Van Vliet has been the subject of at least two documentaries, the BBC's 1997 The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart narrated by John Peel, and the 2006 independent production Captain Beefheart: Under Review.
According to Peel, "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart... I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." His narration added: "A psychedelic shaman who frequently bullied his musicians and sometimes alarmed his fans, Don somehow remained one of rock's great innocents". Mike Barnes referred to him as an "iconic counterculture hero", who with the Magic Band "went on to stake out startling new possibilities for rock music". Lester Bangs cited Beefheart as "one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties", while John Harris of The Guardian praised the music's "pulses with energy and ideas, the strange way the spluttering instruments meld together". A Rolling Stone biography described his work as "a sort of modern chamber music for rock band, since he plans every note and teaches the band their parts by ear. Because it breaks so many of rock's conventions at once, Beefheart's music has always been more influential than popular." In this context, it is performed by the classical group, the Meridian Arts Ensemble. Piero Scaruffi characterized "three basic elements": "the ballad out of tune, with guitar interlaced with jolting rhythm, vocal miasma and a rogue harmonica". Scaruffi ranked Trout Mask Replica number one on his list of the greatest rock albums of all time. He says that "the distance between Captain Beefheart and the rest of rock music is the same distance that there was between Beethoven and the symphonists of his time". Nicholas E. Tawa, in his 2005 book Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century: Styles and Singers and What They Said About America, included Beefheart among the prominent progressive rock musicians of the 1960s and 70s, while the Encyclopædia Britannica describes Beefheart's songs as conveying "deep distrust of modern civilization, a yearning for ecological balance, and that belief that all animals in the wild are far superior to human beings."
Many artists have cited Van Vliet as an influence, beginning with the Edgar Broughton Band, who covered Dropout Boogie as Apache Drop Out (mixed with The Shadows' "Apache") as early as 1970 and The Kills coverage of it 32 years later. The Minutemen were fans of Beefheart, and were arguably among the few to effectively synthesize his music with their own, especially in their early output, which featured disjointed guitar and irregular, galloping rhythms. Michael Azerrad describes the Minutemen's early output as "highly caffeinated Captain Beefheart running down James Brown tunes", and notes that Beefheart was the group's "idol". Others who arguably conveyed the same influence around the same time or before include John Cale of The Velvet Underground, Little Feat, Laurie Anderson, The Residents and Henry Cow. Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and poet mystic Z'EV, both pioneers of industrial music, cited Van Vliet along with Zappa among their influences. More notable were those emerging during the early days of punk rock, such as The Clash and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols (reportedly to manager Malcolm McLaren's disapproval), later of the post-punk band Public Image Ltd.
Cartoonist and writer Matt Groening tells of listening to Trout Mask Replica at the age of 15 and thinking "that it was the worst thing I'd ever heard. I said to myself, they're not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn't believe Frank Zappa could do this to me—and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realised they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard." Groening first saw Beefheart and the Magic Band perform in the front row at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in the early 1970s. He later declared Trout Mask Replica to be the greatest album ever made. He considered the appeal of the Magic Band as outcasts who were even "too weird for the hippies". Groening served as the curator of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival that reunited the post–Beefheart Magic Band.
Another devotee from the film industry is Woody Allen, who was found singing along to Beefheart's music in the audience in New York.
Van Vliet's influence on post–punk bands was demonstrated by Magazine's recording of "I Love You You Big Dummy" in 1978 and the tribute album Fast 'n' Bulbous - A Tribute to Captain Beefheart in 1988, featuring the likes of artists such as the Dog Faced Hermans, The Scientists, The Membranes, Simon Fisher Turner, That Petrol Emotion, the Primevals, The Mock Turtles, XTC, and Sonic Youth, who included a cover of Beefheart's "Electricity" as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of their 1988 album Daydream Nation. Other post-punk bands influenced by Beefheart include Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pere Ubu, Babe the Blue Ox and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. The Fall covered "Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin' Stones" in their 1993 session for John Peel. Beefheart is considered to have "greatly influenced" New Wave artists, such as David Byrne of Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, The Bongos, and The B-52s.
Tom Waits' shift in artistic direction, starting with 1983's Swordfishtrombones, was, Waits claims, a result of his wife Kathleen Brennan introducing him to Van Vliet's music. "Once you've heard Beefheart," said Waits, "it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood." Guitarist John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers cited Van Vliet as a prominent influence on the band's 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik as well as his debut solo album Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) and stated that during his drug-induced absence, after leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he "would paint and listen to Trout Mask Replica." Black Francis of the Pixies cited Beefheart's The Spotlight Kid as one of the albums he listened to regularly when first writing songs for the band, and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana acknowledged Van Vliet's influence, mentioning him among his notoriously eclectic range.
The White Stripes in 2000 released a 7" tribute single, Party of Special Things to Do, containing covers of that Beefheart song plus "China Pig" and "Ashtray Heart". The Kills included a cover of "Dropout Boogie" on their debut Black Rooster EP (2002). The Black Keys in 2008 released a free cover of Beefheart's "I'm Glad" from Safe as Milk. In 2005 Genus Records produced a 20-track tribute to Captain Beefheart titled Mama Kangaroos - Philly Women Sing Captain Beefheart. Beck included "Safe as Milk" and "Ella Guru" in a playlist of songs as part of his website's Planned Obsolescence series of mashups of songs by the musicians that influenced him. Franz Ferdinand cited Beefheart's Doc At The Radar Station as a strong influence on their second LP, You Could Have It So Much Better. Placebo briefly named themselves Ashtray Heart, after the track on Doc at the Radar Station; the band's album Battle for the Sun contains a track called "Ashtray Heart". Joan Osborne covered Beefheart's "(His) Eyes are a Blue Million Miles", which appears on Early Recordings. She cited Van Vliet as one of her influences. PJ Harvey and John Parish discussed Beefheart's influence in an interview together. Harvey's first experience of Beefheart's music was as a child. Her parents had all of his albums; listening to them made her "feel ill". Harvey was reintroduced to Beefheart's music by Parish, who lent her a cassette copy of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) at the age of 16. She cited him as one of her greatest influences since. Parish described Beefheart's music as a "combination of raw blues and abstract jazz. There was humour in there, but you could tell that it wasn't a joke. I felt that there was a depth to what he did that very few other rock artists have managed ." Ty Segall covered "Drop Out Boogie" on his 2009 album, Lemons.
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