Monday, August 5, 2013

Discovering Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Part One - "Safe as Milk"

"Once you've heard Beefheart, it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood."             -tom waits


i'm actually embarrassed that it is only within the last month or so that i've discovered the music of Captain Beefheart.  of course i have heard his name for decades, and have been aware of his reputation, built upon his impossibly difficult avant garde masterpiece "Trout Mask Replica", as one of music's alltime great weirdos.  but other than a couple of aborted attempts at penetrating that album over the years, i was completely ignorant of his work.  my first exposure came in an unusual form;   San Francisco psychedelic dj Al Lover's "Safe as Milk Replica," which deconstructs Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's 1967 debut album into badass trip hop instrumentals.  i loved it and was curious where these sounds came from so i looked up the source material.  i have not listened to or read about anything but Beefheart since.

noone ever told me that at the core of it all Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, was a blues god.  i had no idea he possessed a voice that could supernaturally channel the spirits of blues masters Son House and Howlin' Wolf in their prime.  i had never known that his Magic Band was one of the finest bands ever assembled, built upon an innovative two-guitar sound and a fucking thunderous rhythm section.  Rock history fails to properly mention that, prior to the wacked out Trout Mask Replica experimentation Captain Beefheart is best known for, the group's recordings from 1965-69 were trailblazing heavy acid blues, pushing things out further than their English contemporaries and predating just about anyone else in the US.  the influence of these first recordings is shocking;  i can hear this band's tentacles wrapped around just about everything innovative in rock music that came in its wake.  i can hear the Beefheart in early Led Zeppelin.  i can hear it in Devo.  in Sonic Youth.  Morphine. Clutch.  Mike Patton and Faith No More.  it's an endless list.   Captain Beefheart broke just about every rock or blues rule, and his music still sounds fresh and innovative nearly 45 years later.


Captain Beefheart laid down one of the densest careers in music history, so it's a pretty daunting task to wade into his work.  but i decided the best way to explore this guy's titanic catalog was to start at the beginning and to retrace his footsteps as he evolved into rock music's greatest experimentalist. Van Vliet was an artistic child prodigy, obsessively sculpting and drawing from a very early age as he forged his own unique creative vision.  he went to high school with Frank Zappa, and the two friends would spend countless late nights absorbing the deep blues of Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters or Son House.  in the beginning, Van Vliet and the early Magic Band were one of the very best white blues bands around

the band's first single was for A&M records in 1965, a cover of the Willie Dixon tune "Diddy Wah Diddy."  Van Vliet gives a classic performance, and Jerry Handley's bass tone is still absolutely filthy.    

A&M saw great potential in Captain Beefheart, to mold him into a pop star, possibly an American Mick Jagger.  in 1966,  the label's executives heard the demos of the new, more experimental music Beefheart and his band were cooking up. These recordings were deemed "too negative" and the band was immediately dumped, their contract nullified.  Van Vliet and the Magic Band, at this point made up of drummer John French, Handley on bass, and guitars by Alex St. Clair and a young Ry Cooder, recorded their debut album "Safe as Milk" in 1967 for Buddah Records. 

for the opening track, "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do," the band's trippy Delta Blues-inspired sound is deeper, heavier, and more gutteral than just about anyone from that era while "Zig Zag Wanderer" is a hard driving chunk of '60s California go-go psychedelia.  "Call on Me" is a great slice of Stax Soul and it is here that Van Vliet starts to really show off his vocal abilities.  but things get weird with track 4, "Dropout Boogie."  Van Vliet's straight bluesman voice morphs into a bizarre growl and the band lays down a brutal path of heavy, fuzzed out stoner rock, until the song's arrangement gets turned inside out.  pretty weird shit for 1966, folks.

but things get REALLY weird with the still-beautifully bizarre, LSD saturated "Electricity."  Van Vliet dramatically plants his freak flag with a jaw dropping Howlin' Wolf-on-acid sound as the band kicks the shit out their instruments behind him with a ghostly theramin quivering in the air.  no other group was anywhere even vaguely in the same galaxy as Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band at this time. 

 "Abba Zaba," is the album's other standout track.  heavy tribal drums... a ridiculously hot bass groove... strangly serpentine middle-eastern  guitar sounds... thick layers of heavy power chords... topped off with Van Vliet's surreal lyrics and vocal delivery. This was the first Captain Beefheart song i ever consciously heard, and i didn't listen to anything else for the next 10 days.  the early Magic Band is in full swing here with the soon to be legendary bluesman Taj Mahal helping out on percussion.  Ry Cooder's bass solo  and the ensuing jam are about as great as it gets. 

While most of the songs on Safe as Milk work within the classic perimeters of the blues and R&B, "Dropout Boogie,""Abba Zaba," and "Electricity" push the group off into unchartered territory and act as a signal for things to come.  Ry Cooder left the band shortly after Safe as Milk's completion, unable to deal with the increasingly demanding Van Vliet, and was replaced with an innovative slide guitarist named Jeff Cotton.  very soon the band would be taking blues further into outer space than anyone else, ever.

NEXT:  Part Two:  "It Comes To You In a Plain Brown Wrapper"


  1. A ton of great music lies ahead for you. If you're going chronologically, don't skip the early stuff on Grow Fins.

  2. thanks! yeah i just noticed the other night the wealth of early material on that box set. looks like a must-have.

  3. hi for me the best capt beefheart and the magic band is 66 to 67.the delta blues guitars are sooooo good.alex st claire,jeff cotton really work well together.