I first heard Beefheart’s Safe As Milk at Mike’s on the day of its release. To say I was bowled over is an understatement. I was into both the blues and psychedelia, but this seemed to combine the two in a way that blasted your mind and body into atoms. It shook me, and I was hooked. I’d never heard anything like it. By this time I was also going to London underground clubs Middle Earth, UFO, The Roundhouse, The Marquee and Les Cousins. For me it was to see mainly Pink Floyd, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix and Roy Harper. When I heard that Captain Beefheart was going to play at Middle Earth, I was ecstatic. There was only one problem: I was in the midst of my A-level exams. I had been offered a provisional place at university, and needed the grades, but music was more important to me, and besides, my biology exam was a week away. Surely I could afford a night off. High on adrenalin, I drove to London on my trusty motorbike, only to discover that the gig had been postponed. Beefheart’s bassist Jerry Handley was ill, and they’d been replaced by the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Now, I quite liked Aynsley Dunbar, but he was no substitute for Captain Beefheart, who was rescheduled for the following week as a double bill with John Mayall (another favourite of mine). That made it an absolute must.
The gig was now going to be the night before my A-level biology exam. If I went, I wouldn’t be home until 3:00 a.m., and my exam started at 9:00 a.m.. I would have no last-minute revision, and I’d be knackered. Still, needs must. No choice! It was truly one of the best gigs I have ever been to. I can’t remember anything about John Mayall that night, but Beefheart just blew me away! Needless to say, I didn’t get the required grade, and the course of my life changed. However, I’d seen Captain Beefheart in all his glory! I wouldn’t change that even if I could.
The 1960s were a time of liberal views and creativity. Following World War II and the 1950s austerity, a generation of rebellious teenagers emerged. Fired with optimism, confidence and naivety, they sought to throw off the shackles of conformity and break out from the conservatism of their parents’ generation. This was the new age, and young people saw a world of new possibilities, with waves of creativity in fashion, art, writing, dance, architecture and, most of all, music. Social norms were being rejected. There were protests against the Vietnam war, marches for civil rights, a burgeoning spirit of environmentalism, feminism and equality, coupled with a rejection of the establishment. These sparked great social and political change. Young people had a voice, and they wanted to be heard. Minds were opened. Clothes were colourful. Hair was long. Music was loud. The hair, clothes, attitudes and protest weren’t a fashion, they were symbols of a new way of living; an alternative to the establishment.
The underground movement had an impact on the mainstream. Young people were dropping out, departing on adventures to exotic third-world countries and delving into new religions and cultures. They were appreciating the world’s beauty without needing lots of money. At that time of great social change, many young people were convinced there was a better way to live. They were experimenting with communal living, getting back to nature, dropping out of the rat race, opposing the whole money-driven greed and warmongering attitudes. These were attempts at a simpler, better way of life.
This was the underground culture from which Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band appeared. They were part of the Los Angeles scene, playing at venues like the Avalon Ballroom that catered for the freaks of the day. The West Coast acid rock scene was based around San Francisco and Los Angeles. The two cities had completely opposite vibes, and intense rivalry. San Francisco had more country, jug band, folk roots with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Grateful Dead. Los Angeles had a punkier blues experimental feel, with bands like The Doors, Love, and also Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, who were more avant-garde.
The counterculture was about being far out. Bands were vying with each other to be more extreme, extolling the underground scene’s acid/drug culture. The more outrageous the costumes and hair, the better. A look at the cover of Country Joe and the Fish’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, clearly demonstrates that. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band topped them all. It didn’t get any weirder.