AWESOME ALBUMS #5: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica (1969)

Who made it?: Frank Zappa (Producer), Straight, Reprise (Labels).

Who’s on it?: Captain Beefheart, Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, Rockette Morton, Drumbo.

Recorded at: Sunset Sound Recorders and Whitney Studios, Los Angeles, 1968-1969.

Release date: 16th June 1969.

Back Cover

1. “Frownland” (1:41)
2. “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back” (1:53)
3. “Dachau Blues” (2:21)
4. “Ella Guru” (2:26)
5. “Hair Pie: Bake 1” (4:58)
6. “Moonlight on Vermont” (3:59)
7. “Pachuco Cadaver” (4:40)
8. “Bills Corpse” (1:48)
9. “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” (2:21)
10. “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish” (2:25)
11. “China Pig” (4:02)
12. “My Human Gets Me Blues” (2:46)
13. “Dali’s Car” (1:26)
14. “Hair Pie: Bake 2” (2:23)
15. “Pena” (2:33)
16. “Well” (2:07)
17. “When Big Joan Sets Up” (5:18)
18. “Fallin’ Ditch” (2:08)
19. “Sugar ‘n Spikes” (2:30)
20. “Ant Man Bee” (3:57)
21. “Orange Claw Hammer” (3:34)
22. “Wild Life” (3:09)
23. “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” (1:40)
24. “Hobo Chang Ba” (2:02)
25. “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)” (2:04)
26. “Steal Softly thru Snow” (2:18)
27. “Old Fart at Play” (1:51)
28. “Veteran’s Day Poppy” (4:31).

All songs written and composed by Captain Beefheart.

My brother is convinced that I only listen to this album to “look cool,” that I put myself through the torture of listening to it purely to display my intellectual superiority. A case of the emperor’s new clothes, deep down I know that I’m listening to utter garbage, but I must act as though it is a work of genius, just to prove how “quirky” and “hip” I am.

Oh how I pity him.

This is literally my favorite album of all time, and I’d still say that even if doing so didn’t make me sound “freaky” and “out there.”

My brother isn’t alone in this opinion, there are many other unfortunate souls out there (perhaps you are one yourself) who fail to appreciate the many gifts that this remarkable album has to offer. I can understand why so many people come to the same conclusion, after all this isn’t exactly easy listening.

This is difficult listening. At least, at first it is. In fact I’d say that initially you don’t so much listen to it as you do grapple with it, and it’s quite an opponent. It will confound and frustrate and perplex and infuriate, so it’s not surprising that it’s left many people defeated after the first round. Of course many of these people won’t admit to being defeated, they weren’t aware that they were entering into a battle and they sure as hell don’t see anything worth fighting for. To those people, this album is nothing more than an excruciating, nonsensical cacophony with no artistic merit, and absolutely nothing in the way of entertainment or enjoyment.

They don’t know what they’re missing.

There is so much to discover on this album, very rarely has a single disc provided me with such a rich abundance of wonders and delights. Uncovering them just requires a bit of perseverance. I find that most albums, on average require about 3 to 4 listens before they become “familiar,” before the melodies sink into your consciousness and get under your skin. With Trout Mask Replica though, the required number of listens is closer to 8 or 9, and even then you won’t have “mastered it,” and perhaps you never will. The record is plentiful with hooks and melodies but they’re so unusual and “wrong” sounding, that they’re not immediately apparent. This is compounded by the fact that often it seems as though the different instruments are playing 5 separate pieces of music simultaneously, in different time signatures, at different tempos and in different keys! It’s no wonder that the record is often dismissed as “chaotic noise” and “not music” by many people on their first listen. But in fact it isn’t at all chaotic, it’s very intricately composed and rigorously rehearsed. Very little is left to chance or accident, and after a few dedicated listens you realise that these are great songs after all, and all the disparate parts do indeed go together harmoniously, even though, logically speaking, they have no right to.

But this isn’t exactly a logical album, in fact this album is the very antithesis of logic and rationality. I’ve often thought of it as a perfect embodiment of the principles of Surrealism. Surrealism has been defined as:

“Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.”

The Surrealists were fascinated by the workings of the subconscious and a lot of their work attempted to emulate the fantastical imagery and the absurd logic of dreams. To me, Trout Mask Replica sounds like the aural manifestation of the raw contents of Beefheart’s subconscious, all of his primal cravings and yearnings, his inner passions and fantasies, all unleashed in a spontaneous, cathartic release, completely unfettered by any rational concerns or by aesthetic and commercial considerations.

Of course this is utter nonsense. As I said earlier, the compositions were painstakingly arranged and vigorously rehearsed under tortuous and even dehumanizing conditions. What the album does so successfully then, is conjure up an atmosphere of organic spontaneity that completely belies the arduous conditions under which it was created. That’s not to say that it’s contrived, the compositions had their genesis in an incredibly unorthodox process in which Beefheart, having no formal musical training, would express his musical ideas by whistling them to band member Drumbo (John French), and by intuitively banging around on a piano (an instrument he didn’t know how to play) until he came up with material that he liked. Drumbo would record all of these short pieces onto a tape and then it was his task to transcribe them all, decide which instrument should play which part and then teach the parts to the band members. From there it was a matter of sculpting the pieces together into complete compositions, with Beefheart overseeing the process. It was after this initial burst of freeform and organic experimentation that the laborious and meticulous rehearsal process began, but that’s another story (a brilliant story involving cruel mind games, claustrophobic isolation, malnutrition, and various other human rights abuses).

Despite the rather convoluted and rigorously controlled process that the material went through, I still feel that the surrealism comparison holds up. After all, I don’t suppose that Dali completed his paintings in his sleep. I find that the surrealist perspective can help when attempting to make sense of the lyrics as well. Many a time I’ve heard it said that the Captain is merely spouting gibberish, but there’s a lot more to it than that. In fact many of his lyrics are perfectly comprehensible: “Frownland” is clearly about not wanting to be miserable anymore, “Wildlife” is about wanting to go and live in a cave with bears, “Dachau Blues” is about the holocaust, and “China Pig” is about a pig made of china.

The less straightforward lyrics however tend to bypass the logical and rational parts of the brain and they evoke images and associations and emotions that you can’t really explain but that you feel very strongly. It’s like how dreams can be very powerful and moving and great fun when you’re experiencing them, but then when you try to analyse them in the cold light of day they seem nonsensical and meaningless, the same principle applies here. If you are able to enjoy dreaming then you are able to enjoy this album.

Even the sequencing of the tracks seems rather haphazard, with the same disregard for accessibility and commercial potential. Fully developed compositions sit side by side with roughly recorded a cappella incantations, and instrumental “bush” recordings. Tracks are interspersed with bizarre snippets of dialogue, and every now and then the proceedings are halted to make way for a wildly discordant, unaccompanied saxophone improvisation. A lot of material that might normally be considered “extraneous” or “unnecessary” by any sane, rational producer is in this case all thrown into the mix (thank you Mr. Zappa!). This makes the whole thing feel like the sketchbook of a mad genius, the place where he records all of his insane visions and fantasies, the place where he jots down the seeds of his inspiration as they hit him, some of which flower into beautiful, rich creations, while others become nothing more than rough sketches, all of which however are integral to the bigger picture.

Sure it could be trimmed down to a respectable 45 minutes, all the “superfluities” and “indulgences” removed, leaving only the “strongest” and most “complete” material. But then it would be just another great album in rock history, no more or less remarkable than Revolver or Let it Bleed. It would cease to be the utterly unique and uncompromising artifact that it is now. I take comfort just from the fact that such a thing exists at all, let alone as a commodity in the market place! It stands as a testament to the spirit of unrestrained artistic freedom in the face of those forces that seek to moderate and standardise.

So give it another spin (or preferably eight), and if you still find it intolerable then I’m afraid there’s simply no hope for you.

Useless Trivia

  • The 256th word of this album is “pants.”
  • Captain Beefheart is not his real name, it’s Don Van Vliet.
  • Contrary to popular belief, a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is neither fast nor bulbous.
  • If you play song “Moonlight on Vermont” backwards, it sounds terrible.
  • You’ve got to wait till I say, “also a tin teardrop.”

About Andy Howlett

I make films and shit with Deadly Serious Productions. Here they are:
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1 Response to AWESOME ALBUMS #5: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica (1969)

  1. Luke Edwards says:

    It’s worth noting that The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is also a big fan of this album. It took me ages to get into it. But once the penny drops, Trout Mask Replica really doesn’t sound as messy and ramshackle as it does when you first hear it. It’s a great album. Nice to see somebody else has actually listened to it!

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