The Story of Captain Beefheart’s Masterpiece, ‘Trout Mask Replica’
Trout Mask Replica is one of the weirdest and wildest albums ever to be released. Landing on record store shelves in June 1969, Captain Beefheart‘s masterpiece amazed, confused, irritated and enthralled anyone who dared listen to it. While certainly not the most listenable of Beefheart’s albums, it remains his most well-known and most captivating, losing none of its distinct charm or fire over the years.
Captain Beefheart, born Don Van Vliet, made his way onto a wild and wooly Los Angeles music scene in 1966 when he and his Magic Band signed to A&M Records and released a stomping cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” that was produced by David Gates, who would later find fame and fortune with Bread. The record was a small hit in L.A. but failed to catch fire elsewhere.
He then signed to Buddah and released his classic debut, Safe As Milk, in late 1967. Between the A&M recordings and the Safe As Milk album, things had changed within the band, as they were moving fast towards a sound away from anything identifiable as blues, rock or anything else for that matter. Strictly Personal, from 1968, saw the band move to yet another label, as the album failed to complete the transition. It would be with the help of longtime friend that would shine a spotlight on Beefheart as one of the most singular artists of all time.
Frank Zappa was an old friend of Beefheart’s, and in 1968 he signed him to his new Straight Records label, which was a subsidiary of Warner Bros. It would serve as home to the likes of the GTOs, Tim Buckley, Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer, among others. Zappa would act as producer on Trout Mask Replica, a seemingly natural move for the pair of outsiders to team up.
Though you wouldn’t know it from first listen, this was not a ramshackle combo experimenting and improvising. As later session tapes would show, this was a well-rehearsed, and very difficult puzzle being put together before our ears. Beefheart managed to combine elements of rock, jazz, folk, avant-garde and raw blues, all dripping with elements of dada and surrealism, to create something utterly its own.
“Frownland” opens the album in its own distinctly abrupt and alarming way. The band sound as if they are playing against each other at times, while the Captain delivers a raunchy blues vocal that peels the enamel from your teeth. “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N the Dust Blows Back” steps forth with some twisted poetry. “White flake riverboat just flew by / Bubbles popped big an’ uh lipstick Kleenex hung on uh pointed forked twig,” for example. “Dachau Blues” takes the tragic tales of World War II, and plants itself in the midst of the Vitenam era. “Dachau blues those poor Jews / Still cryin’ ’bout the burnin’ back in World War Twos / One mad man six million lose / The world can’t forget that misery / The young ones now beggin’ the old ones please stop bein’ madmen.”
“Moonlight on Vermont” is raw blues, all aggression and attitude far beyond the walls of tradition, and brilliant in every aspect. “Ella Guru” takes an almost basic pop song format, and twists it into a misshapen beast while “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish” is another poetic romp, this time with musical accompaniment.
“My Human Gets Me Blues” is, relatively speaking, a straight-ahead blues-soaked romp. The guitars sound like they are battling each other to the death, while the rhythm section chugs like a spastic train about to derail at the next turn. The guitars on “Dali’s Car” mesh as they clash in a glorious symphony of chaos. “Ant Man Bee” is another disjointed blues-based rattle that never finds a groove, thus creating its own. The chorus borders on a genuine pop song, which comes off as much startling as anything else found within these grooves.
It has been said many times that Trout Mask Replica was nothing more than a inside joke that was never meant to be taken seriously, and it’s been called everything from a cruel prank to simply unlistenable. Meanwhile, others have read between every line to herald it as a masterpiece. As Andy Partridge, leader of XTC, told writer John Harris in 2006, he needed some urging from a friend to become a die-hard fan. “At some point, he said, ‘You’ve got to try Trout Mask Replica. And I put it on and just thought, ‘What the f— is this? They’re mucking about! They can’t even play their instruments, they’re all out of tune, the drummer can’t drum in time, the singer’s not even singing, he’s just growling. But Spud said, ‘No, no, stick with it. You will get it.’ And I eventually had a road-to-Damascus experience, this sudden revelation. It just clicked.”
In the July 26, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs called it “the most unusual and challenging musical experience you’ll have this year,” and referred to the lyrics as “an explosion of maniacal free-association incantations.” Trout Mask Replica is the most art-damaged, blues wailin’, freak show ever committed to record. You can see straights run and hide, teeny boppers cover their ears, and hippies crawl away in horror as the sounds here are unleashed. A simple overview of the LP here cannot do it justice. Whether you take it all as a serious artistic statement, or as a insanely ravaging assault, one thing is for certain, there is no other record quite like it in the entire library of recorded music.
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