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Captain Beefheart - Captain Beefheart

  by Maarten Schiethart

published: 21 / 2 / 2011

Captain Beefheart - Captain Beefheart


Maarten Schiethart recollects the career of the late Captain Beefheart, who would have been 70 this year

His passing away came as no surprise, yet the silence he leaves us with will always be hard felt. Captain Beefheart was a cornerstone of the music industry from the moment he and Frank Zappa turned the blues upside down and without whom we would have never known new wave or punk rock. The 15th January would have been his 70th Birthday, but for the last nearly 29 years Beefheart had enjoyed status as a painter, rather than as a musician. After devoting his music career to decompositioned rhythm and blues, Beefheart found much greater approval for his visual excursions. His sleeve paintings had become more important than the music. 'Ice Cream For Crow', (1982), 'Doc at The Radar Station' (1980) and 'Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)'(1978) ultimately proved to be his farewell albums, and those date back thirty years. Yet, such an enormous silence means nought compared to the monumental impact Beefheart had on the music of today. Franz Ferdinand would not know how to strike a chord without him. Most of all, new wave darlettes wouldn't know where to begin if it had not been for Captain Beefheart and Anton Corbijn would not have a person to immortalize on chrome as he did in 'Some Yoyo Stuff', his 1993 short documentray film. Ry Cooder described in detail as to how obsessive Beefheart could be, such as when he recorded his 1969 milestone double album, 'Trout Mask Replica'. Under circumstances which even the ancient Spartan Greeks would object to, his group the Magic Band excelled whilst the Captain revelled in unlimited extent. At one point members of the Magic Band were allowed to only eat beans from tin cans. The double LP paved the way subsequently for outrageous lyrics and words, distorted twang, freaked out blues and compulsive musicianship. Genuine artists are told to suffer and it's a shame Captain Beefheart was never granted the full merit of his achievements. His early A&M sessions twisted the sound of rhythm and blues. Together with his wife Jan, Beefheart recorded 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' (1974), the loveliest album of all time, and in the time before his death came, his relationship with Virgin Records - Yes, at long last we have something positive to say about Virgin Records - must have proved to be some sort of relief. Towards the end of the 1960s Beefheart recorded his first two albums, 1967's 'Safe As Milk' - now perceived as a classic - and 1968's 'Strictly Personal'. They got him nowhere. Beefheart, whose original name was Don Van Vliet, never knew great commercial success but media figures, John Peel in particular, made sure he made appearances on TV in the US, UK, Netherlands, Germany and France. I first saw Beefheart on Dutch TV in 1974 making a mockery of 'Yesterday' by the Beatles in the hilarious non-show of Sjef van Oekel. Think of Tommy Cooper battling it out in the ultimate silly scene with John Cleese. He mimed to a track off 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' which apparently had been released as a single. Or by accident. It was probably both. A single accident aptly would describe his recording career. Another unnoticed masterpiece however, had already been released two years before in 1972. 'Clear Spot' lasts for just over half an hour, yet it contains so many boogie wonders that it almost had a commerciality. No matter how hard the plugger tried, Captain Beefheart though lost the battle against George McRae and Carl Douglas in the airplay battle. I feel very remorseful as the only period in history where a stubborn musician could touch ground, would have been then, when the time was right. Beefheart enjoyed the relaxed freedom of the Zappa days on A&M with whom he was signed until the early 1970s. His last albums for Virgin, whom he joined at the time of 'Unconditionally Guaranteed', hint at a macho-feminist attitude, but there was a time when Jan and Don were a boring happy couple. Start exploring the wonderful depths of his music of 'Unconditionally Guaranteed', the most accessible of all; then try; 'Clear Spot' and should you have survived these continue with 'Trout Mask Replica', 'Safe As Milk' and 'Shiny Beast'. Still indifferent? I would recommend committing suicide. But better, listen to every single note Beefheart has recorded. A century only knows a few heroes in music. Beefheart comes top.

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