Music / Captain Beefheart

The Captain, wearing his signature 60s dress.

"With pop hits provin' unlikely, Captain Beefheart retreated to a cabin to shout at his band for months on end. The result was Trout Mask Replica."

I may be hungry, but I sure ain't weird...

Captain Beefheart was the stage name of American avant-garde musician and painter Don Van Vliet (1941-2010, born Don Glen Vliet); a friend, collaborator, and sometime-rival, of contemporary Frank Zappa, who he'd known since high school. As the leader of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, a band with a constantly shifting membership, he released a dozen albums to highly varied critical review; with Trout Mask Replica often considered his magnum opus. His highly mutable style incorporated elements of Blues, Psychedelic Rock, Jazz, Rock and Roll, and experimental compositions and is sometimes seen as Outsider Music.

Though never achieving the (marginal) commercial success enjoyed by Zappa, despite their musical similarities, Van Vliet is considered to be highly influential across many genres, with numerous musicians citing him as a major influence — some examples being punk rock pioneers Sex Pistols and The Clash, Tom Waits (whose career can be easily separated into pre- and post-introduction to Beefheart), Sonic Youth, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, PJ Harvey, The White Stripes and Joan Osborne. He's also well-known for the mythology he created around his band and persona; with most of his comments to the media deliberately bearing little connection to the truth, or often reality in general.

As usual, you can find the basics at That Other Wiki.


"Lick my tropes off, baby!":

  • Ambiguous Disorder: It was later revealed that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
  • Animal Motifs: Beefheart liked referring to exotic animals in his lyrics.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Beefheart was infamous for playing around with words, even during interviews.
  • Avant-garde Music: The genre in which the original blues artist Beefheart ended up in.
  • Blues The genre in which the eventual avantgarde musician Beefheart started off.
  • Creator Thumbprint: Vliet was said to have enjoyed candy a lot, which led to the writing of "Abba Zabba" and "Kandy Korn".
  • Cloudcuckoolander: A shining real life example.
    From The Other Wiki: "While playing "Electricity" for a warm-up performance at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival in 1967, Beefheart stopped the song, straightened his tie, and walked off the stage, landing face flat into the grass. He later claimed that he saw that a girl in the audience turned into a goldfish."
  • Double Entendre: "Low Yo Yo Stuff" has lyrics that seem to refer to A Date with Rosie Palms.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: In his case, more like Early Installment Normalcy. His debut single "Diddy Wah Diddy" is fairly straightforward blues-rock and even managed to get a lot of Top 40 airplay on the West Coast.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Zappa claimed in The Real Frank Zappa Book that Beefheart's nickname was a reference to Don's uncle, who enjoyed praising his own penis in the presence of Don's girlfriend and compared it to a "beefheart". Don himself always denied the story.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Zappa and Beefheart went to high school together. They met when Zappa's parents had moved to Lancaster, California. Being eccentric people with a shared love for blues music, free jazz and avantgarde classical music brought them together.
  • Fish-Eye Lens: Used on the album cover of "Safe As Milk".
  • Friend to All Living Things: Beefheart was a lover of animals and put a lot of animal imagery in his songs.
  • Genre-Busting: Trout Mask Replica pretty much redefined the limitations of rock music.
  • Harsh Vocals: He cultivated this as his primary vocal style. Nowhere near his normal voice.
    • Early in his career his voice was based on Howlin' Wolf, but by the time of Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, he had fully switched to screeching his vocals rather than singing them. This was a result of both heavy smoking and his developing illness (Multiple Sclerosis, which would eventually kill him). His last recordings, poetry readings from the 90s and early 2000s, are painful listening; his voice just got worse thanks to the MS.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Beefheart enjoyed making puns in his lyrics.
  • I Am the Band: Van Vliet was pretty much the only permanent member of the band. The duration of membership for the rest of the band depended on how much tolerance they had for his abuse. John "Drumbo" French was one of the relative constants, playing with the Magic Band during their Trout Mask Replica period and returning to service during the Captain's brief early 80s comeback.
  • Incredibly Long Note: After the line "Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo hit that long lunar note and let it float" in "Big Eyed Beans From Venus" from "Clear Spot".
  • In Harmony with Nature: Beefheart loved nature and animals so much that he referenced them often in his music. In "Wild Life" (Trout Mask Replica) he decides to go and live with the bears up in the mountains. In "Grow Fins" ("The Spotlight Kid") he even grows fins and goes in the water again. "Blabber and Smoke" ("The Spotlight Kid") has an environmental message. "Apes-Ma" (Shiny Beast) is a plea against caging animals.
  • Jerkass: Guitarist Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) and drummer John French (aka Drumbo) have described the Captain as this, especially during the Trout Mask era. While Vliet did partake in composing the songs, it was usually left to the band to give whatever he wrote some sort of shape, after which they would spend days on end rehearsing while Vliet went off gallivanting. When the album was released, Vliet would take credit for arranging the music without acknowledging the output of the other members.
    • As good as Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby were, it's better not to think about what he put his bandmates through during the recording sessions.
    • At least one argument between him and John French ended with the latter getting thrown down a flight of stairs, and while recording The Spotlight Kid he once threw guitarist Bill Harkleroad into a dumpster.
    • Upon first becoming friends, Zappa found Beefheart's habit of staying in his room listening to R&B records, eating leftover food and screaming at his mother to bring him a Pepsi funny, leading him to later write a song mocking Beefheart named "Why Doesn't Someone Get Him a Pepsi?". It appeared on Bongo Fury and was substantially reworked later to become "The Torture Never Stops".
  • Long Title: Van Vliet was fond of these; and has at least one or two on nearly every album. Some of the most notable are "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go", "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish", "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains", "A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond", and "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee".
  • Man of a Thousand Voices: He had a five-octave pitch range. That's wider than your standard French horn.
    • Which means that, yes, that is him doing that weird, high-pitched Elmo-like voice on "Ella Guru".
      • It's actually Antennae Jimmy Semens who sings the high part, but Beefheart is also audible during this part.
  • Mind Screw: Stay off drugs, just listen to his music and your mind will be blown by itself!
  • Multiple-Choice Past/Shrouded in Myth: He would deliberately tell a lot of contradictory lies about himself and his life to the press, so nobody's really sure about his real life.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly
  • New Sound Album: Every album managed to sound similar, yet different at the same time.
  • Outsider Music: Beefheart was deemed an outsider musician by Irwin Chusid, because of his highly personal and unorthodox way of making music, clearly without any commercial potential.
  • Protest Song: Dachau Blues, which is as screwed up as a protest song as you'd expect it from the Captain.
  • Scary Musician, Harmless Music: Inverted. As bizarre and dissonant Beefheart's music may sound to the average listener he was actually a playful, innocent man In Harmony with Nature.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The lyrics as well as the man himself are subject to legend.
  • Something Blues: "Dachau Blues" and "My Human Gets Me Blues" on Trout Mask Replica, and "The Smithsonian Institute Blues" on Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": He nicknamed one of his bandmates "The Mascara Snake."
  • Stage Names: Not only for himself, but he also created bizarre stage names for many of his band members, including Zoot Horn Rollo, Winged Eel Fingerling, Rockette Morton, Drumbo, Midnite Hatsize Snyder, and Antennae Jimmy Semens.
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: Beefheart may be known as an avant-garde musician, but he had a soft spot.
    • "I'm Glad" on ''Safe As Milk'
      • His album Clear Spot was characterised by three - "Too Much Time" (a radio oriented motown tribute), "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains" and "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" (both love ballads).
      • The albums Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams took the mood of the three Clear Spot songs and wrote whole albums in their style, something which wasn't very successful.
      • Harry Irene on Shiny Beast. Surprisingly the song had been around since the late 60s.
  • Take That: "Beatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones" from Strictly Personal was said to have been written in reaction to The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day In The Life".
    • The reason for this is he didn't like the line "I'd love to turn you on" as he thought it was vulgar of them to say it in a song.
    • The kicker? The Beatles liked his music! They even planned to sign him to their Zapple label before Allen Klein shut it down.
      • Lennon had two Safe as Milk Bumper Stickers on a cupboard in his house and was photographed next to them.
    • "Ashtray Heart" bashed Punk Rock, as the line "Open up another case of the punks" demonstrated. The reason was that Beefheart felt the punks that were influenced by him were flat out copying his style.
  • Train Song: "Click Clack".
  • Train-Station Goodbye: "Click Clack"
    • Trains show up with some frequency in his work — "Bat Chain Puller" is another song on the same subject.note 
  • Urban Legend: Several incredible anecdotes surround Beefheart's life, most of them told by the man himself. Through interviews, album notes, and various other means, he created a constantly shifting personal mythology.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Beefheart and Frank Zappa.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: With the exception of two "commercial" albums (which he later disowned), his music practically runs on this trope.