Saturday, 18 December 2010

His later work tended to run towards the extremes of the open-ended Wierdness Scale, but Safe as Milk’s Ry Cooder-arranged fusion of garage, psychedelia and blues makes for surprisingly accessible listening.

Rear View: "Safe As Milk" (Incomplete, posted the day Captain Beefheart passed)

When it comes to music that's likely to clear a room as rapidly as possible it's hard to think of something that'd be more effective than Captain Beefheart in one of his more extreme modes.

Actually, that mightn't work so well if you were looking at a room full of punk, new wave or grunge aficionados - something like Engelbert Humperdinck or Johnny Mathis might fit the bill in that department - but if you're looking for somebody frequently cited as influential, groundbreaking or critically acclaimed and will clear a room full of supposedly normal people, Beefheart's probably your man.

Listening to his earlier work, however, The Legendary A&M Sessions, for example, or the classic Safe As Milk album you'd wonder where that reputation came from.

Somewhere along the line Hughesy seems to have acquired a reputation for liking the more extreme end of the Captain Beefheart spectrum (the room-clearing stuff) and while I duly headed out and shelled out for Lick My Decals Off, Baby and company, my regular playing interest really only extends to Safe As Milk.

In other words, while I've got a fair chunk of the artist formerly known as Don Van Vliet's catalogue there's only one album where the iTunes play count runs past the bottom end of the play count scale.

I'd been familiar with the name Captain Beefheart from some time in 1967 when one of the American magazines ran an article about the origins of various band names. A reference to Captain Beefheart and the Grunt People transforming into Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band is the sort of thing that tends to stick in your memory.

Apart from that actual hard information about Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band was thin on the ground. I knew that English DJ John Peel was an enthusiastic advocate and that John Lennon owned two copies of Safe As Milk. Beyond that, not much was known, or if it was it didn't manage to filter through to Hughesy in Townsville.

Actually, if it had, Beefheart's subsequent releases mightn't have come as any great surprise and the appreciation of Safe As Milk as a rare work of accessible genius might have been considerably enhanced.

In that regard, a recent article in Mojo #196 makes interesting reading. John French (a.k.a. Drumbo) wasn't a founder member of The Magic Band but climbed aboard that unstable conveyance in late 1966, and was there through Safe as Milk, Strictly Personal, Mirror Man and Trout Mask Replica, though French was ejected soon after the album was completed, left off the album credits and conspicuously absent from the photos in the artwork in spite of the fact that he'd played a significant part in transforming Beefheart's musical ideas into something that the rest of the band could play.

He was back for Lick My Decals Off, Baby and The Spotlight Kid, and thus has a fair handle on what went on through the classic incarnations of The Magic Band.

One point that French makes in the Mojo article is that Beefheart wanted to play music, not work at it and it's this factor that seemingly distinguishes Safe As Milk from the later material. If he didn't want to work at it that, in turn, meant he was disinclined to rehearse and polish, and that responsibility needed to be passed on to somebody else.

For much of the later period that person seems to have been French (I haven't read too widely on the details of all this, but French's Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic, a massive tome of some 900 pages (!) would presumably go into the ins and outs of the process).

That attitude to rehearsal (and the writing process) stems largely, according to French, from the fact that Beefheart started as a visual artist rather than a performer and his first attempts at playing music had involved basic blues with predictable changes that wouldn't have needed a great deal of rehearsal anyway.

I also get the impression the man was capable of producing material that was (almost) fully formed at the snap of his fingers, and that once it had been created it was finished, and there was no need for too much subsequent polishing. Trout Mask Replica was, according to Beefheart, written in a single eight-hour session and he reputedly described his creative process as going to the bathroom.

That's fine, but you then need someone to transcribe the compositions into a format that the other band members could play. It seems that once Beefheart had put it out there that was that as far as he was concerned, and it was up to someone else to get it to the point where it could be performed or recorded.

For much of the later period, that responsibility went to French, but for Safe As Milk it was largely in the hands of one Ryland Peter Cooder.

The reader might have formed the impression somewhere along the line that Beefheart was completely aloof from commercial matters, but it seems that at least in the lead-up to Safe As Milk he had ambitions that might translate into money and while, in French's words saw himself as beyond the drudgery of anything resembling work he put a deal of effort into ensuring that once Cooder had agreed to come on board, aboard was where he stayed.

Up to this point, in French's story, the band hadn't completely worked out more than a couple of songs to a point where they were recordable, but once Cooder arrived things fell into place with remarkable rapidity.

Having managed a contract with Buddah/Kama Sutra (yes, that Buddah, the one that gave us the 1910 Fruitgum Company) and a thousand dollar advance, most of which was used to buy the suits the band wore for the album cover photo, sessions began at Sunset Sound and RCA Studios under the guidance of Richard Perry, who demanded no less than seventy-eight takes of Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do!

That was just to get the instrumental tracks in place. Add another four or five nights for the vocals and the album was finally done.

With the album in the can, there was apparently a plan for Beefheart to play at the Monterey Pop Festival, which could have been very interesting indeed, but the Captain's personality foibles got in the way. Having travelled to the Bay area to play a love-in at Mount Tamalpais with Country Joe & The Fish and Jefferson Airplane it only took two songs for the wheels to fall off.

For a start, rather than playing anything from the album, Beefheart called for a blues jam called Maybe That'll Teach Ya that the band had done once, and a very long time ago in the pre-Cooder era and needed to be told what key his harmonica needed to be in. Mr Cooder was apparently not impressed.

On the second number, Electricity, the Captain barely got through the opening verse before abruptly walking, quite literally, off the back of the stage on top of the head honcho of the record company. The rest of the band finished the number as an instrumental and left the stage, embarrassed. Cooder left the band.