19th April 2016

Fish out of Water: A Voyage into Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

This fish is thrown into the abstract and obtuse world of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

The first time I heard about Captain Beefheart was when he died in 2010. I probably listened to a few tracks back then in a half-hearted homage to van Vliet. However, I must have not taken much from it as I am only now coming round to beginning my voyage into his musical discography properly.

So why am I only starting now? Well, my theory is that I was daunted by the prospect. Similar to artists like Neil Young, Frank Zappa or Tom Waits, Beefheart’s musical library is vast and its range large. Questions such as ‘Where should I start? With the most known album or the first? Should I immediately understand it? Am I too late to fully enjoy this artist?’ et cetera usually remain unanswered and I crawl back into a metaphorical cave of familiarity and assured appreciation of my musical listening. With a three week holiday consumed by a dissertation I decided now would be a good time to get out of the cave and get into Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.

I started not with any album but with a documentary on Captain Beefheart narrated by the late John Peel. In it, I learnt about the Captain’s obsessive and, at times, brutally authoritative personality. One story remains prominent in my mind of how he kept his band cooped up inside a house for eight months during the recording of Trout Mask Replica, only allowing them to leave for groceries. At one point, a member recalls living on one cup of soya beans-a-day. “Ok,” I thought, “this guy is slightly crazy, but the genius ones usually are.”

I then began my listening experience in chronological order. First up, 1967’s Safe As Milk. This album I really enjoyed from the first listen. I’ve probably listened to it three or four times now and will continue to do so. What struck me was the structured nature of the songs. I was expecting an avant-garde mess of an album; abstract and obtuse; unforgiving for a new listener. But it wasn’t. Instead I was welcomed by a collection of catchy songs, none more so than ‘Yellow Brick Road.’ ‘Electricity’ is really something. That voice is remarkable and is nothing like I’ve heard in music before, almost like Darth Sidius from Star Wars has joined a band. ‘I’m Glad’ was unexpectedly beautiful as well with a sort of Sam Cooke vibe.

Next, I abandoned by chronological order tactic and skipped straight to the band’s last album, 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow. This was too abstract for my blood. I didn’t enjoy it much. It seemed to try too hard to be weird and this detracted from the quality of the songs. I was reassured by the fact that several critics agree that it is Beefheart’s weirdest record. The titular track is fun, and a few other tracks are interesting but other then that nothing stands out for me as particularly impressive. I will give it another go for sure but only when I’m more familiar with what Beefheart stands for, and am more used to his abstract compositions and lyrics.

I returned to the beginning and 1968’s Strictly Personal in the hope that I would find some more Beefheart that I enjoyed. And that I did. Words are short and I want to talk about Trout Mask Replica so that’s all I’m going to say.

So yes, 1969’s Trout Mask Replica: Beefheart’s greatest masterpiece for many, and influential for an uncountable amount of artists, Cobain and Frusciante to name only two. This album is paradoxically brilliant. At many times it sounds like an ink splatter onto a music page. But it isn’t. Each song is carefully crafted and layered like a classical piece creating the illusion of it being made-up rubbish. At times it is hilarious like the bit at the end of ‘Hair Pie: Bake 1’ where you hear the Captain converse with some neighbourhood kids or the spoken word of ‘Pena’: “Fast and Bulbous,” exclaims one member—ludicrous! I still don’t fully understand the album and I doubt I ever will, but this won’t stop me from listening to it again.

There’s still much to gain from Beefheart and I will continue to listen to him and the various incarnations of the Magic Band. I still see his music as a complex and slightly obtuse entity but one that should be grappled by anyone wishing to understand much of today’s alternative music’s ancestry.

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