To say that Captain Beefheart is one of the most polarizing figures in popular music is just about the least controversial thing you can say about him. You’ll find less negative current-day criticism of him than you will contemporary (sample reaction from 1970: “when I first heard Trout Mask Replica, I about puked”), but that’s mainly because the only people listening to Beefheart nowadays are the people who want to listen to him. Reactions to his music today remain just as extreme as they were back in the day, and he deserves credit for that alone.
Still, that’s making him sound like a deliberately “difficult” musician, to be listened to in rapt, silent contemplation. Say what you want about him, but he can hardly be accused of lacking soul. In fact, if there’s any common thread to Beefheart’s long, knotty career, it’s the ferocity with which he threw himself into his songs. He could howl like Chester Burnett while singing nonsense about a Babette baboon, and you never questioned his sincerity for a second. That’s the biggest difference between him and frequent collaborator Frank Zappa—while Zappa spent his career well removed from his subjects, tongue firmly in-cheek, Beefheart wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with his songs. If anything, this dedication is what many people find off-putting about his music. You might not doubt Beefheart’s sincerity during the abrupt whooping that ends “Sugar ‘n Spikes,” but at the same time, he comes across as more than a little deranged.
Keeping all that in mind, Captain Beefheart can be a bit of a tough sell. Unlike a lot of musicians considered “difficult” at the time, the intervening decades have done little to soften his image, and it’s not as if popular tastes have shifted to the point of finally embracing him. The people who like his music now are probably the same sorts of people who liked it back then; if anything, stripped of historical context, it probably sounds even weirder today than it did back in the ‘60s. You’re unlikely to find another musical artist who can claim such a wide-ranging influence, and yet whose music still sounds so alien.
Compounding that difficulty is the fact that no one can seem to agree on what the best entry point into Beefheart’s discography is; ask three people and you’ll probably get three different responses. Some favor the warped blues-rock of his debut, Safe As Milk, in a “follow the artist’s progression” sort of way; others suggest the rhythmically dense Lick My Decals Off, Baby as more representative of his overall style; still others, the jangly, slower-paced The Spotlight Kid, as his most conventionally melodic release. You might get someone who recommends Bluejeans & Moonbeams as well, but you can just ignore this person. All of these suggestions have merit (excepting the last one) and all might serve as perfectly valid entry points. That said, the definitive Captain Beefheart album—the one that best conveys the sheer scope of what he was trying to do—remains 1969’s Trout Mask Replica.
Trout Mask Replica occupies an odd position in the Captain’s discography—his most well known release (I hesitate to use the word “popular”) while simultaneously being his most “out there” by a pretty wide margin. As a result, many people looking to get into his work choose this album as their entry point, get 80 minutes of wall-to-wall insanity thrown at them, and promptly swear off Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band for good. Indeed, fans of Beefheart who consider Trout Mask Replica overrated tend to accuse it of excess more than anything else. Of course, that same excess is what its most devoted admirers (and I count myself among them) love so much about it. Simply put, Trout Mask Replica is by far the strangest, most challenging album Beefheart ever put out, and if you really want to get to the core of his artistic vision, then look no further.
The opening track, “Frownland”, more or less sets the tone for the rest of the album—all of the ingredients for a typical rock tune are there, but so at odds with each other it barely sounds like they’re playing the same song. The two guitars are each playing completely different melodies, it’s hard to tell whether the drumming is unorthodox or simply incompetent, and Beefheart appears to be singing along to something else entirely. As if to throw you off balance once more, the album promptly follows this up with an a cappella poem, recited by Beefheart and recorded on a cassette recorder. Two other such poems appear on Trout Mask, and are the closest the album comes to giving the listener room to breathe.
These tracks also showcase the album’s fairly DIY aesthetic, in the flubbed line-readings (and subsequent corrections) Beefheart nevertheless chose to leave in. Horror stories about his controlling attitude towards fellow band members during the recording process abound, but the final product sounds like the farthest thing possible from any sort of control freak’s vision. At one point, during the skit leading into “Pena”, Victor Hayden (referred to on the album as “The Mascara Snake”) audibly cracks up—it’s one of several moments where the mask of obtuseness is allowed to fall away.
There’s a tendency, when discussing Beefheart, to disregard his lyrics as nonsensical, or relevant only in how they sound—to view them as scatting with words, basically. It’s hard to argue that his songs live or die on their lyrical content, but at the same time, they remain so surreal and darkly humorous that it would really be a shame to dismiss what’s being said outright. Take the track “Pena”, which would come across as a twisted cousin to dirty blues if the instrumental backing wasn’t so bizarre. Or “My Human Gets Me Blues” and its array of oddly poignant imagery (“the way you were dancing, I knew you’d never come back”), all gathered together under an affecting, if not strictly grammatical, chorus. The Captain’s vocals range from skronking to hooting to screeching across the board, like an old bluesman on bath salts; if anything, his voice is what people object to above all else. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but for the most part, it fits the lyrics and the instrumentation—as strange as the former and as jagged as the latter—and for my part, I can’t imagine these songs sung any other way.
Trout Mask Replica closes with its most outwardly straightforward song, “Veteran’s Day Poppy”, but even then, Beefheart makes sure to leave the door open for a more druggy interpretation of the titular flower. There’s not much in the way of a common thread here, beyond “strange people doing strange things,” but there doesn’t really need to be one—the album revels in its own absurdity, and that’s enough to bring it all together. The liner notes for the album transcribe everything phonetically (“Uh man’s gotta eat” appears exactly as it does here) which helps contribute to the very warts-and-all aesthetic—as if Trout Mask Replica wasn’t rough enough around the edges already.
In fact, Frank Zappa, who produced the album (although the degree to which he was involved remains disputed) initially proposed to give it a “field recording” quality by doing all of in the house where the band was staying. This idea was largely scrapped, but a few holdovers from these sessions still made it onto the final product; of Trout Mask’s 28 tracks, 4 (“The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back”, “Hair Pie: Bake 1”, “China Pig”, and “Orange Claw Hammer”) were recorded on cassette back at the house. Many of the album’s most intriguing qualities stem from this “thrown together” feeling—throughout it, you get a sense of different styles, different aesthetics, different visions clashing, and Beefheart’s stroke of genius was in leaving it as it was, warts and all. Everything from Delta blues to free jazz to garage rock enters the mix at some point, and they all work together seemingly by virtue of not working together at all.
Not to call Trout Mask Replica in any way unprofessional. Captain Beefheart clearly had a very specific vision for this album, and anyone who thinks this kind of organized (yes, organized) chaos “just happens”, or is easy to pull off, has never tried. Look at the way the lead guitars play off each other in “Sugar ’n Spikes”, or how the percussion in “Hair Pie: Bake 2” chops up the main riff until it seems like the track is shaking itself apart. The album may not be conventionally pleasing to the ears, but neither is it just 80 minutes of non-musicians fucking around.
Ultimately, Trout Mask Replica’s greatest strength may be its scope. It touches on just about every facet of Captain Beefheart’s music, from the thrashing electric blues of “Moonlight on Vermont” to the stalking free jazz of “Hair Pie: Bake 1” to the abstract experimentation of “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.” It’s not his most accessible, and it’s certainly not his most inviting, but it is his most complete. If Beefheart established his own musical universe with his previous albums, then Trout Mask Replica expanded the borders beyond what anyone had thought possible. Zappa might not have thought much of Beefheart-land, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a place worth visiting—however you first happen upon it.
Essential Listening: Dachau Blues, Moonlight On Vermont, Pena