JOHN PEEL, HIS PRODUCER SOULMATE & THE MAD CAPTAIN
By Kris Needs
The tragic death of John Peel remains one of the biggest losses to music of all time. As the days & months pass the hole he left just seems to become even bigger. Much has been rightly poured out in tribute to the man already, whilst the predictable deluge of books (which only seem to trot out an extended version of the obituaries carried in the papers) started within weeks of his death.
Within the obituaries and gushings about ‘Teenage Kicks’, two names continued to pop up as major factors in Peel’s life: Captain Beefheart and John Walters. Younger readers probably scratched their heads and imagined Captain Beefheart were another exotically-named band from up North of the kind John liked to splatter his show with. Some may never even have heard of John Walters, Peel’s producer for many years.
Both deserve more than that. Indeed, tributes of their own. Captain Beefheart (who is still alive but terminally ill), because he made some of the most amazing music ever unleashed from a human soul. Walters, because he was such an essential ingredient in bringing Peel’s magic out on his show and turned the pair of them into a kind of musical Morecambe & Wise. Unsurprisingly, he was also a thoroughly good bloke too, impossibly hilarious company. Many mourned when he too died of a heart attack at the age of 63 on July 31st 2001.
I had the good fortune of being familiar with, and meeting, both of these legends. Beefheart, because Peel turned me on to his music at the age of 12, and Walters, because he wrote for the magazine I was editing (to the extent where I considered him a mate). So, rather than regurgitate the usual praises about Peel, I’m going to try and show why these two figures loomed so large in his life. Peel himself, who is probably curling with embarrassment at the reams of praise being thrown in his direction, would hopefully be a bit chuffed. So, here’s my tribute to not one but three giants among men.
PART ONE - THE MAD CAPTAIN
‘When I get lonsesome the wind begin t’ moan
Fallin’ ditch ain’t gonna get my bones’
Captain Beefheart - ‘Fallin’ Ditch’ - 1969
The Mad Captain, that’s what Peel liked to call Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, purveyor of some of the most startling experiments ever conducted in the name of music. Beefheart was one of Peel’s all-time heroes, while Joe Strummer, Topper Headon and John Lydon also professed an early admiration for the Captain. Many call him one of the greatest white blues singers that ever stalked this or any other planet. His music was visionary, surreal and way beyond even the psychedelic blueprints of the already wildly-experimental late 60s. His stream-of-consciousness lyrics seemingly used complete nonsense to make points with often hilarious, head-scratching panache. The voice spanned several octaves delivered with the force of a grizzly bear on heat and the Delta voodoo caterwaul of Howlin’ Wolf. Beefheart painstakingly and strictly directed his bands with the arrangements he heard in his head, although it still managed to sound like it was made up as they went along. And he said he never took drugs.
Don Van Vliet was born in Glendale, California, on January 15, 1941. When he was three he knocked his mother over onto a heater which branded her arse with an ‘H’ that stayed with her for life. “You know, I really did not go to school, ever,” he told NME in ‘86. “I educated myself by osmosis and by knowing that you can’t defy gravity. And also by remembering that the thing that makes a person wise is to have an open mind and stay aware of the fact that that it’s impossible to shut it. I knew when I was two-years-old that there’s no stability. It’s always been one earthquake after another.”
While attending Lancaster High School, Don befriended a teenaged Frank Zappa, who went on to produce and score low budget movies. In the early 60s the pair hatched plans to form a band called the Soots and make a film called Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People. Nothing came of this so Zappa went on to form the Mothers Of Invention while the newly-christened Captain Beefheart went back to Lancaster to round up a band of ‘desert musicians’. The Magic Band came into being in early ‘64 and lined up as later stalwarts Alex St Clair (guitar) and Jerry Handley (bass), plus Doug Moon (guitar) and Paul Blakeley (drums). They started playing R&B at teen dances. In ‘65, they signed a singles deal with A&M Records, which resulted in the first single in ‘66. ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ was a cover of a Bo Diddley song and an intriguing Californian take on the UK’s Stones-prodded R&B boom - which itself had been derived from artists like Beefheart’s main inspiration, Howlin’ Wolf. Then came ‘Moonchild’, which gave a gravely hint of the psychedelic blues monster about to erupt. Both singles failed to chart, letting Beefheart loose in a music business he would come to despise and eventually evacuate. In ‘65, he started recording an album which A&M would never entertain releasing but the following year Karma Sutra Records would ‘Safe As Milk’.
Without John Peel this album would never have seen a UK release. He started plugging it on his Perfumed Garden show and from the minute he started on Radio One. Peel had first encountered the Captain when he was DJ-ing in San Bernadino, California, in the mid-sixties. This was during the period when John found gainful employment on US radio stations via his mate-of-the-Beatles Liverpool accent between ‘64 and ‘67. Sometime in ‘66, Peel was invited to a Beefheart gig at LA’s Whiskey A-Go-Go by the record company, who were about to release Safe As Milk. This turned out to be Peel’s rock’n’roll epiphany. “It was like hearing Elvis for the first time,” he said in an interview with Saga magazine shortly before his death. “I reeled out into the Hollywood night knowing that nothing would ever be the same again.”
‘Safe As Milk’ could be considered tame when held up to the Captain’s later works - but in ‘66 nothing came close. The opening ‘Sure ‘Nuff ‘N’ Yes I Do’ established the ramshackle Delta-slide Magic Band boogie blueprint with the Captain injecting riveting vocal acrobatics into his bottomless howl. Some tracks followed the psychedelic rock blueprint but were always elevated by that voice, whereas tracks like ‘Dropout Boogie’, ‘Abba Zabba’ and ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ - from whence came the title of the magazine I used to edit in the 70s - cooked up a steamy, hallucinogenic blues mutant form with spidery space-guitars to the fore - some courtesy of a young Ry Cooder. The album went out on impassioned drama-ballad ‘Autumn’s Child’. By this time you knew you’d experienced something quite remarkable.
Peel carried on his Beefheart crusade until Radio London was shut down under the Marine Offences Bill on the dreadful afternoon of August 15, 1967. All the pirates, which broadcast from ships battling the elements in the North Sea, came under the government’s knife, with Radio London and Caroline the most sadly missed. Many of the DJs went to the government’s predictably-sanitised answer to the pirates - Radio One - which started broadcasting in late September ‘67. The station made few condescensions to the hipper listener who didn’t want to be force-fed the top ten bluesman Mike Raven and John Peel, who would obviously get his late night show, but made his Radio One debut on a Sunday afternoon! October the 1st, to be precise. This was the first time you could hear Peel legally - not only in Government terms - but also at a time when your parents weren’t gonna come in and tell you to shut that thing off and go to sleep.
Top Gear was the first programme Peel hosted on Radio One, while at the same time hosting his traditional night time show. It was a bizarre piece of scheduling. Three hours of Peel starting when most families were finishing off their Sunday lunch and preparing to doze off with the newspapers. When I’d managed to pick up the Perfumed Garden show - doing the old hiding-under-the-bedclothes-with-a-tranny- radio routine - it had been late at night. Now he was in the slot previously reserved for the likes of Family Favourites. It was obvious from the first Top Gear that Peel had no intentions of diluting the underground content of his shows for Sunday afternoon snoozability.
I can still remember that afternoon when Peel was halfway through his first Top Gear. “I’d like to play you something by the wondrous Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band,” he announced before an unearthly beautiful noise unlike anything I’d ever heard kicked off a stuttering roller-coaster of exotic poly-rhythms and atonal counter-riffing. Then came the voice, that powerhouse roar like Howlin’ Wolf beaming in from Mars. As Beefheart intoned and strangled the song’s title, ‘Electricity’, the Magic Band navigated a twisted path of slide guitar gymnastics, wailing Theremins and stuttered funk drumming. It was indeed wondrous and certainly magic. From that moment, I would follow every move of this Captain Beefheart, marvelling at every jaw-dropping turn. John Peel had struck again.
In those days the BBC were ruled by the dreaded ‘needle time’, which meant that they could only play records for a limited amount of time. The rest of it had to be made up of pre-recorded sessions. This dated back to the dance band days and had something to do with the Musicians Union or some such archaic bollocks. Thus was born that legendary beast, the Peel Session, which turned into as big an attraction as the tunes.
Little old train-spotter me wrote down who was on each Peel session for the first year. Some 13-year-olds did it with railway trains or football teams. I wrote down the name of every record I heard on John Peel. Which is how I can tell you that the line up for his first Radio One show was Pink Floyd, Tomorrow, Brummy punks The Move, blues singer Big Maybelle, Stevie Winwood’s new band, Traffic, and under-rated American troubadour Tim Rose. The February 4th show saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience joined by Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, who Peel would often join onstage to read children’s stories...plus Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, who were making their first visit to the UK.
During that ‘68 UK visit, Peel acted as the Captain’s tour guide, driver and all-round publicity machine as they played gigs at underground clubs and puzzled college audiences in the Midlands. There’s the famous story when Beefheart demanded that Peel stop the car because he wanted to hug a tree. Peel duly stopped the car, pondering whether the Captain was using Californian rhyming slang for needing a piss. “I thought, he’s a far greater man than I, so I’ll do whatever he wants me to.”
So started the convoluted legend of Captain Beefheart. The next album was to be ‘Strictly Personal’ - the first album I ever bought, if it’s of any interest. The Magic Band had unveiled some of the tracks on Peel’s show, including ‘Trust Us’, the harmonica showcase ‘Gimme Day Harp Boy’, ‘Beatle Bones And Smokin’ Stones’ and the wonderful ‘Kandykorn’, where Beefheart paid tribute to a favourite brand of US chocolate. Now he was stretching out with the band, concocting a riveting stew of polycentric dustbin funk, hypnotic blues mantras and raucous psychedelic banter. On the radio the new tracks were raw and riveting. When the album finally emerged around Christmas ‘68, they were mired in the studio effects of the time, such as phasing and multiple echo abuse - ‘alka seltzer fizz’, as the Captain described it. But tracks like the gutbucket voice-plus-slide intro ‘Ah Feel Like Ahcid’ still shone through like diamonds in the Mississippi mud. The afore-mentioned ‘Kandykorn’ is an episodic masterpiece of intricate guitar explosions, Beefheart at his most wigged-out and ends literally with the sonic shock-waves of what’s just taken place sparking and splintering into the ether. Beefheart might have slagged off the psychedelic state-of-the-moment production attachments, but the release of the ‘Mirror Man’ live album containing three of the tracks in their full-length glory a couple of years later showed that this Magic Band was capable of “tearing strips off the sky”, as Peel liked to put it.
After ‘Strictly Personal’ failed to do the business, Beefheart found himself without a record label and then minus a group as the Magic Band left him under mysterious circumstances halfway through a tour. Massive on vein-busting talent but rock bottom financially with no band, Beefheart ran into Zappa, who was busy launching his Straight label with ferociously un-commercial acts like street loony Wild Man Fisher (another Peel favourite) and the G.T.O.’s - notorious groupie super-group Girls Together Outrageously. He signed up his old school mate, who promptly rounded up another Magic Band, locked them away in his house and taught them the new double album he’d written in his head. Employing a locked-in workmanlike slave-driving ethos to the proceedings, Beefheart would hum it and they’d play it, making sure every disjointedly alien component was honed to perfection. Then the whole thing was recorded in just four hours. It took Beefheart another four and a half to add his untamed freeform vocals and newly-acquired tenor and soprano saxes - without listening to what they’d already played. “I did it without the music,” he explained. “I was playing - just like the whales. Fifteen hundred feet down these whales are singing and there’s just no way you can listen to it...just feel it. No special designated area, no point of interest. There is no point.”
Beefheart gave each member of his new group an exotic stage name (This penchant for nicknames would be another trait which rubbed off on Strummer). Enter Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens (the two guitarists), Beefheart’s cousin the Mascara Snake on first-time bass clarinet and Rockette Morton (bass). This lot were sporting women’s clothes two years before the New York Dolls!
‘Trout Mask Replica’ is acknowledged as one of the strangest but unreservedly brilliant albums of all time. Peel caned it to death week after week and could barely contain himself at the garden of unearthly delights on offer. This was the record that swivelled Joe Strummer’s brain as he looked forward to escaping boarding school in ‘69. “That’s when I became a weirdo,” declared Joe. It was then that Strummer realised that music and lyrics didn’t have to have any rules - a philosophy which would emerge as The Clash later progressed into more diverse avenues.
After the psychedelic effects-swamped predecessor, this one came like a naked bolt of freeform roller-coaster mayhem. The 28 tracks are lethally experimental, wigged-out and compelling. Tracks like ‘Moonlight On Vermont’, ‘When Big Joan Sets Up’ and ‘Pachuco Cadaver’ - introduced by the immortal line “a squid eating dowel in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous” are full-on Martian barn dance whoopee with the Captain firing like a man possessed. For the first and only time on any of his albums, the Captain sings acapella, field holler style. On ‘Orange Claw Hammer’ the intensity reaches the level you’d normally get with a full band. The ‘Hair Pie’ instrumentals illustrate how convolutedly brilliant the seemingly disparate arrangements are, as well as exhibiting free jazz leanings in the Captain’s new saxes. ‘Dachau Blues’ is the Captain tackling the Holocaust with oddly moving results, while ‘China Pig’ nods to simple blues roots as a live studio jam. I could go on - this album still sounds light years ahead of its time.
After ‘Troutmask’, Beefheart fell out with Zappa but went on to produce an album of similarly surreal rock-mauling chaos in ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’. Semens had shot off back to the desert, so he’d added two ex-Mothers to the line-up - drummer Ed Marimba - aka Art Tripp - and another guitarist in Elliott Ingber, who he called Winged Eel Fingerling. The sound was even more dense and confrontational, with Beefheart playing sax. Often it sounds like each member of the Magic Band is playing a totally different song of their own as guitar riffs clash, mesh then fly away into a different stratosphere while the Captain pays little heed to the cacophony around him. Throughout, he bellows, intones and howls at the moon, pausing only to parp away on his sax in the free jazz style he’d inherited from listening to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. By the closing ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ he’s left on his own, blowing his horn like an enraged water-buffalo. Track titles include ‘Japan In A Dishpan’, ‘I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Until I Have To Go’ and ‘The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye)’. Nothing sounded like this before or has done since.
Having gone this far out, the Captain reigned in his more freeform leanings and returned to more conventional blues structures on ensuing albums, ‘The Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Clear Spot’ from ‘72. Winged Eel had flown and another Mother, Roy Estrada, was in under the name Orejon. The former album was basic blues with a rather muddy production, although the train blues of ‘Click Clack’ and low-down outings like ‘I’m Gonna Booglarise Ya Baby’ shine through. ‘Clear Spot’ ranks among Beefheart’s best. Even the Captain thought so: “I’ve finally got across what I wanted to get across.” It took Beefheart two and a half hours to write the songs for this one. Apart from unveiling ‘The Low Yo-Yo Stuff’ - which Beefheart performed on BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test - it includes one of his best ever sonic missives in ‘Big Eyes Beans From Venus’. While encapsulating everything that was great about Beefheart in four minutes, it’s got the moment where he stops proceedings to command: “Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note and let it float” - before the Magic Band come crashing back in glorious interstellar overdrive. ‘Nowadays A Woman’s Got To Hit A Man’ is a raucous Bo Diddley-beat harmonica hoedown. But there are surprisingly tender love songs too, probably inspired by his marriage to Jan in ‘70. ‘Too Much Time’ is almost a soul ballad and ‘Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles’ is ripplingly delicate.
In ‘72 I saw my first Captain Beefheart gig - which marked the peak of his career as he packed out London’s Royal Albert Hall. The Captain asked a flattered John Peel to be the MC. Thanks to my ever-amazing friend and inspiration Robin Pike, I was sitting about six rows from the front. After Peel’s short intro, there was a succession of turns, including a ballet dancer and a belly dancer who were then followed by first Rockette Morton, bass player with the Magic Band, strutting his extra-terrestrial stuff for several minutes, before being joined by the Magic Band. Finally, the Captain himself strode on, bedecked in a voluminous black cloak emblazoned with the moon and clouds. Off they went into a set which went from the early stuff to ‘Clear Spot’, plus unrecorded gems like the unaccompanied ‘Black Snake Moan’ and a lengthy sax improvisation which seems to have been called ‘Spitball Stabs The Baby’. It remains one of the most jaw-droppingly memorable nights of my gig-going life. At last it looked like the world might be ready for Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - even if they played like they came from another one. Melody Maker’s Richard Williams was spot on: “The first impression is amazement that they aren’t actually hovering two-feet above the stage as they play, for their music doesn’t seem to be bound to the earth in any way.”
I next saw Beefheart in concert when he toured the UK around ‘74. By then the Magic Band had left him to form Mallard, who wouldn’t amount to much without their guiding force. “They had the sun on their backs and they just turned around and spat the moon right out of their mouths,” said the Captain to Nick Kent. But the new band was tight, fast and, indeed, bulbous. “I don’t want to be involved in any sort of cult. I want to hug the world,” said Beefheart - always there with the surrealistic bang-on one-liner which made you scratch your head but get the point at the same time. “I’m glad I’m not so hip I put my back out,” was another gem. He also reckoned that “Mohamed Ali is the world’s greatest percussionist”. On the other side of the coin, he could quite happily converse with George Best in a Manchester nightclub.
In ‘75 they played my local club, Friars Aylesbury. It was on this occasion that I plucked up the courage to approach the Captain in person. After the show - a spectacular greatest hits - Beefheart was sitting in a corner of Aylesbury Civic Centre with the customary sketch-pad on his lap, chatting and drawing constantly. We exchanged a few friendly words, and, as I made to leave, he gave me the sketch he’d been doing during our conversation of a flock of birds. My mate Colin Keinch was pissed off because the Captain had actually drawn his portrait, but then kept it for himself!
The big one was when I finally got to interview Captain Beefheart for Zigzag. It was one afternoon in September ‘77 at the swank Montcalm Hotel, near Marble Arch. Accompanied by photographer Erica Echenberg, I met the Captain in the lobby and emerged two hours later feeling like I’d been in the presence of true greatness. He talked about everything under the sun, had us in stitches with his surreal observations and, after drawing in his sketch-pad throughout, presented me with a personal message to the Zigzag readers. He also took us up to his room and played five tracks from the upcoming album - which he called ‘Bat Chain Puller’ but would actually emerge under the tag ‘Shiny Beast’. It was the sort of magical afternoon you don’t forget in a hurry - which takes on a far greater significance as the years go by. The feature started like this:
“HAAARM!!!” Captain Beefheart’s amazing throat lets out a ferociously powerful blues-roar, which in the “relaxed atmosphere of the Montcalm hotel bar has a resounding effect on the surrounding clientele. Be-suited businessmen glance frowning out of their hushed conversations, fur-coated blue-rinsed biddies tut at their neighbours and elderly gents choke in their drinks.
“Look at that little bit of freedom!” chuckles the Captain. Beefheart’s suddenly unleashed noise was one way of releasing the pent-up happiness and joy he is revelling in since his new Magic Band played a storming gig in front of several thousand ecstatic people in Paris a couple of days before. He just can’t stop enthusing about the band, can’t sleep because he’s so excited, and wanted to communicate his pleasure with Zigzag on a one-day stop in this country before flying back to the States for more gigs.
It was the first time I’d had the chance to interview Don and was pretty excited because there was lots I wanted to ask. I should have known better cos doing a straight interview with Don is about as easy as a non-swimmer doing Cape Horn in a rubber ring, and much less fun than Beefheart’s own course, which is basically answering a question but letting whatever comes through to him at the time come out too - observations, jokes, stories, and he likes showing you his possessions, like his new gloves or drawing books. Anyway, we all got on great and I came away with five pieces of autographed Beefheart paraphernalia (By 2005 I just have the signed copy of Troutmask surviving, thanks to fire, theft and acts of God). Erica asks if she can photograph Don while he talks. “Oh, I should have told you, I’m just a piece of meat...I run six miles a night. Have done for a long time. Have to. In order to keep gravity away. Got to. It’s been difficult to find a running place here, but I have a trampoline kind of thing which you can jog on, but it’s a lot better for you because it doesn’t jerk your brain or your back. It’s dangerous to run on the ground or cement.”
He can’t stop enthusing about his new Magic Band. “Well, I have a new band that’s fantastic. The best band I’ve ever had. The nicest people I’ve ever met. I’m real happy now. I mean REAL happy. I played Paris and the people were dancing and everything to this far out music. It’s amazing, people dancing to avanty garde music, or whatever they call it now.”
“There’s Jeff Morris Tapir on guitar - Denny Walley on slide guitar and regular guitar - Eric Black Jewel Kittaboo Feldman is on keyboard and synthesiser - and then there’s Robert ‘Wait For Me’ Williams on percussion. He’s fantastic. Have you ever seen Ed Marimba, Art Tripp?”
Yeah, at the Albert Hall in ‘72.
“You saw that? (Don would later tell me that he saw me at that gig - “You were sitting in the sixth row wearing a yellow jacket”. He was dead right too). Well, this guy is 21, and he sure doesn’t lose. He’ll win but he’ll lose, there is no win or lose but he won. I tell you, to me this guy is the free-est percussionist I’ve ever met. He used to watch Artie, he was an appreciator of the music that we’d been doing. He saw Artie and obviously enjoyed the fact that Artie was ambidextrous, but he’s ambidextrous too.”
Talk turned to the expected moaning about the record company. This time it was Virgin, who Don was parting company with. It has to be said that the low-point of Beefheart’s musical career occurred when he was signed to Virgin in the mid-70s and released two albums ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed’ and ‘Blue Jeans And Moon Beams’ - which can only be called a shadow of former glories - mainly because they attempted to ‘go commercial’ and water down the Captain’s madness for a mass consumption that never got consumed. Now he was cheesed off that they’d been circulating tapes of ‘Bat Chain Puller’. He was even against Virgin’s name because, “it’s against womankind, it’s such a pretentious name.”
When Erica disagreed with the last statement, Beefheart got visibly rankled. “Well, I’ll tell you what, they took my baby, my tape that we sent them to hear, they took my baby and spread it all over it’s strewn halfway between here and probably Tibet.” He ended that part of the conversation with a curt, “I’ll see them in Court”. That’s why I was a bit puzzled when ‘Ice Cream For Crow’ - the final Captain Beefheart album - appeared on none other than Virgin in the early 80s.
The original tape of ‘Bat Chain Puller’ blew me away, especially the not-to-be-released instrumental with my favourite song title of all time: ‘A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond’. It made me think of my furry pets. As we’re talking about the new songs Beefheart suddenly stops in mid-sentence and points at manager Harry Duncan, who’s joined the table and has been interrupting in an intensely concerned managerial fashion. “I wish that guy would quit thinking about me over there! He’s had too much to think. He’s so focussed on me it’s incredible!”
Harry looks a bit uncomfortable, especially as an intense Beefheart stare is blazing a hole through the centre of his skull. Beefheart has been attempting to reel off the line up on the album and Harry has been prompting. Finally, Beefheart’s dam bursts and he turns to me and says, matter-of-factly, “You’re not in a hurry to hear these are you, cos of all those things that are coming through (points to his head), I’d hate to say something and have it cut up like before you get to say it (to Harry). You go ahead and say it because you’re on my case, man.”
Suddenly, Beefheart is off on a tangent and talking about the support act on his current tour - blues legend Sunnyland Slim. “Sunnyland Slim was on the tour, which originated in Buffalo, New York. Great blues - one of the starters of everything. 70-years old - fantastic though. He acts like he’s 15-years old - best I’ve heard. We’re going to bring him over here when we come. He put Muddy Waters to Chess.”
Beefheart took great delight in relishing the smallest things in life, like the pair of gloves given to him by a lady in Newfoundland. He loved the fact that all the fingers were the same length. In another interview around this time, he stopped mid-sentence when a moth fluttered past and boomed, “Now look here! Let’s stop for just a minute and look at this moth!”
I never would have dreamed from the way Beefheart was enthusing about his music with the new band that a few years later he would be calling it a day with music forever in favour of painting. At that time it was well known as his hobby and examples littered the album sleeves in all their wild, abstract glory. So I asked if he still painted. “All the time,” came the reply. “I’m doing an exhibition (produces flyer). I knew you’d ask me that. I didn’t know you’d ask me that but I brought it along in case you asked me that.’
Do you do a lot of exhibitions?
“Yeah, I exhibit myself all the time!” Then he’s off again about the music. “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been since I had this group. I can go into way more dimensions than I ever could before. I want to make people happy, get smiles on the faces of the people in the audience. Break up all of that catatonic state that you get in - supposed to listen to music! None of these people use poison while they’re playing. Perfect. That is to say that they are imperfect, but they’re perfect.”
Beefheart pulls a big drawing book out of the brown bag (which never leaves his side) and shows me Count Basie’s autograph and a lot of drawings, which he explains are songs, which the group can play from but, “I write it on tape.” The Captain then started drawing his message to Zigzag readers. It depicted a dancing native-type guy being towered over by a sinister alien-looking fellow clutching a tomahawk. In the back is a clock-face. “You know what it’s saying? Black people are being thrown out of England. That’s Big Ben. Big Ben there too long, har har.” Beefheart was always anti-racism, saying that “everybody is coloured - if they weren’t you wouldn’t be able to see them.” I reproduced the drawing in the magazine - luckily, as it happened. Sometime in the 80s, before I realised that things like this might one day be valuable, it went up in smoke during a nodding-out-with-fag-induced fire at my New York apartment.
After the afore-mentioned vocal outburst we jokingly told Beefheart that he was a punk. This led to a discussion on the subject, which he was perfectly aware of and supported. “It’s very honest. Isn’t it more honest than when the Beatles sang, ‘I wanna hold your hand’? Who held their hand?” He added that an interviewer the previous night had introduced him to well-known Beefheart fan John Lydon over the phone, but Beefheart had never heard of him. It’s also worth noting that it was the Captain who coined a favourite punk term on the ‘Troutmask’ track “Old Fart At Play”.
And so ended my afternoon with Captain Beefheart. ‘Bat Chain Puller’ would eventually see the light of day in mainly re-recorded form as ‘Shiny Beast’ and after that there would only be ‘Ice Cream For Crow’. After that his art obsession took over. In ‘86, he held an exhibition in London a stunning array of work, mainly oils, which sometimes resembled primitive cave paintings soaked in surrealism and love of animals. After a succession of bad experiences with the music business - Beefheart just couldn’t grasp accepted biz practices and traditions and was prone to being ripped off in his naive way of dealing with money - he retired from music. He hasn’t made a record for over 20 years, preferring to paint in his Mojave Desert hideaway. He ended up only feeling safe alone with a canvas. His paintings are like his songs splattered without interference. Exactly as he wanted them, unlike most of his albums. Plus, as he always said, he made far more money from painting than he ever did music - now they can sell for six figures.
“Painting is a damn good exercise and it really tears me up,” Beefheart told NME when his London exhibition opened in ‘86. “I’ve been in a hot period for 24 years now and the people who buy my paintings don’t know what they’re in for. I may have to scrap five paintings in order to get one that I’m satisfied with. If my paintings don’t disturb me I scrap them and I hope that when other people see them that the paintings hug them and shake them because people need to be provoked.” He added that he still continued to write music “some pretty wild stuff too” - but was “finished with the rock star scene - although I never thought of myself as a rock star for a minute. Many people tried to turn me into one but I fooled ‘em. I have no idea when I’ll get around to making a record, though. For the time being I’m really enjoying painting. Getting out of rock’n’roll improved my life a lot and I’m much more at peace when I’m Painting - but really, music is just amazing. Unfortunately, they’ve slaughtered it as far as I can see - and it seems like it’s getting worse. All the dead people are great though, and hearing cats howl is pretty wonderful too. Now there’s the sound of the lovers.”
During the last decade, reports started filtering through that The Captain was not a well man, with rumours citing Alzheimer’s or a wasting disease. He appeared in a documentary, looking frail, grey-haired and fearful of answering questions. I was deeply sadened.
Captain Beefheart was simply too much for many, such was his wild, incendiary talent and uncompromising way of approaching normal life. “It’s always irritated me that people labelled him weird - it was a kind of super-reality,” said John Peel, the man who did most to make people aware of his mighty talent. Beefheart left behind some of the most remarkable music ever made: “I’ve always known you have to ride your own animal life,” For once, the term ‘genius’ is not being abused. And that’s safe as milk.
As this tribute to Captain Beefheart was in honour of the man who put all he could into spreading the word, I’ll leave it with what Peel said in the weekly column he wrote for the now-defunct Disc & Music Echo after the ‘72 Royal Albert Hall gig. I think it sums Peel up a treat:
“Of course, it was a stunning concert. As compere I had intended to make a long speech so that everyone would realise that I’d been involved with the Captain’s music and the several Magic Bands for more years than the audience had. When the belly dancer came off that seemed silly - and anyway I was close to tears - so all I said was “Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band” and slouched away to the dark of the back of the stage. Tears may seem foolish to you - and I can’t really tell you why they were there - but they were. Their younger brothers had been there several years before at Middle Earth in Covent Garden - and that didn’t make much sense to me either at the time. I suppose it’s just relief that something you’ve waited for, for so long, is finally coming to pass. I’ll probably feel the same way when I become a father for the first time. I must go and put some more coal on the fire.”
PART TWO - THE MIGHTY WALTERS
According to newspaper reports, John Peel was in the bar with his missus and suddenly remarked how much he missed his old friend and producer John Walters. Half an hour later he had his heart attack and died. Walters was more than just a producer, the post he occupied for Peel for years from the early 70s. He was a raconteur, close mate and partner-in-crime - and maybe an even larger-than-life character than Peel. Certainly, when you sat with the pair in the bar - they had a spiritual bond which seemed to boast an intangible similarity to other great duos like Laurel & Hardy or Morecambe & Wise. Not that they were cavorting about or pouring drinks over each other. Just a telepathic form of communication, deep respect and friendship - plus an innate, unstoppable sense of humour.
Six months before Pete Frame graciously handed me the editor’s chair at Zigzag in mid-1977, he established a monthly column of observations and surreal outpourings from John Walters, a good mate of his along with Peel. When Frame brought me in to shake things up he knew that I’d be steering the magazine’s content towards punk rock. But he also knew I had a passion for all sorts of music if it was good. In that respect, I bore similarities to Peel, who also saw no boundaries in music. Of course, the modest Walters thought he’d be first for the chop when I took over, but he had absolutely no reason to be wary and nervous that I might turn around and tell him to piss off in the light of the new blood I was going to be splattering the mag with. I fiercely wanted his monthly soapbox. It was dead funny, and amidst some sharp observations which could put the punk furore in some kind of perspective, gave some interesting insights into the workings of Peel and his radio show - back then the only Radio One outlet for punk.
Walters would ring me regularly to discuss what he would be writing in his next column. By the third call I knew to sit down with a packed lunch and a bottle as, for the next hour or more, he uncorked a string of anecdotes about mates from his past - like Keith Moon, Vivien Stanshall and Robert Plant - or the present machinations and occurrences within Peel-world.
Walters would never profess to actually liking the punk records that Peel played, but admired the attitude and fresh blast of air it had hooted up tired rock’s back passage. He even came to punk gigs and was a regular at the Vortex, the Monday night soiree at Crackers disco in Soho which I would attend in the company of Mark Perry, Danny Baker, sundry Clashers and other bands. I would try to deflect his fears of being too old to go down - to the point that he dragged along an initially reluctant Peel - who, although a fierce crusader for the music and movement, thought he would emerge from such a punk watering hole suffering from a good kicking, or at least festooned in spittle. Not so. We loved this man for having the balls and conviction to play the music on the BBC, and his producer for his sheer joviality and propensity for booze-fuelled partying. One night, Peel let me and Frame sit on the floor of the studio as he dealt out that night’s show. He didn’t bat an eyelid as he segued the Mighty Diamonds into the Modern Lovers before original punk Gene Vincent came tearing in.
Walters’ columns showed that himself and Peel shared eclectic tastes in music - which meant they could often disagree on certain choices. But their sense of humour was irreverent, self-deprecating and side-splitting to the point where they would have made a great stand-up double act.
Take the October ‘77 issue of Zigzag. Amidst a roll-call which included Siouxsie & The Banshees (their first front cover), New York rockers Mink De Ville, Gene Vincent, Buzzcocks, Iggy, Doctor Alimantado, The Jam and Sham 69, Walters gave his view of punk rock and talked about Peel’s night down the Vortex.
“What I like about the New Wave is that they don’t give a bugger. Now one thing about Peel is that, despite his just-a-guy-in-the-crowd self-effacing image, he rather likes to be respected and adored by young persons wherever he goes. Down the Vortex the other night he was trying to hold a conversation with a chap known as ‘the man from the ‘Rock On’ stall’ and, because of the volume, they had their heads close together while they
bellowed things like “but surely, socio-economic factors must be crucial in the development of any working class art form, has not Joe Strummer himself observed...”, at which point one of the Slits jumped from the darkness and knocked their heads together with a crack which made the welkin
ring. Naturally the club went deathly quiet. Sham 69 jerked to a halt and people taking notes for social studies theses all went, “Shh!” The Slit laughed girlishly and skipped away into the crowd. What a wicked irreverent girl you are - the fiver’s in the post.”
Walters then goes on to praise the new Slits tapes, recalling how Eno had come to his office to get an earful. The soon-to-be-U2 producer said how he liked the way punk had brought ideas back into rock “including, I swiftly pointed out, the idea of having no idea!” After a good swipe at the ELP-Genesis brigade for having too many ‘ideas’, he describes a Tom Robinson Band show as being ‘fairly ordinary’ but liked the fact that when the Prefects supported The Clash their first song lasted about twenty seconds: “Earlier I had seen Genesis at the same venue and after twenty seconds of their first number you wished that they would stop but they didn’t.”
Later in the same column, Walters coins the phrase ‘Californicating’ before describing the Slits recording what would become one of the most acclaimed Peel sessions of all time: “Their ‘standards’ are so unconcerned with ‘good musicianship’ that a visitor to a live gig would come away unimpressed. I’m not over-whelmed by token gal groups - but these gals were great.”
Most of Walters’ columns would include a ‘little known fact about John Peel’ - like this one from April ‘78: “Like the British Navy, Peel’s public school traditions were rum, sodomy and the lash - with the absolute minimum of rum. The fag (lowly slave from the lower years) system and bullying were rampant. Peel suffered a great deal as an underling but when he became a senior boy and had a child servant of his own he lost no time in perpetuating the system. Each morning he used to summon his fag and send him off to sit on the lavatory. When the spirit moved him, Peel - that guru of the flower power summer - would stroll along, remove the child and lower his buttocks onto a seat nicely brought up to bum heat.”
He liked to expound on the punk rock which Peel was propagating as a kind of lone crusade - as in the June ‘78 column, which carries a photo of our bearded hero playing darts with Billy Idol. At the same time he would often pay tribute to his studio partner-in-crime: “You kids have been very lucky to have lived through one of those great bursts of energy which keep the music business alive. If you think it’s never happened before or would like a taste of what it was like when it did, have a look at ‘American Hot Wax’ if it comes your way. It’s not a great film of the stature of the original ‘King Kong’ or ‘Laurel & Hardy’ - it’s a bit like a cheapo ‘American Graffiti’ with no message and a lot of rock’n’roll. It’s supposedly a slice of the life of DJ Alan Freed who is credited with coining the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll”. You do get, however, decent rock recreations (for a change), a good feel for the frenzy and the energy of a period when popular music was making what was probably its most important change, and some believable dialogue with the minimum of “you can stop me, Mr Mator, but you’ll never stop rock ‘n’ roll!” The basic picture is one of a bloke in the media who wants the kids to get it and his battle against an establishment who wants THINGS STOPPED! “I was reminded here of the Alan Freed of our time, old Fatty Peel (as fellow producer Tony Wilson and I call him). You see, although I’m always revealing scandalous facts about Peel to you, I must admit that he does put in a stack of listening on your behalf (and mine -between you and me), has excellent instinctive taste - and without him where would you be? A phrase from the Freed film could well adorn the Peel family crest. A rock record is blasting away on the air and the engineer asks over the intercom why Freed doesn’t turn the record down when he’s not on the air (a common DJ practice so that they can phone friends, read the paper, etc while the music’s on) - and Freed replies, ‘They can tell when you’re not listening’. “
Maybe it’s worth printing a snippet of Walters’ wonderful insights in every issue of trakMARX in eternal memory to these two dudes’ services to punk and music in general. I’ll ask Jean (that sounds like a rather excellent idea, Mr Needs Futures Ed).
Three dearly missed men, then. We’ll certainly never see their like again.
Kris Needs tMx 18 02/05