Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, has died at the age of 69. The cause of death is believed to be complications arising from multiple sclerosis.
Born in 1941 in Los Angeles, California, one of Van Vliet’s childhood friends was none other than Frank Zappa. They worked together off and on over the years, with Zappa producing Beefheart’s mindblowing Trout Mask Replica album, and Beefheart contributing vocals to ‘Willie The Pimp’ on Zappa’s Hot Rats album. In 1978 Zappa was the executive producer on Bat Chain Puller which remains unreleased to this day (though the album that surfaced was entitled Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), as Zappa was involved in a lawsuit with his manager, Herb Cohen (read more here). The name Beefheart, by the way, came from a mooted film project, Captain Beefheart Versus The Grunt People.
In 1965, Captain Beefheart joined what would be the first of many line-ups of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (indeed, the only album not to credit the Magic Band on the sleeve was 1972’s The Spotlight Kid). In 1967, the band’s debut Safe As Milk, was released, featuring guitar from a young 20-year old guitarist by the name of Ry Cooder. It remains one of the great debuts, that sets out his stall, without being as seemingly impenetrable on first listen as some of his other work. The second album Strictly Personal was released in 1968. However, some of the original material from these sessions that had lead to this album would be released as Mirror Man in 1971, before all saw the light of day in 1999 as The Mirror Man Sessions, nearly two decades after Beefheart had retired from the music business. Confusingly, The Mirror Man Sessions erroneously state that the session was recorded one night in Los Angeles 1965.
1969 saw the release of the aforementioned Trout Mask Replica, widely viewed over forty years after its’ release as being one of the most radical records ever made. Despite its’ high status, it wasn’t seminal, mainly because it’s not an album that could ever be copied. It holds its’ place in The Wire’s magazine’s list of the 100 Most Important Records Ever Made, it would be underestimating this record substantially to describe it as a mixture of Dada, unorthodox blues and free jazz, but it’ll do as a starting point.
The next three years saw the release of Lick My Decals Off, Baby in 1970 followed shortly by The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. These albums may aapear to be less challenging than the ones that had gone before, but all have their highpoints. The mid seventies saw the release of two albums that Beefheart told his fans to get their money back on Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans And Moonbeams. Although Kate Bush has said of the latter album that he wrote songs like nobody else, the band found themselves labelled the Tragic Band, and they were soon without a label.
It was Virgin Records (then viewed as being an independent!) who gave Beefheart a home for his last three albums: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in 1978, Doc At the Radar Station in 1980 and Ice Cream For Crow in 1982. By this stage, Beefheart found himself lauded by the musicians had had appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of punk; both John Lydon in the UK and the likes of Devo, B52s and perhaps most obviously, Pere Ubu. Yet by this stage his art career was taking off, and he retired from music.
He became friends with PJ Harvey and John Peel was a staunch defender to the end of his own life, even playing a track a week from Trout Mask Replica at one point in the last decade. He was a true original, and one who will be missed by many who admired his approach to music and life.
If you feel the urge to go and buy Beefheart albums, then your first priority should be Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica, though they’re all worth owning; those mid-seventies albums seem to miss the essence of what made Beefheart special.
I posted a couple of tracks by Beefheart the other night; so here’s one of the bands who carried his torch of adventure on, Sonic Youth, covering his song ‘Electricity’:
Sonic Youth -‘Electricity.’ mp3
Tributes have paid from many artists to the Captain here.