[note: I’ve been slowly working on an article on the movie Blue Collar, a labor of love about a truly great and forgotten film. With Captain Beefheart’s recent death I wanted to publish a portion of the article as a remembrance. Capt. Beefheart was involved in the opening song of the movie and the story of how that came to pass is interesting. I’m sure this material will also appear in the article when I finish it. But for now, even if it’s a rough draft, I hope you enjoy this forgotten song from a forgotten movie.]
The opening credit sequence of Blue Collar acts as a total package in a way that few other openings do and as a result is one of the most effective I’ve ever seen. It has great visuals that speak to the themes and echo past cinematic images; a great song; integration of the song with the visuals; the introduction of the line foreman. The whole things acts as a compact, distilled introduction to many of the themes that the next two hours will be spent exploring.
The first visuals we see are the from the parking lot, as if the camera was the working man from the song, taking a few seconds before starting a day of work. Once in the factory it’s get right to work time as we see rows of industrial machinery steady working. There isn’t anything beautiful about it. We are far removed from the sleek looked machines of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. These machines are dirty and methodical and soulless.
When the hard bluesy drumbeat is played over top of the visuals you can’t tell the difference between the two; which is the human and which is the machine? This is underscored when the image freezes for a few seconds with the machinery pounding away before the song continues and there is no discernible break. You can’t tell where the audio of the working machinery stops and the audio of the drumbeat starts which is a nice set up for the easy way that the working men are introduced into the opening. They too are a part of the machine, becoming interchangeable with them.
After the break the distinctive song proper starts, “Hard Working Man” by Captain Beefheart. Jack Nitzsche scored Blue Collar and brought in Ry Cooder to work on the opening song. Nitzsche, Cooder and the director Paul Schrader had some original lyrics and wanted to evoke the feeling and sound of Bo Diddley without having to pay for the rights to one of his songs. They also needed it recorded a certain way, with specified breaks. The three brainstormed for names to bring in to sing the song, Tom Waits’ name among others was mentioned. With nothing else panning out Cooder said he knew just the guy, his old boss Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. Cooder literally had to coax him out of the desert. Once Beefheart was in the studio he refused to do it which resulted in Cooder locking him in the booth until he did the song. Eventually he calmed down enough to record the vocals and it’s easy to imagine Beefheart putting that extra growl into lines like “shit ass foreman” and “hard working FUCKED OVER man.”
A note for collectors: All future, recorded versions of the song that appeared are not the same as the one from the movie. They have a cleaner sound, with the sounds of the machinery removed and the lyrics are cleaned up, getting rid of the cuss words and the moments of heated improv. On the rare moment when the movie is played on TV the original song often isn’t used. The only way to hear the raw, original version of the song is on some versions of the movie (and of course Youtube).
Years later Cooder would joke around about getting back at Vilet for what he was put through during the recording of Safe as Milk. Cooder’s memory of the events would fade with time but a historical record exists and is one of the most interesting things I found while doing research.
Here is an excerpt from a radio interview that Ry Cooder did with an Australian radio station just months after the opening song was recorded that gives us the blood and guts details. [The page with the link is here, in case the audio file won’t open for you.]
Captain Beefheart died on December 17, 2010. Even as one more person associated with the production of Blue Collar has passed we are no closer to this movie being remembered and taking it’s rightful place among the great movies of the 1970’s. More on that though later in the completed full article. For now, enjoy this great song by a great artist.