Friday, February 14, 2014

58. Trout Mask Replica (1969) Captain Beefheart




1. Frownland
2. The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back
3. Dachau Blues
4. Ella Guru
5. Hair Pie: Bake 1
6. Moonlight On Vermont
7. Pachuco Cadaver
8. Bills Corpse
9. Sweet Sweet Bulbs
10. Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish
11. China Pig
12. My Human Gets Me Blues
13. Dali's Car
14. Hair Pie: Bake 2
15. Pena
16. Well
17. When Big Joan Sets Up
18. Fallin' Ditch
19. Sugar 'N Spikes
20. Ant Man Bee
21. Orange Claw Hammer
22. Wild Life
23. She's Too Much For My Mirror
24. Hobo Chang Ba
25. The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)
26. Steal Softly Thru Snow
27. Old Fart At Play
28. Veteran's Day Poppy

I promise I'm not making any of this up. I know this will sound like I'm freeforming the plot of a bad novel but all of the following is genuinely true...

The strange but true story of Trout Mask Replica, the unlistenable album that is apparently the 58th greatest of all time.


Don Van Vleit, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart wrote almost all the tunes for this album on a Piano. An instrument that he didn't know how to play. He would sit at a piano and poke at the keys until he heard something he liked. He would then ask his drummer (who was named John French but who Beefheart called Drumbo) to transpose the tiny, six note noodlings into musical annotation. They then took the tiny annotated musical doodles and smooshed them together into something that could be called a song but was really a lot of small phrases one after the other.

The collected noodly bits were then given a silly name by Beefheart and some lyrics that made no sense and then taught by French to each of the band members. Beefheart's lyrics are the sort of thing you would expect when you see the list of song titles: Dachau Blues, Hair Pie: Bake 1, Pachuco Cadaver, Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish, Ant Man Bee, Orange Claw Hammer etc etc. It's the sort of stuff you'd expect from a guy who told people not to disturb him at night because he was levitating. It's the product of a mind who tells people he once slept for a year and half by eating only fruit (without ever explaining how he ate fruit in his sleep). It's bonkers stuff.

The band then spent eight months living in poverty in a communal house while they rehearsed the tracks for 14 hours a day living off meagre rations. They survived on soy beans and stolen food and were constantly verbally and physically assaulted by Beefheart who was... and there's no other way to put this... kind nutty. He had a sharpened broomstick which he used to attack musicians who didn't play well enough even though the demands he made of them could sometimes be considered a bit esoteric. French was physically thrown down a flight of stairs for not being able to "Play a strawberry" on the drums. Beefheart apparently studied mind-control techniques rather than music while preparing to make the album and verbally abused his band to break them down and bend them to his will. The experience of rehearsing together in the house was so traumatic that the band couldn't listen to the album for years afterwards. French was so traumatised by the process that he was suicidal for months and ducked if anyone waved their hands because he'd been hit so often. The lead guitarist tried to write his autobiography and recalling the experience of recoding Trout Mask made him so unwell he threw up.

Beefheart would rehearse the band constantly and if they weren't rehearsing he'd gather them together for extended meetings in which he would berate the musicians and make them turn on each other thanks to his tendency of telling them what they'd all said to him in what they thought was a private conversation.

After months of rehearsing, the band went into the studio to record. The process of writing  was so avante garde and out there so Beefheart needed a producer with a traditional set of studio values who could ground the entire project. Instead he chose Frank Zappa whose love of musical experimentation and avante garde lunacy was just what the project didn't really need. I've spoken often about what a genius I think Frank is and how I love his music. He's also a notorious control freak and totally in command of every project he's been involved in so it's impressive that Beefheart managed to convince Zappa to take a back seat and give the Captain total artistic freedom and authority.

Once the band had recorded the basic tracks (in four and a half hours apparently) they were set free to go and rock quietly from side to side muttering to themselves and screaming occasionally. Beefheart then set about recording his vocals which he did without listening to the tracks they'd recorded. He went into a soundbooth in front of a microphone but instead of wearing earphones he just let loose when he thought it was appropriate. Beefheart claimed to have a five octave vocal range but that doesn't mean he could sing sonorously at either end of it. His deep voice is a growl and his high range is a kind of screech. The stuff in between is fairly inaccessible as well.

So how does the album sound? It sounds exactly like you would expect an album to sound if it was written on a piano by a guy who couldn't play the piano, performed by emotionally unstable musicians who hated each other and sung by a madman who wasn't listening to the backing track at the time. It sounds like the sort of album that David Lynch would love (and apparently he does)

There are those who claim Trout Mask Replica is utterly brilliant, it just requires multiple listens to actually appreciate. Once you immerse yourself utterly in it a few times you begin to understand you're in the presence of genius. There are others who claim it's unlistenable nonsense and anyone who claims it isn't is fooling themselves.

Personally I brought Trout Mask Replica in my early twenties when I was trying to get my hands on everything Zappa had touched. I took it home thinking to myself "I will love this because it's Zappa and I'm clever enough to appreciate the avante garde". I don't think I'd ever heard it all the way through until I forced myself to for this blog. I've tried several times before but it's like trying to read Ulysses. It just gets too much after a while and wears you down. It gets to the point where you think it might grow on you if you listen to it ten more times but it's just not worth the effort. Why subject yourself to multiple listens just so you can say you don't hate it anymore?

If you love Trout Mask I would genuinely love to hear from you below. I've read the positive reviews but I'd like to hear more because I'd love to understand it's appeal.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Either my ears have fallen off or this is just another overblown tree hugging recording of pure rot gut excuse for music."

-Tree Hugging? Where do you get Tree hugging from?

Have you actually listened to Trout Mask all the way through? If so please let me know below? I'm desperate to hear from you.

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