California Dreaming: Diddy Wah Diddy

The small group of people associated with Studio Z — Frank Zappa, Don Vliet, Ray Collins, and others — had spent much of 1964 and early 65 with big plans. Not only were they regularly recording blues, doo-wop, and experimental music, but they were working on a whole load of other plans — Zappa had written a rock and roll musical, I Was A Teenage Maltshop, and was writing a film, to be made at Studio Z, entitled Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People, whose titular character was inspired by the habit of Vliet’s uncle of urinating with the bathroom door open and calling for Vliet’s girlfriends to “come and take a look — it looks just like a great big beef heart!”

Vliet himself inspired the character of Captain Beefheart, who gained magic powers upon drinking Pepsi, including being able to conjure a magic band into existence to play music, with just a single glug. Vliet was also going to play the character in the film.

Unfortunately, Zappa’s experimentalism and sense of humour took him a little too far, when he was approached by an undercover policeman and asked if he could provide a pornographic film. Zappa said he could, but a pornographic audio tape would be cheaper, and spent a night recording squeaking bedsprings, pounding noises, and grunts and moans provided by himself and his friend Lorraine Belcher. As soon as he handed over the tape, of course, both he and Belcher were arrested, provoking the headline in the Daily Record “2 A Go-Go To Jail”. While Zappa tried to get the ACLU to defend him, against what was fairly obvious illegal entrapment, they were too thinly-stretched to help, and the resulting court case and jail time led to Zappa losing the studio.

Around this time, Vliet started performing with local bands, and quickly got together with an old school friend, Alex Snouffer, who played guitar. The two changed their names — Snouffer to Alex St. Clair and Vliet to Don Van Vliet — and formed a band, inspired by the unmade film, called Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band.

St. Clair was, at least at first, the leader of the band, and was the one who was pointed to by the other members as “Captain Beefheart” when the band played their first shows, at Teenage Fairs and Battle of the Bands competitions in and around the San Fernando Valley, often on the same bills as bands like The Rising Sons.

At first the band’s repertoire consisted mostly of covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds, but it soon became apparent that the band could outdo their English inspirations by going back to the blues musicians who had inspired them in the first place. Van Vliet’s distinctive pinched-larynx vocal sound, pitched somewhere between Howlin’ Wolf and Esquerita, was as much an artifice as Mick Jagger’s transatlantic vowels, but it was an authentic-sounding artifice, as was the playing of Doug Moon, the band’s rhythm guitarist, who was a scholar who tried to replicate the sound of his blues idols rather than develop his own style. Moon was so authentic, in fact, that it threw his bandmates on occasion — he was an untrained musician, and played “like the record” even when the band had rearranged the song, so if the Muddy Waters record was a thirteen-bar blues, he would play thirteen bars, even though the rest of the band were playing it as a twelve-bar.

While St. Clair started out as “Captain Beefheart”, and remained the band’s musical director in rehearsals, it soon became clear that people were thinking of Van Vliet, the frontman, as Captain Beefheart, and this only increased when, after the departure of two drummers, St. Clair moved temporarily into the drum stool himself (although Van Vliet had his eye on a young drummer named John French). Soon, Van Vliet and Beefheart were synonymous.

The band got label interest almost immediately, and at one point were even being considered by Hanna-Barbera Records, who had a pre-recorded single by Danny Hutton that was being put out under the name The Bats. They wanted to give The Bats their own cartoon series, and to have a band tour under that name playing the music the session musicians had already recorded. Unsurprisingly, the Magic Band didn’t want to be a children’s cartoon series, so they turned down that offer, and a few months later signed with A&M Records.

Their first single was produced by David Gates, who later found fame with the band Bread, and engineered by Bruce Botnick, and was a cover version of Diddy Wah Diddy, a Bo Diddley song from ten years earlier [FOOTNOTE: Note that this isn’t the same as the other blues song called Diddy Wah Diddy, by Blind Blake, that also had a number of cover versions around this time.].

Gates’ arrangement shows the fascination with hard, powerful, basslines that he had at this point, and has some of the same proto-metal thud that you can also hear on Saturday’s Child, his song for the Monkees. Jerry Handley’s bass is recorded with a split line, one input going directly into the board while the other goes through a fuzz unit, giving a uniquely thick bass part for the time. The two guitars mostly stick to holding the riff down, Van Vliet’s harmonica provides chordal support in the later verses (subtly doubled by the harpsichord which comes to the fore in the closing moments of the track), and the whole track is just an excuse for Van Vliet to shine on vocals, sounding closer to seventy-five than twenty-five, the voice of an old, ravaged man coming out of the throat of someone still little more than a boy.

The track was an astonishing piece of work, and got quite a bit of airplay in LA. It looked like it was going to become a hit, but then disaster struck — the same obscure old blues song had been covered, at the same time, by The Remains, a Merseybeat-style band from New England. The Remains’ version got airplay on the East Coast, the Magic Band’s on the West, and neither band had a hit with the song.

Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band would release one more single on A&M, a David Gates composition with which they were not especially happy, before being dropped by the label. But at the same time Van Vliet — Beefheart — had been expanding his musical ideas. He’d started listening to jazz, and he’d also noticed that the Rising Sons’ guitarist had something special about him.

Yes, Ry Cooder definitely had potential…

Diddy Wah Diddy

Composer: Elias McDaniel (Bo Diddley) & Willie Dixon (wrongly credited on initial pressings of the single as A. Christensen)

Line-up: Don Van Vliet (vocals, harmonica), Alex St. Clair (drums), Doug Moon (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass), Richard Hepner (guitar), David Gates (harpsichord, backing vocals)

Original release: Diddy Wah Diddy/Who Do You Think You’re Fooling? Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, A&M 794

Currently available on: The Legendary A&M Sessions Demon CD

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3 Responses to California Dreaming: Diddy Wah Diddy

  1. gavinburrows says:

    “Vliet himself inspired the character of Captain Beefheart, who gained magic powers upon drinking Pepsi, including being able to conjure a magic band into existence to play music…”

    In later years Vliet seems to have considered this some kind of documentary…

  2. TAD says:

    I see what you mean about the similarity with “Saturday’s Child.” It has the same dirty/thick bass sound.

  3. S. Barrios says:

    was unaware of the Beef Captain/Bread connexion, hey!

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