But I don’t want to analyse it too closely. I have enjoyed the music for a long time because it touches something inside me. Is it the denseness of the imagery? Or Don’s take on the human condition? Or the intricate sound sculptures made by two lead guitars, a bass and some drums? I can’t explain that anymore than why I find one comedian funnier than another or why I prefer to eat grapefruit rather than pears. For me the music speaks for itself. If you got ears, you gotta listen…

-Steve Froy, May 1998

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