Why is Captain Beefheart so good?
January 26, 2006 12:26 AM   Subscribe

Why is Captain Beefheart so good?

Really, I've got a half-dozen of his albumns and it gives me chills thinking about what they do to me. How does he do it? I have a pretty good idea why I love my other favourite artists, but beefheart seems anomalous and inexplicable to me. I'm interested in any kind of answer, for example music theory (though I am not a musican), word play, mood, vocal range etc.
posted by MetaMonkey to Media & Arts (24 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: "what's the deal with x?" questions aren't a good use of ask mefi

Response by poster: (on reflection, perhaps the question should read: Why is Captain Beffheart's music so good?)
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:29 AM on January 26, 2006

Diddy wah diddy.

The answer is simply because he is. No need to get too deep into it.

But if you must, I'd say a lot of it had to do with him totally shirking all convention during his time.
posted by Brittanie at 12:47 AM on January 26, 2006

His musical fearlessness helped.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:26 AM on January 26, 2006

"Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band features electric rock instrumentation, extensive vamping, and chromatic harmonic structure thru composed melodic style."

Check out Pandora and the Music Genome Project to shed some light on the styles of your favorite bands, hear their songs, and see who else lines right up that alley. (Previously a FPP, recently, methinks.)
posted by disillusioned at 1:31 AM on January 26, 2006

Isn't this just the opposite of the much harangued "why are U2 so crap"? question?

The answer, surely, is that to you Captain Beefheart is so good because you like Captain Beefheart. Other people may or may not agree with you.

Please don't use Ask.Me to validate your tastes.
posted by benzo8 at 1:35 AM on January 26, 2006

Isn't this just the opposite of the much harangued "why are U2 so crap"? question?

It is. Flagged.
posted by fixedgear at 2:18 AM on January 26, 2006

Captain Beefheart is so good because the things he does with music are exactly the same as the things you want people to do with music. I've wondered, too, why there are times when the only satisfying thing in the world is to listen to Trout Mask Replica, and I understand where you're question's coming from, but I really don't think it's one that can be answered in definitive terms.
In short, what benzo8 said (though maybe in not so stern a tone).
posted by bunglin jones at 2:19 AM on January 26, 2006

Response by poster: Seems to be some hostility to the question, which surprises me.

Isn't this just the opposite of the much harangued "why are U2 so crap"? question? Please don't use Ask.Me to validate your tastes.

I don't think this is the opposite of 'why are U2 so crap' (which could be answered fairly easily IMHO). It is like asking why the mind is pleased by a sunset, or why defacting can be pleasurable: both valid questions regarding human psychology. In this vein, Beefheart's music does strange and magical things to my consciousness, and I'm curious if anyone has any kind of explanation why.

I certainly don't need my taste verified, I'm damn sure Beefheart is the shit.
posted by MetaMonkey at 2:20 AM on January 26, 2006

I don't get the hostility either (and which doesn't belong here -- Metatalk it if you're so concerned). MetaMonkey is asking for someone with a deep understanding of music in general and Van Vliet's music in particular to analyze what makes it so unique. There's a lot more to be gained from this:

I'm interested in any kind of answer, for example music theory (though I am not a musican), word play, mood, vocal range etc.

than from a simple statement of opinion lightly glazed by a question like "Why are U2 so crap?"

Mr. Monkey, I've been thinking about your question for a long damn time and the essay I linked doesn't answer it either, but it provides some good insights and interesting facts. (Eg, he wrote Trout Mask Replica in 8 1/2 hours. I don't know what that means except that I think he's a brother from another planet.) The other essays and biographies I've read are much the same, for better or worse. I wish I could be more helpful. Post an e-mail in your profile or write to mine in case this question gets deleted because I might have a better answer for you after I've spoken with my husband, whose read more on Van Vliet than I have.
posted by melissa may at 3:48 AM on January 26, 2006

Someone with "a deep understanding of music in general" is going to be someone who understands why this question has no answer at best, and is fruitless at worst. I am a composer and songwriter by trade. I make a pretty good living out of it. But I understand that what one person likes, another doesn't and neither knows why. Believe me, if I did, I'd be much more wealthy than I am!

There is nothing special in Beefheart's music that a non-fan will see and there is nothing less than magical in it that a fan won't - that is the way of taste. You could ask this question of any artist and receive clutching-at-straws answers from fans and (at best) puzzeldness from non-fans - and this is why this question has no place in Ask.Me - it's chatfilter, and chatfilter about "my favourite band" which almost always degenerates into "your favourite band sucks".

You like Beefheart because you like Beefheart. There are possibly more concrete reasons - you like the sound instruments he uses over other instruments; the compositional cadences resonate with you (but no-one really knows why - or if they do, they ain't tell me!); his lyrics amuse you. Whatever.

Oh, and writing a song you like in 8 1/2 hours doesn't make one a genius - it's a moment of inspiration which comes to us all once in a while - some know how to use it and some don't...
posted by benzo8 at 3:55 AM on January 26, 2006

Trout Mask Replica is a record consisting of 28 incredibly dense and complex songs. Maybe you should listen to it. It won't make you incredibly wealthy or anything -- it didn't make Van Vliet so, god knows -- but you might gain something from it.

And if you were to go further and say attempt to analyze how those songs were created -- what they are doing musically and lyrically, perhaps along with any of the rest of Captain Beefheart's work -- you could then possibly post some helpful thoughts to aid MetaMonkey. Until then, MetaTalk is the friend you are looking for.
posted by melissa may at 4:16 AM on January 26, 2006

Response by poster: please take discussion to MeTa
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:33 AM on January 26, 2006

Response by poster: For those confused or off-put with the question, here is a reconsidered version to better reflect my intentions:

Why does Captain Beefheart's music affect my consciousness so dramatically and profoundly?

the original [more inside] is still valid.

I am still very interested in any responses or links concerning music theory, language, rhythm, sound qualities and so forth.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:43 AM on January 26, 2006

MetaMonkey, this band's use of the chromatic scale is unusual for a pop group, I think. Perhaps that's one element that draws you to them?
posted by waldo at 6:45 AM on January 26, 2006

Best answer: Beefheart is not as naive about music theory and history as he sometimes projects, he was well aware of many forms of obscure world and contemporary classical music.

And his techniques are not all ineffable matters of taste, he developed and repeatedly used specific "tricks" to get his effects.

For instance, his tendency to have the last note of repeated melody modules jump up in a leaping interval, often to an alternating note, creates a kind of quirky mechanical jig.

He composed quite deliberately to portray his formidable visual imagination and often achieves the same trippy Breugal-esque animism in both his music and his lyrics.

His band mates were sometimes distressed by his tendency to lay over those blasting horns and vocals, which can remind me of an intricate and perfectly rendered painting that has wild graffiti spray painted on top of it. But that could work in a painting, even if it distresses the guys who labored mightily on the underpainting.

Many of his compositions would hold up quite well transposed for string quartet.

Another big factor was his charismatic and messianic personality that allowed him to attract some of the worlds best musicians who committed to unholy amounts of study and practice to learn his pieces.

His music has repetitive elements, but it is mostly through-composed, meaning it just keeps disclaiming all the way, so playing it must be not unlike memorizing long passages of Homer.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:07 AM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

We can blame Julian Schnabel for convincing him to stop making music, because Schnabel felt it was distracting from his paintings being taken seriously.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:12 AM on January 26, 2006

I think StickyCarpet's answer is excellent; I'd add that a major factor is Beefheart's affinity for forms of music that hadn't had much influence on rock, like free jazz; the wider you spread your net, the better a chance you have of developing a unique sound that will attract people who have become bored with standard-issue genre music. (And if the Schnabel story is true, fuck Julian Schnabel; it really pisses me off that the Captain stopped making music.)

Also, this is a perfectly good AskMe question, far better than many I see go un-bitched-about. I refer you to melissa may's spot-on response.
posted by languagehat at 7:22 AM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

From Melissa May's link: Motivated by his intense love of nature and animals, he sculpted virtually every creature of land, sea or air with a passion which often kept him locked in his room for weeks at a time, his parents sliding food under his door.

This, along with many other specifics of his self-created myth, has been acknowledged as false. He would just make up all kinds of crazy stuff during interviews and then laugh when it got reprinted in some fanzine, and then watch as it got accepted into the canon.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:44 AM on January 26, 2006

Best answer: I'm late, yes, so i seemed to have missed the hub bub, but I would reiterate what sticky carpet, melissa may, and languagehat have said, especially languagehat with the free jazz comment. The Captain used an intense understanding of the scope of musical history, especially the blues, and added the one thing that few people were doing at the time with rock music and that's the idea that music should break out from a 4/4 beat, the "mother's heartbeat" as he called it, and use weird chords, word play, 9/8 time signatures into 5/4, and flat out noise if you have to in order to break away from that heartbeat and wake the listener up from slumber.

The story of him writing all of Trout Mask in 8 1/2 hours is more than likely true and not merely a piece of the legend, but he forced the band to live under cult-like conditions for about a year and practice the entire album over and over and over and over so that when they finally did go into the studio with Frank Zappa (who reportedly fell asleep during the session) I believe they were able to record most of the 28 tracks in one take and I believe they finished it in a few days. They also used "crazy" studio techniques like cardboard on the drums, Don singing the lyrics while unable to really hear play back, calling in weird monologues ("the blimp, the blimp"). I love Van Vliet, but I really think that people like John "Drumbo" French and others who took Van Vliet's ideas that were pounded out on a piano and created parts for the rest of the band to learn. But yes, Don had something that made these guys stick around, whether it was strange head games or sheer charisma.

All that to say that during even his most inane periods (Unconditionally Guaranteed anyone?), Van Vliet and his band were able to pull off music that straddled rock and the world of the avant garde composer. I'm at work so I can't look for it, but you can find some footage of the band doing "Click Clack" somewhere in France (I think) from '72 on youtube, and man, that just flat out rocks. So, for me, that's the main thing about his music: you can sit around and intellectualize the music all you want but when it comes down to it, you are most definitely able to just forget about it and shake your ass--or whatever body part you like to shake.

Oh, as for Schnabel, it's true he told Don it would be better to be an artist that used to be a musician, but I believe that Don had probably had enough of fighting the music business by Ice Cream for Crow that he went easily. Don was a child prodigy in art, after all, and had the chance to study in France as a child, but his parents wouldn't allow him to go (if you believe the story--and consequnetly that's the other beautiful part about the Captain, the mythology)

That's the end of my ramble.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:26 AM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

whoops, it should say that John French and others should get a lot of respect for their help in the band's sound. Sorry.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:33 AM on January 26, 2006

It's a legitimate question, I think. I mean, Captain Beefheart is pretty polarizing, no? Most people I've played his stuff for end up running away screaming :)

But there are some good answers here already about the mechanics of it all. For me, I find that it has that same sort of haunting looseness of really good Delta or "country" blues, and the fact that all those songs were heavily drilled and rehearsed to sound like that, even though they seem as offhand as, say, anything the Wiggin sisters did. That trips me out in a very entertaining way.
posted by First Post at 9:33 AM on January 26, 2006

Anyone interested in how Trout Mask Replica was made should read Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo)'s book Lunar Notes, which verifies a lot of the stuff sleepy pete said.

What speaks to me in Beefheart's music is a fearless combination of total out-there avant-gardeness and the primordial simplicity and heart-grabbingness of the blues in a way that seems completely natural, as opposed a lot of high/low-culture-mixing experiments.

And that voice.
posted by dfan at 9:33 AM on January 26, 2006

I searched for the video sleepy pete mentioned. I think this is it.
posted by Songdog at 9:49 AM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

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