Words About Music
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band “Trout Mask Replica”
“Trout Mask Replica” is just one of those albums. One of those albums you love or you hate. One of those whose backstory is just as unwholesome and screwed up as the content. One of those albums whose reputations precede it, but only by a little bit. One of those albums that both Rolling Stone Magazine and controversial music reviewer Piero Scaruffi can call one of the best albums of all time. The year was 1969. The Beatles were fixing to break up, Jimi Hendrix was living a wild life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and Brian Wilson was in the midst of a psychotic breakdown. Somewhere in Los Angeles, a group of musicians were subjected to emotional and physical torture by Don Van Vliet, more commonly known as Captain Beefheart. Vliet led something of a cult consisting of these musicians, His Magic Band, and with their submission he was able to create what would be one of his most well known and inspirational records.
It’s hard to believe that “Trout Mask Replica” came out in 1969 considering how an album like that had no chance of being accepted by any mainstream critics. Nearly 45 years later, though, and here we are. The frenzied free jazz, blues, and proto-punk on this album went on to inspire many musicians and songwriters who took after Captain Beefheart’s emotional vocal performance and his nonsensical stream of consciousness lyrics. It’s no wonder avant-king Frank Zappa was behind the production.
The extremely well composed and frighteningly well rehearsed instrumental tracks were recorded in a legendary six-hour session. Keep in mind this is a double LP 28-track 80-minute long record. And these are not very simple compositions. A further testament to Captain Beefheart’s ability to lead what some have called a Manson-like cult. Beefheart recorded his vocal and horn tracks separately.
This album surprisingly scary sounding when it’s not hilariously wacky. I don’t think I’ve heard a singing voice as pained and visceral as Captain Beefheart’s. There’s something remarkably unsettling about the cadence, especially the way it can change so easily from a bluesman’s growl to a cartoon’s falsetto. Couple that with the unpredictably free musical accompaniments that he composed and let it run for nearly an hour and a half and you have a true avant-garde masterpiece that is meant to amuse and terrify.
As scary as it can be, it’s hard to deny the charm of certain parts. The funniest part of this album is when Captain Beefheart and Magic Band-member The Mascara Snake are trying to nail some sort of scripted dialogue that revolves around this album’s arc words.
The Mascara Snake: “Fast and bulbous!”
Captain Beefheart: “That’s right, The Mascara Snake. Fast and bulbous. Also, a tinned teardrop.”
The Mascara Snake: “Bulbous also tapered.”
It took three tries to nail that bit of dialogue, but it’s pretty hilarious, and you can even hear Beefheart confess his love for the simple phrase “fast and bulbous.”
“Trout Mask Replica” is not a simple rock record. It’s also not a rock record, nor is it simple in any aspect. In fact, there’s so much about it that one could possibly hate, it’s strange that it’s as praised as it is. Despite the tumultuous history behind its conception, it’s still one of the greatest avant-garde albums ever crafted, and also one of the most influential. You can tie The Sonics and The Stooges to the original fast-and-loud punk sound, but very few albums could predict an entire era of music quite like this album did. It’s been praised by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, insane director David Lynch, Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten, and even the Library of Congress. It’s not easy and it’s not friendly to the ears, but it is an opus in a league of its own in terms of composition, context, influence, poetry, and humor. It’s fast and bulbous.