The recent death of Captain Beefheart gives me the chance to air some words I’ve put on the web before. Also I hope to write something in 2011 which will mention the great man again in my further forays into the world of Nonsense. Actually a lot of the first bit is about me, but I’ve kept it in because I think my comments about his music are worth reiterating and it hangs together as a whole thing better, if you see what I mean.
Now that Whose Last Trickle is out in the world people are beginning to write things about it, other than myself, and the spectre of the good Captain Beefheart looms large as something to pin a sign and say, basically, if you like… then you might like…
To me Beefheart is just part of the story, but definitely a strong part and I’d like to register that fact. Here’s a few recent statements.
First from an intelligent blog to be found at Fire Escape Talking
Your view on whether Dry Rib were a complete artistic success will depend in part upon your tolerance of Beefheart’s excursions or John Cale’s experimentations.
then from the excellent online music shop Volcanic Tongue
Vasey split and formed As, Hem, Syrup who expanded on the erratic avant rock of Dry Rib with Beefheartisms and more of a focus on improvisation.
lastly a comment posted by my friend Hex Windham
I’m listening closely and can hear the roots of your current guitar style in germinal form here — a little jazzy, a little troutmaskreplica, a little Bernard Sumner maybe?
this was my response
Thanks for listening so closely, Hex. My guitar style was pretty much formed before I’d ever heard Joy Division, by about ’78, but Trout Mask Replica I think is a very important album, not just for me, but for everybody trying to do experimental rock in those days. In fact I would like to suggest that the cornerstone 3 albums for most of the experimental British bands of late 70s early 80s were Trout Mask Replica, White Light/White Heat and The Madcap Laughs.
Just to expand on that a bit I’d like to say that most rock/pop music was based on traditional western music systems based on 3 chords, so if you’re playing in G then you also use C and D. Or (following this example) you can use some other incidental chords that contain the notes of the scale of G such as A minor or B minor. Or you can bring in what I think of as the Russian school of pop song that used diminished or augmented chords to link different main chords together. Or you could change key completely for certain effects.
As far as I’m concerned in rock music Captain Beefheart was the most able and original musician to break all those rules and just play chords, irrespective of scales and musical traditions. In this he certainly was aware of both modern/free jazz adventures and also of what you might call contemporary classical music. But the great thing he did was to tie all that down to the basic rawness of the blues and at the same time do things with words that were pretty revolutionary too.
Finally this seems a good place to hang another blog I did a couple of years ago and for some complicated reason took down. It was part of a series I was writing about gigs I’d been to in the past, and certainly doesn’t cover all my experience of seeing Beefheart live – just the first one I went to. Here it is :-
When I was about 7 years old I first came across Mad magazine. There was something very disturbing about it. I was used to stories with goodies and baddies where the former would always eventually triumph. The comic strips in Mad took those very same goodies and recreated them as flawed, unpredictable characters.
Some 8 years later I had similar feelings when I first came across Captain Beefheart and his music. I didn’t get it and wasn’t even intrigued. (These days you can point your browser, find anything there is to know about a band or a musician, find their influences, look those up too and in most cases listen to some of it. As a teenager in the 60s you had to work hard for a bit of knowledge. I’m not convinced that we’re necessarily better off now. Only time will tell.)
Meanwhile in 1974 in Oxford I buy tickets to see Captain Beefheart at the New Theatre. I have a friend coming to stay for a couple of days and we particularly want to see the support band, Henry Cow. It was the only time I ever saw the latter but their attractive, quirky, cerebral music was a perfect opener for Beefheart. In truth the detail that most sticks in my mind is the standard lamps that they used on stage – that was a great idea.
This period in Captain Beefheart’s musical career is generally one that is preferred to be forgotten by many of his fans. I’d never seen him before so didn’t know what to expect. Presumably the largely partisan audience did know that the music had changed a bit, but they all seemed to love it anyway. Obviously at that point in his career he was trying to achieve more commercial success and the experimental elements were missing. But it was still great music. I think Blue Jeans & Moonbeams has some great music on it. I especially love the song, Observatory Crest – it’s just a great premise for a song – a really simple story of going to a concert then driving up to a high point and looking down on the lights of the city. Friends I spoke to later who had been long-term Beefheart fans really hated these changes and I suppose the fact that only a year or so later he had gone back to the older material suggests that the man himself had some misgivings.
I think he should have the last word on the subject himself, remembered off by heart (ashtray?) from an interview he did later – “Friends don’t mind just how you grow”.
Some final notes added today to this :-
Actually I now realise that the “Friends don’t mind…” quotation is a line from the song Electricity
I just noticed the other day that Hex has got a new band SS Boombox
Finally here’s a youtube clip of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band performing Electricity