Captain Beefheart (2nd from right) and the Magic Band circa 1966
I have something very special for you today.
Captain Beefheart has always been something of a mystery to me (and a whole lot of other folks, too).
For most of my adult life, the good Captain was but a cipher to me, known only as the wild, mysterious musical being responsible for that album with the fish on it (Trout Mask Replica).
I didn’t know his music, nor did I know anyone who did.
There were some Zappa devotees in my orbit, who might have been acquainted with Beefheart’s more challenging sounds via their close association but none of them ever shared any of it.
The first actual Beefheart I heard, was the deranged and amazing ‘Abba Zabba’, which had been included on an import psych comp I picked up in the late 80s.
That piqued my curiousity, which made me seek out his 1967 LP ‘Safe As Milk’.
It was there that I had my skull split open by the mighty ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’, and thusly dipped my toe, ever so gently into the Beefheartian universe.
I made the requisite run at ‘Trout Mask Replica’, and was unable to breach its weirdness, but have since tunneled my way in a bit, working my way through some of his more approachable stuff, hoping that someday the molten core of his art would reveal itself to me.
I didn’t realize that Beefheart had ever done anything truly “conventional” until someone played his version of the old Bo Diddley classic ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ for me.
That Beefheart and an early incarnation of the Magic Band had recorded actual, bluesy garage rock (with David Gates producing, no less!!) was at first stunning. Eventually I was able to see/hear how this 45 – recorded in 1966 – was a logical first chapter in the Captain Beefheart story.
The touchstone for me – with Beefheart – has always been the sound of Howling Wolf, someone who the good Captain had clearly digested fully.
Of course what Beefheart did with that sound, i.e. spit it back out like some kind of cubist mindfuck, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Monks having a drunken battle of the bands in a back alley somewhere, was something else entirely.
Much like the Mothers of Invention on ‘Freak Out’, Captain Beefheart’s sound on ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ is the sound of a sonic maverick with one foot in conventional pop and the other on a psychotic banana peel. While this is much more evident on ‘Safe As Milk’, there is no denying that it is here as well.
The sound of ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ is rooted in the UK R&B of the day, yet if you listen closely it also sounds like a busload of mental patients rolling down a hill playing tubas (dig that morbidly obese fuzz bass).
There’s enough 66-era skronk, and the harmonica, to tie it into the SoCal garage thing, but if you had any idea of the journey that Beefheart was about to embark on, it’s not hard to see it take root here.
The Cap’n amongst a star-studded line up in Hollywood
The flipside, ‘Who Do You Think You’re Fooling’ (credited on the label to ‘Don Vliet’ before he added the ‘Van’) is even a little bit more mainstream than the A-side, and is very groovy indeed.
Beefheart and the Magic band recorded one more 45 for A&M, featuring the David Gates-penned ‘Moonchild’.
You should take a gander at Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band working it out 1966 style on ‘Where the Action Is’.
I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll see you all next week.