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Here’s an oddity: Back To The Front, a 2003 release by The Magic Band, AKA the guys who played for Captain Beefheart and to whom he (reportedly) delegated the irksome task of composing the actual music for his records.  Bear in mind, Don Van Vliet couldn’t play shit besides the harmonica.  He’d write some lyrics, hum a few bars, throw out some off-the-wall demands (“Cover the drums in cardboard!”), and leave the rest up to the very talented musicians in His Magic Band. 

After twenty dormant years The Magic Band recorded a Captain Beefheart record without Captain Beefheart, an endeavor with Bad Idea written all over it, so it’s no surprise that DJ John Peel—longtime fan and champion of Beefheart & Co.—derided the very idea of a Magic Band reunion.  The surprise came when Peel set Back To The Front on the turntable and actually listened to it… and burst into tears, live on the radio, over how wrong he’d been and how glad he was to be wrong.

It’s not that Back To The Front is better than those old Beefheart records we’ve grown to love.  It’s just that the music is every bit as good as you remember, and that alone should tell you what a painfully underrated group of artists The Magic Band really was. 

ArtistThe Magic Band
TitleHair Pie
AlbumBack To The Front
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"Ice Cream For Crow" by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

In his later years Captain Beefheart, following a psychiatrist’s advice, had given up on recording and taken up painting instead.  The original Magic Band had left him and briefly formed their own band, Mallard.  (Years later those musicians would tour again as The Magic Band, without Beefheart, and even release a couple damn fine records: Back To The Front and 21st Century Mirror Men, which I’ll have to post some other time).

But Beefheart came out of retirement for a time and recorded a few new albums with a new Magic Band comprised of younger musicians.  This album, Ice Cream For Crow, was his last release before he returned to seclusion.  He painted, and refused to record anything, and was reportedly very happy that way until his death just last year.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleIce Cream For Crow
AlbumIce Cream For Crow
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"The Floppy Boot Stomp" by Captain Beefheart

This is a comeback album if ever there was one.  After losing his way with a couple records I won’t bother to mention (except maybe this song), Captain Beefheart came to Frank Zappa once again and convinced his old friend to produce a new album, Bat Chain Puller.  But just as they were completing the album Frank Zappa found himself in financial distress, and a web of legal injunctions and contractual obligations kept the master tapes officially locked away.  No shit: while some bootlegs have surfaced, Bat Chain Puller wasn’t officially released until just a few months ago.

So what did Beefheart do?  He turned around and recorded those same songs again for a different label, this time calling it Shiny Beast.  And it’s probably the most fun of any record he ever made.  It’s not just that Beefheart stopped chasing commercial success and started recording experimental weird shit again—in fact, weird as this record is, I wouldn’t call it “experimental” at all.  This is what happens when the experiment succeeds and the scientist has built a working prototype.  This is the end-result of everything Beefheart learned and everything he was capable of.  This is a Beefheart record you can dance to.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleThe Floppy Boot Stomp
AlbumShiny Beast
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"Dropout Boogie" by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

I usually consider the live show to be the true test of a band, but some musicians really are “recording artists”—that is, they’re able to make great records in a studio, but they seem less sure of their footing once you put them in front of a crowd.  Captain Beefheart was definitely one such artist.  There’s even a story that in his pre-Safe As Milk days, he took the stage, sang one line, froze up, then passed out and fell off the stage and landed on a record executive.

But sometimes his Magic Band got their mojo workin’ and Don Van Vliet could bring it for a live audience.  There’s any number of live bootlegs floating around—I’m particularly fond of the Prime Quality Beef bootleg—but here’s a little something from an official release, I’m Going to Do What I Wanna Do - Live At My Father’s Place 1978.

PS: Recognize the song?  I hope so.  It’s been covered by Ty Segall and The Kills.  Beefheart may never have had a big radio hit, but he’s a musician’s musician, and many of your favorite bands studied these records like the Bible.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleDropout Boogie
AlbumI'm Going to Do What I Wanna Do - Live At My Father's Place 1978
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"Debra Kadabra" by Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart

Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were childhood friends—small world, right?  In fact, Don Vliet (he added the “Van” in later years) took his stage name Captain Beefheart from a science fiction movie he and Zappa had written and intended to film together.  In later years Zappa produced Beefheart’s masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, and Beefheart appeared on Zappa albums like Hot Rats and this one, Bongo Fury.  It’s a live album, from a tour they did together.  The story goes that Beefheart, ever the incorrigible five-year-old, would sit onstage and draw pictures when he wasn’t busy singing.  I guess it takes all kinds.  And it’s a good thing that these two weirdos were able to find each other again, because by this point most of The Magic Band was sick of Beefheart’s antics and had run off to form their own band, Mallard.

ArtistFrank Zappa & Captain Beefheart
TitleDebra Kadabra
AlbumBongo Fury
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"Long Neck Bottles" by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

Sometime after Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart took a big step back from such wild experimentation.  He wanted to make his music more straightforward, more accessible, more fun.  That, and a little commercial success couldn’t hurt.  He recorded two albums for the Reprise label, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, which are the two records I always recommend to folks new to Beefheart.  These records are less of an acquired taste than Trout Mask Replica material, but still far less conventional than his later work for Virgin Records.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleLong Neck Bottles
AlbumClear Spot
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"I Love You, You Big Dummy" by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

How the hell do you follow up Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart remained with Frank Zappa’s label Straight Records, but this time he produced the album himself.  Lick My Decals Off, Baby is cut from the same cloth as the sprawling double-album Trout Mask Replica, but leaner, shorter, with the spoken-word bits and other extraneous material trimmed away.  Forget the circus and let’s focus on the music this time around, folks. 

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleI Love You, You Big Dummy
AlbumLick My Decals Off, Baby
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"Pachuco Cadaver" by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

This is his masterpiece.  This is the moment Captain Beefheart stopped being a novelty vocalist and became an avant garde genius—and possibly a cult leader.  He convinced the long-suffering (and seriously underpaid) members of The Magic Band to live with him and rehearse together for eight months, to listen to his poetry and compose music for his words, and to be fucking brainwashed.  Drummer John French recalls being “screamed at, beaten up, drugged, ridiculed, humiliated, arrested, starved, stolen from, and thrown down a half-flight of stairs” by Beefheart.  There’s a lot of weird and brutal stories regarding the Trout Mask Replica album, but what matters is the record itself.  It’s a fucking masterpiece.  But it’s also an acquired taste.  Beefheart newbs, be warned: Don’t start here.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitlePachuco Cadaver
AlbumTrout Mask Replica
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"Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do" by Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band

A&M signed Captain Beefheart in hopes that his band would be an American version of The Rolling Stones.  Problem is, Captain Beefheart believed the Blues had already been done to perfection, and it was time for music to take a totally different direction.  Needless to say, A&M dropped Beefheart after releasing just a couple singles.  So he took his Magic Band—which at the time included a young Ry Cooder—to Buddah Records and recorded Safe As Milk, one of the greatest debut albums in the history of fucking ever.

Recording a follow-up, however, was a real problem.  I have no time to recount that frenzied story again today, so CLICK HERE to read about (and listen to) the five records—yes, five records—that came of Beefheart’s attempts to record a second album.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & The Magic Band
TitleSure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do
AlbumSafe As Milk

Calling all Captain Beefheart fanatics: Early in the history of Doc Shoe’s Music Blog, I put a massive amount of work into elucidating Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band’s attempts to record a worthy follow-up to their debut album Safe As Milk.  It was supposed to be an epic double-album titled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, but that record never really materialized; and yet somehow, those recording sessions were used to make five very different records.  I shit you not.  Click here for all five versions of Beefheart’s second album.

And be sure to tune in Wednesday for our Captain Beefheart Marathon!

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"Beatle Bones N’ Smokin’ Stones" by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

Part 5 of 6: In 1999, Buddha Records (formerly Buddah) released The Mirror Man Sessions, offering the most complete single document of those TTG Studios sessions from 1967.  This release essentially combines Buddha’s Mirror Man record from 1971 with many tracks previously only available on the import-only I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird outtakes compilation.  This is probably the best place to start if you’re interested in this phase of Captain Beefheart’s career, and fortunately it’s still in print.

Is it any good?  Folks, this record is on my turntable more often than anything else Beefheart ever recorded.  Trout Mask Replica is his masterpiece and Shiny Beast is his most accessible work, but The Mirror Man Sessions is my personal favorite.  This is prime, Grade-A Beef.

Click here to listen to songs from all five versions of this album.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleBeatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones
AlbumThe Mirror Man Sessions

Put It To A Vote

This afternoon I’ll be fixing dead links, uploading and re-posting a Stooges bootleg marathon I originally ran late last year.  But for next week, I’ve uploaded tracks for three different marathons, and I’ll let you folks vote on which I’ll run first:

  1. Captain Beefheart
  2. Lou Reed
  3. Townes Van Zandt

What’ll it be, folks?

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"I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby" by Captain Beefheart

I asked my roommate whistlerifflove what musical collaboration she wishes had happened, and she said, “George Harrison and Captain Beefheart.”  Which sounds crazy, but it makes sense.  After recording Trout Mask Replica—the weirdest fucking double-album of all goddamn time—Beefheart began moving in a different direction, putting out more accessible (i.e., “slightly less crazy”), almost Pop-oriented records.  He might conceivably have jumped at the chance to do a record with a former Beatle.  And Harrison, for his part, had recorded a double-album with producer Phil Spector, so how hard would it have been to put up with Don Van Vliet’s antics?

While you’re imagining what that record might have sounded like, here’s “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby,” from the often overlooked album The Spotlight Kid.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleI'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby
AlbumThe Spotlight Kid
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"Obeah Man" (1966 Demo) by Captain Beefheart

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed our Tom Waits Marathon, but it feels good to post something different for a change. 

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
TitleObeah Man (1966 Demo)
AlbumGrow Fins: Rarities 1965 - 1982
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"Shore Leave" by Tom Waits.  

Most folks will tell you that Tom Waits hit his stride when he discovered the records of Captain Beefheart and was inspired to record a trilogy of brilliant albums: Swordfishtrombones (an obvious play on Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica), Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years.  And this is true.  But it’s also true that Waits was introduced to Beefheart by Kathleen Brennan, his new wife and collaborator.  As much as these records are his, they are hers as well.

Furthermore, Tom Waits’ habit of inventing new instruments or rescuing old instruments from obscurity for his recording sessions is something he seems to have picked up from Moondog, AKA Louis Hardin.  Ultimately, though, this is Tom Waits’ record.  These other artists—Don Van Vliet, Hardin, and especially Kathleen Brennan—inspired and encouraged Waits to find his own (really fucking bizarre but nonetheless sincere) voice. 

PS: I used to play this song for Stefanie when I was in Iraq. 

ArtistTom Waits
TitleShore Leave