“My smile is stuck; I cannot go back t’yer frownland.” – Don Van Vliet
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND – Trout Mask Replica (1969 Reprise)
Produced by Frank Zappa, written by Don Van Vliet.
I’m no professional musician — not even close. I can’t speak that language, so I can’t explain to you why Trout Mask Replica is pure genius. I can tell you that it is not for everybody. Frank Zappa once said, regarding the public’s attitude towards popular music: “Give me something that sounds exactly like something that I already like.” With that sarcastic comment, Zappa hit the nail on the head. Most listeners want music in standard (4/4) time, with familiar tones, and based on familiar scales. If you fall into that majority, do not buy Trout Mask Replica.
I’ll give you an example of the weirdness within, right out of the liner notes. “Captain Beefheart plays tenor and soprano saxophone simultaneously on ‘Ant Man Bee’.” [My emphasis]
Those who have studied music, particularly free improvisation, find Trout Mask Replica to be utterly brilliant. It is an ugly duckling of an album, something that seems stark and unforgiving on first listen, but revealing more depth and beauty the more you hear it. There is much to be enjoyed here. The drumming (by Drumbo aka John French) shatters preconceived notions about tempo and timekeeping in a rock/blues context. Bass clarinet is present, a rare instrument these days to be sure, and not an easy instrument to appreciate. The guitar and horns are harsh and difficult for the average listener to digest coming across as nothing more than a cacophony. Often, it sounds as if all six musicians are playing different songs at the same time, and that is not too far off the mark. Yet, these conflicting parts mesh and intersect at key moments, creating an overall effect of, “It sounds wrong, but right.” With repeated listens, it begins to sound more right than wrong. Bits and pieces gradually coalesce, and suddenly it clicks. There are hooks here, catchy guitar parts that reveal themselves slowly. The howling moans of Don Van Vliet are always enticing. I love his “old man” voice on the scratchy “The Dust Blows Forwards ‘N the Dust Blows Back”.
The music is playful (“Ella Garu” for example). Captain Beefheart plays homage to Americana on “Moonlight on Vermont”. “Pachuco Cadaver”, the most immediate piece here, is catchy and pop-like in its structure. Yet Trout Mask Replica‘s prime influence in the blues, both at its most ancient and futuristic simultaneously. If that’s even possible, then Beefheart did it right here. Then again, “Hair Pie: Bake 2” is just pure jazz.
If you gave it a shot and you didn’t like Trout Mask Replica, then that is a question of personal taste and you are not wrong. However, nobody can say that this is “not music”, or that this is the work of “amateurs”. It takes years for musicians to be able to compose and play music of this stature. If you don’t appreciate it, that’s fine. AC/DC are still making records. A lot of people can’t appreciate Edgard Varese or Ligeti either. Yet their music continues to live on years after their deaths. So will it be for Don Van Vliet & his Magic Band.
After repeated spins, I believe that even the most jaded of listeners can find something to enjoy if they try. Whether it be Van Vliet’s gutteral blues howling or the loud and aggressive slide guitar, there is much to be loved on Trout Mask Replica. If by chance you are a Beefheart fan already, or are slowly becoming one, there are some interesting companion pieces to be had: The one I want is Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982. It’s a 5-CD box set containing two entire discs of Trout Mask outtakes and sessions.
Buy this if you like experimental Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Mike Patton, the works of Edgard Varese, early (Easy Action and Pretties For You) Alice Cooper, or free improv.