The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back: The iconic & idiosyncratic Captain Beefheart

By on May 4, 2018

Captain Beefheart: Under Review — our latest addition to Night Flight’s excellent Under Review music documentary series, which you’ll find streaming over on Night Flight Plus — is an absorbing over-two hour examination of one of rock music’s most iconic and idiosyncratic artists.

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Captain Beefheart: Under Review (2006) is a mostly-chronological journey following each of the albums he released between 1966 until his last official album release in ’82, Ice Cream for Crow.

Beefheart — who rarely if perhaps never spoke publicly about his music after his retirement — died in 2010 of complications from multiple sclerosis.

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Captain Beefheart: Under Review features rare live and studio performances, rarely-seen promo films, interview footage, TV clips and lots of other great stuff.

As always, this Under Review doc features interviews with esteemed experts, including Alan Clayson (standing at a preacher’s pulpit in front of a stained glass window), Uncut UK editor Nigel Williamson, author Clinton Heylin, and Mike Barnes, who penned the excellent Captain Beefheart: The Biography.

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Many hilarious personal anecdotes are also provided by former members of Beefheart’s Magic Band, including:

John “Drumbo” French (interviewed in a tree, talking into a telephone), Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliot “Winged Eel Fingerling” Ingber, Ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary “Magic Marker” Marker, Eric Drew “Black Jew Kitabu” Feldman, Art “Ed Marimba”/”Ted Cactus” Tripp III, and Gary Lucas.

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The musicians all describe how Beefheart got the sounds he wanted from them by evoking terrifying scenarios, or doing odd things like preventing them from taking a piss in order to create the proper “tension” he wanted for a particular recording.

“Imagine yourself during the Civil War,” he told one of them, “and you’re a Yankee hiding in a cabin, holding a teddy bear, and you can hear the enemy’s footsteps in the leaves outside, coming to get you… now PLAY!”

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We learn about some of Beefheart’s biggest blues and jazz influences, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane, among others.

Beefheart often fed his band a steady diet of his influences as homework assignments if he thought they were still too mired in flowery hippie rock.

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Read more about Captain Beefheart: Under Review below.

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Captain Beefheart was born Don Glen Vliet in Glendale, CA, in 1941, to a gas station owner and his wife who had come from the Midwest.

Spurious stories about his childhood abound, but what seems certain is that his family moved from the L.A. area north to Lancaster, in the Mojave Desert, when he was thirteen.

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At Antelope Valley High, he befriended Frank Zappa, with whom he shared an interest in Chicago and Delta Blues and R&B music.

Beefheart and Zappa began playing music together in the Blackouts, and collaborated on pop song parodies.

They even wrote a screenplay together, Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, and he continued using the name thereafter (telling David Letterman it referred to a “beef in my heart against this society”).

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After some time apart, Beefheart later reconnected with Zappa to make more music in his recording studio in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

In 1965, when he was 24 years old, Beefheart joined local Lancaster-area blues and R&B guitarist Alex St. Clair Snouffer’s band, which eventually became Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band.

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After signing with A&M Records, they released two singles, including a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which became a minor hit (we’re treated here to a performance of it on the ’60s teen TV show “Where the Action Is”).

In ’66, when Beefheart submitted some of his band’s new demo recordings, they were dropped from the label (their new direction was deemed “too negative”).

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By year’s end, they were signed to Buddah Records, for whom they would record a spate of excellent albums, beginning in the spring of 1967.

After Beefheart had a panic attack onstage at a concert at Mt. Tamalpais, their scheduled appearance the Monterey Pop Festival was cancelled.

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On June 16, 1969, Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica — an epic two-LP “magnum opus,” comprised of blues, avant-garde, experimental sound recordings (including one of our personal favorites, “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back”) and straight-up R&B-influenced rock ‘n’ roll — was released on Frank Zappa’s newly-formed Straight Records label.

A few months later, Beefheart turned down another chance to appear at another big music festival, Woodstock, which would have been the perfect opportunity to perform songs from his then-new album (they only played songs from it in concert once, but the show was not recorded).

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In 1974, four of the Magic Band members split to form Mallard, and from then on, Beefheart used a variety of musicians, many of them leaving after a period of exposure to his zany studio antics and erratic onstage behavior.

Beefheart released no new recordings between 1975-1977, and in 1978 his awesome “Hard Workin’ Man” became the main title to the Richard Pryor film Blue Collar.

That same year, Beefheart released Shiny Beat (Bat Chain Puller), followed in 1980 by Doc at the Radar Station. He also made several appearances on nationally-televised TV shows, including Saturday Night Live.”

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Beefheart’s decided to go into relative seclusion after his 1982 album Ice Cream for Crow, devoting himself thereafter to his abstract expressionist paintings, which were exhibited in galleries in New York, the UK & Europe.

Today, Beefheart’s music continues to be hugely influential and in the last decade alone his songs have been covered by artists like the Black Keys, Sonic Youth, the White Stripes and many others.

Watch Captain Beefheart: Under Review on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.