It began as a dream in the minds of two teenage companions, Don Van Vliet and Frank Zappa, isolated in the barren town of Lancaster. After their high school years, Zappa moved to Cucamonga, and Van Vliet, quitting his job as the manager of a shoe store chain, soon joined him. They made plans to form a band called the Soots and concocted Van Vliet’s unusual alias, Captain Beefheart.
Eventually Zappa split for Los Angeles and invented the Mothers, but Beefheart, being a bit more reclusive, returned to Lancaster. There, in 1964, he assembled some “desert musicians,” the Magic Band, and began playing teen dances.
If you had been a teenager, then, in the audience for a Magic Band performance, it probably would have been quite a shock boogalooing to the grinding blues-rock of a group dressed in black leather with matching high-heel boots.
Beefheart’s early band was raw and fundamental, true inheritors of Robert Johnson’s dark and bold vision. The Magic Band’s first single on A&M, “Diddy Wah Diddy” (Bo Diddley transmogrified), and initial album, Mirror Man (recorded one night in L.A. in 1965) capture the abrasive intensity of this scabrous band that ultimately influenced a whole generation and new breed of musicians often called “punk” or “indie.”
Captain Beefheart’s pre-Trout Mask Replica creations were tampered with by recording company moguls. And yet, even today, Strictly Personal playfully conveys the artists’s unique vernacular (“Ah Feel Like Ahcid”), and Safe As Milk undeniably remains the most underrated album of the era. Disavowing the use of LSD and pot, Beefheart nevertheless was consumed by the psychedelic era. He did manage, however, to transcend the epoch’s cliches through his unique poetic voice–but not without losing a wide audience in the process. The age of “Ahcid” simply could not contend with an authentic genius.
Beefheart’s old pal Frank Zappa, having been in advertising and marketing, could objectify the times and, as rock’s equivalent to Marshall McLuhan, could manipulate his audience via cryptic messages, often satirical.
Zappa’s first opus with his Mothers of Invention was Freak Out!, which was ugly, berserk, and very intellectual. The album defined an LA sensibility, embracing while lampooning the approaching banalities of the times (multi-media events, happenings, grope sessions, concept albums) that, in 1966, had not yet entered the pop mainstream.
The Mothers of Invention embodied the anarchic ritual of “freaking out,” a terms that still best describes the ridiculous poses of LA’s finest psychos: Kim Fowley’s tongue-tied trips, the Seeds’ flower power sham, Davie Allan and the Arrows’ fuzzy soundtracks for a string of films about the Hell’s Angels.
Originally signed by MGM as just another California folk-rock group (as described in “Trouble Every Day”), the Mothers–thanks to Zappa’s flair for hype and organization–denied God in rock ‘n’ roll, forcing listeners to re-evaluate their preconceptions.
On “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” (12 grotesque minutes of percussive cacophony and terrible noises from Godzilla’s churning bowels), the band destroyed the barriers between rock ‘n’ roll and all other musical forms. On Freak Out!, Zappa’s music delineated a challenge alive with infinite possibilities.
That Zappa and the Mothers could make a leap from their traditional LA R&B and doo-wop backgrounds to “Help, I’m a Rock” is exactly what psychedelic awareness was all about.
I’ve found that if you want to gather and reflect on your post-modern musings it’s always helpful to relax with either Safe As Milk or Freak Out!—whichever comes to mind first.
Get your daily dose of Beefheart and Zappa at the ever-reliable POPKRAZY.