Beginner’s Guide to Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart was the father of avant-garde music. At his peak in the underground music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was too weird even for the hippies. The man born Don Van Vliet would’ve been 79 today. For his birthday, give both Beefheart and yourself a gift by becoming a fan of his music.

It’s difficult to jump into the weird world of Captain Beefheart. He followed his early blues-inflected idiosyncratic releases with a slew of albums that remain legendary for their complicated and eccentric instrumentation before dabbling in his own version of commercial music later in his career until he stopped music altogether and retired into painting where he stayed until his death in 2010. His paintings and drawings were embraced instantly, unlike his albums, which took a while to grow into the cult classics they are today.

Even though his music never topped the charts, you can’t deny this man was a genius.

If you’re just starting your Captain Beefheart adventure, you might want to start easy. Beefheart himself calls his 1972 album The Spotlight Kid his “easy listening” album. This album has more of his melodic and catchy songs that are easier to tap your foot along to than his more conceptually ambitious earlier work. While the songs are relatively straightforward for Beefheart, they’re still weird enough to give you a taste of his unique creativity.

Captain Beefheart, “The Spotlight Kid”

After you get an idea of what Beefheart thinks is “easy listening,” go straight to his 1967 debut album Safe as Milk. Though all of his music has a blues twist to it, this album sounds the most influenced by the genre. It feels dark and gritty, with poetic lyrics sung by Beefheart’s scratchy baritone vocals. Safe as Milk sounded nothing like the music topping the charts in 1967, but it did get people to start noticing Captain Beefheart.

Captain Beefheart, “Sure ‘Nuff’n Yes I Do” live 1968

By now, you’re warmed up. You’re probably not ready for it yet, but nonetheless, we’re going straight to his most avant-garde album—I’ve been going too easy on you so far. You will either be completely obsessed with Trout Mask Replica or absolutely hate it. Either way, reserve judgment until you listen to it all the way through several times. Keep an open mind and focus on a different musical part each time. Though each track and bizarre vocals sound like everyone just winging it with no prior knowledge of what’s supposed to be going on, it blows your mind.

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, ‘Trout Mask Replica’

Produced by Beefheart’s childhood friend Frank Zappa, this album is a phenomenal work of art. He completely throws traditional rock ‘n’ roll songwriting rules out the window. It feels like a band pitched in battle with itself. You’d never believe they painstakingly rehearsed these songs and recorded the album in just hours.

If you’re still with me after Trout Mask Replica and digging Captain Beefheart, you get it. Honestly, you can probably take it from here. However, I will leave you with this Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart collab “Willie the Pimp” from Zappa’s 1969 album Hot Rats featuring Beefheart’s iconic raspy vocals and a mindblowing guitar solo by Zappa. With Beefheart’s conversational delivery, you could say it’s one of the first gangsta pimp rap songs—way before Biggie Smalls or Snoop Dogg made them popular.

Frank Zappa ft. Captain Beefheart, “Willie the Pimp”