I’ve never heard this album before…..until now. Why? Don’t know, but now is as good a time as any to sit down and listen to something I’ve never heard, right? I’ve actually had them lying around and never bothered, or someone’s given me a copy, or I’ve bought it on a whim. Not Polish jazz. Ok here we go…
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Captain Beefheart has a voice that can break microphones. With his four-and-a-half-octave range, he can hit notes that can literally destroy rugged, costly recording equipment, as he proved during the recording sessions for his debut album Safe As Milk (1967). Singing the track ‘Electricity’ he shattered the internal structure of a state-of-the-art Telefunken microphone. It was found that the vocal extremes recorded by Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) were beyond the capabilities of the recording device. Despite his great talent as a lyricist, composer, arranger and musician, and fans brace yourselves, I have always found Beefheart to be a tremendously frustrating artist, always somewhat irritated by his indescribably strange and deliberately difficult and eccentric style (notwithstanding my fandom of other comparable artists such as Tom Waits, Pere Ubu, Frank Zappa, The Birthday Party, John Frusciante, and even the mighty Jon Spencer Blues Explosion); an early listening run-in with the less than stellar Strictly Personal (1968) LP; knowingly random album titles such as Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and giving silly names to his band members such as Victor “The Mascara Snake” Hayden or Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, did not help. So too his general oddball style and bewildering delivery, idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist lyrics, and an unholy alliance to free jazz. At times I wished he would just drop the avant garde racket routine and just sing the blues, straight up, like Howlin’ Wolf, as he does regularly on the fantastic Safe As Milk album.
For better or for worse this has long steered me clear of what many call his magnum opus, the seminal Zappa “produced”, 28-song double album, Trout Mask Replica, released in June 1969 on the newly formed Straight Records label. Lester Bangs, writing in Rolling Stone, said of the album: “…it shattered my skull, made me nervous, made me laugh…it was a whole new universe, a completely realised and previously unimaginable landscape of guitars…it hit like a bomb.” Knowing Lester, I’m worried. So in the spirit of the Never Heard It Before…Until Now! series, it’s time this album gets the good hard first proper listen it truly deserves.
Upon first listen Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band are delivering a mind boggling assemblage of stylistic and thematic strands, sometimes all within the same two-minute song. On many of the tracks it seems the drummer (John ‘Drumbo’ French) is playing non stop clattering fills while both guitars (Antennae Jimmy Semens and Zoot Horn Rollo) solo independently of each other in a discordant way as Beefheart sings over the top of this unholy, anti-music racket. His voice sounds mostly great, and his vocal melodies rule. There’s shards of blues, splinters of rock, all atonal and dissonant instrumentation. I was a little apprehensive about approaching the album, and when listening to it I know why. Mercifully most songs are all over in about a minute or two, although some numbers like instrumental ‘Hair Pie Bake 1’ clocks in at five minutes, and is a bleating, tuneless, free-jazz sax wig-out. Then there’s things like ‘The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back’, or ‘Well’, they do not even have any music, just stream-of-conscience spoken word, and abstract, rather moving and stammeringly poetic lyrics delivered in a chaotic manner.
Beefheart’s squawnking sax regularly joins in on the bedlam, some tracks even have a verse/chorus/verse and are always at least interesting. His bluesy scat and seemingly random lyrics over, um…unconventional drumming and wiry guitars, one could say the whole album is a sloppy cacophony, but on closer inspection it is powerful particularly something like Pachuco Cadavar which opens with: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag / Is fast and bulbous, got me?” then tangled guitars grind away, frenzied yet strangely addictive.
The whole album sounds thrillingly wrong, like the rules have been turned on its head. I eventuality realise and accept the fact that Beefheart and his Magic Band are not even trying, but wilfully rejecting convention. Some tracks are impenetrable and not an easy listen on first or any subsequent listens, like ‘Old Fart at Play’ which is not so much a song rather an abstract spoken word rant. Others can bare repeated listens like opening track ‘Frownland’ or the scattershot cool of ‘Big Joan Sets Up’
Think Tom Waits without commercial responsibilities, some of the stuff here reminds me of some of his more eccentric moments on Frank’s Wild Years or The Black Rider, but proper songs do work their way into some of these Beefheart tracks. The crazed, swaying blues of ‘She’s Too Much for My Mirror’ is even catchy. Sometimes they’re crazy awesome guitar riffs (‘Veteran’s Day Poppy’), sometimes they seem deliberately unlistenable and perplexing mid-song skits (eg: ‘The Blimp’ or ‘Pena’), with mistakes and all, and Beefheart growling his oblique yet oddly poetic lyrics. I won’t lie, it’s an acquired taste, but I can see myself enduring it again.
All things considered Trout Mask Replica is overall an unholy racket, at times awful, sometimes incredible, and certainly a challenging listening experience but nowhere near as unpleasant as first expected. The general importance and reverence of this colossal artist, and the understandable impact of this ‘before it’s time’ landmark has had on punk, new wave, and post-rock, can no longer be ignored. 9/10