Singer, songwriter, musician, artist, poet and all-around weirdo Don Van Vliet came up with his Captain Beefheart persona around 1964. Within a year, he had his first – and only – (minor) hit with a garage-rock cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy." Things only got weirder from there. Starting in 1967 with his debut album, Safe As Milk, Captain Beefheart – with his Magic Band, and with occasional help from pal Frank Zappa – released a dozen albums over the next 15 years, some classics (Trout Mask Replica), some barely heard (Bluejeans & Moonbeams). Van Vliet retired from music after 1982's excellent Ice Cream for Crow, focusing on his paintings until his death in 2010. But he left us some of the 20th Century's weirdest and most adventurous music. Start with our list of the Top 10 Captain Beefheart Songs, and then make your way to his wonderful, bizarre albums.
'Big Eyed Beans From Venus'From 'Clear Spot' (1972)
Even though Trout Mask Replica qualifies as one of the oddest masterpieces unleashed on music fans in the late-'60s (see Nos. 8 and 3 on our list of the Top 10 Captain Beefheart Songs), by the first part of the '70s Beefheart was itching for a hit record. So he enlisted Ted Templeman (best known for working with the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison and, later, Van Halen and Aerosmith) to produce his seventh album and ended up with a tighter, but no less free-falling, record. It barely cracked the Top 200, stalling at No. 191. No surprise: Songs like "Big Eyed Beans From Venus" sound nothing at all like what was selling in 1972.
'Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones'From 'Strictly Personal' (1968)
Captain Beefheart's second album is a definite product of its time, filled with backward sound effects, super-deep phasing and, like friend Frank Zappa's records from the '60s, skewering references to cultural and political headline makers. The grooveless "Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones" swerves all over the place until it crashes into the guts of 1968's two musical giants.
'Moonlight on Vermont'From 'Trout Mask Replica' (1969)
Beefheart's third album is his undisputed classic (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Captain Beefheart Songs). His longtime friend Frank Zappa produced the double album, instilling its songs – many of which run less than two minutes – with a sense of in-control recklessness. "Moonlight on Vermont," a swampy blues, turns it up to 11 and dusts it all with distortion, feedback and high-dive intensity.
'Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles'From 'Clear Spot' (1972)
Clear Spot didn't give Van Vliet the mainstream breakthrough he was hoping for (see No. 10 on our list of the Top 10 Captain Beefheart Songs). But thanks to producer Ted Templeman, it's one of his cleanest-sounding LPs. Still, the bluesy "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" – which later ended up on the soundtrack to the 1998 cult movie The Big Lebowski – hints that sandpaper or some other abrasive scouring device may have been used at some point during the recording process.
'Lick My Decals Off, Baby'From 'Lick My Decals Off, Baby'
Beefheart's follow-up to his masterwork Trout Mask Replica streamlines its predecessor's dusty space trips while sharpening the musical complexity. Frank Zappa didn't produce this time, but the LP was released on his record label. Lick My Decals Off, Baby was Van Vliet's favorite Beefheart album, and the title track is the highlight.
'Electricity'From 'Safe As Milk' (1967)
When Captain Beefheart's debut album was released in 1967, its offbeat blues howls and psychedelic shadings were dismissed as period indulgences. Who could have known that Van Vliet and his Magic Band were holding back? Safe As Milk remains one of the group's most accessible albums. "Electricity" is a mere taste of things to come.
'Diddy Wah Diddy'From: 1965 single
Even Captain Beefheart and the Magic Bnad's most conventional song sounds little like anything else from the era. Their 1965 debut single, a cover of a Bo Diddley song from 1956, turned the R&B legend's modest rock 'n' roll shuffle into a fuzzy blues-soaked garage stomp. Bizarre side note: "Diddy Wah Diddy" was produced by David Gates, who would later lead soft-rock giants Bread in the '70s.
'My Human Gets Me Blues'From 'Trout Mask Replica' (1969)
Falling somewhere between beat poetry and a surreal hybrid of free-form jazz and delta blues, "My Human Gets Me Blues" constantly shifts time signatures, lyrical meaning and vocal tone – all in less than three minutes. It's the best song on Beefheart's best album – a precursor to all shades of '80s and '90s art and indie rock.
'Ice Cream for Crow'From 'Ice Cream for Crow' (1982)
Beefheart's last album was one of his best, a funny, difficult and musically adventurous record that's as rooted in the distorted blues of his '60s material as it is in the more organic side of contemporary post-punk. The title track was released as a single and a video was made and submitted to MTV for airplay. They refused to show it.
'Ashtray Heart'From 'Doc at the Radar Station' (1980)
After several years of inactivity and uninspired records, Captain Beefheart returned at the start of the '80s with one of his best albums. Some of the material had been kicking around inside Van Vliet's head for years. No matter: Doc at the Radar Station sounds great. "Ashtray Heart" wraps 15 years of Beefheart-ian weirdness into three and a half minutes of tape loops, beat poetry, bluesy riffs, a jazz combo's impeccable timing and a vocal tic that Tom Waits would adapt within a couple of years. Totally wild and awesome.