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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 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!":

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees : Whilst much of "Orange Claw Hammer" is metaphorical nonsense, a 'cherry phosphate' is indeed a real drink (named for its use of phosphoric acid) which was popular from the late 1800s until World War II. The use of the even-then antiquated phrase in the song symbolises how long the seaman has been away.
  • 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.
  • Blues: The genre in which the eventual avant-garde musician Beefheart started off.
  • Bookends: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 A Date with Rosie Palms.
    • "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 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. 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).
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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, 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).
  • 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: 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".
  • 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The line "Street lamps flutter like fireflies" in "Love Lies" was reused from "25th Century Quaker". It's rumored that Beefheart did write "Love Lies" as a poem in the late 60s but never put it to music at the time, thus quoted it here.
  • 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 the Strictly Personal period 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.
    • "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."
  • 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, and 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.
  • 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 Lyrics: With the exception of two "commercial" albums (which he later disowned), his music practically runs on this trope.


Example of: