Captain Beefheart – Opher’s World pays tribute to a genius.
I’ve see most of the world’s greatest bands from Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to Stiff Little Fingers and Ian Dury & the Blockheads but right up there with Jimi for excitement and brilliance is Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Don Van Vliet came out of the desert with his acid drenched blues poetry in 1967. I saw them play at Middle Earth and it blew me away. I’d never heard anything like it. The beat was incredible, complex and heavy. The guitars weaved in and out of each other, swapping riffs, spikey and jagged and that voice growled and boomed over the top of it all with such range and intensity. Then we get to the lyrics. You can talk of poetry but there is nobody who plays with words and sounds like Don Van Vliet.
At first hearing the sound is so different to anything you’ve ever heard that it appears discordant. That soon passes when you get into it. The power drives you forward and what appears at first to be clashing guitars rapidly clarifies into complex mesmerising brilliance. There is nothing subtle of simple about it and that is what makes it so interesting. I never grow tired of listening to the music or lyrics because the complexity yields more and more pleasure and insight. This is the classical music of Rock. This is when it all came of age. There is an emotional and intellectual depth to it.
I think one of the problems people sometimes have with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band is that it is so opaque at first that it is difficult to find a way in. I was fortunate because that first album was less complex and so more accessible and I also got to see them perform live. When you experience the band in a live situation in a small club you cannot help getting sucked into their spell. It is so pulsatingly powerful that it overwhelms you. It is loud, aggressive, raw and yet sophisticated at the same time.
I’d bombarded my youngest son with Beefheart most of his life and he hated it. Then I persuaded him to go to a Magic Band concert and he was as blown away as me. He came out saying that it was the best thing he’d ever heard. It is. It was as exciting as Hendrix!
One of my best concerts ever was seeing Beefheart at the Rainbow around 1973 with Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Drumbo and Alex St Clare. The band was steamin’.
There were lots of stories surrounding Don Van Vliet and the band. It’s all part of the mythology. He supposedly took on a bunch of people who couldn’t play instruments and taught them from scratch. That wasn’t true. He didn’t teach them to play but he certainly taught them to play differently to anyone else. He could neither read or play music and hummed and sang his stuff so that Drumbo (John French) could interpret it and teach it to the band. That is as maybe. You might think that John French was the force behind it all – and there’s no denying the man played a major part – if it wasn’t for the fact that (with the exception of the mediocre Tragic Band of 1974) he took on a series of musicians and got them all to perform in the same extraordinary manner. Don was a genius on many fronts. I even love his saxophone playing which wails and screeches perfectly with the music. He might be an untutored musician but he had an ear for perfection.
While the band did not achieve the commercial recognition it should have done it did gain a huge reputation and has had an influence well beyond their financial success. Many great artists cite Don as a major influence.
Don became ill and stopped producing music in 1981. That was a tragedy. But he left us with a string of outstanding albums, incredible poetry and stupendous sounds. He went on to produce equally impressive art. Fortunately for us John French went and put the Magic Band together with Rockette Morton, Denny Walley and Eric Klerks and it is brilliant. It keeps the music alive.
Check out more at the Radar Station. Which has lots and is run by a good friend of mine!!
Or check out my books on Rock. You’ll love ’em! :