CAPTAIN BEEFHEART-1967-1972: SAFE AS MILK TO CLEAR SPOT
Captain Beefheart-1967-1972: Safe As Milk To Clear Spot.
It was in 1964 that Don Van Vliet first dawned his Captain Beefheart persona. By then, Don was already twenty-three and had led an eventful life. He had been called a child prodigy, attended art school, sold vacuum cleaners and for the last two years, been a member of Alex Snouffer’s Magic Band. His story began in Glendale, California in 1941.
That’s where the future Captain Beefheart, was born Don Glen Vliet on January 15th 1941. By the time Don was three, he was already sculpting and his speciality was animals. So, it’s no surprised that when Don was nine, he won a children’s sculpting competition organised by Los Angeles zoo. This was just the start of Don’s artistic career.
During the fifties Don worked as an apprentice with Rodrigues who spoke in glowing terms about Don, referring to his as a child prodigy. He wasn’t wrong.
Growing up, all Don wanted to do was sculpt. Sometimes, he was so busy sculpting, that Don forgot to eat. All that mattered was his art. Don it seemed, was aiming for artistic perfection. So, when he was offered several scholarships, it seemed that Don would jump at the opportunity.
Sadly, Don’s parents didn’t approve of their son heading to art school. As a result, Don wasn’t heading to art school. Instead, he was heading to Lancaster, in the Mojave desert, where the aircraft industry was thriving. This would influence Don’s sculpting.
It was also where Don’s eclectic musical taste developed. Blues and jazz were favourites of Dons, including Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Walters, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. Soon, Don was spending all day listening to music and sculpting. However, sometimes, Don spent time socialising with members of local bands The Omens and The Blackouts. Mostly though, art dominated Don’s life.
So much so, that Don wasn’t a regular attendee at Antelope Valley High School, in Lancaster. That didn’t seem to matter, as he was a gifted student. After high school, Don attended Antelope Valley Junior College as an art major. A year later, Don quit and got a job selling vacuum cleaners. Again, this didn’t last long, and Don got a job managing a shoe shop. After a while, Don quit and headed to Rancho Cucamonga, California, where once again, he hooked up with Frank Zappa, on old school friend.
With Frank Zappa’s help, Don was confident enough to take to the stage, imitating Howlin’ Wolf and playing the harmonica. What became apparent, was that Don had a wide vocal range. This would prove useful when his career began in 1962.
It was in in Lancaster, California, that Don met Alex Snouffer, an R&B guitarist. He asked Don to join his Magic Band. This resulted in Alex Snouffer becoming Alex St. Clair, and Don Glen Vliet becoming Don Van Vliet. A year later, in 1965, Don Van Vliet became Captain Beefheart.
Just a year later, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band signed to A&M Records. Little did anyone realise that that day, the career of one of the most innovative artists began.
For Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s debut single, they covered Bo Diddley’s Diddy Wah Diddy. The followup was Moonglow, penned by David Gates, who would find fame and fortune with Bread. By then, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band would be pushing musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, beyond. That’s the case on the thirteen albums Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band would release including his debut Safe As Milk
Safe As Milk.
In 1967, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s released their debut album, Safe As Milk. It was recorded at RCA Studios, in Los Angeles, during April 1967. Safe As Milk was a tantalising taste of what Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were capable of.
Safe As Milk, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s debut album, was released in September 1967. It was produced by Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow and featured an all-star cast. This included Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal of Rising Sons plus guitarist Russ Titelman. They played their part in a groundbreaking album, Safe As Milk.
On hearing Safe As Milk, critics realised this was unlike anything they’d heard before. It was an innovative and experimental, genre-melting album. Captain Beefheart’s love of the delta blues was evident on Safe As Milk. There’s even a cover of Robert Pete Williams’ Grown So Ugly. It was arranged by Ry Cooder. The other eleven tracks on Safe As Milk are original tracks, which Captain Beefheart either wrote or cowrote.
These tracks feature lyrics that veer between surreal and absurd. Another difference was the time signatures. This wasn’t an album of music in a 4/4 time signature. Instead, different time signatures feature throughout Safe As Milk, which critics hailed a classic. However, despite this, neither record buyers nor Buddah Records agreed.
Record buyers didn’t seem to ‘get’ Safe As Milk. It failed to chart in Britain or America. This would be the case with many of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s albums. Commercial success would continue to elude them. Buddah Records didn’t get Safe As Milk. They were beginning to come to the conclusion that Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s music was too left-field and unconventional. That’s despite releasing a classic album, Safe As Milk.
After Safe As Milk was released, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band began work on their sophomore album Strictly Personal. It featured eight tracks penned by Captain Beefheart. They were recorded at Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, between April 25th and May 2nd 1968. Once Strictly Personal was completed, it was due to be released by Buddah Records.
However, by then, Buddah Records had decided that Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s music was too leftfield and unorthodox. So, they decided not to release Strictly Personal.
Luckily, Bob Krasnow’s Blue Thumb Records were wiling to release Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s sophomore album Strictly Personal. However, there was a problem.
Bob Krasnow, who produced Strictly Personal, used phasing during the recording of Strictly Personal. It was used on many tracks. This production technique proved controversial. Initially, Captain Beefheart thought this was a good idea. However, later, he claimed that the phasing had been used without his permission or approval. As a result, Captain Beefheart claimed that he hated the psychedelic effects used on Strictly Personal. Never again, would effects be used on a Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band album. These effects would divide the attention of critics.
When Strictly Personal was released in September 1968, critics were divided. They were unable to decide if Strictly Personal was the work of a genius, or incoherent ramblings. Mostly, critics were won over by Strictly Personal. However, many critics felt that the effects jarred, and detracted from the music. Record buyers didn’t seem to have an opinion on Strictly Personal, as it failed to chart in America or Britain. Still, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were a cult band. That was about to change, with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s second classic album, Trout Mask Replica.
Trout Mask Replica.
For their third album Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band headed to Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, in August 1968. That’s where Captain Beefheart hooked up with his old school friend and musical soul mate, Frank Zappa. He would produce Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s most ambitious and innovative album Trout Mask Replica.
For Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart had penned twenty-eight tracks. As a result, Trout Mask Replica would be a sprawling and genre-melting double album. After the sessions at Sunset Sound Studios, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band reconvened at Los Angeles’ Whitney Studios in March 1969. That’s where Trout Mask Replica was completed. It was then released on June 16th 1969.
Trout Mask Replica was released on Straight Records on June 16th 1969. It failed to chart in America, but reached number twenty-one in Britain. Just like Safe As Milk, Trout Mask Replica was another classic album from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Elements of Americana, avant-garde, blues, classical, experimental, folk, free jazz, psychedelia, rock and surrealism melted into one on Trout Mask Replica. The lyrics were cerebral and controversial, dealing with politics, religion, love, sexuality, the Holocaust, conformity, the environment and musical history. It was an ambitious, far reaching and genre-melting opus. Sadly, only music critics, cultural commentators and a few discerning music lovers realised the importance of Trout Mask Replica. It’s now regarded as one of the most important albums of the late sixties. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band saw the sixties close with a classic. What, however, would the seventies bring for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band?
Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
As the seventies dawned, a frustrated Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band returned to the studio. This frustration gave Captain Beefheart the inspiration for his fourth album’s title, Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
Captain Beefheart was a man on a mission. That mission was to to get rid of “labels”. Instead, he wanted people to evaluate things, including music, according to its merits, rather than according to superficial labels or “decals.” This was admirable. After all, Captain Beefheart had been a victim of labels. Trout Mask Replica was in some quarters, labelled an avant-garde album. Conservative record buyers recoiled in horror, rather than giving an innovative album an opportunity. Maybe after Lick My Decals Off, Baby, things would change.
For Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart had written fifteen songs, including I Love You, You Big Dummy, Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop, The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dig) and The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye). They were recorded at United Recording Corporation, Los Angeles during May 1970. With Captain Beefheart producing Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band fused avant-garde, blues, experimental, free jazz, psychedelia and rock. Accompanied by His Magic Band’s ever evolving lineup, Lick My Decals Off, Baby was released in December 1970.
On Lick My Decals Off, Baby’s release, in December 1970, critics called the album a mini masterpiece. Some went as far as to say that Lick My Decals Off, Baby was better than Trout Mask Replica. Described as captivating, challenging, engrossing, humorous, innovative and playful, what started as pieces of music improvised on his home piano, became Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s third classic. It even surpassed the commercial success of Trout Mask Replica, reaching number twenty in Britain. It seemed things were looking up for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
Just as things were looking up for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Buddah Records decided to release Mirror Man. It was originally recorded as as part of an abandoned project, It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper album. However, the album was shelved and some of the material found its way onto Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s 1968 sophomore album. However, Buddah Records were obviously keen to cash-in on Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s popularity.
The Bob Krasnow produced Mirror Man was released in April 1971. Mirror Man features just four tracks. This includes three lengthy blues jams. They make Mirror Man’s release worthwhile. These tracks showcase Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band at the start of their career, and is very different from the band that features on On Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
Critics remarked upon that. They also remarked that Mirror Man wasn’t for newcomers to Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. It was a case of only seasoned veterans of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band should try Mirror Man, a hidden gem in Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s back-catalogue. It features Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band at their intensive and creative best. However, Captain Beefheart’s sixth album, The Spotlight Kid, was his most accessible.
The Spotlight Kid.
During autumn 1971, Captain Beefheart and co-producer Phil Schier, began work on what would become The Spotlight Kid. Captain Beefheart wrote nine tracks and cowrote Blabber ‘N Smoke with Jan Van Vliet. These ten tracks would become The Spotlight Kid, which was credited to Captain Beefheart.
Although His Magic Band featured on The Spotlight Kid, the album is just credited to Captain Beefheart. The starting point for The Spotlight Kid, is Captain Beefheart’s beloved blues. However, this is blues with a twist. Marimba, bells and percussion are added. They provide a contrast to the slide guitar, rhythm section and harmonica. The result was what critics called Captain Beefheart’s most accessible album.
From I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby, through White Jam, Alice In Blunderland, Grow Fins and the closing track Glider, Captain Beefheart produces his most accessible album. Blues tinged, albeit with a twist, there’s more than a nod to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Critics hailed The Spotlight Kid as raw, intensive, powerful and accessible. The Spotlight Kid was seen as the perfect introduction to Captain Beefheart.
To some extent, this proved to be the case. In America, The Spotlight Kid reached number 131 on the US Billboard 200 charts. Over the Atlantic, The Spotlight Kid stalled at number forty-four in Britain. It was swings and roundabouts. At least, however, Captain Beefheart had made a breakthrough in his home country.
It had been a long coming. Captain Beefheart had toiled for years trying to make a breakthrough. One of the problems was, that many of Captain Beefheart’s aren’t particularly accessible.
Especially for the newcomer to Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. A good place to start are three album 1970s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, 1971s The Spotlight Kid and 1972s Clear Spot. They’re much more accessible than albums like Safe As Milk and Trout Milk Replica. Even Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s accessible albums are ambitious, adventurous albums of genre-melting music where the music is unique and innovative and feature one of music’s mavericks.
He was way ahead of his time. That’s why commercial success eluded Captain Beefheart for much of his career. Captain Beefheart, like his old schoolfriend Frank Zappa, was always determined to push musical boundaries, sometimes, to their limits and beyond. Other times, like on The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, Captain Beefheart yearned for commercial success. Captain Beefheart wanted to share his music with a wider audience. Sadly, Captain Beefheart never reached the heady heights his music and talent deserved. At least belatedly, Captain Beefheart a musical pioneer, is recognised as one of the most innovative and adventurous musicians of his generations. That’s apparent on the albums Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band released between 1967 and 1972, which feature a musical maverick at his creative and innovative best.
Captain Beefheart-1967-1972: Safe As Milk To Clear Spot.