Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band were an American band who created music that has occasionally been dubbed "avant garde-blues". Their music was characterized by bluesy melodies, shambolic instrumentation, idiosyncratic, unbound timings, the growls and shrieks of Beefheart's vocals and his surreal, poetic lyrics. Throughout their career, the band's musical direction was tightly controlled by Don Van Vliet (1941 - 2010), aka Captain Beefheart, who subjected the band to intense regimes of rehearsal; this tension combined with poor salary contributing to the break-up of the original Magic Band. Beefheart reformed a new band of musicians under the name, but left the music industry for good in 1982 to pursue his career as a painter.
With the exception of British disc jockey John Peel, they saw little critical endorsement or recognition in their years active, but their influence was highly significant; to later avant-garde artists such as The Residents and Tom Waits, as well as to the Punk movement, which appreciated both their stripped-down sound and Van Vliet's unleashed, expressive vocal delivery. In recent years their importance has been acknowledged by the mainstream music press, with Trout Mask Replica (1969) reaching number 58 on Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list (beating albums like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and John Lennon's Imagine). In 1988 Fast N Bulbous: A Tribute to Captain Beefheart, was released, featuring such diverse artists as XTC, Sonic Youth and The Mock Turtles.
The Magic Band's first formation was in 1965 when Don Glen Vliet was contacted by Alex Snouffer, a local Lancaster, California rhythm and blues guitarist. Together they assembled the first Magic Band and at this point Don Vliet became "Don Van Vliet", whilst Alex Snouffer became "Alex St. Claire". Nearly all the musicians that Van Vliet worked with were given stage names; Van Vliet's being "Captain Beefheart". The first Magic Band was completed with Doug Moon on guitar, Jerry Handley on bass and Vic Mortenson on drums, who was soon replaced by Paul Blakely.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band signed to A&M and released two 1966 singles, a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" followed by "Moonchild," which was written by David Gates. Both were hits in Los Angeles. The band began to play music venues catering to underground artists such as the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
Sometime in 1966 demos of what became the Safe as Milk material were submitted to A&M. Jerry Moss (the "M" in A&M) reportedly described the new direction as "too negative" and they were dropped from the label. But by the end of 1966 they were signed to Buddah Records and John French had joined as drummer. French would be the mainstay of the band until 1971, and he returned twice after that (1975–77 and 1980, as a guitarist on the records Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow; he also led the reformed Magic Band). French had the patience required to be able to translate Van Vliet's musical ideas (often expressed by whistling or banging on the piano) for the other players. In French's absence this role was taken over by Bill Harkleroad.
The Safe as Milk material needed much more work, and 20-year-old guitar prodigy Ry Cooder was asked to help. They began recording in Spring 1967, with Richard Perry producing (his first job as producer). Cooder left shortly after recording the album, which was released in September 1967. Among those who took notice were The Beatles. John Lennon displayed two of the album's promotional bumper stickers in the sunroom at his home, and later the Beatles planned to sign Beefheart to their experimental Zapple label. (Those plans were scrapped after Allen Klein took over the group's management.)
In August, guitarist Jeff Cotton, aka Antennae Jimmy Semens, was recruited and by November the Snouffer/Cotton/Handley/French line-up began recording for the second album. It is said to have been intended to be a double album called It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper with one disc recorded live (or live in the studio). What finally emerged in October 1968 was Strictly Personal, released on producer Bob Krasnow's Blue Thumb Records. After the album was released Van Vliet initiated through interviews a myth which alleged that the tapes of the album had been remixed by Krasnow without the band's knowledge, and further, that he had ruined it by adding modish psychedelic effects (phasing, backwards tapes, etc). The myth has nonetheless persisted, and is included as fact in Jason Ankeny's Allmusic biography. This was also the period in which Van Vliet furthered his own mythology through interviews. Earlier recordings of two of the Strictly Personal songs and two other songs were released by Buddah in 1971 under the title Mirror Man. The original release bore a sleeve note claiming that the material had been recorded "one night in Los Angeles in 1965". This was a ruse to circumvent possible copyright issues; the material was actually recorded in November and December 1967.
During his first trip to England in January 1968, Captain Beefheart was briefly represented by Mod icon Peter Meaden, an early manager of The Who. Beefheart and his band members were initially denied entry to the U.K. because of improper paperwork. After returning to Germany for a few days, the group was permitted to re-enter the U.K. By this time, they had terminated their association with Meaden. Alex St. Clair left the band in June 1968 after their return from the European tour and was replaced by teenager Bill Harkleroad. Handley also left the band a few weeks later.
Critically acclaimed as Van Vliet's magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica was released in June 1969 on Frank Zappa's newly formed Straight Records label. By this time, the Magic Band had enlisted bassist Mark Boston, a friend of French and Harkleroad. Van Vliet had also begun assigning nicknames to his band members, so Harkleroad became "Zoot Horn Rollo", and Boston became "Rockette Morton", while John French assumed the name "Drumbo", and Jeff Cotton became "Antennae Jimmy Semens". The group rehearsed Van Vliet's difficult compositions for eight months, living communally in conditions drummer John French described as "cult-like". According to Vliet, the 28 songs on the album were quickly written in a number of milliseconds, though band members have stated that he worked on the compositions for roughly 3 weeks using a piano as his writing tool. It took the band about eight months to actually mold the songs into shape.
Trout Mask Replica displayed a wide variety of genres, including blues rock, avant-garde, experimental rock, psychedelic rock and proto-punk. The relentless practice prior to recording blended the music into an iconoclastic whole of contrapuntal tempos, featuring slide guitar, polyrhythmic drumming, and honking saxophone and bass clarinet. Van Vliet's vocals range from his signature Howlin' Wolf-inspired growl to frenzied falsetto to laconic, casual ramblings. Although the album was effectively recorded live in the studio, Van Vliet recorded much of the vocals in only partial sync with the music by hearing the slight sound leakage through the studio window.
Van Vliet used the ensuing publicity, particularly with a 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Langdon Winner, to promulgate a number of myths which have subsequently been quoted as fact. Winner's article stated, for instance, that neither Van Vliet nor the members of the Magic Band ever took drugs, but guitarist Bill Harkleroad later refuted this. Van Vliet claimed to have taught both Harkleroad and bassist Mark Boston to play their instruments from scratch; in fact the pair were already accomplished musicians before joining the band. Last, Van Vliet claimed to have gone a year and half without sleeping. When asked how this was possible, he replied that he only ate fruit—a typical Beefheartian non sequitur.
Critic Steve Huey of Allmusic writes that the album's influence "was felt more in spirit than in direct copycatting, as a catalyst rather than a literal musical starting point. However, its inspiring reimagining of what was possible in a rock context laid the groundwork for countless experiments in rock surrealism to follow, especially during the punk and New Wave era."
1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby continued in a similarly experimental vein. The LP sees the addition of Art Tripp III to the band, who had joined from the Mothers of Invention (see Frank Zappa), playing drums and marimba. Lick My Decals Off, Baby was the first record on which the band were credited as "The Magic Band", rather than "His Magic Band"; journalist Irwin Chusid interprets this change as "a grudging concession of its members' at least semiautonomous humanity."
The next two records, The Spotlight Kid (simply credited to "Captain Beefheart") and Clear Spot (credited to "Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band"), both released in 1972, were much more conventional. In 1974, immediately after the recording of Unconditionally Guaranteed—an album which continued the trend towards a more commercial sound heard on several of the Clear Spot tracks—The Magic Band, which had by then coalesced around the core of Art Tripp III, Alex St. Clair, Bill Harkleroad and Rockette Morton, decided they could no longer work with Van Vliet, who was by all accounts a severe taskmaster. They left to form Mallard. Van Vliet quickly formed a new Magic Band, which had a much slicker, more mainstream sound, and who therefore were referred to by dissenting fans as the "Tragic Band". Unconditionally Guaranteed and its follow up Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974) have a completely different, almost soft rock, sound from any other Beefheart record and neither was well received.
The friendship between Frank Zappa and Van Vliet over the years was sometimes expressed in the form of rivalry as musicians drifted back and forth between Van Vliet and Zappa's respective groups. Their collaborative work can be found on the 1975 album Bongo Fury, along with Zappa rarity collections The Lost Episodes (1996) and Mystery Disc (1996). Particularly notable is Beefheart's vocal on "Willie the Pimp" from Zappa's otherwise instrumental album Hot Rats (1969).
From 1975 to 1977 there were no new records (an earlier version of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was recorded in 1976 but has never been released). In 1978 a completely new band was formed consisting of Richard Redus, Jeff Moris Tepper, Bruce Fowler, Eric Drew Feldman and Robert Williams. These were from a younger generation of musicians eager to work with him and extremely capable of playing his music. In several cases they had been fans for years, and had learned his music from records.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), released in 1978, was largely regarded as a return to form. Doc at the Radar Station (1980) helped establish Beefheart's late resurgence as possibly the most consistently creative period of his musical career. Released by Virgin records during the post-punk scene, the music was again accessible by a younger more receptive audience. Van Vliet said at this period, "I'm doing a non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state… and I think there is one right now." In this period, Van Vliet made two appearances on David Letterman's late night television program on NBC, and also performed on Saturday Night Live. The final Beefheart record, Ice Cream for Crow (1982), was recorded with Gary Lucas (who was also Van Vliet's manager), Jeff Moris Tepper, Richard Snyder and Cliff Martinez. This line-up made a video to promote the title track which was rejected by MTV for being "too weird." However, that video was included in the Letterman broadcast on NBC-TV. Soon after, around 1982, Van Vliet left the music business to focus on painting. Though the influence of his music is almost immeasurable, his art career has arguably been more commercially successful, seeing his paintings often command prices in excess of $50,000 US dollars.
Van Vliet lived the rest of his life in Mendocino County, California. In the mid 1980s, he became somewhat reclusive and abandoned music, stating he could make far more money painting. He was initially dismissed by some critics as "another rock musician dabbling in art for ego's sake". Over the years, however, his work began receiving positive attention. His artwork, like his music, has been seen as extreme and innovative, it commands high prices and some have compared it to the work of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.
BBC disc jockey John Peel stated, "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart…I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." Many artists have cited Beefheart as an influence, beginning with the Edgar Broughton Band, who covered "Dropout Boogie" as early as 1970, the Clash, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, Sonic Youth, The Membranes, XTC, Franz Ferdinand, The Minutemen, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has also cited Beefheart as a prominent influence on the band's 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik as well as his debut solo album Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt. Tom Waits' shift in artistic direction, starting with his album Swordfishtrombones in 1983 was, Waits claims, a result of his wife introducing him to Beefheart's music.
In 2003 Van Vliet appeared on the compilation album Where We Live: Stand for What You Stand On: A Benefit CD for EarthJustice singing a profane version of "Happy Birthday" entitled "Happy Earthday". The track is 35 seconds long and was recorded over the telephone.
In 2004 and 2005 former members of Beefheart's Magic Band, lead by John "Drumbo" French reformed and toured as The Magic Band giving fans worldwide the chance to experience Captain Beefheart's music live again. They were received with wide critical acclaim.
Don Van Vliet died 17 December 2010 from complications of multiple sclerosis.