Home Read Classic Album Reviews: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band | Grow Fins:...

Classic Album Reviews: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band | Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) / Safe As Milk / The Mirror Man Sessions

Three simultaneous archival sets provide Beefheart fans with a slew of new songs, new insight — and a new appreciation for rock’s most original and twisted visionary.

These came out in 1999 – or at least that’s when I got them. Here’s what I said about them back then (with some minor editing):


Years ago, a friend of mine bought a copy of Captain Beefheart’s legendary Trout Mask Replica album. A short time later, he disdainfully gave it to me, saying something like, “I don’t know how you can listen to this guy. This isn’t music, it’s just noise. This is garbage.”

Plenty of folks would agree. Although Rolling Stone once picked Trout Mask as No. 33 of the Best 100 Albums recorded between 1967-’87, Beefheart — or Don Van Vliet, if you go by the name on his driver’s licence — and his truly Magic Band about as far as you can get from classic rock. His musicians had names like Zoot Horn Rollo and The Mascara Snake. His songs had titles like My Head Is My Only House (Unless It Rains) and A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond. And his music was a honking, lurching, often atonal blend of greasy Delta blues and field hollers, ’60s garage rock and soaring Martian free-jazz — sort of like Howling Wolf and Ornette Coleman fronting his childhood and frequent collaborator Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention at their freakiest — is definitely an acquired taste.

But you know what they say about acquired tastes. And about one man’s trash. And for those of us who would rush into our burning house to save that original copy of the Captain’s Clear Spot album before that family album (and there are more than a few of us), it has never been a better year to be a Beefheart fan. Although he hasn’t recorded in 17 years — he abandoned music for painting in 1982 — in the past month, not one, not two, but three new Beefheart packages have surfaced, giving us new songs, new insight and a new appreciation for rock’s most original and twisted visionary.

Biggest and best by far is Grow Fins, a sprawling five-CD box set consisting totally of unreleased tracks: Nearly four hours of long-lost music from band members’ rehearsal tapes, home recordings, live tracks, radio appearances and more. In short, the mother lode. Obviously, it was a labour of love. Intelligently organized and thoughtfully presented, Grow Fins chronicles nearly every phase of the Cap’n’s career: The desert-rat blues of the mid-’60s, the Dadaist cacophony and psychedelic poetry of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the post-punk spikiness of his final albums. And you get a nifty 100-page book, highlighted by a lengthy, frank oral history of the band by longtime percussionist John (Drumbo) French.

But Grow Fins’ true piece de resistance is 30 minutes of video footage on an enhanced CD — eight songs from four performances filmed between ’68 and ’73. Watching the band playing Electricity live on the beach at Cannes or smoking through When Big Joan Sets Up in a Detroit TV studio is worth every penny this’ll set you back.

Still, if you’re on a limited budget, there are alternatives. Like Safe As Milk and The Mirror Man Sessions, two of Beefheart’s earliest albums, just rereleased on the newly revived Buddha label. Remastered from the original tapes and augmented with alternate takes and leftovers (all previously available, but what the hey), these platters of psychedelic blues will give you a good taste of Beefheart’s sun zoom spark — and likely whet your appetite for more.