Part 1 of 6: Ascertaining the facts of Captain Beefheart's creative life is no easy task, as the good Captain (AKA Don Van Vliet) was never straightforward with the press, or even with members of his own Magic Band. So bear with me while I try to piece together the convoluted story of how Beefheart’s attempt at a follow-up to Safe As Milk was killed, only to rise again—like Jesus Christ, or a particularly tenacious zombie—as five different records.
Back in 1967, Beefheart’s career was off to a rocky start. A&M had dropped him after releasing only a couple singles (they had expected him to be an American version of The Rolling Stones, and instead they got “Electricity”), his new label Buddah Records was disappointed that his debut album Safe As Milk had failed to find a place in the charts, and the brilliant young guitarist Ry Cooder had quit the band after a disastrous tour. And so it came to pass that—armed only with a microscopic cult following, a mission to record even more experimental material, the dubious support of Buddah, and near-crippling neurosis—Beefheart and company went to TTG Studios in Los Angeles for nearly a month of LSD-fueled recording sessions.
Working with Beefheart was notoriously frustrating: The man couldn’t really play any musical instruments aside from the harmonica, so when he had a song idea he would merely whistle or hum a tune and expect the band to extrapolate from his suggestions and work out the musical arrangements themselves, only to have Beefheart—who was popping psychiatric medications like candy—decide he wasn’t satisfied, throw out a few seemingly random demands (he’d ask John French, his long-suffering drummer, to remove his cymbals or cover his kick-drum in cardboard), and make the band start over again. When it came time to add his own vocal stylings, he’d rearrange the lyrics he’d written or improvise new ones with every take. Oh, and occasionally he’d freak out in the middle of a performance and decide he just couldn’t take anymore.
Put it this way: Even Frank Zappa, his boyhood friend, thought Captain Beefheart was a pain in the ass to work with.
After a month at TTG Studios, the good Captain and his not-so-merry band were almost finished recording enough material to make a double-album. That was when Buddah Records decided they didn’t like what they were hearing and pulled the plug. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band went back on tour in the UK, still hoping to release a second album someday, while the Buddah executives threw the tapes from the TTG Sessions into a vault somewhere, presumably never to be heard again.
Fortunately, that’s not how the story ends. Captain Beefheart developed a ravenous cult following, and that early material he’d conjured up was just begging to be released. Today’s posts are all about the five records made from those TTG Studios sessions.