Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band probably would have been an anomaly had they burst on an unsuspecting world anywhere, at any time. Ironically, the Captain, whose real name is Don Van Vliet, grew up in Southern California and put together his first magic band in Los Angeles in the mid-60’s. Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and other future pop icons were singing folk music and their own sensitive ballads at the Troubadour, the Ash Grove offered pure folk and blues, and the Birds were setting Bob Dylan’s folk songs to rock-and-roll rhythms. For harder rock, one could listen to garage bands. Frank Zappa, who was equally fond of 50’s doo-wop and the electronic moonscapes of Edgard Varese, was beginning to compose pop music that was considerably more adventurous, but even Mr. Zappa’s early work must have seemed a little tame compared to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
The Captain had been on television in Los Angeles at the age of 5, demonstrating his talents as a painter and sculptor, and his music sounded something like action painting or abstract sculpture translated into sound. Rhythms stopped, started, crossed, collided, and fell apart in a manner that seemed pre-planned but was nevertheless disorienting. Metallic guitars playing blues-like parts in no discernible key clashed and slashed and then miraculously melded into whiplash unisons. Beefheart sang chains of free-association images in a huge, gruff voice that spanned a number of octaves. When he recorded his first album (”Safe as Milk,” Buddah Records, 1967), he included a number called ”Electricity” that called on the full range and power of that voice, and his singing shattered a $1,200 microphone. When he wasn’t singing, he was often punctuating the music with whooping harmonica breaks or bursts of manic saxophone playing.
The band that recorded ”Safe as Milk” included John ”Drumbo” French, who as been the magic band’s percussionist off and on ever since, and it included Ry Cooder, a guitarist with country blues leanings who has since made a name for himself as a folk and pop eclectic. The music was transitional, closer to its evident blues roots than anything Captain Beefheart has recorded since and more conversant with pop and rhythm-and-blues song structures. By the end of 1967, Mr. Cooder was gone and the music was full-blown, uncompromising Beefheart.
In 1969, a new magic band, with only the guitarist Antennae Jimmy Semens remaining from earlier groups, recorded ”Trout Mask Replica” for Straight Records, a company founded by Frank Zappa. The album is generally considered Beefheart’s masterpiece, but to these ears ”Lick My Decals Off,” issued by Straight/Reprise the following year and including ”I Love You, You Big Dummy,” ”I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go,” and ”The Smithsonian Institute Blues,” is superior. In any event, Beefheart made two more fine albums for Warner Brothers in the early 70’s. But he was an acquired taste; his records sold only to a devoted cult following. Captain Beefheart blamed the record companies for not promoting him; the record companies blamed his music and the bizarre appearance of the Magic Band, whose clothing and bizarre demeanour on the back cover of ”Trout Mask Replica” (Antennae Jimmy Semens was wearing a baseball cap and, over his shirt and slacks, a frumpy housedress) must have led more than one record executive to fear the worst.
Many of Beefheart’s fans assumed that the Captain had taken more LSD than any human being on earth, with the possible exception of the other members of his Magic Band. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, it was easy enough to interpret the clattering rhythms and crazed bellowing one heard on Beefheart records as some kind of free-form psychedelic tribal stomp, but anyone who thought that misunderstood the music entirely. In his music, as in his art, Beefheart is almost entirely self taught, but he is also exceptionally systematic. He whistles or hums melodies and ideas for instrumental parts into a tape recorder and then painstakingly teaches the parts to his musicians, who generally have very little interpretative leeway. The rhythms that disintegrate before your very ears, the xylophone riffs that suddenly appear out of nowhere and cut across the polyrhythms set up by the other instruments, the impossibly dense and atonal chord clusters, all these effects are plotted in advance and painstakingly rehearsed. Casual listeners may still consider Beefheart a wild-eyed primitive, but in fact he’s an American maverick composer who has created his own musical idiom – an idiom that’s related to blues and rock-and-roll but also problematically tangential to them.
Captain Beefheart’s music was innovative from the very beginning, but until the late 1970’s it wasn’t really influential. One occasionally heard saxophone squawks or fractured rhythms and recognised a strain of vintage Beefheart, but his idiom retained its integrity and resisted imitation. The mid 70’s were rough years for him. He attempted to reach a broader audience with two compromised and lacklustre albums for Mercury, made a brief appearance as guest vocalist on a 1975 Frank Zappa album, and then disappeared until 1978, when Warner Brothers/Virgin issued a new LP, ”Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” that recaptured much of his old ferocity.
Meanwhile, a number of otherwise disparate rock artists who were popularly lumped together as ”new wave” began making music that was unmistakably (and in most cases admittedly) Beefheart influenced. From New York Talking Heads (whose leader David Byrne cites ”Trout Mask Replica” as an early inspiration) to the ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon and his Public Image Ltd., from Cleveland, Ohio’s abrasive Pere Ubu to the popular B-52’s from Georgia, from the English post-punk band Magazine (which recorded a Beefheart song in homage) to the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman (whose ventures into electric music bear traces of his mid-70’s friendship with Beefheart), it seemed that almost every interesting rock musician (and more than a few commercially successful ones) were working in areas Beefheart had opened up.
Just when the Beefheart influence began to seem strong enough to overwhelm Beefheart himself, the Captain began recording a new album that’s turned out to be his best record in years, and very possibly the best of his career. ”Doc at the Radar Station,” which Virgin/Atlantic is releasing this week (VA 13148), finds him singing with the energy of a wild man half his age (he’s 39), playing soprano saxophone and bass clarinet with renewed vigour, and leading a revitalised magic band that has learned his idiosyncratic style to perfection. His new songs mix Delta blues riffs (Beefheart is the only white artist who understood and was able to build on the essentially polyrhythmic nature of much early Delta blues) with snippets of synthesised strings that remind one of Stravinsky. Unequal phrase lengths, shifting meters, and rhythms that change radically every few lines keep the unwary listener perpetually off balance.
”Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee,” which is probably the most extravagantly original and perfectly realised creation of Beefheart’s career, involve screams, bits of Cecil B. DeMille-like fanfare, and mercurial changes in instrumentation that fool one into thinking an orchestra is playing when it’s a five-man band with no overdubs. The lyrics are as original and vivid as any Beefheart has written. The album also includes two pristine instrumental pieces in which guitars play things no guitarist would ever have imagined. The rest of the album is exhilaratingly consistent, prime Beefheart.
Is the world ready? Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band are embarking on a European tour later this fall, their first full scale assault on the continent in five years, and then they’ll be touring America. Their venues may include dance clubs as well as concert halls, and now that people are dancing to the likes of Pere Ubu and Ornette Coleman, they’ll probably dance to Captain Beefheart, too. Meanwhile, the Captain broods in his trailer in the Mojave Desert, listens to late Beethoven and Stravinsky (he reportedly considers the new wave rock he’s heard impossibly crude, especially rhythmically), and bides his time.
Will his records sell this time around; will people throng to hear him play? It’s too early to tell. But ”Doc at the Radar Station” finds a neglected American genius back in the rock vanguard, and that’s surely where he belongs.
c. 1980 New York Times Company