I suppose the saddest thing about Captain Beefheart’s death – which in many ways must have come as a relief after his decades of suffering with MS – is the BBC’s obituary of him. It stresses his ‘influence’, but talks about musicians like Oasis or Franz Ferdinand, who have absolutely nothing in common with him.
Even those artists who sound, at times, quite like Beefheart – for example Tom Waits – aren’t really influenced by him. He had an absolutely unique aesthetic – he’d actually thought out, in detail, what he did and didn’t want to do, and then very *very* rarely compromised that. While he came from the LA 60s rock scene – his first album, Safe As Milk sounds as much like the Monkees or Love as it does people like Howlin’ Wolf to whom Beefheart is usually compared – he soon abandoned any pretence at making ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ music, in favour of making *his* music.
Beefheart is actually less original than his music sounds, but he was one of the great imaginative *synthesists* of all time, putting together the timbre of Chicago blues with the tonalities and rhythms of Ornette Coleman, and adding beat poetry on top. He was often accused by collaborators of being a plagiarist, but it’s notable that none of them have produced anything of anywhere near the same calibre without him – he almost certainly *did* take elements of his musicians’ work, just as he took elements of Coleman and Varese and Willie Dixon, but the result was one of the most idiosyncratic, individual bodies of work in music.
Anyone who was *really* ‘influenced’ by Beefheart would be finding their own aesthetic, as different from Beefheart’s as his was from the mainstream. But it’s a lot harder to sit down and actually think out your music from first principles, throwing out anything that doesn’t fit, than it is just to do what everyone else does.
He will be missed.

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7 Responses to Beefheart

  1. paul barker says:

    I sometimes think that the British equivalent to Beefheart was The Incredible String Band, not that they sound anything like him but that they were British in the way he & The Magic Band were American.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I can see what you mean, and certainly The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and 5000 Spirits have much of the same eccentricity and idiosyncracy about them…

      • burkesworks says:

        While there is no British equivalent to Beefheart – the Captain was a one-off, after all – my nomination for these shores’ closest equivalent is Ivor Cutler. The instrumentation and influences differ greatly from Don’s, but the use of wordplay and the naturalistic, humanistic and (that word again) eccentric approach that Cutler took to music and art wasn’t so far removed from Beefheart’s.

  2. You’re absolutely right to call Beefheart a synthesist more than an originator. In that way he was the Alan Moore of music. But I love the way his music never sounds synthesised or even composed, it just sounds wild, free and elemental. In that way, I also think he’s the Picasso of music.

    Just as bad as these music-biz careerists citing his name to try and sound cool, though, is the idea he was just some feral figure so idiosyncratic as to have nothing to do with anyone else. As you say, the people who were really influenced by him don’t sound all that much like him. (I’d add Mark E Smith to your Tom Waits.) That, again, makes him like Alan Moore. However, his final three albums were quite connected to post-punk, you could almost call them honorary post-punk albums.

    My own, more personal, less erudite tribute here. I am truly sadder about this than a grown man has any right to be…

  3. S. Barrios says:

    very good, sir !

    .. i had never thought of th’ Beef Captain *as* a synthesist, mainly ’cause i put him in psychological comparison with Zappa, whose .. discrete components were more obvious (tho’ no less fruitful). i guess this would make Beefheart’s brew more – how the Hippies say – “organic”? but, yeah, one has to go to Coleman, Ayler, what-have-you to discover those sort of angles.

    .. but, um, OASIS? ha! Ian Svenonius has a bit of fun with those boys in “The Psychic Soviet”:

    ALAN McGEE: Yes, to get the perfect composite for this new project, we took a forearm from Badfinger, a stump from Malcolm Owen, even a few toes from John Lennon, but it’s mostly Skynyrd: with mod hairstyles, of course.
    PAOLO HEWITT: But Skynyrd is a Southern rock band; Creation is a quintessentially British label .. what’s the connection?
    ALAN: Can’t you see, Paolo? Skynyrd took the aesthetics, the drugs, and long hair from the hippies and tied it to conservatism, nationalism, and a working class sensibility. It was a multiplatinum strategy that’ll work here too! Only instead of “Southern rock,” we’ll call it “Brit-pop.
    PAOLO: You’re crazy; it’ll never work!
    ALAN: Crazy? They called me crazy at Warner Brothers, too.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    I’ve never, so far as I know, heard a single note of Captain Beefheart. But for some reason I once read’s review of one of his albums:
    and this statement has always lingered resonantly in my memory:

    Lick My Decals Off, Baby was a further refining and exploration of the musical ideas posited on Trout Mask Replica.”

    Gotta admire that.

  5. Pingback: RIP Captain Beefheart | haonowshaokao

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