by Stuart Penney
The first time I heard Captain Beefheart I instinctively knew he was my type of guy. With his eccentric persona and Howlin’ Wolf-on-mescalin vocal delivery, he presented an imposing, shamanistic figure. The music he made with his Magic Band was equally strange and unsettling, yet also dazzlingly complex.
At first, I thought he might just be another of the rock & roll freaks and crazies Frank Zappa liked to surround himself with during the late 60s. Kind of like Wild Man Fischer or the GTOs. But I quickly discovered this was not true (OK, maybe it was a little bit true). But Beefheart was not simply one of Frank’s social experiments. Something else was going on here. I couldn’t get a handle on it at that early stage, but as the name suggested, it was clearly something quite magical.
After the baptism of fire that was his 1967 debut Safe As Milk, I was well and truly hooked and religiously acquired every Beefheart album as soon as they became available in Britain. And when the digital age arrived, guess what? I went out and bought every one of them again on CD. Don’t ask why. It was just something we did back then.
Yet, despite this unfettered adulation for the man we know and love as Don Van Vliet, I’ve managed to see him in concert only twice. Those shows took place within 12 days of each other in late 1975 and as we shall see, both proved somewhat eventful. But first we need a little background.
I should add here that in Britain Safe As Milk was belatedly released in late 1967 or early 1968 on Pye International (licensed from the US Buddah label) and was deleted almost immediately. I don’t know for sure, but I’d estimate UK sales of that original pressing didn’t exceed more than a couple of thousand.
My own first copy was the 1969 reissue on Pye’s budget Marble Arch imprint with just nine tracks. Marble Arch had a nasty habit of removing a couple of tracks from their reissues, presumably to justify the lower price. The missing songs were “I’m Glad” and “Grown So Ugly.” I didn’t get to hear the full 11 track album until a year or so later when Polydor acquired UK / European rights to the Buddah catalogue and Safe As Milk was reissued yet again, this time retitled Dropout Boogie.
1975 was a busy year for Beefheart. In May he toured the US as a full (if, at times, somewhat superfluous) member of the Frank Zappa band, recording material which would appear on the live album Bongo Fury released in October. In July he was in England with a variation of his own Magic Band to play the Knebworth Festival on an unlikely bill comprising Pink Floyd, the Steve Miller Band, Roy Harper, Linda Lewis and members of Monty Python.
In October and November, Don was back in Europe to play shows in France, Belgium and Scandinavia, finishing up with 16 concerts in the UK. He ended the year with a handful of club shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, some of them supporting Zappa and the Mothers.
All this activity came on the back of the controversial Unconditionally Guaranteed album released in early 1974. Despite much publicity, including a live appearance on BBC TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test in March, the record divided opinion. Not only did it prove too mainstream for hard core fans, but it was a commercial step too far for the Magic Band, including key members Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton and Ed Marimba, who bailed en masse to form the spin-off outfit Mallard. With logistical support from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and featuring journeyman keyboard player John “Rabbit” Bundrick, Mallard recorded two albums for Virgin in 1975 and 1976, the first of which (Mallard) appears to have been released only in the UK.
Interviewed by Beat Instrumental magazine in September 1975, Beefheart was brutally forthright when talking about the much maligned Unconditionally Guaranteed and its follow-up Bluejeans and Moonbeams, saying “Those two albums are disgusting, aren’t they?” Asked why he had made them, Don answered “I’d had a group of people who’d been with me for six years who were very interested in money. I actually made those albums for them. I thought, I owed them that. I shouldn’t have done it though because they came over (to the UK) and talked me down.” Here Don was presumably referring to the Magic Band members who defected to form Mallard.
Beefheart went on to blame his ex-managers for the debacle but reserved his harshest criticism for his UK label Virgin saying, “I want to get a campaign together to get the record company to give their money back to the people who bought those albums.”
My five cents on Unconditionally Guaranteed. It’s certainly a more tuneful and commercial prospect than we had come to expect from Don. But it’s nowhere near as bad as he would have us believe. It contains several decent songs and, most importantly, it still sounds unmistakably like Captain Beefheart. Time has been kind to the album, and I still play it now and then. More often than (whisper it) Lick My Decals Off, Baby in fact.
Never the shrewdest businessman, in 1974 Beefheart had somehow managed to sign contracts with more than one record label at the same time, causing all kinds of legal problems. Consequently, Virgin records blocked the British release of Bongo Fury which appeared in America and elsewhere on Zappa’s own DiscReet label through Warner Bros.
The album was allocated a UK Warner Bros catalogue number (K59209) and was even pictured with this number on music press tour ads, before Virgin called the lawyers in and the British release was cancelled. UK white label test pressings do exist, but that's as far as it got. US copies were easily found in the London import stores, but Bongo Fury was not officially released in the UK until the CD era many years later. Contractual hassles also delayed the release of Don’s Bat Chain Puller album. Recorded in 1976, it wasn’t released until 2012 following the Captain’s death.
So it was that a brand-new (or should that be re-formed?) Magic Band consisting of veterans John “Drumbo” French (drums), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Elliot Ingber (aka Winged Eel Fingerling) (guitar) and Denny Walley (slide guitar) arrived to play the 1975 European tour. Fowler, Ingber and Walley had all played with Frank Zappa at one time or other, so attendance at the London concerts was more or less a given for me.
My first Beefheart show was at the New Victoria Theatre on November 14, 1975. Opening as the New Victoria Cinema in 1930, the 2,300-seat venue stands opposite the famous London rail terminus. I’m sure there was no direct connection, but shortly after the two Beefheart concerts (he played early and late shows on the same day) the venue closed for five years, reopening in 1981 re-named the Apollo Victoria Theatre. Today this once great rock music venue is home to mainstream musical theatre and has played host to long running family shows such as Starlight Express and Wicked.
Quite by coincidence I’d met an attractive young lady just a few weeks before the concert and, since I had a spare ticket, it seemed rude not to invite her along. For the purposes of this story, let’s call her Jane (not her real name). We had been introduced through mutual friends and after our first night out I drove her home in my prestigious V8 Rover 3500. The car obviously impressed Jane (she actually said as much) and she seemed more than happy to accept the invitation. In reality I could barely afford to keep the car on the road and was obliged to sell it a year later.
Right off the bat she confessed she’d never heard of Captain Beefheart or listened to a single note of his music. I won’t swear to it, but she may even have presumed I was about to take her to some kind of yachting regatta.
In hindsight I suppose this should have been a major red flag, but we were in the first flush of romance, and while it perhaps wasn’t on the same level romantically as, say, a weekend in Paris, taking your girl to a Beefheart concert seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me at that time. That’s not quite how it panned out.
I don’t remember much about support band Secret Oyster, other than they were a Danish progressive jazz rock fusion outfit who released four albums on CBS between 1973 - 76. The members came largely from the splendidly named band Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe. I listened to Secret Oyster's 1974 album Sea Sun on Spotify for the first time in decades while writing this and, while not earth shattering, it's actually quite decent synth heavy prog with some excellent guitar work. Even at this early stage I could see Jane was starting to get restless. It wasn’t a good sign but, hey, it’s just the support act, I figured. Things can only get better from here. Besides, I was so excited at the prospect of seeing my man Beefheart in the flesh for the first time, I wasn’t paying too much attention at that point.
The Captain arrived dressed all in white and stalked the stage menacingly as the Magic Band kicked off a vigorous version of “Moonlight In Vermont.” One of the more accessible (read: less scary) songs from Trout Mask Replica it was nevertheless a strong opener, if possibly a shock to the system for Jane and others unfamiliar with this kind of music.
Scanning the stage for the bass player, it came as a surprise to discover there wasn’t one to be seen. At least there was no one onstage with an actual bass guitar. It transpired that the bottom end was being held down to great effect by the ever-reliable Bruce Fowler playing his trombone through an octave splitter, thus turning it into what was officially known as an “air bass.”
The set list was drawn from five albums covering most of Don’s career up to that point. Some Beefheart records, like Clear Spot and The Spotlight Kid, although undeniably quirky, are accessible enough to appeal to mainstream rock fans. But others were (and still are) far more polarising. Lick My Decals Off, Baby and the Frank Zappa-produced avant-garde masterpiece Trout Mask Replica for example, need to be approached with caution lest they turn into certified room-clearers, especially if aired in the wrong company.
Someone (I don’t remember who) once said that Trout Mask Replica sounds like a blues band falling down a flight of stairs while continuing to play their instruments. It’s a snappy and chucklesome soundbite right enough, but such flippancy does the music a grave disservice. In reality the album is right up there with the best free jazz rock of the 60s and 70s. And should further recommendation be needed, luminaries such as John Peel and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening have both declared TMR to be their absolute favourite album. See below for a Trout Mask Replica overview by Tim Earnshaw.
Beefheart may have been accused of “selling out” when he released the radio friendly Unconditionally Guaranteed album the previous year. But he certainly wasn’t pandering to mass audience appeal in London as “Moonlight In Vermont” was one of four Trout Mask Replica songs we heard, along with “Orange Claw Hammer”, “Dali's Car” and “My Human Gets Me Blues.” In fact, TMR turned out to be the most represented album in the set list.
Tight as two coats of paint and incredibly well-rehearsed, the Magic Band sounded simply magnificent, especially Denny Walley whose Danelectro slide guitar was, for me, one of the highlights of the evening. We later came to appreciate Walley’s skills on the Bongo Fury album where his delicious, blues-based technique, the notes oozing from his bottleneck like warm molasses, even rivalled Zappa’s own guitar at times. With Beefheart he all-but stole the show.
“Abba Zaba” was up next. Along with “Electricity”, it was one of two songs in the set from Safe As Milk. Crowd favourites “Beatle Bones N’ Smokin’ Stones” (Strictly Personal) and “When It Blows Its Stacks” (The Spotlight Kid) followed, before a new (to us, at least) Zappa number, written for the upcoming 1976 US bicentennial. This was the magnificently titled ersatz country song “Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” (from Bongo Fury).
The story goes that Frank had been introduced to the British/Australian homosexual pejorative slang term “poofter” by Jimi Hendrix’s English roadie Howard Parker. This is the same man who gifted Zappa the guitar which Jimi supposedly burned onstage at the Miami Pop Festival (although the provenance of that Stratocaster is still fiercely debated within the guitar world).
Frank instantly loved the word, naturally, and he worked it into the lyric of the song. In fact, “poofter” crops up in no less than two songs on Bongo Fury, as Beefheart also slipped it into his recitation “Man With The Woman Head.” It’s quite probable neither Don or Frank knew (or cared about) the true meaning of the word, but simply liked the way it sounded to their American ears.
The show ended with everyone’s favourite “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” in which Denny Walley (in lieu of Mr Zoot Horn Rollo) was required to “hit that long lunar note and let it float” bringing proceedings to a close.
I was on a real high on the drive home, as you often are after a great concert, but Jane was strangely subdued. My attempts to engage her in Beefheart-related conversation fell on stony ground and in truth she appeared confused and shell-shocked at what she had just witnessed.
I’ll spare you the grisly details, the anguish and the tears, but after I dropped her off at her flat (she lived in West Kensington, as I recall) I never saw Jane again. She simply didn’t return my calls and I later found out from the same friend who had introduced us that she viewed the concert (clearly with a certain amount of hyperbole) as “one of the worst experiences of her life.” Ah well. It probably would never have worked out between us, anyway. To misquote Oscar Wilde on his deathbed, if it came to a choice between Jane and my treasured Zappa/Beefheart LP collection, one of them would have to go. And my money probably wouldn’t have been on the records.
Twelve days later on November 26 I found myself at Brunel University in Uxbridge for my second Beefheart concert. Uxbridge is 15 miles west of London out on the very end of the Metropolitan and Piccadilly tube lines and, despite being within easy reach of the city, it has (or it did back then) a distinct feeling of being out in the country.
Founded in 1966 Brunel University London (BUL) was then quite a new seat of learning, less than a decade old at the time. It was dedicated to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably Britain’s most famous 19th century engineer, and a man with a name surely worthy of a Magic Band member.
Historically Brunel Student Hall was an important venue on the college rock circuit during the 70s - 90s playing host to countless famous bands including Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, The Who, Deep Purple, Genesis, ELO, The Kinks, Thin Lizzy, Joy Division, The Pretenders, The Specials and The Stone Roses. The Sex Pistols played the first gig of their “Never Mind the Bans Tour” at Brunel in December 1977. Hawkwind, Ten Years After and John Martyn are just a few of the big names I personally saw play there during the 70s.
The Brunel Beefheart gig was very different to the one at Victoria. For one thing it was an all-standing show. At my age now I’d much prefer a seated concert, but back in 1975 the ability to move around and experience proceedings from different vantage points in the hall made for a much more relaxed vibe. The set list was identical to the London show, as I recall, but the smaller hall made it a far more intimate experience.
I met up with a group of friends there including my Scottish pal Brian and his flamboyant actress sister Dorothy. Arriving much earlier in the evening than us, Dorothy told us she had gained access backstage and met Beefheart and the band in their dressing room. She even claimed that Don had propositioned her and invited her back to his hotel!
I never found out if any of this was true, or if it actually came to pass. Dorothy was somewhat prone to exaggeration and theatrical flights of fancy at times, especially when drink had been taken. Once at a party at the Putney house of Bob Kerr (he of the Bonzo Dog Band, the New Vaudeville Band and his own Whoopee Band) I witnessed her back Ralph McTell into a corner, insisting she was a famous TV actress who he should seriously consider taking out on tour with him. Ralph had fear in his eyes and soon made his excuses and left. But that’s another story for another day.
Set List: London, November 1975
Moonlight on Vermont
Orange Claw Hammer
When It Blows Its Stacks
My Human Gets Me Blues
Alice in Blunderland
Natchez Burning (Howlin’ Wolf cover)
Beatle Bones 'N Smokin' Stones
Improvisation (Featuring Drumbo's Tap Dance)
Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead
Big Eyed Beans From Venus
Captain Beefheart: vocals, saxophone, harmonica
John “Drumbo” French: drums, percussion, dancing, guitar (on “Dali’s Car”)
Bruce Fowler: air bass (trombone)
Elliot Ingber: guitar, slide guitar
Denny Walley: guitar, slide guitar
Exclusive Interview with John “Drumbo” French
While writing this piece I had the good fortune to catch up with veteran Magic Band member John “Drumbo” French who was happy to share his memories of the 1975 tour. Drumbo played with Beefheart on and off from 1966 to 1980, appearing on the classic albums Safe As Milk, Strictly Personal, Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby, Mirror Man, The Spotlight Kid, Bat Chain Puller and Doc At The Radar Station.
Q: We read that in 1974/75 the Magic Band virtually mutinied and some members split (to form Mallard) after the Unconditionally Guaranteed album. One reason given was they thought the record was too mainstream.
Bear in mind that I wasn’t there at the time. Artie (Tripp aka Ed Marimba) later wrote me a note about this. There were a number of factors, the first of which was that the band was not being paid regularly, an issue which seemed to constantly be at the forefront. “The money is tied up in Europe” was the common response, which became redundant after a time. Alex Snouffer, who was a member at the time, told me that he went straight to the accountant’s office immediately after their last tour (which I remember as being early 1974) and demanding they “cut him a check” for his services.
Unfortunately, he was the only one who ever got paid for that last tour. I didn’t get the idea that anyone thought the music was “too mainstream,” as they were actually trying to become a bit more mainstream to generate income.
Artie told me that Andy DiMartino seems more intent on commercializing the band in a way that didn’t seem to fit the blues / rock image that the guys felt was the strongest selling point. I heard a tape of the original basic tracks, and it was strong and steady, then, I heard the album later, and was literally horrified with the final result. It was watered down and completely uncharacteristic of anything “Beefheart.” Those were the two main points of contention between Don and the band.
I also remember a story that both Alex and Mark told me. Don came to a rehearsal with Andy DiMartino and mentioned they were going to lunch and that he needed some money. Mark pulled out his welfare money; which was all the money he had for the month. Don grabbed the full amount, got in his new Corvette, and left, laughing out the window as he drove away.
The telling thing here raises the questions: Why were these guys on welfare when they had just returned from a tour? Why was Don the only person who could afford a brand-new car? This moment was a deciding factor in the move to leave. The Magic Band had a meeting and made demands to Don. The meeting was led by Alex Snouffer, who basically accused Don of “stealing from the band.” They called me shortly after this, and I moved from Southern California to Arcata (near Trinidad) to give it a go.
Q: The band which came to England to play Knebworth in July 1975 was slightly different to the one which played the UK/Europe tour in November 1975. You lost a drummer (Jimmy Carl Black) and gained a guitarist (Denny Walley). Why the changes?
During the Bongo Fury tour, Don met Greg “Ella Guru” Davidson in Chicago, who expressed a strong desire to play in the band. Herb Cohen (Frank Zappa’s manager) had been assigned as a temporary manager to Van Vliet and put together two performances; one was a television show in Chicago, the other was as a warmup to Pink Floyd at Knebworth.
The warmup for the television show was Tom Waits, who was, at that time, also handled by Herb Cohen. It was in front of a live audience, and Don choked and couldn’t remember his lyrics - even with cue cards. After several attempts, we left the stage, embarrassed. I was furious, as I was trying to help Don with his “comeback” after his bad reviews for Unconditionally Guaranteed, and Bluejeans and Moonbeams.
I had taken over as musical director and had to figure out a setlist from scratch of “Best of” material – drawing from every album previous to the two Mercury releases. This was no easy task, as we only had a couple of weeks. Elliot Ingber (aka Winged Eel Fingerling) was the other guitarist, and he was not really adept at understanding odd-time signatures and syncopation.
Jimmy Carl Black – truthfully I had no idea why Don chose him, as he was completely unfamiliar with playing Don’s work, and there were no parts for a second drummer. The bassist was really more of a club player, with a very limited ability who could not play any of the pieces. He was finally fired and replaced eventually by (trombonist) Bruce Fowler on “Air Bass.”
We did have an amazing bassist, Buell Neidlinger, audition for bass. I auditioned him with “My Human Gets Me Blues.” I was using the original transcription from Trout Mask Replica, which I wrote in treble clef because I had limited knowledge of music back then. I explained to him the arrangement of the piece on time through, and we gave it a go. Buell NAILED the piece the first time through. He completely astonished me! I hired him, and ten minutes later, Herb came in, pointed to him, and said, “You -- OUT!” Apparently, they had a dispute based upon a union job. Buell left with no comment, I apologized, but was left, again, without a bassist. Fowler was later hired, probably at Frank’s suggestion that he could play the bass parts through an octavider (an effect which, among other things, creates a tone an octave up or down).
After the disastrous Chicago show, we flew to London, and were driven up to Knebworth to play the festival. Everything was very high-class: we were picked up in a limousine at the airport, driven to a nice luxury hotel etc. etc. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy much of the trip because I was trying to get Don to learn his lyrics. He was like a five-year old. He had the cue cards Jan had meticulously hand-written, but he seemed to have no idea where they went in relationship to the music. He never rehearsed with the band, so it was completely up in the air what would happen on stage.
I only realized several years later that it was all part of his strategy to maintain control, demand attention, and create tension, which he thought was “necessary” to have a good show. The performance at Knebworth was passable, but nothing to write home about. Greg Davidson and Bruce Fowler and I were really the guys who held it together.
Elliot was, quite often, lost. And Jimmy Carl Black humorously played a beer can with a drumstick through half the show. Don did a decent job, much better than I expected, and threw the cue cards one at a time into the audience after each piece was finished. Herb Cohen was there and seemed to “approve.”
He booked us into the Roxy for two nights in late July. The interesting thing is that Jimmy Carl Black went back to Texas, which was fine with me, as he wasn’t really necessary, but Don INSISTED that he play, so he was flown back out for the shows. After the second night at the Roxy, Cohen consulted with me outside (I guess I had impressed him in my role of “involuntary musical director”) and asked if I was willing to tour in the fall. I said “yes” as the money seemed good.
Greg Davidson decided not to continue. I think he was somewhat embarrassed by the failed Chicago TV show appearance. His family and friends were in the audience. This is when Frank Zappa talked Denny Walley into replacing Greg. Denny actually “fit in,” quite well, as he was an accomplished slide player with a blues background. He worked hard, understood odd-time signatures and syncopation, and had a great syrupy slide sound that was very powerful.
I talked him into using the slide on his pinky finger, because that was the way Beefheart slide players from Doug Moon, Snouffer (Alex St. Clair), Ry Cooder, Jeff Cotton (aka Antennae Jimmy Semens) and Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) had played (with the Magic Band). Many of the parts demanded that the first through third fingers were freed up. Walley mastered the change within days.
Q: The London shows at the New Victoria Theatre in November were something special. The set list was classic material from earlier albums. Do you have any memories of those shows and the UK tour in general.
The tour repertoire was really not that different from the Knebworth show. We played a little over an hour a night. There was some improv allowed, and I decided to tap dance a bit in the shows while Bruce played some great jazz riffs. We kicked off each show with “Moonlight on Vermont,” and ended with “Big-Eyed Beans from Venus.” It was all classic stuff, and I had chosen most of the songs as a “Greatest Hits” kind of approach. We started the tour in Europe – Paris being our first show, and we were there four days before the first performance - some Festival in the middle of the night. I remember that Bruce lost one of his contact lenses on the stage, and he and I were crawling around on the stage trying unsuccessfully to find it for about 10 minutes.
Many thanks to John French and Ian S. MacArthur for their kind help with this piece.
Further reading: Captain Beefheart fans may like to check out the excellent book Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic by John “Drumbo” French. Originally published 2010. Reprinted 2021 by Omnibus Press.
Trout Mask Replica – An appreciation by esteemed writer and friend of this blog Tim Earnshaw
Is that cover brilliant or terrible? Shockingly vivid and borderline disturbing, the brutal image contrasts with the anti-psychedelic elegance of the typography. It's like nothing else, and as such is the perfect wrapper for the contents. Not even Strictly Personal prepared us for the absolute unforgiving immediacy of this focussed attack, its relentless clatter and stumble. No concessions for the listener, song structure twisted and crumpled and wound tight as barbed wire. You either dismissed it as unlistenable noise, a cynical joke played on the gullible, or you got it, you instinctively knew, and you hung on, white-knuckled, and rode with it. Guitars, bass, drums - that’s what Buddy Holly used, right? How is this so different? Its pent-up plutonium is undepleted; what went in still bursts out, like a mad-eyed dog. No other album ever sucked you in or spat you out like this one. And although a definitive uneasy listening experience, this is not “Frownland.” It’s a lot of fun. Berserk fun, cracked hall of mirrors fun.
Double albums are often said to be “sprawling”, and “better as a single album”, but Trout Mask Replica is such a cohesive and consistent work of art that any attempt to edit, improve the flow or whatever is pointless. Every crash, every buzz, growl, howl and stutter represents the whole. It’s a thing - One Song. The German vinyl had unbanded sides, and this is still the best way to listen to it, a side at a time. The CD format is just too much (for your mirror). Pick a side, snap on the trout mask, see the world in a different way. You can always come up for air later.
Read more Beefheart wonderment on Tim’s blog False Memory Foam. Links below: