His band's debut album proved that progress isn't linear. Experimental rock music was never so good againby Alex Dean / July 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Babbette baboon, abba zaba zoom.”
Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk, from which those lyrics are taken, ushered in one of rock music’s most important—and unusual—careers. Real name Don Van Vliet—known to die-hards simply as “The Captain”—Beefheart fused Mississippi delta blues with avant jazz to astonishing effect. His debut album, 60 years old in September, still sounds breathtakingly experimental—and reminds us that progress isn’t linear. Rock music has not reached the same heights since.
Don Van Vliet had always been peculiar, and his parents, who from early on appreciated their son’s remarkable musical gift, indulged him. Sometimes too much. Frank Zappa, another avant-rock extraordinaire, grew up near Van Vliet’s California neighbourhood. In 1997 documentary The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart he recalls spending time at Beefheart’s house as a teenager. Van Vliet would do little except listen to blues music, Zappa explained—pausing it occasionally to “scream at his mother to get him another pepsi.”
Beefheart, in the end, found a bunch of musicians willing to put up with him, and formed “The Magic Band”—named after a recurring vision he had as a child in which he would drink a pepsi and a ghostly backing troupe would materialise behind him. He was a perfectionist in the extreme, and treated his band members appallingly, locking them in the house for hours on end, throwing them down the stairs when they made errors. One former bandmate has alleged that he was forced to live off soybeans for a month. Another, having been pushed to breaking point, threatened Beefheart with a loaded crossbow. Thankfully, the situation was defused.
“Beefheart sung with something like the deep growl of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf”
But their first effort, Safe as Milk, was released to a rapturous reception. The technical prowess was clear, while Beefheart’s voice was the most remarkable instrument of all: he sung with something like the deep growl of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. The experimentation to come, including crazy time signatures and erratic shout-singing, was hinted at. “Abba Zabba,” a lolloping blues number with those near-incomprehensible lyrics I quoted above, is a highlight:
“Babbette baboon, abba zaba zoom Two shadows at Noon, Babbette baboon Comin’ over pretty soon, Babbette baboon Run, run, catch her soon, draft of dawn, sunshine on Babbette baboon”
The experiment continued,…