Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

By swagski
updated over 11 years ago

A broad outline of the history, which I hope may assist.
Any particular Circumstances or Brickbats, please PM me.

  1. American delta-blues style group from Lancaster, California, formed by Alexis Snouffer. After two singles, in the vein of 'popular rhythm n' blues', they underwent traumatic musical changes - culminating in the Zappa-produced "Trout Mask Replica", a work conceived and directed by frontman Don Van Vliet.

    In the beginning: The nucleus of this blues-oriented group was created by guitarist Snouffer, known to close friends as 'Butch'. In late 1964 Snouffer returned to his desert hometown of Lancaster, after working in a casino club at Lake Tahoe. During his time in Tahoe he shared experiences with Motorhead Sherwood, who had previously returned to the desert scene in Cucamonga and met up with Frank Zappa & Paul Buff. Upon his return Snouffer also met up with them, reuniting with old Antelope Valley schoolfriends and music acquaintances, to form the blues group of his vision. The line-up was Snouffer on lead guitar, Jerry Handley on bass (whom Snouffer had weaned from guitar), P.G. Blakely on drums and Doug Moon, recruited on guitar. It was now evident that a vocalist was needed and Snouffer called on Don Vliet to join them.

    Joining the counterculture: By mid 1964 Vliet had long dropped out of his art college course and had become a 'breadwinner', now driving his father's Helms Bread truck-route and stopping off to conspire with Zappa and friends in Studio Z at Cucamonga. Some recordings and ideas had emerged there, such as The Soots, along with 'teenage opera' concepts like 'Captain Beefheart Vs The Grunt People' - into which Vliet and his family had been given roles by Zappa. Although still somewhat reticent and nurturing desires for an art career, Vliet joined Snouffer's group at the start of 1965. His arrival also heralded in drummer Vic Mortensen, whom Vliet had befriended at Studio Z. After much rehearsal in Jerry Handley's house, Snouffer had pushed the group into shape and they now needed a 'cool name'. Something that would 'fit in' with the nomenclatures of emerging bands from San Francisco and the UK. Names much inspired by the groundwork of the earlier 'Beat Poets' and burgeoning American Hippie counterculture. 'The Great Society', 'Grateful Dead', 'Big Brother & The Holding Company', 'The Rolling Stones', and so on. Thus, Snouffer his Magic Band took on a mythical pied-piper identity and "Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band" were formed and out on the road by early 1965.

    On the road: Snouffer, Handley, Moon, Mortensen & Vliet did the usual car-club circuits, juke-joints and Elks' lodges, raising a following and finally culminating in winning a 'Battle of the Bands' contest-final in Hollywood. Snouffer's prize was a Fender guitar, which he collected accompanied by Ry Cooder. By this time Snouffer had changed his stage name to Alex St. Clair and Vliet would later begin inserting a 'Van' into his surname, much as a nod to the Dutch Masters of the art world. As the 'front man' of the group, the 'Captain Beefheart' moniker had also become associated to Vliet by the group's followers, rather than to Snouffer or his Magic Band. A young John French, later to become drummer in the Magic Band, recalls speaking to Vliet at a Teenage Fair play-off in 1966 where Vliet pointed out that Snouffer was in fact the leader 'Beefheart'. However, this persona would later become synonymous with Van Vliet and his recording career, supported by an assembly of the Magic Band. It is perhaps fortuitous that the group had discarded the notion of calling itself 'Ethel Higgenbaum and her Magic Band'. According to Mortensen, he recalled the group rejecting the offer of a syndicated music deal from animators Hanna-Barbera Productions, who wanted the group to become 'The Bats'.

    The singles: The Teenage Fair contest-win had also led to connections with Rising Sons (2), whose members, such as Ry Cooder, would later become involved in the group's debut album. The win also gained the attention of PR executive Dorothy Heard, who had associations to David Wolper and Leonard Grant (2), the latter becoming the group's manager and securing them a 2-singles contract with the new Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss label, A&M Records in late 1965. However, circumstances now began to come into play - the kind of 'twists of luck' that would also later dog the career of Vliet. Mortensen's father had died after a long-term disability, which then freed him up to be called upon for active service in Vietnam. For the group's first single recording, a cover of Ellas McDaniel's "Diddy Wah Diddy", it was Snouffer who sat in on drums, with Rich Hepner drafted in on guitar. By the time the single became a regional hit in mid 1966, against unforeseen competition from another version released by popular East-coast band The Remains, Hepner had departed and P.G. Blakely was back in on drums. (PG appears in the US TV performance of the single & on the 1984 sleeve of "Legendary A&M Sessions"). On the single's flipside was "Who Do You Think You're Fooling", the first track to be given a 'pre-Van' writing credit 'Don Vliet'. This name is also included in Zappa's 'Freak-Out List' of 179 'influences' on the inner spread of his 1966 album "Freak Out!". Vliet also wrote "Frying Pan", the B-side to the group's second single "Moonchild" written by David Gates, who produced both singles and would go on to form the band Bread. With little return for these two singles any further recording was suspended by A&M, despite their Spring '66 PR-release mentioning "Their first album - due out soon...". The only real plus (from which the band would later benefit) was the airplay attention their music had been given by DJ John Peel, who was working for radio KMEN in San Bernardino at that time. Peel was also impressed by the group when they supported Them (3) at Hollywood's 'Whisky A-Go-Go'.

    "Safe As Milk": With the majority of an album conceptualized, but still signed to A&M, the group extricated themselves and signed to Artie Ripp's label Kama Sutra in 1967. This label was distributed by MGM, although Ripp and his partners had other plans to be free of MGM, forming the further label Buddah Records upon which both the group and label would debut with an album, managed by Ripp's executive Bob Krasnow. That album was "Safe as Milk", much of which had been rehearsed and recorded at Sunset Sound with pencilled-in producer Gary Marker, bassist of Rising Sons. Blakely was now gone and drummer John French had arrived from 'Blues In A Bottle'. Doug Moon was still in the rehearsals line-up, but his tenure was far from secure, as Vliet & Krasnow conspired with Marker to have him replaced by Ry Cooder. Once Cooder had been convinced to join as music-director of the project a 'Kansas City shuffle' then occurred. Both Moon and Marker were given the cold-shoulder and Krasnow brought in Richard Perry to produce. The recording was moved, from the 8-track set-up at Sunset Sound, to RCA Studios where Perry & Krasnow - in their first production venture - found it easier to control the rudiments of recording on the 4-track system. Many of the tracks on the album were co-written by Herb Bermann, an aspiring poet and budding script-writer, with whom Vliet had struck up a friendship after meeting him and his wife Cathleen during an earlier band performance at a bar on the Sierra Highway. This was yet another aspect of apparent co-conspiracy by Vliet that would lead to divisions and mistrust among the group, compounded by Vliet's continued refusal to comprehend musical notation and his reliance upon musicians around him to interpret his ideas by whistling, banging objects and shouting at them.

    Circumstances: The album was released in the fall of 1967. It is clear that both Krasnow and Buddah hoped for the band, as they expressed it, to be 'bigger than The Beatles or the Stones'. The sleeve certainly reveals the label's intentions, with a shot of the newly-besuited group, seen in a chicken coup. A 'fish-eye lens' photo, echoing the photo on the 1966 release The Rolling Stones - Big Hits [High Tide And Green Grass], both photographed by Guy Webster. The group had been booked to play the first Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, an event which was to elevate Janis Joplin & Jimi Hendrix, among others, into rock history. Of course, the 80-page Festival programme (coincidentally, designed by "Safe As Milk" sleeve artist Tom Wilkes) failed to mention a 'no show' by the group. As a warm-up to the Festival they had also attended the Mt. Tamalpais 'Magic Mountain' Festival a week earlier. During this performance Vliet hyperventilated in mid song and took a dive off the stage, believing he saw a girl in the audience turn into a goldfish. At the end of the number Ry Cooder stepped out of the band and wanted nothing more to do with them. Monterey was cancelled, the group was without a guitarist and, for a few months with only St. Clair, Handley and French, an album support-tour was impossible. Guitarist Jerry McGee eventually filled in for a period until Jeff Cotton, a past Lancaster 'Exiles' associate of French, joined the group. This line-up then entered TTG Studios and tentatively began work on the Buddah 'Brown Wrapper' double-album material in Nov 1967. The group toured in Jan 1968, appearing in Hanover before being introduced by an emotional John Peel to UK audiences at 'Middle Earth' & 'The Speakeasy' before featuring on his radio show. This was followed by their filmed performance at the MIDEM event on the beach at Cannes and a French casino show, with Arthur Brown, Fairport Convention & Blossom Toes.

    "Strictly Personal": Upon arriving back in the USA in Feb 1968 more 'conspiracy' took place. Vliet was now much the creative driving force and Snouffer's hold over the group was minimal, although more pragmatic. Vliet had ideas to form an alter-ego group '25th Century Quakers', who would interpolate with the Magic Band and provide two-shows-in-one. Another name mooted for this group was 'Blue Thumb'. Meanwhile, executive moves between Pye UK & Buddah had soured, Ripp was showing disinterest in the group and Krasnow also had his own plans for a new label. Contract options became a little 'overlooked' and MGM were approached, who got as far as issuing a Verve cat# (FTS 3054) for "Captain Beefheart". The outcome was that the 'Brown Wrapper' material went no further and the group went into Sunset Sound in Apr 1968 and recut some of the material with Krasnow, who released it on his new label - unsurprisingly called Blue Thumb Records - as "Strictly Personal" (BTS1) in Oct 1968. This album visually bears some of the hallmarks of its 'Brown Wrapper' origin. By the spring of 1969 Buddah had brought hefty lawsuits to bear upon Krasnow and the individual group members in excess of $1.25 million, later releasing some of the material, to which they laid claim, as "Mirror Man" in 1971. The 'Brown Wrapper' material eventually saw releases on "I May Be Hungry, But I Sure Ain't Weird" and in full upon "It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper", among other appearances of the works. After recording "Strictly Personal" the group had done a further UK tour in May 1968, distancing them from Krasnow's final production of the album, on which he had experimented with phasing techniques & physical tape-cutting, whilst allegedly leaving the group stranded and out of pocket in the UK. There were no ecstatic fans either, after Euro gigs were cancelled and the group returned penniless to the USA.

    "Trout Mask Replica": By the spring of 1969 the twee 'pop-group' appendage of 'Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band' had become somewhat passé. Indeed, the group collective was the subject of broken contracts and strained relationships. Snouffer, the founder of what began as a blues-band, departed and became a truck-driver. This was followed by bassist Handley departing the group. Vocalist and lyricist Vliet now found himself brimming with ideas in a creative desert. As 'Captain Beefheart' he would go on to feature on Zappa's "Hot Rats" in Oct 1969. But, earlier, he had also been thrown a lifeline toward a solo career with a double-album deal on Zappa's 'Straight' label. In June 1968 Bill Harkleroad, another young Lancaster acquaintance of French & Cotton, had joined the Magic Band as guitarist, shortly followed by Gary Marker on bass. This line-up recorded three early Vliet numbers, engineered by Zappa at Sunset Sound, for what would become the Beefheart opus "Trout Mask Replica". These tracks were "Moonlight On Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy", plus "Kandy Korn" which did not feature. The belated "Mirror Man" release from Buddah has Harkleroad on its cover but, much like the many credit errors on that release, he was not in that group. A period of intense rehearsal began between the members of the now much younger Magic Band, ensconced in what would become known as The Magic Band House on Ensenada Drive in Woodland Hills, with manager Vliet in control of the outcome. Harkleroad described the scenario well, "Don didn't know anything about music in the conventional sense... not a composer or arranger, but a very intense conceptualist. It took a great effort on everyone's part to create these 'sculptures' as far as the music was concerned - the lyrics were a whole other ball game". After his short 'guest' appearance Marker was replaced by Mark Boston, another Lancaster bassist with prior connections to the remaining three musicians who now composed the Magic Band under Vliet's direction. The final recording, in the Spring of 1969, was booked by Zappa and took place at Whitney Studios in Glendale. Much of the work also consisted of field-recordings from the house, done by Dick Kunc and band members. Zappa, Roy Estrada & Art Tripp were also present on "The Blimp" episode, Doug Moon guested on guitar and Vliet's cousin Victor Hayden also featured in the proceedings. Before its release, a contretemps between French and Vliet led to French's departure and his work is uncredited on the album, with a stand-in drummer recruited for a one-off performance by this band in Belgium.

    A metamorphosis: The launch of "Trout Mask Replica" gained critical worldwide attention for Vliet as a performer and lyricist. The enigmatic persona of Beefheart, complete with a replica carp head for a trout-mask, appears solo on the cover. His '25th century Quaker hat' now a vestige of his concepts for an alter-ego band. During the "Trout Mask Replica" project, Vliet had bestowed aliases upon the young Magic Band members, adding further to its avant-garde nature and its mixed reception by the industry and followers alike. Those who had ears also realized the role the musicians in the Magic Band had brought to bear upon the complexities of the work, although the songs are adroitly credited to both Don Van Vliet & Captain Beefheart. Even Vliet's long-term girlfriend Laurie Stone had now fallen by the wayside as, after a whirlwind romance, he married Janet Jenkins in Nov 1969 and set about carving out a solo career as Captain Beefheart. His rather unconventional lyrical slant on blues and jazz fusions brought forth a further eight official albums with The Magic Band before his retirement from music in 1982, as a full-time painter, poet & conservationist. The legacy of the seeds sown by the rebellious West-coast 'pop group' on Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band* - Safe As Milk later germinated and helped influence the direction of modern electric blues, its reissues bearing the Langdon Winner legend "An album which is one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history".