Captain Beefheart*, otherwise known as Don Van Vliet, along with his Magic Band: Alex St Clair Snouffer on guitar; Doug Moon also on guitar; Paul Blakely on drums; and Jerry Handley on bass, were a cult rock group which reached the pinnacle of their success during the '60s.
Vliet's friendship with Frank Zappa1 is documented in the Grow Fins set* and ubiquitously in LA rock lore. Zappa came up with the idea of a quasi comic-strip hero who, by drinking a Pepsi would make his Magic Band appear. Zappa suggested the idea to a mutual pal, Vic Mortensen, who was the drummer in an earlier lineup of the band*, but it wasn't long before the name was adopted by Vliet. It may well have been this casting into the central role which made Vliet, a non-musician, assume a central position. From there he set the dynamics for the most momentous revolution ever to hit rock music.
Vliet's Early Life
Vliet had a creative past. As an eight year old he was presenting a kids' TV programme where he would visit a zoo and sculpt the animals he saw there. His father was apparently unhappy with where his son's career path might take him and so put a stop to it.
Around 1967 or 1968 the group cut a couple of singles which went down well locally. Then came an interesting debut album. Somehow round about this time and onwards into 1968 and 1969 the most original, complex, surreal and mind-boggling music rock music evolved.
Rock is an idiom and most classical musicians don't have much time for it, but the music of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band as exemplified in the Grow Fins anthology really does transcend genres.
Safe As Milk - 1967
This was their debut album and was notable for 'Electricity' during the recording of which Vliet allegedly destroyed two Telefunken microphones with the power of his voice. Years later he repeated this feat on a television chat show to prove it. Other notable tracks include 'Autumn's Child' a kind of mini-opera with theremin*, time changes galore and quirky slide guitar motifs.
This is where psychedelia begins. The Grow Fins notes claim that John French - drummer, long time ally, supporter, latter day guitarist, arranger, and man we have to thank for the entire Grow Fins chronicle - came to Vliet with a minor-key tune which became the basic theme for 'Trust Us'. The outstanding track among the many brilliant oeuvres, French's Grow Fins entry suggests that this was Vliet's answer to the Rolling Stones' 'We Love You', which was their answer to the Beatles' 'All You Need is Love', which was their answer to everything.
Trout Mask Replica - 1970
This is where psychedelia ends. This album involved extensive drilling of the musicians, with much creative input from Vliet in the form of directions to French, but little in the way of putting in an appearance and making the chaps feel that he was there for them. The musicians spent 10 - 12 hours a day grafting at getting the parts down for the creations that Vliet was throwing at them. If you are used only to normal rock forms you are going to find 'Trout Mask Replica' not just odd but severely challenging. There is some way, however, in which it is real music and repeated listening becomes very rewarding.
Lick My Decals Off Baby
This album was originally banned by radio stations who did not understand the harmless significance of the title which was, 'I don't want you to put any labels [decals] on my music'. This is the band's most musically-accomplished and finely-honed album. Some of the rough edges of Trout Mask have been refined, arrangements are even tighter, and the cover art is the perfection of the Magic Band aura.
Vliet retired from the music business in 1982 to concentrate on painting. For a few years he maintained that the band was ready to resume touring at the drop of a hat, if only people would be receptive to his music. However, it appears that Vliet has been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and is unlikely ever to take to the stage or studio again. John French is still active with colleagues like Henry Kaiser, and English folk-oriented artist Richard Thompson (his Blood and the Ink on his Crazy Backwards Alphabet LP is a perfect reprise of the Magic Band Sound).