An artist whose influence on Liverpool music and culture has impacted successive generations, the work of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART continues to inspire legions of Merseyside acts. While the UK as a whole was far more receptive to his work than his American homeland, sending Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby into the album charts, in Liverpool especially, his music along with that of fellow stalwarts Pink Floyd and Love are highly treasured.
Tracing a clear line from The La’s in the early 1980s through to The Stairs at the beginning of the 1990s on to The Coral and The Zutons at the dawn of the millennium (the latter deriving their name from guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo), all have drawn inspiration from the artistic output of the man born Don Glen Vliet. The same trend has continued over the past decade too, with a.P.A.t.T., The Cubical and present day noiseniks Rongorongo and Pale Rider extrapolating the Beefheartian legacy in some form or another. The multitude of genres these outfits scan and the devotion to his records showcase how strongly Beefheart’s music permeates Liverpool culturally.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART WEEKEND, an upcoming celebration of his work programmed by The Bluecoat in early November, will see a handful of events come together in perfect synergy. Held to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Beefheart’s first ever art exhibition at The Bluecoat in 1972, the weekend coincides with the venerable institution’s 300th birthday. Beefheart’s estimable backing group THE MAGIC BAND also call at the Philharmonic Hall as part of their last ever tour to round off proceedings.
In addition to celebrating his music, his art and his lesser known work as a writer through poetry, a symposium titled DIGGING BEEFHEART, exploring his work as a ‘total artist’ will discuss his works and will doubtless explore just why Beefheart is so popular in Liverpool. A meeting to tackle all the above is convened with Bryan Biggs, artistic director of The Bluecoat and independent curator Kyle Percy, who, alongside poet and writer Chris McCabe, are organizers of the weekend’s events. “I got into Beefheart in London as a teenager and then when I came to work at Bluecoat I discovered that he had an exhibition here in 1972,” Bryan explains, sat in a room overlooking the arts centre’s gardens. “We had a little bit of information in the archive, not a lot, and I had tried to do an exhibition quite a few years ago. What we’re doing is condensing it into a weekend, him as an artist, musician, performer, writer. It proved difficult to do as an exhibition cos the gallery that looks after his estate don’t wanna play cos they see him as Don Van Vliet – painter, not as Captain Beefheart – multitalented musician. We could do an exhibition of his paintings exactly as they are without anything else, but we couldn’t do this bigger thing.”
Captain Beefheart at Bluecoat 1972 courtesy of Lucy Cullen
“Chris McCabe came to see me a few years ago and said, ‘It’s 45 years since he had the exhibition at Bluecoat, why don’t we try and do an event?’ So, we talked through some ideas and then we brought Kyle [Percy] in, who had previously contacted when he was a student when he was doing his final dissertation on Beefheart. So, the three of us met and we hatched this plan to do a concentrated weekend that looked at Beefheart as all those things.”
The 1972 exhibition in Liverpool formed part of possibly Beefheart’s most productive year. Alongside the event at The Bluecoat, he toured and issued two albums, The Spotlight Kid in January and Clear Spot that October. “The show he had here in 1972 was a bit of a freak really,” Biggs explains. “It was ten years before he became an artist properly. Lucy Cullen, who was the then artistic director of The Bluecoat, had seen Beefheart on The Old Grey Whistle Test with his paintings when it was leading up to his ’72 tour… he said he’d never shown his work and she wondered whether he’d show it in Liverpool since he was doing a gig here at The Stadium. It was turned around very, very quickly. We’ve got some of the letters and telegrams with his agent in Los Angeles and the work was shipped over to Liverpool. It may have been shown in London after that, but Liverpool was the first showing.”
“He occupies a weird position because he’s known principally as a musician and I think the art world distance themselves from him a bit,” Biggs continues. “The art world is mainly about fashion and what he was doing was quite an old-fashioned approach, expressionist painting, a bit after the event. What makes it interesting is he’s got this wild approach, a bit like his music; it’s untutored.”
While Beefheart is principally known for his music, art was his first love, as Percy explains. “He could have had a scholarship when he was a kid in Europe to study sculpture but his Mum and Dad didn’t want him to go. He had a prodigious art talent, without ever having any training, then he met Frank Zappa and the rest is history. I think it’s that period in culture when ordinary folks could get into the arts and do stuff, slightly outside of the mainstream.” Like most, Biggs and Percy discovered Beefheart’s artwork through his contributions to his album sleeves, Biggs citing the back cover of 1970 LP Lick My Decals Off, Baby as the first he remembers.
Dave Keight, one of the founders of Probe Records with Geoff Davies, who also met Beefheart, will be speaking at the Symposium. “Probe Records is very, very important,” Biggs stresses. “Dave was saying that Trout Mask Replica was the ‘Record of the Shop’, so if you associated Probe with one record of that period it would be that. They were real proselytizers for this music.”
“The Casual scene in the early 1980s was about finding something different – clothes and music,” Percy continues. “A lot of the fellas I know in their fifties who were around back then, they made a point of looking out for more obscure music to say, ‘Look what we’re into’. It was a subculture of the city.”
Gig promoter and DJ Roger Eagle, a figure who was the wellspring for scores of music scenes in Liverpool, was a crucial element in Beefheart becoming popular in the city. Friends with the Captain after booking him for a score of appearances, Eagle’s influence continued when, after ceasing operations at the Stadium in 1976, he founded legendary club Eric’s with Ken Testi and Pete Fulwell just as punk began to surface. “Even at the height of punk when all that music had been rejected, groups like Can, Beefheart, Love, Mothers Of Invention were really popular still with the DJs in Eric’s,” Biggs states. “People like Pete Wylie, who went down there as a young disaffected kid into The Clash, he got all this stuff about Beefheart and dub music from Roger, so he’s really pivotal.”
Celebrating Beefheart’s oft forgotten work as a writer, Liverpool-born poet Chris McCabe presents the Doped In Stunned Mirages strain of the weekend. “Chris came up with the idea to commission a poet to come up with a response to each of the albums,” Biggs explains. “It’ll be inter-generational, featuring performers from their 70s to people in their 20s,” he notes. The youngest performer, Matty Smith, founder of the Jarg poetry fanzine, will be also producing a special edition to tie in with the celebration.
Beefheart’s backing group The Magic Band have kept the weird flame burning since the Captain died in 2010, and the make a fitting pitstop at the Phil on Friday 10th November as part their final ever tour. The following evening then sees the city’s denizens step up to the plate as Fast ‘N’ Bulbous takes place at District in the Baltic Triangle. A stellar cast of Beefheart aficionados spanning a smorgasbord of styles are slated to take part, including Edgar Jones And The New Joneses, Strange Collective, Dave McCabe, Psycho Comedy, The Cubical, a.P.A.t.T., Pale Rider and Karm, alongside a special appearance by former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas. Rounding off the weekend at the Invisible Wind Factory on Sunday, an exhibition of artists inspired by Beefheart work’s titled Ice Cream For Crow will be on show, alongside performances from music from Inland Taipa, The Murmurists, and John Hyatt’s Plastic Reality.
When they formed in the 1980s, The La’s provided a window for many into Beefheart’s music, ultimately inspiring renewed interest in the Captain’s work. Solo musician and artist Mike Badger, who is part of the Beefheart Symposium and co-founded the group with Lee Mavers, takes up the story. “It was 1981 I had gone to see a Wyndham Lewis Exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery and Beefheart was in the foyer swearing at his sketch book as he drew. I thought I must talk to this guy, so I asked if I could see his sketches, which were angular, freeform abstractions but with figures and animal shapes. We talked for about 20-30 minutes and we hit it off. I was 19, he was sage, compassionate, friendly and a character you could never forget.
“It was confirmation of those deep-rooted feelings you have, it made me feel less isolated and that other people thought outside the box too!” Badger continues. “I dug out all I could read about the man, and his interviews, philosophy and thinking was just as important to me as his music. He confirmed with me a deep-rooted primal understanding that’s in all of us but was latent.”
As someone who has seen Beefheart’s legacy continue in the city long after he retired from music in 1992, Badger has a theory on why he was such an impact on Liverpool. “It says a great deal about the psyche of the city. It’s a melting pot Liverpool, as all great ports are. We need something with depth and meaning here for it to satisfy our needs. You could also say that about another great Liverpool talismanic band – Love. Both Beefheart and Love, though different in many ways, created beautiful gentle music as well as fraught, cutting masterpieces. It must have an edge in Liverpool because that is the nature of the city. Remember Captain Beefheart writ large on a wall at the bottom of Park Road in the 90s? I doubt you’d see that anywhere else – not just in this country, but the world.”
Captain Beefheart Weekend takes place between Friday 10th and Sunday 12th November at various venues across the city. All events are separately priced, however a discounted weekend ticket is available for £20/£15. Visit thebluecoat.org.uk for more details.