Never Heard It Before…Until Now!

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

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15 Responses to Never Heard It Before…Until Now!

  1. rockdoc999 says:

    Thank you for enduring the wonderful Trout Mask Replica. I do hope you return many times to savour its eccentricity (rhymes with eeelectricity).
    I listened to the late great John Peel way back when and he turned me on to the Mad Captain. A friend had Safe as Milk, so I didn’t need to buy that, but I bought Strictly Personal and every subsequent Beefheart album as they were released. But Trout Mask Replica is the one (apart from Safe as Milk) that I’ve played most. I revere it for Don van Vliet’s impassioned vocals as well as for the album being my first taste of avant garde punk.

    • Thanks for reading rockdoc. It was a bit of a shock and took a while to acclimatise but I feel I will get into the swing of this album after a few more plays. John Peel is always a great source of inspiration for me too. I still listen to old recordings of his shows although didn’t know he was big on Beefheart. Avant Punk is a great description.

      • vollsticks says:

        Doc At The Radar Station is PRIME late-period Beefheart–it has all the offbeat characteristics of TMR but would fit neatly beside any of the more outre post-punk of the era (’cause most of ’em were ardent Beefheart fans, MES included! Indeed I think it was Mark Fisher who called “The Classical” “a second cousin to “Pena””!). It has some of CBATMB best songs, played by a young lineup (with John French playing occasional guitar and drums on two tracks!) and could very comfortably be called “avant-garde punk”. “Hot Head”, “Sheriff Of Hong Kong” and “Dirty Blue Gene” are just some of the highlights off this incredible record:

        • Thanks for writing vollsticks and sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. I’ve been looking into Doc At The Radar Station, and really appreciate you posting those links – they are highlights indeed. I’m liking what I hear, and am currently searching my record shops for a copy of this LP.

  2. Good on you. I have never heard this one either and have always been intrigued by the cover and the Beefheart reputation. I need to check this one out as well.

  3. rockdoc999 says:

    A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous.
    Got me?

  4. Good stuff Press. Well done take and an honest feel (as usual). I’m listening to some straight laid back Chet Baker type music right now.. You have nudged me over into CB’s land. I have a few regrets in my music buying history. One is not picking this up on vinyl back when. Spoiled today because we can get just about any music we want even Florence Jenkins.

  5. Rilaly says:

    Difficult and discordant music is often my favorite, and Trout Mask Replica might be the most discordant and difficult album I’ve ever heard. This might be due to the fact that I listen to so much music that I need something different. On that note, I’ve never heard of a band you listed here: Birthday Party. Based upon all of your excellent reviews, I’ve decided to listen to them. Not too bad.

    • The Birthday Party are one of my favourite bands ever. Only a short existence but three or four cracking albums. Well worth checking out. I quite like a bit of Beefheart exactly for the reason you mentioned – something totally different. Thanks for reading and commenting Rilaly.

  6. vollsticks says:

    I’m a big Beefheart fan–if you can stand TMR then maybe give it’s follow up, Lick My Decals Off, Baby a listen? It’s in a very, very similar vein to Trout Mask except due to Don’s increasing proficiency on the piano he was able to generate slightly longer parts than the fragmented splinters of the latter. Also! With Antennae Jimmy Semens out of the band the second guitar parts were replaced with art Tripp’s (formerly The Mother’s drummer) incredible marimba lines. And the timbres of the two lead instruments compliment each other beautifully.
    It’s funnt you mentioned the brevity of the songs on TMR–I’ve always thought the outro to “Ant Man Bee”, with it’s recurring, circular bass part and Beefheart’s sax blarts ‘n sqwarks–makes the song seem twice as long as it actually is!
    Glad you got round to this epochal record eventually!
    And oh–sorry to piss on your proverbial chips but the “destroyed microphone” is another self-generated Don Van Vliet myth, I’m afraid! John “Drumbo” French states in his excellent 2010 autobiography Through The Eyes Of Magic that he actually overloaded a transistor–a very easy fix–whilst still acknowledging that “whilst making the feat sound much less impressive it should still be noted that this in itself is quite hard to do!”
    Also Beefheart could whistle while smoking a cigarette by using his soft palate to shape the notes instead of the lips (apparently he was known for his whistling and vocal impressions and would sometimes dictate parts this way).
    It’s always great to read such a positive and open-minded take from someone encountering Trout Mask Replica for the first time–I expect your status as confirmed Fall fan would have been a good preparation for this LP’s dissonance!
    Btw before I forget there’s a modern classical composer who did a full transcription of Frownland and did two-hour plus interviews with every player from the LP! Andrei…damn I forget his last name but I have them saved, let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you a link (they’re mentioned in the Vox YT video on TMR called “Why This Terrible Sounding Album Is One Of The Best Records Ever Made”).

    • thank you for the excellent insights vollsticks. I’m still digesting TMR and will move on to LMDB soon. I’ve had Safe As Milk for a long time and have always enjoyed that one (his first I think?). Thanks for the feedback and for reading my travels through this album, listening for the first time. I have revisited it plenty.

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