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

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.

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Part 2 of 6: Everything went to hell after Buddah Records decided to kill Captain Beefheart's recording sessions for a double-album to be called It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper.  Feelings were hurt, money was lost, many consciousness-expanding substances were imbibed, and then shit got real.  I’ll let drummer John French tell the story:

Eventually, a plan was formed.  Now, I can’t recall exactly how it came into being, but we soon found ourselves sitting in the office of our Beverly Hills attorney, Jay Cooper, waiting to sign new contracts with MGM Records, with whom Krasnow [producer of the TTG Studios sessions] had firmed up a deal, and rumor had it he had paid off someone in the Buddah office to mis-file our contracts so the next year’s option would not be picked up.  After moving to a small cottage in Woodland Hills, CA, we then set about recording some of the Buddah material all over again at Sunset Sound for MGM with very little rehearsal.

During a May tour, mostly of the U.K., Krasnow showed up with the newly-mixed album which we listened to in the Rolling Stones’ business office (no, we didn’t meet anyone).  Don [Captain Beefheart] hated the album, saying Bob [Krasnow] had ruined it with "psychedelic bromo-seltzer" (Don’s description of an electronic effect called phasing) and saying he “must have edited it with a pair of dull scissors.”  According to Don’s cousin, Victor Hayden (aka The Mascara Snake), Krasnow had taken LSD during all the editing and mixing sessions and had, in fact, actually used scissors on the 2” recording tape.  Victor being our one witness to this deed, I had my doubts as to the story’s authenticity.  After all, [Victor] had drawn rivets all over his white Volvo and the back window had a full display of dolls and crocheted doilies accented by a small vase with dead flowers.

So that’s how album Strictly Personal came to appear on Krasnow’s own Blue Thumb label.  When I finally tracked down a copy a few years back, I thought it sounded like Beefheart trying to do Sgt. Pepper.  It’s a weird fucking record, and it doesn’t really hold up to the high standards of what we expect from Captain Beefheart.  On the other hand, even a bad Beefheart record is better than just about anything else

That being said, I posted this track for a reason: So you can make up your own mind.  What do you think?

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & The Magic Band
TitleSon Of Mirror Man: Mere Man
AlbumStrictly Personal
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Part 4 of 6: This is from a 1992 Sequel Records release called I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird, which is a collection of outtakes from Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band's TTG Studios sessions in 1967.  These were the songs that Buddah Records forgot about when they hurriedly slapped together the belated Mirror Man record.  Until I May Be Hungry came out, these tracks—some of the best work Captain Beefheart ever did—had sat in a vault for twenty-five years.

This is Mandatory Beefheart.  The record is hopelessly out of print but, as you might expect, digital copies are floating around on the internet.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  This track in particular, “Big Black Baby Shoes,” is an early version of what would later become “Moonlight On Vermont” on the Trout Mask Replica album.  Check it out.

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & The Magic Band
TitleBig Black Baby Shoes
AlbumI May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird: The Alternative Captain Beefheart

This is “25th Century Quaker,” my all-time favorite Captain Beefheart song.

Part 3 of 6: After Captain Beefheart achieved some notoriety with albums like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, his old label Buddah Records decided to cash in on those unreleased tapes of the aborted TTG Studios sessions they’d been sitting on since 1967.  Back then, they’d complained that Beefheart’s material was too unconventional (that’s a polite euphemism for "really goddamn weird"), but now that his unconventionality was becoming potentially marketable they dipped into those old tapes and picked out four of the weirdest, most experimental tracks for an album they dubbed Mirror Man.  The four songs they picked were “Tarotplane,” “Kandy Korn,” “Mirror Man,” and my personal favorite, “25th Century Quaker.”  I guess you can’t fault the folks at Buddah Records for taste, even if it took them a few years to realize what they had.  What you can fault them for is doing such a rushed hack-job on the album that A) They left out some of the best songs those TTG sessions produced, and B) The cover art depicted the much-changed 1970 lineup of The Magic Band, which included only two members (drummer John French and Don Van Vliet himself) who had actually recorded these songs in 1967.  Oops.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this song half as much as I do.

Part 6 of 6: Many artists hit the scene with a splash and then sink without a trace.  Others, like Captain Beefheart, can take years to become a lasting cultural phenomenon, one fan at a time.  In 2008—more than forty years after these tracks were recorded—Sundazed Records attempted to finally produce the album Captain Beefheart wanted you to hear: It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, a vinyl-only release covered in (you guessed it) plain brown paper, the way they used to send weight-lifting manuals and pornography through the mail.  The packaging is true to Don Van Vliet's original concept, but the music itself falls short of the artist's intent: The mastering isn't perfect, several of the tracks are missing the Captain's vocals (like I said, Buddah Records cancelled the sessions before the record was completed), and almost everything here was already released on that all-but-impossible-to-find I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird compilation.  But let’s not split hairs: This is some of Captain Beefheart’s best work.  So without further ado, here’s “Moody Liz (Take 16),” the only never-before-released track to be found on this album. 

Blame It On The Acid, AKA Even More Further Ado: You’ll definitely want to check out the liner notes by John French, who was The Magic Band's drummer at the time.  He's still bitter at Don Van Vliet after all these years; to hear French tell it, the good Captain was a lying, neurotic thief who stole everything he's ever been given credit for.  While I'm sure that's an overstatement (Vliet was notoriously difficult to work with, sure, but he went on recording great records loooong after the original Magic Band left him), I’m glad that French finally confirmed a longtime suspicion of mine: Apparently everyone in the band was flying high on LSD during the recording sessions.  Gee, you don’t say?

Calling all Captain Beefheart fanatics: I just want to remind you to tune in to Doc Shoe’s Music Blog on Friday afternoon, when we’ll be posting tracks from 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 different records.  We’ll be listening to tracks from each of these records and discussing Captain Beefheart’s neurotic, LSD-fueled attempts to realize what should have been (and perhaps was) his masterpiece.

I hope to see you Friday.  Keep on rockin’ in the Free World, folks—

Doc Shoe

PS: I’ve spent a week putting this Marathon O’ Beefheart together, so do me a favor and reblog this announcement if you’re a fan of the good Captain.

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Captain Beefheart never had a hit, and yet he still sells records decades after more popular acts have faded away.  What can I say?  He’s too fucking weird not to attract attention, and his music is too fucking good to be easily forgotten.  Tom Waits put it best: “Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes.” 

More Beefheart On The Way: I’m reblogging this track as a sort of preview of something special I’m putting together for you Beefheart fans: a marathon covering all five versions of the Mirror Man album.  We’ll be listening to tracks from Strictly Personal, Mirror Man, It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, and The Mirror Man Sessions, not to mention the outtakes collection I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird, all while discussing the tortured history of what should have been Don Van Vliet’s breakthrough record.  So stay tuned, folks, and keep on rockin’ in the Free World—

Doc Shoe

(via good-dogwood-deactivated2013061)

ArtistCaptain Beefheart & his Magic Band
TitleMirror Man
AlbumThe Mirror Man Sessions