by James Fleming
Imagine, if you will…
-Count it off Cat!
-“a runalittle, doalittle, preealittle, pouralittle…”
Counting off a song in Joycean. Then lurching into a riff so twisted, a beat so fluid, lyrics so mischievous that they seemed to spring from the prankster mind of Loki himself.
It’s not a drunken lurch. Though at first glance, you’d swear this group of surrealists were as blitzed as the porter-fond protagonist of O’Brien’s At-Swim two Birds, or the main man of Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America. It’s a steady pulse cloaked in syncopation and atonal clusters, months of artistic striving, starvation and gruelling practise masked by a technicolour cloud of nonsense and disregard.
Disregard but respect for tradition. It’s the base of creativity, tradition is. And tradition laid a concrete foundation for Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.
MOJO Magazine’s number one weirdest album of all time, Trout Mask Replica is where it started for many an alternative group. The outsiders of the sixties dug the Velvet Underground, and over the course of the decades, raised the Velvets to legendary status. But the real weirdoes latched onto Captain Beefheart. And almost fifty years later, it remains an unlistenable weirdo cult album to all but those who really know their rock n’ roll.
Though that’s hardly an accurate term for it: ‘rock n’ roll’. Rooted in the roots of American music (RnB, the blues) and the permissiveness of the sixties that spawned it (LSD, free jazz, general envelope pushing/ripping), it really is a transcendental album. Not just in a mind-opening/enlightening sense. But also in purely musical terms.
The 28 tracks on Trout Mask Replica, enshrined in the United States National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, stretch and weave their way in and out of genres. They come alive as some sort of sci-fi B-movie thing, something straight from one of Beefheart’s and Frank Zappa’s high school movie scripts.
And each time they come to life, they take on a different shape: one listen its the rawest form of garage-rock, the next it’s avant-garde dadaism and the next it’s simply an ungodly racket to blow your blues away. For as famed rock critic Rob Christgau noted; “you’ll never feel as shitty as this record”…
It’s like a good film; each time you breathe it in like laughing gas, you discover something new about it. Some new perspective on not just the record, but on music.
And that’s what I mean by “transcendental.” Never mind what Simon Cowell tells you; music can change the world, but not in the miraculous, immediate way most people think when they hear that statement.
Music can open minds and change attitudes. The question is: are you listening?
Not all music can do this, by the way. Only genuinely creative and individual music will affect a body’s mindset. Trout Mask Replica is 28 songs of enlightenment. Specifically, it can change a person’s outlook on music and what can be done with music.
You’d have a hard time dancing to it, but once you figure it out, by God you will boogie. For, as George Clinton said; “free your mind and your ass will follow.”
Part 1: “Free Your Mind…”
There are few predecessors to Trout Mask Replica. Certainly there are very few albums that stand out as direct ancestors to its organised chaos. Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come is one example. And Beefheart’s gravelled vocal timbre is a direct descendant of Howlin’ Wolf’s own gritty voice. But neither of those examples sound exactly like TMR.
As is the case with many an album. Ramones is a record that is also seemingly without predecessor. The Velvet Underground and Nico pre-dates both TMR and Ramones as an album of timelessness and art.
What all these albums have in common is the way the artists picked and chose the choice traits of previous musical/artistic innovators and combined them in new and exciting ways.
In the case of Trout Mask Replica, The Captain fused Coleman’s unique approach to (a)tonality, John Lee Hooker’s bizarre blues-rhythms and rock music’s boundary-pushing.
A strong argument can be made that TMR wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened at any other time. The loosening of morals and the expanding of ideas that suddenly surged in to public consciousness in the sixties laid a cultural foundation for Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band’s music.
While plenty of experimenting had indeed been conducted in jazz and blues, the upsurge in rock music’s popularity marked the first time that artistic adventuring made it onto daytime radio.
This sudden rush of ideas and possibilities that became so readily available in the mid-to-late sixties was taken to its extreme on Trout Mask Replica. And many people simply can’t handle it.
And I’m not talking about hippy-dippy flower-power bullshit here. This ain’t peace an’ love. This is merely the result of a very fertile period of musical exploration.
Frank Zappa, the producer of Trout Mask Replica, stated that the sixties “weren’t that great,” and most likely, he was right.
For every true musical innovator, for every Zappa or Beefheart or Hendrix, there were thousands of stoned draft-dodgers accomplishing very little.
However, in the field of popular music, many new roadways were being paved: from Hendrix’s feedback experimentations to The Stooges’ pre-industrial hullaballoo. Trout Mask Replica is a child of the idea that anything is possible…
It’s almost anti-music. Not “anti” as in against. More so, “anti” as in anti-joke…
Person #1: “Why was William Shakespeare buried in Stratford Upon-Avon?”
Person #2: “I dunno, why was William Shakespeare buried in Stratford Upon-Avon?”
Person #1: “‘Cause he was dead.”
The similarity between that joke and the music on Trout Mask Replica is: they both take the traditional forms of their art and distort them into something only vaguely recognisable.
In the case of the above joke, it’s a standard question and answer format, just like countless other jokes. However, that punchline is far from standard.
There’s no wordplay, no innuendo, not even a pun. It’s a simple statement of fact: “‘cause-he-was-dead.”
And that’s what makes it an ANTI-joke. By disregarding the conventional form of a punchline, but having a respect for the format of the joke.
The primary instruments on Trout Mask Replica are your standard meat-and-two-veg rock n’ roll band instruments: guitars, bass, drums and vocals. Various wind instruments make appearances; bass clarinet, tenor and soprano saxophone (simultaneously played by The Captain on Ant Man Bee), something called a “flesh horn,” and a musette. But, the aforementioned concrete foundation was laid by capable hands with traditional tools.
It’s in the approach to composition and the use of those tools that we see the disregard for convention. The Captain supposedly composed all the instrument’s parts (drums included) on a piano while Drumbo painstakingly notated the riffs, melodies, beats, etc.
The Captain couldn’t play the piano…
Right there, we see that convention was thrown out the proverbial window. Not only was Trout Mask Replica composed on a piano, an instrument that doesn’t appear on the album, but the composer couldn’t play the damn thing.
By writing the material on an instrument he couldn’t play, The Captain took a novel approach to composition. Inspired by free jazz’s ideals of musical emancipation, though not so much improvisation, as evidenced by the gruelling regime he subjected The Magic Band to during the pre-production for Trout Mask Replica, each note simply appeared to be as valid as any other. Likewise, any combination of said notes was as valid as your straight-up G chord.
And thus, the atonality of TMR was born. A bizarre mixture of the traditional and adventurism. Traditional in a format sense, adventurism in the approach to that tradition.
And that approach extends to the way the instruments were played. In fact, it borders on merely eccentric at times…
The Captain insisted on covering all the drums and cymbals with cardboard during the recording of TMR, he also insisted on recording his vocals with the backing track barely audible. Whether that is “innovation” or simply “weirdness” I shall leave up to you dear reader…
But take the guitar playing as an example: two players: Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennae Jimmy Semens on “glass finger guitar” and “steel appendage guitar” respectively.
It doesn’t take a blues scholar to decipher that “glass finger guitar” and “steel appendage guitar” are references to glass and steel slides. Which are utilised to play the imaginatively monikered slide-guitar.
While both Rollo’s and Semens’ playing is rooted in delta blues of the rawest sort, the treble-distorted guitar tone adds an electric bite to the playing that’s not present on, say, Robert Johnson’s or Son House’s recordings.
As well as the sound of the guitars, The Captain’s aforementioned disregard for tonality results in some interesting interplay between the two players.
More conventional rhythm/lead relationships between guitar players’ lines had been utilised so often before in rock, blues and jazz. The Captain, in his embracement of freedom over conventionality, wrote riffs that not only clashed tonally, but often rhythmically as well.
So again, we see a very traditional style, slide-guitar, taken in a very unconventional direction. By welding these incompatible jigsaw pieces together, The Captain forged not only a sound, but an identity.
An identity that marched to its own idiosyncratic beat. A beat informed as much by John Lee Hooker’s damnation of ordinary rhythmic approaches as the odd time signatures and syncopation of the most out-there jazz.
Syncopation is key to The Captain’s beat. Upon first listen, the music on Trout Mask Replica appears to be devoid of rhythm. But, if one pays close attention, the rhythms begin to appear…
The beat may start off quite apparent, on Pachuco Cadaver for instance. But just as you’re getting your head around the various polyrhythms of a song, it suddenly veers off into a completely contrasting beat. Often times, it’s a new time signature. Or else the emphasis on particular beats or offbeats will change drastically.
The polyrhythms and the apparently random changes in time are arguably the most uncompromising and off-putting aspects of TMR. By doing away with musical ingredients as basic as a beat, Captain Beefheart robbed the listener of something to even tap a foot to.
If the beat were more accessible, even if the notes were just as atonal and abrasive but arranged in a more conventional manner, Trout Mask Replica would’ve been much easier listening. And not nearly as good.
A melody is useless without a rhythm. What good are notes without a place in the piece? Rhythm dictates where the notes go, and how long they are played for; if a note stretches over one or two beats, or if it’s merely a grace note.
And since The Captain chose not to embrace tonality, all we really have to go on is the rhythm. That seemingly random bombardment of noise.
“Seemingly” is the important word in that sentence. For it’s not random. It’s simply (not really, it’s quite complex in actuality) syncopated to death.
It’s in his approach to rhythm that The Captain truly makes his mark. Since the music of TMR is atonal, the notes and the combinations of notes are unimportant. Rather, the overall effect of the dissonance between those combinations of notes is what matters.
The chords on Trout Mask Replica are mostly clusters of notes interspersed across the beat in an odd, jarring manner. I believe it was an effect that The Captain had in his mind during the composition of this record. Rather than a traditional sound.
And the rhythm is what is most important in the searching for that effect. The placing of these clusters around the beat is what really gives Trout Mask Replica that clash between the various guitar riffs, bass lines and Beefheart’s own octave-hopping vocals.
The dissonance of the notes and the various instrumental lines of course helps. But, any asshole can plonk his fingers randomly on an instrument, be it sax, guitar, piano or hurdy-gurdy, and make a noise. But it takes skill to organise that noise into a cohesive whole.
And for that, you need rhythm. And a unique attitude towards rhythmic possibilities. And as is evident on Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart had that attitude.
The various stops and starts of the music, the sudden appearance of a new instrument or the startling veering of the instrumental parts in a whole new direction stand as testament to The Captain’s idiosyncratic hold on rhythm. It also proves that, despite apparent audible evidence to the contrary, he knew what he was doing.
Like many, when I first heard Trout Mask Replica, I was skeptical as to whether or not this was purposely composed, as I had read it was, or whether it was just, well, noise.
And between the fits of hysterical laughter, I had one question in mind: ‘could they play this live?’
The answer is yes.
Thank God for Youtube or else we may never definitively know the answer to that question. There are videos online that prove that the original Magic Band, as well as subsequent incarnations of it, could in fact play Trout Mask Replica.
There are also live albums. On Live At Knebworth Park, 5th July 1975-Captain Beefheart a different version of The Magic Band play such staples of TMR as Moonlight On Vermont, Orange Claw Hammer, Dali’s Car and My Human Gets Me Blues. Not only do they play them. But they play them as they were recorded.
Mostly, that is. There’s no bass player on Live At Knebworth…, instead there’s a trombonist. There’s also two drummers. But, the general framework of the music is there.
Which shows, that there are patterns to Trout Mask Replica’s 28 track blitzkrieg. They’re just not what one normally expects to find in music.
For that’s what music really is: patterns. But on TMR, your usual patterns, i.e. verse-choruse-bridge-repeat, were deemed either unnecessary or boring.
Traditional choruses were neglected, though not hooks. Check Ella Guru’s vocal motif and Pachuco Cadaver’s rockin’ opening guitar riff for ear-worming proof of that. And within this barrage of sound there are repeated sections. You can hear him repeat a beat or a riff in these songs. You just have to get past the atonality and the syncopation first.
It’s been noted by many a fan/critic that TMR takes several listens to “get.” One journalist from The Guardian said that it still sounded horrible after five or six listens. Matt Groening, a disciple of The Captain, stated that it took him about seven listens to finally understand that “this is the way it’s supposed to sound.”
It’s like changing a mindset after years of habit: at first it’s hard, seemingly impossible, but it’s worth it. Afterwards, you’ll have a new outlook as to what is possible in life. Or, in Trout Mask Replica’s case: what’s possible in music…
Part 2: “…And Your Ass Will Follow…”
… And when you open your mind as to what’s possible in music, you’ve opened it to a new realm of possibilities in a large aspect of human creativity.
And creativity is a huge part of the human condition, it’s an aspect of what makes us people. The Captain set out to push boundaries. To push this phenomenon of popular music to its extremes. In the process, he opened his mind.
You see, Trout Mask Replica, whether this was intended or not, is a statement. It’s a display of human creative prowess, like a tribe of gorillas beating their chests: “here we are, this is what we can do.”
John Peel, who often said that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band were his favourite group and TMR his favourite album, opined that if any rock album deserved to be called art it was Trout Mask Replica.
He was right.
Peel was right because more so than any other album across popular music’s decades worth of history, Trout Mask Replica says the most of what being human means.
It doesn’t say it clearly, and it doesn’t even state it in the lyrics. It’s not that clear cut.
But, TMR represents what we mere humans can accomplish creatively. It’s but one pinnacle, but one peak, of what humans are capable of artistically.
Picasso is another, Da Vinci is the obvious example. Mozart, Van Gogh, Brian Wilson, Shakespeare, Miles Davis, Tarantino, and Beefheart. These people aren’t the limit of creativity. They’re not where the sidewalk ends.
Those legends show us the way. They didn’t open the door then close it behind them. They transcended boundaries, both musical and creative, and in the process, we learned that creatively there are no rules, there are no borders.
Those legends are proof, cold, hard, proof that we homo sapiens aren’t as pointless as the misanthropists make us out to be.
Those legends were but man. People who envisioned what we can do. And who paid no attention to what WE say we can’t do.
The Captain, despite his faults and eccentricities, was at the end of the day just a guy. He wasn’t just like any of us. But then again, neither are you…
And that there’s the reason Lester Bangs dug on The Captain so much.
If you read Bangs’ writing (check Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung) hidden just beneath the apparent madness of his reviews, there’s a tremendous sensitivity. A gentleness and sympathy for and with humans.
Lester knew what I have tried to explain. Trout Mask Replica is not just noise-rock for cooler-than-thou hipsters. It’s the most rewarding rock album ever recorded.
It’s rewarding because it makes you think for yourself. You may not reach any conclusions, and you may not hit upon anything new. But, whatever you learn along the way, at least you figured it out for yourself.
It’s the most individualistic album committed to history. For us billions of humans, it shows us two things:
A) We’re not alone.
B) It’s OK.
It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to stand out or not stand out at all. It’s OK to be you.
It’s an extreme gesture of individuality, Trout Mask Replica is. But sometimes, a gesture is required.
But it doesn’t put a gun to your head, it’s not that extreme nor does it, or anything else, need to be. You don’t have to walk the path it presents. It’s just pointing in that direction.
Which is where the message of TMR and indeed The Captain’s music in general often gets lost. Many people get caught up in being “weird” in the mistaken belief that “weird” equates to “individual.” It doesn’t.
And lo the hipster was born! A person so dedicated to being “weird” or at least “not mainstream” that they’ve come full circle and blend straight in with their shabby-bearded peers.
Music is an enhancement. It augments the pleasure of living. By learning, and it is a learning process, to think for yourself you have expanded your horizons and added to maybe not the ease, but the pleasure of living.
Now, one can argue that TMR is simply too abrasive to be pleasurable, too challenging.
I ain’t gonna preach. I don’t need to tell you life is a challenge. What you may need reminding of, I know I do sometimes, is that the challenge is worth it.
There may not be a reason we’re here. But being here is worth it. Simply for all we get to experience. Because of what we can achieve.
And that’s why Trout Mask Replica is the greatest album ever recorded.
Because it’s the best Captain Beefheart, a man named Vliet, could do. It’s a real contribution to life here on our humble blue-green planet. And while you may think it’s pretentious, there’s nothing pretentious about that.
It says a lot about us humans that many of us think artistic expression and striving is pretentious. I’m not talking about a 17 minute drum solo here. Nor am I talking about a triple-disc rock-opera.
That would be mere, dull, self-indulgence. The sort of thing The Captain wasn’t having anything to do with. If that was the music of the day, then he was the anti-music. And that’s “anti” as in “against.”
Bob Dylan does too. So does Springsteen, albeit in an even more radio-friendly form than Dylan. I could have written about them instead of Beefheart. But, I like Beefheart better.
And there’s something to be said for that too. I’ve spent over 3,000 words explaining why I think Trout Mask Replica is amazing. Why the music is incredible, why the vision was unprecedented, why it quite simply rocks. Yes, I think it marks the peak of late-sixties rock n’ roll creativity. But, as I said, it’s a peak. Not the peak.
It’s the great legendary cult album. It’s exciting, fresh timeless. It’s a pinnacle of creativity and artistic endeavour. It’s Trout Mask Replica. Not a replica, but the real deal.
Lydon/Rotten, one of many notable Beefheart disciples, said that the first time he heard Trout Mask Replica he laughed all the way through. And indeed, it has a certain way with the ol’ funny bone…
Listen to The Dust Blows Forward ’N The Dust Blows Back, track two, and you’ll see/hear why…
“I took off my pants and felt free!/The breeze blowing up me/ Up the canyon… far as I could see!”
Rock n’ roll, jazz, blues, indeed any genre, has a tendency to disappear up its own arsehole every now and then. The fun gets sucked out of it.
And Trout Mask Replica is fun. Whether you find the apparent chaos of it enjoyable, or the impish lyrics tickle you pink, or you simply find great joy in this landmark in human creativity.
For an album rooted so deeply in the blues, a genre named after the fact that it’s sad, there’s something joyous about Trout Mask Replica. It could be for any of the reasons I gave above, or maybe it’s just reassuring that someone as inventive as The Captain once walked this earth.
Tom Waits, a man who arguably ripped off Captain Beefheart hook, line, and sinker for his classic SwordfishTrombones LP, put it well when he said “Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out. It stains, like coffee or blood.” But, perhaps, The Captain said it best himself with the opening lines of Trout Mask Replica…
“My Smile is stuck, I cannot go back t’yer frownland.”