Captain Beefheart: Five Essential Albums

Captain-Beefheart-colorImage Credit: Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images Rock music lost one of its most legendary stars today with the death of Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet), who passed away at the age of 69 of complications from multiple sclerosis. Below you’ll find a list of what, in our opinion, are the top five Beefheart albums. Whether you’re a Captain lover or virgin, please do check them out on this sad day.

Safe As Milk (1967)
The Captain’s first proper album — which featured assistance from guitarist Ry Cooder — is also one of his most accessible, with a clutch of relatively catchy rock tracks like “Zig Zag Wanderer.” Elsewhere, songs such as “Electricity ” give some warning of the musical mayhem to come.

Trout Mask Replica (1969)
This double set is easily most Beefheart’s famous album and probably his best—an astonishing, influential onslaught of avant-garde blues that still reveals fresh lunatic nuances on the umpteenth listen. The album was also the favorite long player of British DJ legend John Peel, who once said of Beefheart’s magnum opus that “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.” According to one of the many legends that swirl around the making of Trout Mask Replica, while Beefheart was rehearsing for the album at his house with backing group the Magic Band, he asked his record company to pay for a tree surgeon to calm surrounding growths, so that they wouldn’t fall over in terror.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970)
His self-produced follow-up to Trout Mask Replica is in the same fantastically demented vein as its predecessor — critic Robert Christgau once described it, not incorrectly, as “repulsive and engrossing and slapstick funny” — and tends to be the Beefheart snob’s album of choice due to its currently-unavailable-on-CD  status.

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
Beefheart returned in style after a four-year hiatus (and a couple of missteps with 1974’s Bluejeans & Moonbeams and the same year’s Unconditionally Guaranteed) with this gloriously off-kilter collection that showed he had lost none of his way with a beguilingly whacked out lyric: “Tropical hot dog night/Like two flamingos in a fruit fight!”

Ice Cream For Crow (1982)
Ice Cream for Crow was the last album Beefheart recorded before retiring from music to concentrate on painting, which seems a shame given the quality of the work on display. The title track in particular is a naggingly catchy blues romp — though its accompanying video was apparently rejected by MTV for being too uncommercial.

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  • 13points

    Good choice of songs. Snob or not, Decals is his best album. RIP Captain.

  • Rj Jolay

    This cat was SO FAR AHEAD of us… maybe 20 years ahead !! True genius !! I’ll / the world will miss him !

  • CraigCo

    He had a voice that could scratch glass. He will be missed

  • Gunther

    I heard years ago Don was ill. Photos confirmed it. His music defies catagory! But so endearing, humorous, madcap, zany but dead on. I love this man and all those who brought to life his music. One piece omitted here is “The Blimp” found on the compilation album “Zapped.”

    • dc

      “The Blimp” is on “Trout Mask…”, unless you mean a different version. Capt. called his vocal in from a phone booth, while the band played and Zappa produced in the studio. At the end, Capt. says “Didja get that?”. and Zap chuckles and says “Oh yeah, we got it.”

      • sbilts

        The vocals were done by Jeff Cotton and the music was a partially recorded track that Zappa was working on that was performed by the Mothers.

  • Gary Gomes

    I think “Decals” is the best as well. This is a good list; I would have chosen “Doc at the Radar Station over “Ice Cream for Crow”, but everything here is among his best.

  • BabyGorilla

    O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done. Listening to his music changed my life and it will always live inside my heart. Rest in peace my beloved hero.

  • Linda

    I was fortunate to be turned on to the Captain in the late 60’s on KZAP radio. Trout Mask Replica is a great album! The mothership! The mothership! The blimp! RIP….

  • Dave Clayden

    I met him twice. In the 70s when hew as managed by some low level mafioso (so I was told) and he will always be special.

  • rzzzzz

    now that he’s passed away i hope that Gail or somebody has the legal power to release not only the brilliant decals, but the original version of bat chain puller, which rivals his two other masterworks. (also a vote here for strictly personal, warts and all.)

    • pommy stev

      I agree about a strictly personal vote and also mirrorman, both of which haven’t been mentioned much. When I think about the influence he’s had on me in so many ways regarding attitude to life and music its like losing a best friend who I’ve known for 40 years. My hero is dead.
      It’s lovely to see so many people, young and old, expressing similar feelings.
      My condolences to all of you that loved him. His words, music and paintings will never die.
      That is something to celebrate maybe

      • Brian Coggins

        Nice one! Couldn’t have put it better myself. Ah feel like ahcid!

      • Gary Gomes

        Mirror Man IS a great album!

  • Dr. Tokenkoff

    R.I.P. Genius. You will be missed.

    • John mckevitt

      Beefy made your mind dance!!! he was so different. Never quite got trout mass.

  • Ted

    [[Rock music lost one of its most legendary stars today with the death of Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet)]]

    Today is Opposite Day, so “legendary” means “someone you’ve never heard of before today.”

    • BabyGorilla

      Drop dead Ted

    • Waywrdchld

      I feel very sorry for you. Not because you have never heard of him but because you lack the curiosity to discover.

    • Bobby Dee

      Sounds like you don’t know anything about rock ‘n’ roll.

    • ks

      go listen to his stuff-AWESOME.
      I feel bad for you

    • pommy stev

      what a fool you are

    • Marko

      It’s a real shame you don’t know his music. you must be real boring!

    • Castille

      Either you are too young or you spent those days mainly listening to Grand Funk Railroad.

    • MrNiceGuy

      Go back to your Lady Gag Gag and Beiber heaven to continue rotting.

    • citizenterryk

      CLEAN YOUR ROOM!!!!!

    • Iceman

      I was going to look more into this guy Captain Beefheart, but then Ted said he’d never heard of him… so he must not be worth a damn. Thanks, Ted, for saving me the time.

  • TryWait

    No mention of Clear Spot? Shame! You clearly did not live these records…

    • dan

      Really! I forgot to add ‘Clear Spot’. Add that one too.

      • pommy stev

        agree.Actually apart from the 2 albums we wont mention, everything was brilliant in its own way

    • beth williams

      No one has mentioned his love songs. For me My Head is my Only House unless it rainsis one of the most moving love songs ever written

      • citizenterryk

        and of course, we musn’t forget Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles!!….

  • eric

    the captain and frank zappa extremly unique he will be missed
    we still need to trip out but diffrently these days

    • dan

      I’ve heard some good new bands over the past 20 years, but the days of genuine experimental genius is gone. I’m being objective about this.
      Even in serious composition, when the Dean of American composers was interviewed in Vancouver some 20 years ago, he was asked him about ‘new’ composers, I almost fell off the chair.

      “Well, I’m very impressed by the work of Frank Zappa.”

      They don’t make them anymore. Everything seems to come out of pre-fabbing genre-machines: hip hop, goth, industrial, Gaga. Pre-packaged and commodified.

      • dan

        ‘dean of American Composers': Aaron Copeland. Forgot to give the name.

      • erin

        Or you’ve gotten older and don’t know the newer stuff out of the mainstream. Try on some Amon Tobin, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, etc., etc. Experimental Rock and Electronic Music are as alive as ever, you just need to use this internet thing you’re on to search it out instead of occasionally listening to current mainstream radio and expecting to hear it there.

      • Stradivarious

        Aaron had his works premiered by the new York philharmonic… The inside joke in house was “ah … I see Aaron has come up with another title”… See I think Aaron was a bit jealous of the above named “cats” originality.

    • pommy steve

      The captain said LSD was an overrated asprin

  • eric

    i almost didnt make those days late 60s early 70s
    that was poetry raw

  • John Bee

    a true brave pioneer (we sure need one today) – now he knows “that the stars up above [really] are running on love”…

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