When the man born Don Van Vliet died on December 17, he left behind a body of highly original rock and roll that mixed free-jazz with the blues and influenced everyone from PJ Harvey to the Black Keys. Here are 10 Beefheart songs you ought to know.
“Diddy Wah Diddy” (single, 1966)
The Captain’s debut single takes Bo Diddley’s strolling 1956 Willie Dixon cover and attaches battery cables to its nipples. A snarling bassline, mean harmonica, and Van Vliet’s menacing growl – with a harpsichord tossed into the mix, just to show there was more here than mere blues revivalism.
“Electricity” (Safe As Milk, 1967)
The intro sounds like the Summer of Love, but then Beefheart comes in like a bad trip, his voice between Howlin’ Wolf and a cartoon witch-cackle. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old Ry Cooder leads off a slide guitar boogie that yanks the whole thing from California back to the Mississippi Delta. Later covered by Sonic Youth.
“Beatle Bones ‘N Smokin’ Stones” (Strictly Personal, 1968)
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were reportedly Beefheart fans. But that didn’t deter Van Vliet from tweaking the Beatles on this psychedelic blues incantation. “Strawberry fields/Long winged eels/Slither,” he warbles, with evident doubts about flower power.
“Moonlight On Vermont” (Trout Mask Replica, 1969)
With a reconstituted band and free creative reign from childhood pal-turned-label chief Frank Zappa, Beefheart’s electric blues go abstract expressionist, and his verbal collages get denser: “Vermont” quotes both the 19th-century spiritual “Old-Time Religion” and experimental composer Steve Reich’s 1966 piece Come Out – while tossing in Beefheart’s own bent poetry.
“My Human Gets Me Blues” (Trout Mask Replica, 1969)
Beefheart’s band shows its full freaky magic: The guitarists stalk off at cross-purposes like free-jazzers on opposite sides of town and the rhythm section pounds like it’s tripping over itself. Then it somehow all comes together while Van Vliet ponders God and macks on some girl in an “X-ray gingham dress.”
“Lick My Decals Off Baby” (Lick My Decals Off Baby, 1970)
One of the lewdest songs ever recorded – its lurching rhythms seem to mimic hormonal outbursts – is also as self-conscious about sexual psychosis as a Kanye West jam. “It’s about the birds and the bees/And where it all went wrong,” concedes Van Vliet over a clattering, caffeinated drum groove. Sheer nastiness.
“Big Eyed Beans From Venus” (Clear Spot, 1972)
“Distant cousins/there’s a limited supply,” announces the singer, ostensibly talking to alien life forms. The guitar interplay here is dazzling, with the Captain egging on Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad: “Hit that long lunar note, and let it float!”
“Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” (Clear Spot, 1972)
A surprisingly straight-forward soul-man moment, with acoustic guitar and sleigh bells. “I can’t see what she sees in a man like me,” Van Vliet blurts out between reveries, whose wild-wavering pitch just makes them more poignant. Later covered by the Black Keys.
“Tropical Hot Dog Night,” (Shiny Beast [Bat Chain Puller], 1978)
A skewed mambo with Bruce Fowler’s slide trombone taking over from the usual slide guitars, this is Beefheart at his most accessible – although the double-entendre lyrics are not quite family entertainment. “I’m playin’ this song/For all the young girls to come out to meet the monster tonight.” From an album that changed PJ Harvey’s life.
“Ashtray Heart” (Doc At The Radar Station, 1980)
“Open up another case of the punks,” wheezes Van Vliet like a madman with emphysema. A new school of musicians, many inspired by Beefheart, were taking rock’s reins. But pushing 40, the Captain sounded as vicious as any of them, and like no one but himself. Later covered by the White Stripes.