“Captain Beefheart is out there charting his own erratic way through the heavens and must be the only real visionary to have brought his power to our music. We should treasure him” John Peel
A few years ago while catching the 82 bus back from town, I noticed on the side of a wall on Park Road a piece of graffiti that was rather more surreal than the normal tags. There, in four-foot high letters, someone had daubed CAPTAIN BEEFHEART.
To many of the everyday folk going about their business in Toxteth, the words will have meant nothing; but to those in the know this was a very Liverpool-centric piece of art, summing up a bizarre relationship with an outsider musician that has gripped this city’s musical community for almost 40 years.
Captain Beefheart (born Don van Vliet), who died on Friday aged 69 from complications arising from multiple sclerosis, was a pioneering musician who was met with devotion and confusion in equal measure. In Liverpool, Beefheart’s mix of Delta blues, soul and avant-garde became so much more: a cult that inspired one’s sound, outlook – and even band name in the case of The Zutons and Ella Guru. So why Beefheart and why Liverpool?
Perhaps the reason, like so many threads running through British music, lies with that proud scouser John Peel. Peel was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Beefheart, describing the first time he saw the Captain perform with his Magic Band as like hearing Elvis for the first time. When Beefheart arrived in London in 1967 Peel drove him round the country, stopping off frequently on the way so Beefheart could ‘listen to the trees’.
Peel’s tireless evangelism on behalf of Beefheart, soon made van Vilet something of a counter culture hero in the UK, with album releases as uncompromising as 1969’s Trout Mask Replica and 1971’s Lick My Decals Off Baby incredibly reaching the Top 30 in the charts. That such masterstrokes of freakery could find an audience in the UK was perhaps testament to Peel’s pulling power, which was often at it’s strongest in Liverpool, with its predilection to music, gigs and certain illegal substances.
Beefheart played two shows at Liverpool Stadium in the early seventies, but perhaps the defining moment of this relationship was the decision to hold the first exhibition of his painting at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery in April 1972. A film crew from Granada TV even interviewed Beefheart standing in front of his bold, black and white canvases.
Beefheart’s relationship with his art and painting was crucial to his appeal, claims artist, sculptor and former La’s member, Mike Badger. Badger actually met van Vliet at an exhibition in Manchester in 1980, describing on the ArtInLiverpool website how Beefheart was ‘one of the most important artists of the Twentieth Century’.
“Beefheart was an environmentalist, woman worshipper, an avant-garde musician, and a unique songwriter. He seemed to encompass everything for me. And on top of all that a great visual artist and painter.”
1980 was also the year Beefheart returned to Liverpool for his first show in six years. DJ Bernie Connor was only a teenager at the time but had been waiting to see Beefheart after being introduced to his music by Roger Eagle, the founder of Eric’s Club and Geoff Davies, who ran Probe Records.
“The buzz about the show was intense with every Captain fan coming out of the woodwork for this one. It was the first time I’d seen them play, the last time they had played here I was 11 years old and completely unaware of their existence. It was one of the most ground breaking and influential performances I have ever existed.”
Thankfully you can hear this gig, which took place at Rotters on the 29 October 1980, on the excellent Magnetic Hands reissue on Liverpool’s Viper Records.
By the mid-eighties a love of dope, Zappa and Beefheart went hand in hand with the emergent scally culture which was dominating Liverpool’s music scene. The most famous group to emerge from this scene was The La’s, which formed in 1984 around the nucleus of the aforementioned Mike Badger and Lee Mavers, after Mavers told Badger he was into Beefheart.
Like many Liverpool bands since, The La’s looked back to music that was deep, rootsy and real, whether it be blues, soul or country. Captain Beefheart fitted the bill perfectly and the weirdness and wonder of Beefheart’s deep-throated howling became a template for many a Scouse vocalist ever since from The Stairs’ Edgar Summertyme to Tramp Attack’s Matt Barton to The Cubical’s Dan Wilson.
More recent adherents to the Beefheart cult include The Coral and The Zutons, with The Coral listing Trout Mask Replica as one of their favourite albums in an NME interview in 2001 and covering Beefheart’s debut single Diddy Wah Diddy live. The Zutons went one step further, naming the band after The Magic Band’s guitarist Zoot Horn (or Zuton) Rollo. Speaking on the day after van Vliet’s death, Zuton frontman Dave McCabe was quick to pay tribute saying he was ‘gutted’ at the news.
“Beefheart was good at making you see the other side of the beat, or the offbeat as people call it. He made you look at music in a different way rather than just the 3 chords and pop mentality. He made you realise there’s no necessary rules within guitar music.”
McCabe has an interesting theory on why so many bands have been influenced by Beefheart:
“I reckon his music has resonated so much here because of the humour in it. You get the feeling he’s laughing at you. And scousers like to laugh at you!”
Nearly 40 years after he retired from music to concentrate on his beloved painting you get the feeling Beefheart’s eccentric brilliance will always find a faithful audience along the banks of the Mersey-sippi.
Image of Don van Vliet on filing cabinet courtesy of Leo Reynolds, Flickr