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Music / Captain Beefheart

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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 (January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010); 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 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 & 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, The Residents, Robyn Hitchcock, 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.


"Lick my tropes off, baby!":

  • Adaptation Distillation : The 20 minute long jam "Tarotplane" became the 6 and a half minute long "Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bond" when they performed it live in 1968. It has more tight structure than the original song, and it's likely it would have sounded like this on It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper had that album come out as originally intended.
  • The Artifact: The bizarre image of the band in masked costumes included in the Strictly Personal" gatefold relates back to the abandoned original double album concept. The first disc would have been credited to Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band and featured their more standard (if odd), material. The second disc would have been credited to "25th Century Quaker", alter-egos of the group that would have contained blues jams. Ultimately, the final Strictly Personal album was a rerecorded compilation of the two discs, with some tracks heavily shortened. A selection of the material intended for the second disc was released as Mirror Man, although it lost its original "25th Century Quaker" connotation.
  • Blatant Lies: Beefheart's interviews pretty much run on this as time went on (as collected in the book A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond). Beefheart denied the group's contributions to the songwriting, claiming he did it all himself, managed to get a journalist to believe The Mascara Snake was the drummer on Trout Mask Replica (when Drumbo was), and would deny his agreement to the phasing on Strictly Personal and the commercial direction of Unconditionally Guaranteed to name two. He also spread lies about Frank Zappa to make himself look like the good guy (when often, Zappa was more than patient with him). It's believed that Beefheart initially did these things out of spite, but eventually came to believe his own lies.
  • Book Ends: The fuzzbox used on the last song the band recorded, "Skeleton Makes Good", was directly inspired by the one used in the first song they recorded, "Diddy Wah Diddy". A unintentional one, as at the time, Beefheart was considering recording more material, but later decided to retire.
  • The Bus Came Back: Beefheart's band has a few examples of this.
    • John French left and returned to the group on several occasions, being the only 1960s member to still be with the group at the time of his final departure in 1980.
    • Alex St Clair left the group in 1968 and returned in 1973, then left again in 1974.
    • Doug Moon left the group in 1967 but guested on Trout Mask Replica's "China Pig" in 1969.
    • Ry Cooder left the group after 1967, but he personally sought out Beefheart in 1978 to sing on his track "Hard Workin' Man" from the Blue Collar soundtrack.
  • 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."
  • Cluster F-Bomb: There are several F-bombs in "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee". Given the relative rarity of profanity in his discography, it's also arguably a Precision F-Strike in context.
  • Creator Thumbprint:
    • Vliet was said to have enjoyed candy a lot, which led to the writing of "Abba Zabba" and "Kandy Korn".
    • A prime example of Beefheart's philosophy is his love of animals and preference for them over humans, as well as environmental concerns over the impact of humans on the ecosystem. Several examples of his philosophy are "Ant Man Bee", "Wild Life", "Blabber and Smoke" and "Apes-Ma".
  • Darker and Edgier: Though there were a few similarities, Strictly Personal was quite a bleak record in comparison to Safe As Milk. More evidently, the original Bat Chain Puller was a deliberate attempt at this in reaction to the preceding three commercial L Ps, though its replacement Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is one of his most happy sounding albums. The following LP, Doc At The Radar Station was notably dark and angry, and the final Ice Cream For Crow only slightly lighter in tone.
  • Defictionalization: Don originally wanted Clear Spot to be pressed on clear vinyl, but this was an expensive process in 1972 and the budget wouldn't allow it. By the album's 50th Anniversary Reissue in 2022, however, it was a much more common process - so this edition of the album was finally on the clear vinyl Don intended. It didn't, however, replicate his original plan of being a clear record in embossed PVC sleeve (the latter which was used on early pressings), so fans would have to recreate this themselves.
  • Distinct Double Album: The original, abandoned concept of Strictly Personal was one disc of blues jams credited to "25th Century Quaker" and one disc of psychedelic rock credited to "Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band". This ultimately proved too ambitious and a selection of tracks from both discs were rerecorded as the single album. The blues album can still somewhat be heard though, in the form of Mirror Man which was released by Buddah Records after Beefheart left the label (although, the original tracklisting would have been quite different).
  • Does This Remind You of Anything??: The creepy snippet of a man talking about exterminating rats at the end of "Dachau Blues" (a song about the Holocaust).
  • Double Entendre:
    • "Low Yo Yo Stuff" has lyrics that seem to refer to masturbation.
    • "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish" is also about sex, albeit disguised in Word Salad Lyrics.
    • "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" is sort of a reverse case; the lyrics are pretty suggestive (and probably intentionally so), but the main message of the song is to evaluate things according to their merits rather than to the superficial labels (i.e., "decals") attached to them.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: The backing music to "The Blimp" on Trout Mask Replica is played by Roy Estrada and Art Tripp, members of Frank Zappa's band at the time - it is a rehearsal take of his then-unreleased composition "Charles Ives". Art Tripp joined The Magic Band for the next album Lick My Decals Off Baby, and Roy Estrada was drafted in for The Spotlight Kid's tour and on Clear Spot. As a result, performances of "The Blimp" from this period are almost exactly as it was on record (save the lack of "Antennae Jimmy Semens" on vocals), even though this wasn't intended at the time.
  • 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. note  Safe as Milk is also still fairly conventional psychedelic blues-rock. Mirror Man and Strictly Personal are a bit weirder, but still not that unusual by '60s standards. With Trout Mask Replica, though, the rules went out the window, and he only recorded a few albums after that point that qualify as remotely normal (and he later disowned two of them).
  • 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.
  • Epic Rocking: Several songs, though Mirror Man stands out, with the shortest song on the original album being eight minutes long ("Kandy Korn") and the longest being nineteen ("Tarotplane"). However, this tendency would lessen starting with Trout Mask Replica, which doesn't have any songs longer than five and a half minutes long (and actually, the original Safe as Milk didn't have any songs longer than four minutes long; however, three of the bonus tracks on the CD version - "On Tomorrow", "Trust Us (take 9)", and "Korn Ring Finger" - are seven minutes or longer).
  • Establishing Series Moment: "Electricity", and especially the early 1968 performance of it at Cannes Beach, in which the strange-looking group play to a huge crowd of bemused onlookers. From this moment onwards, the group had established itself as an avant-garde group, distinct from the blues-rock they used to play (although still with moments of bluesiness).
  • 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.
  • Fading into the Next Song: Used extensively on Strictly Personal, often through phasing. Of particular note is the segue from "On Tomorrow" into "Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones".
  • Fake-Out Fade-Out: The instrumental version of "On Tomorrow" from the Plain Brown Wrapper sessions (as heard on the Safe As Milk remaster), has an extra 3 minutes of avant-garde noises at the end before it eventually returns to a few bars of the main song before ending. By contrast, the Strictly Personal version only uses a short amount of said avant-garde noises before it segues into "Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin' Stones".
  • 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. Even though it's proved influential on generations of rock albums since, it still sounds unique.
  • Genre Mashup: A rare example of an avant-garde musician who liked writing pop songs too. On the commercial end of the spectrum you have songs like "Yellow Brick Road" and "Too Much Time", and on the avant-garde end you have songs like "Flash Gordon's Ape" and "Telephone".
  • 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. Drummer John "Drumbo" French was one of the relative constants, playing with the Magic Band on and off throughout the 60s and 70s, and making his final appearance on Doc At The Radar Station, albeit as a guitarist.
  • 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 was substantially reworked later to become "The Torture Never Stops".
  • Lighter and Softer: Starting with The Spotlight Kid, Van Vliet began pursuing a more radio-friendly sound. He would continue this approach on the next three albums before returning to his signature weirdness with Shiny Beast.
  • Long Title: Van Vliet was fond of these, and has at least one or two on nearly every album, particularly starting with Trout Mask Replica. Some of the most notable are "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back", "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish", "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go", "The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)", "The Clouds Are Full of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye)", "There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evenin' Stage", "Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man", "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains", "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles", "When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy", "A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond", "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee", and "The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole".
  • 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.
    • That's him singing "Harry Irene". He sounds more like a typical jazz crooner than he does like himself, though discerning listeners will be able to tell that it's still him (the poems he narrates on some of his albums arguably provide most of the missing link for people's minds to fill in the gaps).
  • May–December Romance: From 1969 until his death in 2010, he was married to Jan, who was 12 years younger than him. Unlike a lot of these examples, they really were soulmates - she couldn't care less about his music, organised aspects of his life he was bad at, and looked after him during his many years of suffering Multiple Sclerosis. Fans, however, dislike the fact that she discouraged him from returning to music.
  • 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.
  • New Sound Album: Every album managed to sound similar, yet different at the same time.
    • Of note are Lick My Decals Off, Baby (which featured marimba) and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (which featured trombone), making songs from those albums sound distinctive from those before.
    • Mirror Man is a particularly salient example, as chronologically it's much weirder than anything Beefheart had recorded before it (it was recorded in late 1967, but not released until 1971). It's also unique among his catalogue for consisting entirely of lengthy songs composed of a lot of jamming. Strictly Personal was more psychedelic, but Trout Mask Replica just threw all the rules out the window. Lick My Decals Off sounds distinctive due to the aforementioned marimba, but it's nowhere near as radical a departure as Trout Mask Replica was.
  • Outsider Music: While he was very competent at writing and performing, his highly personal and unorthodox way of making music has led many critics to classify him as this.
  • Protest Song: "Dachau Blues", which is as screwed up as a protest song as you'd expect it from the Captain.
  • Rearrange the Song: "Dirty Blue Gene" started in the Strictly Personal sessions as a poem collaboration between Beefheart and his collaborator Herb Bermann. It was a play on words of 'Dirty Blue Jeans'. An instrumental backing was recorded, but the song was not voiced. Said instrumental ended up being used for "The Witch Doctor Life" years later. "Dirty Blue Gene"'s lyrics were later reused in a Spotlight Kid-era song with different music, which, after some rewriting over the years, ended up in its final version during the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) sessions, but still didn't make the final cut. It did, however, lend its name to the album (from its first line "The shiny beast of thought"). The song eventually appeared on Doc at the Radar Station, on which it is often praised as one of the highlights.
    • Also, Beefheart liked to get his bass players to play the basslines to songs as solos, often introducing shows with them. These included "Hair Pie", "When It Blows Its Stacks" and "I Wanna Find Me A Woman..." to name a few.
  • Recycled Lyrics: Lyrics from Herb Bermann's poems Dirty Blue Gene and Owed T'Alex ended up being used in completely different songs to which they were originally intended. Beefheart reused some of the unreleased poem Kilimanjaros lyrics in Ant Man Bee, most notably the word 'Uhuru'. Bermann's book The Mystery Man From The Magic Band shows us that many of Bermann's poems were adapted to song by the Magic Band, some crediting him, and some not.
    • In a strange variation, "Love Lies" recycles its lyrics from a 1967 song called "Mark XI", whose riff and some lyrics are quoted in "25th Century Quaker" (e.g. "Street lamps flutter like fireflies"), but the music of the original is said to be completely different.
    • Herb Bermann says that he and Don wrote together primarily in 1966, but the two had some kind of falling out when Don didn't let Herb attend the Safe As Milk sessions. That being said, Herb was surprised to find his 1966 poems "Trust Us", "Gimmie Dat Harp Boy" and "Kandy Korn" used as lyrics for songs on "Strictly Personal", as Don never consulted him. Despite the fact he'd written these poems entirely himself he didn't even get a writing credit. This was sadly far from the first time Don would claim ownership for what someone else had done.
    • Don stated that "Old Fart At Play", "Odd Jobs" and "Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat" are all based on passages from a poetry book he wrote in the Trout Mask Replica period named Old Fart At Play. He made an unsuccessful attempt to get the book released in the early 70s, and thereafter decided to use some of the poems as song lyrics.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: Several examples.
    • "Sure Nuff 'n Yes I Do" was written around the band's arrangement of Howlin' Wolf's "Down In The Bottom" which the band used to play live in their blues band days.
    • The music for "The Smithsonian Institute Blues" was originally written in 1966 for "Sugar Baby Sugar", an unreleased song with lyrics from a Herb Bermann poem. The original recording featured a different bassline from then bass player Jerry Handley and would have lacked the marimba of the Decals recording. This recording has never been released and is seemingly lost, but is mentioned by John French in Herb Bermann's book The Mystery Man from the Magic Band in which the poem "Sugar Baby Sugar" appears.
    • "Golden Birdies" reuses entire sections from previously released songs - the verse tune is taken from the coda of "Son Of Mirror Man - Mere Man" and the chorus tune is taken from "The Clouds Are Full Of Wine [Not Whiskey Or Rye]".
    • "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" on Clear Spot begins with the same opening bars as "Flower Pot" from the Strictly Personal sessions but is otherwise musically different.
    • "Tropical Hot Dog Night" from Shiny Beast was written around the closing section of "Odd Jobs" from the original Bat Chain Puller.
    • "Suction Prints" from Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is a rewritten version of the Spotlight Kid-era song "Pompadour Swamp", which originally had more sections. One of the other sections (as played on the 1973 tour) was the basis for "Sue Egypt" from Doc At The Radar Station.
    • "Ice Cream for Crow" recreates the music from the Spotlight Kid-era demo "Drink Paint Run Run", which had previously had its lyrics used for "Run Paint Run Run", which itself has different music.
    • "The Past Sure is Tense" recreates the music from the Clear Spot-era demo "Little Scratch" but has different lyrics.
    • "The Witch Doctor Life" recreates the music from the Strictly Personal-era demo "Dirty Blue Gene", but has different lyrics as he had already used the "Dirty Blue Gene" lyrics in an otherwise different song on Doc at the Radar Station.
  • 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.
  • Song Style Shift: Several, though of particular note is "Veteran's Day Poppy", which shifts from its chaotic first half, which is fairly typical of most of Trout Mask Replica (though arguably a bit more conventional), to an instrumental dirge for its second half. The transition has to be heard to believed.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": He nicknamed one of his bandmates "The Mascara Snake."
  • Spell My Name with an S: Don Van Vliet's first name was just Don, not Donald. Even Frank Zappa was unaware of this.
  • 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" and "Love Lies" on Shiny Beast. Surprisingly the former 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.
    • "Ashtray Heart" bashed Punk Rock, as the line "Open up another case of the punks" demonstrated. The reason was that Beefheart felt the punks who claimed to have been "influenced" by him were flat-out stealing 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.
  • Vocal Evolution: His voice on the last two albums are strained to the point that he's basically screaming instead of singing.
  • Wasted Song: "Odd Jobs" from the original Bat Chain Puller, which languished in unreleased obscurity for many years, is regarded by many as a lovely song describing an elderly homeless man beloved by his whole community, who suddenly dies and nobody realises what happened to him. When the original Bat Chain Puller was finally released, "Odd Jobs" was universally praised as the highlight by reviewers.
  • Word Salad: Beefheart had a unique way of describing songs to his musicians and journalists. For example, he consistently described the song "Best Batch Yet" in interviews as "Cheap cardboard balls floating through the music". Quite what he meant is anyone's guess.
    • Some of his songs appear to be this until you are aware of his private life. For example, "Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat" makes more sense when you find out he had a cat called Garland and he often wished he was an animal because of their perceived innocence in comparison to the wrongs carried out by humans.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: With the exception of two "commercial" albums (which he later disowned), his music practically runs on this trope.