How Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ Became an Unusual Masterpiece

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Straight/Reprise Records

An in-depth look at one of the strangest, but most innovative rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time. 

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag
Is fast and bulbous, got me?”

Captain Beefheart’s acclaimed 1969 double LP Trout Mask Replica isn’t as good as some might think. Regardless of it being ahead of its time and purposely pushing the limits of traditional rock music, the album is mostly unlistenable and you may not even be able to finish i t— it took me three whole years with breaks and desires to just listen to Frank Zappa. But maybe that’s the way it was intended to be, considering Beefheart’s legacy.

Similar to other anti-commercial releases of the late-sixties including The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat in 1968 and to even the Beach Boys’ trilogy of lo-fi albums, Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, was laying down the works for experimental music, art rock and even shock rock that would crossover into the post-punk and new wave styles a decade later. Before music oddities like the Residents, Death Grips and Macula Dog, there was Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Trout Mask Replica is highly praised by a certain part of the music community and is considered to be a groundbreaking avant-rock masterpiece that has appeared on many all time lists. It was even inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2011 and in the a 1969 issue of Rolling Stone, legendary  rock critic Lester Bangs called Trout Mask Replica “the most unusual and challenging musical experience you’ll have this year [1969].” Trout Mask Replica went onto influence countless creative figures from Matt Groening to the White Stripes and still continues to influence to this day. T

The near-80 minute album is tremendously imaginative and wild, which may feel like this big joke that has never been told. It takes many listens to get through the unlistenable and rampage of styles, including sloppy garage rock, rambling spoken word, freestyle jazz, R&B and shaky blues. Though you wouldn’t realize it unless you read it somewhere, but the clash of musical styles, including the layering of polytonals, bizarre time signatures and improvisation were well-rehearsed before recording, which makes Trout Mask Replica one of the most puzzling and mysterious recordings of the 20th century.

In a span of two years, Beefheart and a few members of his later Magic Band went from sharp dressed ego-driven hippies playing blues rock to a surreal musical cult. Beefheart’s more creative psychedelic blues rock albums, Safe as Milk in 1967 and Strictly Personal in 1968, hinted out Beefheart’s future vision. Beefheart’s inspiration came from Zappa’s work with his band The Mothers of Invention and who was an old high school friend.

When Beefheart and his band were dropped by their former label, Zappa reached out signed Beefheart to a pair of record labels called Bizarre and Straight Records Zappa ran that were subordinate of Warner Bros., with “complete artistic freedom.” This was clearly evident on Beefheart’s magnum opus Trout Mask Replica with Zappa serving as producer and not caring how the music sounded.

A COUPLE OF OUTSIDERS – Captain Beefheart (left) and Frank Zappa (right) after a show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey in 1975. (Photo Credit: Mikael Djurvall)

Before the recording and production of Trout Mask Replica Beefheart, who was not a trained musician, composed every song on a piano that he didn’t even know how to play. Of course Beefheart has played many instruments like the saxophone and of course the harmonica, but Beefheart was really just good at making noise.

After composing the songs, Beefheart’s Magic Band that consisted of Antennae Jimmy Semens, Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, John French aka “Drumbo” and Victor “The Mascara Snake” Hayden (Beefheart’s cousin) translated Beefheart’s work into a mind-blowing and tangled blues rock-inspired album that was a new sound to the ears. 50 years later, the starvation and Beefheart’s complete control over his bandmates had to of been worth it, right?

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TOO FAR OUT – Captain Beefheart with the most legendary lineup of the Magic Band including: Antennae Jimmy Semens, Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton and John French aka “Drumbo.” (Photo Credit: Straight Records)

Now lets dive into the album.

Beefheart snarls and howls fuzz on the opening track “Frownland” over a disorderly arrangement of guitar hooks are the epitome of anti-music. At the beginning of the track, it sounds like you’re about to hear a classic riff that is reminiscent of something typical from that era, but 14 seconds into the song, everything becomes flustered and the insanity begins.

Things calm down with the wicked and somewhat lo-fi spoken word “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back.” Only a madman like Beefheart could write lyrics like “Well, I put down my bush / And I took off my pants and felt free / The breeze blowin’ up me and up the canyon / Far as I could see” and be hailed as a great, but outlandish poet. He later does a similar surreal acapella narrative on “Orange Claw Hammer.”

One of my personal favorites “Dachau Blues” echoes the madness that would be embarked on Devo’s “Too Much Paranoias” nine years later. Tracks like this and “Wild Life” rapidly stand out because they immediately come after the spoken word tracks above and lend more towards a familiar sound. But then you don’t know what to expect next, especially when the gushing “Ella Guru” sounds like the band jamming with the quirky dust bunnies from The Big Comfy Couch.

“Moonlight on Vermont” is one of the many fan-favorites off Trout Mask Replica. Not only is it trembly, but it’s assertive all around. This type of aggressiveness comes in every once and a while on the album especially on the later track “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.” After Beefheart’s wandering and puzzling poetry on “Pachuco Cadaver,” the song maintains a driving riff that drifts but remains stable for us listeners to indulge in.

Beefheart’s multi-octave and troll-esque vocals come alive on “Bills Corpse,” which is one of the more startling tracks with lyrics just as chaotic as the battling guitars. Lyrics like “Oh, her ragged hair was shinin’ red white and blue / All-and-all the children screamin’ / Why, surely madam you must be dreamin’ / You couldn’t have done this if you knew what you were doin,'” suggests “Bills Corpse” is about a polarized United State, amongst various races and political parties as our Lady Liberty looks on in misery. Or simply it’s about a dead goldfish named Bill. Either way, Beefheart’s ambiguity makes the experience a whole lot better.

The beginning of “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” sounds like a mockery to the Beatles’ “Wait” that starts off with something bright like in “Frownland,” then gets utterly destroyed. “China Pig” and “My Human Gets Me Blues” return to the straight forward blues inspired tracks off Trout Mask Replica. “China Pig” instantly sounds like if a Bo Diddley riff was merged with Beefheart’s lo-fi vocals. Its lyrics imply a story that a farmer who raised a pig had to butcher it and feed it to his neighborhood. Some listeners may find it disturbing and sad, since the butcher regrets it repeatedly declaring how he doesn’t want to kill his poor China pig.

Then there is a good flow of instrumentals, which serves as some sort of intermission for the idiosyncrasy depicted in the first half of the album. “Dali’s Car” is greatly misty like it could’ve served part of a silent film score from the 1920s and transitions into the thrilling second part of “Hair Pie: Bake 1.”

Antennae Jimmy Semens obnoxiously screams lead vocals on “Pena” with Beefheart, Zappa and the rest of the Magic Band idiotically screaming in the background. Pena” begins with a cryptic exchange between Beefheart, his cousin “The Mascara Snake” and Zappa in the studio. Not only does the dialogue sound like two actors practicing reading their lines for some corny sci-fi/horror fifties film, but it emphasizes the famous strange line: “Fast and bulbous.” The absurd words came up earlier during the beginning of “Pachuco Cadaver” and they’re s hard to truly understand the meaning of these words, but when listening to the entire album repeatedly, you tend to understand the words as nothing but being obscure and nonsensical, perfectly fitting the ethos of Trout Mask Replica.

Lyrically and instrumentally “When Big Joan Sets Up” is the most unappealing track on the album and you can even say the same for “Ant Man Bee” even if its groove is somewhat gratifying.

“The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)” is intense like an action scene in a classic spy movie, but when Semens steps in again at lead vocals, it’s like you’re hearing a deleted scene from a John Waters film. However, as soon as Zappa asks “You Ready?” in the intro, you can feel the rain before the flood. With Semens annoyingly panicking on a phone, the track hilariously mocks the broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster. As Zappa and Beefheart admire the audio, you get one more cycle of the drums as they creep in to close the distasteful and freakish masterpiece. Beefheart’s intimidating and deep voice sounds similar to the snarkiness of Zappa’s smooth, melodic guitar on “Old Fart at Play,” which mentions an old fart (Beefheart) wearing a wooden fishhead like shown on the album’s cover. It’s like if Zappa is mocking the album’s cover art, blasting Beefheart’s “wooden fishhead” and “perfume bottle atomizer air bulb invention.”

This unique fantastical musical voyage comes to an end with “Veterans Day Poppy,” which is an underrated anti-war gem. The first half bonded with some frantic ahead-of-its-time math rock layers deals with the narrator being reminded about the death of his son, who was killed during the first World War. The second half serves as the narrator’s memories of burying his son over traditionally despairing instrumentals with a melancholic tone that resonates, but contrasts the album’s ridiculous tone — Beefheart finally returns us to reality.

It’s hilarious that not only are stoners losing their mind to this record 50 years later, but there are now people consciously regarding it as one of the greatest albums of all time. It used to be argued that you can only listen to this album being stoned to “get it,” but now it’s been rumored that you have to have a very high IQ to fully understand the “genius” demonstrated on Trout Mask Replica.

In the end, it may sound like one long terrible and repetitive song, but remember this came out in 1969 — the year of Woodstock and the moon landing. And who else was making this music in 1969? Monumental releases from that year include the last recorded Beatles release and the Who’s Tommy. Compared to those releases, Trout Mask Replica is pure garbage, but there’s no denying its influence. It’s an enigma that became a classic album thanks its audience, not the industry.

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MEME MUSIC – In a decade where internet memes are at their peak, it’s hard to say if Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica is becoming more popular for its music or the memes that surround it. (Photo Credit: Joseph Massaro)

10/10

Highlights — “Ella Guru,” “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica),” “Dachau Blues,” “Pena,” and “Moonlight on Vermont”

Listen to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica below to see if it’s worth it.


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