On the seventh anniversary of Captain Beefheart’s death, 60s Today contributor Ian Mole recalls the experience of seeing the musician live in 1975 and 1980.
I was lucky enough to see Captain Beefheart (alias Don van Vliet) play live twice, but with a completely different Magic Band on each occasion.
The first time was on Friday 14th November 1975, at the New Victoria Theatre in London. I went to the second show, which started at 8.45, and I had a good seat in the centre of the stalls. It only cost £1 to get in. There was a support band, who introduced themselves as “we’re Secret Oyster from Copenhagen”. I think they were a reincarnation of a band called Burning Red Ivanhoe, which was a fine name.
Beefheart’s set list included songs from his 1968 debut album ‘Safe As Milk’ (‘Electricity’, ‘Abba Zaba’), 1968’s ‘Strictly Personal’ (‘Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin’ Stones’), 1969’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (‘Moonlight on Vermont’, ‘Orange Claw Hammer’, ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’, ‘Dali’s Car’), and 1972’s ‘The Spotlight Kid’ (‘Alice in Blunderland’, ‘When It Blows Its Stacks)’ and ‘Clear Spot’ (‘Golden Birdies’, ‘Big Eyed Beans from Venus’). There was also a Howlin’ Wolf song ‘Natchez Burning’ and a cover of Frank Zappa’s ‘Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead’. There were no songs from his two 1974 Virgin albums ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed’ and ‘Bluejeans & Moonbeams’, which weren’t very popular with his fans or the artist himself, apparently.
On drums was the fantastic multi-instrumentalist John French a.k.a. Drumbo, who’d been with Beefheart on and off since ‘Safe as Milk’. In the middle of the set, he launched into a drum solo in a most peculiar time signature, the likes of which I’d never heard before or since, and at the climax of this he jumped up from the kit and started tap-dancing. At the end of the dance, he sang something like: “I’m Drumbo the brave…” There was little applause ,as I think most in the audience were too stunned to react in time. Elliot Ingber, alias Winged Eel Fingerling, who played on ‘The Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Blujeans & Moonbeams’, was on guitar, as was Denny Walley. Bruce Fowler played trombone, but it was processed as the bass sound. When Beefheart introduced him, he said he was playing “an air-bass”. ‘Orange Claw Hammer’ was sung a cappella, and during the performance a guy in the audience shouted: “Let’s have some magic!”, but Beefheart sang on without flinching. At the climax of ‘Golden Birdies’, he didn’t say the last line and left it to us to chorus: “Webcor! Webcor!”
The second time I saw him was also in Victoria, but at a relatively new place run by Virgin Records, called the Venue, which was an old cinema by the looks of it. It was Wednesday 12th November 1980, almost exactly five years after that first concert. Five years was a long time in the life of the Magic Band, and Beefheart was the only one still there from the previous line-up.
I was at the second show that night, which began at 8.30, and I was sitting in the circle towards the left hand side as you looked from the stage. My ticket cost £4. ‘Doc at the Radar Station’ had been released a few months earlier and was the album with most tracks featured. After the two shows that night, they returned for one more two days later. The line-up was Jeff Moris Tepper, Gary Lucas and Rick Snyder on guitars, Eric Feldman on bass and Robert Williams on drums. All of them except Snyder had played on ‘Doc at the Radar Station’.
They went down a storm again. One guy behind me kept screaming for ‘Ashtray Heart’, but I can’t recall if he got his request. I do remember though that the show started with someone reciting the poem ‘Apes-Ma’ from the previous album ‘Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). I enjoyed it all, but not as much as the other gig, as although the new band played very well, they didn’t have the charisma of Drumbo or Winged Eel Fingerling. There’s an audio and some photos of one of that night’s gigs on YouTube.
Several years later Beefheart retired from music to concentrate on his painting, and he died in 2010. However, his amazing music lives on both in audio and video recordings and live onstage. In November 2015, I saw a post-Beefheart Magic Band at Under the Bridge in Fulham. Drumbo was centre-stage doing great vocals, as well as some soprano sax, harmonica and drums. Rockette Morton, one of the guitarists from the ‘Trout Mask’ days would also have been there, but he was ill. There were two guitarists, as well as a keyboard-player who provided the bass sound. They did a wide range of Beefheart numbers, including ‘Electricity’, ‘Lo Yo-Yo Stuff’ and ‘Blue Million Miles’. I thought they were great and the audience really appreciated them. They were in London again in November 2017 as part of a long UK tour, and if they ever return, I heartily recommend that you see them.
“Captain Beefheart: The Biography” by Mike Barnes, published by Omnibus Press, is a very interesting and by no means easy read.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.