In 1969, the deeply strange musician known as Captain Beefheart released an album that is still ahead of its time a half-century later. PopMatters spoke with musicians and writers about this landmark work of art and why it continues to fascinate.
Trout Mask Replica
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
16 June 1969
To put Trout Mask Replica in its proper context, it's important to get a thumbnail sketch of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, up to this point. A California native and former high school classmate of fellow outsider artist Frank Zappa, Beefheart released his first album, Safe As Milk, in 1967. The album is a heady mix of blues, psychedelia, and mild atonality. It was made all the more potent by Beefheart's blues harp skills and wide vocal range, which took stylistic cues from one of his heroes, blues legend Howlin' Wolf. Strictly Personal, which followed in 1968, was a worthwhile sophomore effort marred somewhat by distracting and badly aged psychedelic effects.
By the summer of 1968 – after the recording of Strictly Personal but before its autumn release – Beefheart was itching to make an album completely on his own terms. While his first two albums certainly contained their fair share of weirdness, they seemed to hold back pure, unfiltered Beefheart in all its Dada experimentalism and brash anarchy. Enter Frank Zappa. As an artist who shared Beefheart's penchant for creating art that was very much against the grain (not to mention one who recently started his own record label), Zappa offered Beefheart and his Magic Band the opportunity to produce his next album and give him complete artistic freedom.
The result was Trout Mask Replica, a 28-song double album, released on 16 June 1969. The album was chock full of atonal noise, jagged guitar parts working against multiple time signatures, hollering delta blues, grotesque lyrical imagery and unhinged psychedelic pre-punk. Tracked primarily at professional studios in the Los Angeles area, a few of the songs were also recorded at the ramshackle Woodland Hills home Beefheart shared with the Magic Band (which consisted of musicians that were all given Beefheart-issued nicknames: Antennae Jimmy Semens, Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, the Mascara Snake, and John "Drumbo" French, the latter of whose job aside from drumming was to transcribe the untrained Beefheart's instructions into actual music).
Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic who has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post, first discovered Trout Mask Replica in bits and pieces as a teenager, as songs from the album were featured on Warner Brothers "loss leader" compilation albums that were popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "It was just so insanely weird," Page recalls on hearing those songs for the first time. "It was like nothing else I'd ever heard. I liked the dissonances. I liked the surreal lyrics. I just liked the whole thing enormously." Page added that the album's stature as a truly odd work of art is unchanged to this day. "(Composer) Charlie Wuorinen said that getting to know Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire is like trying to befriend a porcupine, and I think it's somewhat true about Trout Mask Replica. It's always going to be radical."
Mike Keneally – who was a guitarist and keyboard player in Frank Zappa's 1988 touring band and has since forged a highly prolific and acclaimed solo career – first heard Trout Mask Replica in the mid-1970s as a teenage Zappa fan in San Diego after being somewhat underwhelmed by Beefheart's disappointing 1974 album Unconditionally Guaranteed. "I picked up Trout Mask Replica at Blue Meanie, a really cool independent record store in El Cajon," he remembers. "It was mind-blowing. But I didn't perceive it as chaos. I could discern the structure and the fact that these were prepared arrangements that these guys had learned. It didn't take too long to fall in love with it. I was really taken with the brashness of it." Upon repeated listening, Keneally added, the components of the album that sounded abstract and jagged became more and more beautiful. "The juxtaposition of the guitar parts, which often seemed diametrically opposed – the more I heard them rubbing against each other, the more I was falling in love with the meta melodies that were formed."
Grammy-nominated avant-garde guitarist Gary Lucas also discovered Beefheart's music at a relatively young age, as a teenager in Syracuse, New York. It was then that he saw Strictly Personal in the cutout bin of a local record store and picked it up purely on impulse without knowing anything about it. "It sounded a bit too unfocused for my ears," he recalls. "I knew there was something there, but it didn't quite gel for me, and I filed it away." About six months later, he saw Trout Mask Replica in the record store, and one line on the back cover - PRODUCED BY FRANK ZAPPA - immediately piqued his interest. "I liked it right off the bat," he says. "It was such a sprawling statement across two discs. At first, it sounded like cacophonous noise, and I had a suspicion that they were just faking it. And then on the second listen, I noticed the structure. It sounded to me like modern classical music."
In addition to the dense, noisy dissonance, one of the unique aspects of Trout Mask Replica is its eclectic nature. The more than two dozen songs on the album cover a wide stylistic range. The lo-fi a cappella number "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back" lives alongside the raw guitar blues of "China Pig". There's the shuffling cacophony of "Pachuco Cadaver" as well as the spiky, angular boogie of "Moonlight on Vermont". At the conclusion of the chaotic instrumental "Hair Pie, Bake 1", a field recording emerges, with Beefheart conversing politely with some young neighborhood kids who stumbled upon the noise in the Woodland Hills neighborhood where the band was holed up. The length of the album, under Zappa's auspices, allow for a million unique episodes.
Keneally points to the odd cymbal crash that concludes "Frownland" as one of the album's oddly definitive moments. "I can't put into words what it makes me feel to hear that," he said. "But it paints a picture; it puts me in a place. There's no other album that puts the ingredients of music together the way that album does. It's a singular experience."
"There's certainly Dadaism in it," said Page. "There are songs on that album that seem to be genuinely moving. Something like 'Steal Softly Through Snow' - it's a pretty powerful song about man's inhumanity to man. It's kind of a weird dream of a song, and I find it quite moving."
Hearing Trout Mask Replica is hearing Beefheart, pure and unexpurgated. So how does a notorious control freak like Frank Zappa produce an album by a character as colorful as Beefheart? By allowing Beefheart to do what he wanted. It may not seem initially like anyone's fingerprints, but Beefheart's are on this album, but Keneally feels that Zappa's influence looms large on the landmark album. "Frank provides an atmosphere on that record," he said. "The collage techniques of editing, the use of his own voice, which you hear at various crucial junctures, the use of segues."
"I definitely see that album as being of a piece with other double albums Frank was producing at the time," Keneally added. "His own Uncle Meat as well as Wild Man Fischer's An Evening with Wild Man Fischer. I think that those three albums all come from a similar place. In each case, they're all very uncompromising and very freewheeling portraits of their composer. Frank provided a context on Trout Mask Replica, and his producer's hand is very strong there."
Page describes Trout Mask Replica as something of a "one-off" artistic statement. While he made several other albums that were often in the same spirit, nothing can replicate it, whether by Beefheart or other artists. "To try to imitate Trout Mask Replica is to misunderstand its point in some ways," he said. "It's all about being a one-off. Nobody continues to do (Marcel Duchamp's) Nude Descending a Staircase. That was kind of a one-off, but it's a very significant, powerful, and moving one-off. There are one-offs in film - Last Year at Marienbad, for instance. No one's going to remake that."
Beefheart never attempted to remake Trout Mask Replica. In 1970, he followed it up with the fan-favorite Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The album retains some of the stylistic feel of its predecessor, albeit in a less chaotic manner. "In some ways, Decals is a refinement," said Keneally. "A lot of people prefer Decals precisely because it's more polished. I think that it's a great album, but for some reason, I find that it doesn't make my heart leap in quite the same way. It sounds almost like a recital, whereas Trout Mask Replica sounds more like a ritual.
Page agrees: "It's clearly from the same guy who made Trout Mask Replica, but I think it's a much, much 'easier' album to listen to." Lucas is also an unabashed fan of Decals and considers it his personal favorite Beefheart album and perhaps an easier introduction to the discography. "If I had one Beefheart album to recommend, that's it," he said. "Trout Mask Replica is great, but because of the length, it may be hard for people to digest."
Decals was followed up with the decidedly more mainstream albums Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, which managed to retain a lot of Beefheart's idiosyncrasies but paired them up with a more user-friendly rock sound. "Those two are probably my very favorite of his records, they're just wonderful," said Page. "They still have all this craziness going on, but they're also very good rock and roll records." The less said about the two following Beefheart albums, Bluejeans and Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed, the better. Here, Beefheart entered a decidedly dull, middle-of-the-road phase which contained a couple of bright moments but was essentially derided by fans and critics (to the extent where Beefheart's ensemble was jokingly referred to as the Tragic Band).
Beefheart rebounded in 1978 with Shiny Beast / Bat Chain Puller, an acclaimed return to form. "If you listen to Trout Mask Replica and say, 'I ain't ready for this,' maybe give Shiny Beast a shot," said Keneally. "It's a beautiful album and kind of based on grooves that you actually can tap your foot to. There's a propulsion to that album that I just think is fantastic."
It was soon after the release of that album that Lucas found himself deep inside Beefheart's personal and professional circle. He interviewed Beefheart during the Spotlight Kid tour as a Yale student and they hit it off, staying in touch over the years until Lucas ultimately joined Beefheart's band in 1980, playing guitar and french horn on two songs on Doc at the Radar Station. He eventually became a full-time band member for what would be Beefheart's final album, Ice Cream for Crow (1982). He also served as Beefheart's manager.
Those later Beefheart albums contain a great deal of the punk rock flavor of the era, although Beefheart himself treated the punk genre with great disdain (made crystal clear on his song "Ashtray Heart"). "He thought he was ripped off by the punks," Lucas said. "He felt that they appropriated too much of his stuff. But they all acknowledged his influence - look at the first iteration of the punk avatars: John Lydon, Devo, David Byrne, Pere Ubu. Still, he felt he didn't really get the benefit of a crossover punk audience, and he was bitter." Beefheart eventually retired from music in 1983, concentrating on his highly influential (and lucrative) painting, before passing away in 2010 at age 69 due to complications from multiple sclerosis.
Page hears Beefheart's influence - mostly indirect - in a variety of later artists. "I certainly hear it in Pere Ubu," he said. "I hear it in other groups. There was a very good group called Model Citizens that made only one record for John Cale's Spy label. They sound a lot like Beefheart with all the dissonances and things going mad."
"What Beefheart invented can't be contained in a genre label," Keneally said when asked about the correlation between Beefheart and punk rock. "But his attitude was a 'punk,' take-no-prisoners attitude. He was completely unashamed to be exactly himself, and possessed the will to do precisely what he wanted and not give a shit about what a record label might think of it."
How should a music listener approach something as daunting as Trout Mask Replica? Keneally's recommendation: "Put yourself in a situation where you're not distracted. I would advise headphones. If you're ready for the experience, you have to come to it on its own terms, and you have to give it your full attention." He added, "As an artistic statement and something that stands as a landmark in modern music, Trout Mask Replica is almost unequaled. There are other things that I love that hit me in similar ways, but Trout got there first."
"Trout Mask Replica is a great album, it's sui generis," said Lucas. "It seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was like the laws of music had been turned on their axis." He added that Beefheart was "about the most creative person I've ever met. He was volcanic, always gushing ideas. You couldn't keep up with him."
Page said that Trout Mask Replica reminds him a little of the Watts Tower architectural structures in Los Angeles. "It's just this big magnificent heap of weirdness," he said. "It's big and strange and 'out there' and almost challenges you to go out there and do something big and strange yourself."
"You can like it or not like it, but you cannot deny the fact that it's a genuinely radical record," Page continued. "Radical and powerful, even after 50 years. It's shocking, but there are times when it's good for people to be shocked."
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