By late 1975, Captain Beefheart’s career was on the rebound. After two albums aimed at a mainstream audience failed to sell, and the dissolution of his Magic Band, he reached out to his old friend, Frank Zappa. Beefheart subsequently joined FZ’s latest incarnation of the Mothers of Invention for a tour and the Bongo Fury album. Then, as part of his desire to return to his avant-rock roots, he revived the Magic Band. But just because things were on the upswing, the notoriously cantankerous Captain didn’t always keep his cool.
After the Bongo Fury outing was complete, Beefheart recruited members of the Mothers and convinced a couple of Magic Band veterans to come back into the fold. In October, the new Magic Band hit the road, playing classic Beefheart tracks (his recent, commercially-minded material was ignored) for audiences across Europe and the States. A handful of dates opening for Zappa would take place during the last week of the year.
The December 27th gig was held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The concert was noteworthy for the Captain’s heated exchanges with the crowd. Beefheart had quite the temper and had confronted audiences before, but this was something else altogether. Years later, members of the Magic Band would recount what transpired. Here’s guitarist Denny Walley:
That [gig] was memorable to me because that was the one where the audience started booing and throwing things at us, after Don [Don Van Vliet is Captain Beefheart’s real name] had given the finger to somebody. Somebody had given the finger to him. Frank was the headliner. We had opened for him. Frank used to give the finger a lot—to the audience—it was a way of saying “Hi!” To Don, it was a way of saying, “Fuck You!” So, he god pissed off and got right in the guy’s face with it, and the next thing you know a lot of people were angry, and they started booing and throwing shit.
It was constant heckling and stuff. (taken from Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic)
During a 2000 Q&A, multi-instrumentalist and the Magic Band’s musical director, John French, had this to say about what happened that night:
Don “gave the finger” to the guy in an insulting way, got right in his face and started hurtling insults to the audience. The objective of this behavior seemed to be to intentionally provoke the audience. People were throwing objects at the stage. I was upset with Don for not just ignoring the guy and performing. Don eventually left the stage. We played “Alice in Blunderland” and appeased the crowd a bit, but as soon as Don came back up, they became hostile again.
Afterwards, we walked into the dressing room, which was completely dark. Don had broken out all the lights. Every light in the dressing room was broken, and there were shards of glass everywhere. He was saying “I wanted the audience to do that, man! That was exactly what I wanted them to do!” It was a very unnerving evening, but certainly not the first time Don had managed to alienate an entire crowd.
Captain Beefheart on stage at Winterland, December 27th, 1975.
While an audience tape of the Winterland performance has circulated online, it doesn’t sound that great. But recently, audio sourced from a first generation cassette surfaced. It was provided by an anonymous collector who says he obtained his copy from the taper of the show not long after the concert. This collector also added that the person who recorded it was none other than Matt Groening—the future creator of The Simpsons! Groening is a big Beefheart fan, and is believed to have recorded a number of the Captain’s Bay Area performances.
The Magic Band lineup:
Captain Beefheart: vocals, saxophone, harmonica
Drumbo John French: drums, percussion, guitar (on “Dali’s Car”)
Bruce Fossil Fowler: air bass (trombone)
Winged Eel Fingerling Elliot Ingber: guitar, slide guitar
Feeler’s Reedo/Walla Walla Denny Walley: guitar, slide guitar
L-R: Ingber, Beefheart, Walley, Fowler, French (front).
02. Moonlight On Vermont
03. Abba Zaba
04. Orange Claw Hammer
05. Don addresses the audience
06. Dali’s Car
07. When It Blows It Stacks
08. My Human Gets Me Blues
09. Band introductions
10. Alice In Blunderland
11. Untitled improvisations
13. Golden Birdies
14. Big Eyed Beans From Venus
The audio is clearer than other versions of the gig, with speed and volume adjustments. The show’s drama is first heard before “Orange Claw Hammer.” During his band introductions, the Captain hurls his own brand of insults at the crowd, including this humdinger: “It’s like playing for a jar of pickles and trying to turn them back into cucumbers.”
Matt Groening on how he came to love Trout Mask Replica: