Don Van Vliet (or maybe Don Glen Vliet – wikipedia says the latter was his given name) spent his teens and early twenties collaborating with Frank Zappa, and their volatile friendship would endure long enough for Zappa to sign Beefheart to his own label in 1969. Both difficult and ornery men, their careers have obvious parallels, not least their need to stand out from the crowd, to run hard and deliberately in the opposite direction to the way everyone else was going.
So it was, then, that in 1967, during the Summer of Love – the height of the hippie era – while his contemporaries were ready to float off into the ether, Beefheart released his first album, a fractured but only lightly psychedelic take on Delta blues and gritty R&B. While everyone else wore their hair long, with robes and beads, the Captain and his bandmates dressed more like 1930s gangsters or British toffs gone to the bad; on the sleeve of Safe as Milk, guitarist Alex Snouffer resembled the aristocratic murderer Lord Lucan enjoying a second life as a James Bond villain.
Captain Beefheart’s records have a forbidding reputation, especially Trout Mask Replica. I own TMR, and I’ve never made it all the way through in one sitting. It’s as hard-going as people say. Guitarists play seemingly in different time signatures and at varying tempos. The drums seem chaotic and at odds with the guitars. The bass is in another world again. And Beefheart bellows over the top of it all, again seeming to pay little heed to the band. Throughout the album, whatever his instrumentalists are playing, Beefheart always seems to sing in the same key.
However difficult Trout Mask Replica is, though, not all Beefheart’s music is so forbidding. His debut album, Safe as Milk, is a delight, and positively accessible in comparison, a surreal take on Delta Blues with occasional stylistic diversions into doo-wop (I’m Glad) and even children’s music (Yellow Brick Road). Nevertheless, despite being easily the most conventional of Beefheart’s classic works, Safe as Milk, and the song Electricity in particular, horrified his label A&M, whose boss Jerry Moss heard a demo of Electricity and decided that he wouldn’t want his daughter listening to this kind of negative music. Such was the way of things for Beefheart. He instead released his debut on Buddah (sic), subsidiary of Kama Sutra.
Plastic Factory, written by Beefheart, the enigmatic Herb Brennan and bassist Jerry Handley, shows off Beefheart’s dead-on Howling Wolf impression, and was improbably released as a single. It didn’t fly out of record stores, but it did help to build the good Captain a cult audience that would follow him down even his most elliptical paths.
Like Safe as Milk generally, Plastic Factory is very portable: you could listen to it and get a lot from it without knowing anything about Beefheart’s wider career, just purely on its own terms. If you’re into electric blues generally or Delta blues particularly (or you want an overview of late-1960s California music), then you definitely should hear it. I’ve listened to it a lot down the years, even while my lack of success extracting much pleasure from Trout Mask Replica has led me to conclude that Beefheart fandom was not for me. Safe as Milk stands well on its own.