Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica
by Mike Barnes
This is an excerpt from Captain Beefheart, the first full-length biography of this legendary musical figure. It is now available from Quartet Books (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Out Recording a Bush
'If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.' - John Peel (interview with author 1995)
'Trout Mask Replica shattered my skull, realigned my synapses, made me nervous, made me laugh, made me jump and jag with joy. It wasn't just the fusion I'd been waiting for: it was a whole new universe, a completely realized and previously unimaginable landscape of guitars splintering and spronging and slanging and even actually swinging in every direction, as far as the mind could see...while this beast voice straight out of one of Michael McClure's Ghost Tantras growled out a catarrh spew of images at once careeningly abstract and as basic and bawdy as the last 200 years of American Folklore...I stayed under the headphones and played Trout Mask straight through five times in a row that night. The next step of course was to turn the rest of the world on to this amazing thing I'd found, which perhaps came closer to a living, pulsating, slithering organism than any other record I'd ever heard.' - Lester Bangs, New Musical Express, 1 April 1978
The fusion Bangs had been waiting for was a new music which used the earthbound drive of primal rock as a platform from which to launch the untrammelled 'atonality and primal shrieks' employed by black free-jazz players like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. He got so much more than he was expecting when Trout Mask dropped into his head- the experience was epiphanic. He was still writing about the search for other examples of this fusion the following year, referring then to The Stooges' Fun House, with its clash of ultra-hard-nosed garage-rock cut with Iggy Pop's more sophisticated taste for Coltrane and his ilk. Superb though that album is, the comparisons were far more tenuous, but then fusioneers that could meet Bangs' criteria were thin on the ground, Detroit group MC5's mixing of astral jazz into their malevolent rock'n'roll made them another candidate, but Bangs remained unconvinced by them. It was becoming obvious that the Trout Mask 'style' was exclusive to Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
On the opening song, "Frownland," the new universe of Trout Mask Replica is glimpsed in a one-and-a-half-minute microcosm. For the listener, at least, the tortuous rehearsals, hardship and deprivation had all been worth it. The standard role of the two guitars, bass and drums rock line-up is subverted to the point where nothing ever settles or is repeated to any extent. Stuttering drums vie for space with an angular bass and atonal guitar motif in a different metre, and soon a keening lead guitar line rips its way out of the tangled undergrowth. Less than fifteen seconds in, it dissolves into a torrent, the instruments thrashing around each other in complex contrapuntal patterns. But the music carries an inexorable forward motion, it rocks, in other words. The last piece in the puzzle is Van Vliet's vocal roar. He bellows out a yearning, soulful blues which further warps the already warped structure, pleading, 'I want my own land', realizing that his wish is becoming fulfilled as he sings the words.
Here at last was his free record: 'free' as in 'unconstrained.' And he barged into this new territory with adrenalized power. Some of the musical elements are recognizable from previous albums. French's tom-tom rhythms and cross-hand hi-hat snatches hark back to the syncopations of songs on Strictly Personal but with his radical new approach they now fell over themselves, as if his entire drum kit was being rolled down a bumpy slope.
The interlocking guitars that had sounded radically jagged on "Kandy Korn" here wrestle with each other, before struggling free to run along separate paths, only to meet again head on. Boston's bass playing is equally astonishing, corresponding with the other instruments in an unprecedented way. The instrument's sound is flat and woody and it is clawed, strummed, its neck wrung. The production sounds different too, exacerbating the music's astringency and giving the sound a flattened, desert dryness. Paradoxically the shifting planes produced hologram-like illusions of three-dimensional shapes. And Van Vliet's voice was liberated, expanding into a gallery of new vocal styles.
Even when one understands the methodology of composition and the mechanics of the music, Trout Mask Replica still resists demystification. There is an untouchable magic at its core. In 1991, Van Vliet assessed the album retrospectively. To Lars Movin: 'It is trying to break up the mind in many different directions, causing them not to be able to fixate, this is what I was trying to do.'
Fred Frith was guitarist of Henry Cow when he offered these perceptive views in New Musical Express in 1974: 'It is always alarming to hear people playing together and yet not in any recognizable rhythmic pattern. This is not free music; it is completely controlled all the time, which is one of the reasons it's remarkable, forces that usually emerge in improvisation are harnessed and made constant, repeatable.'
Trout Mask Replica is, to coin a phrase, pretty far out. On first listening it comes across as an avant-garde statement with few precedents and sharing little or no overlap with other styles or genres. But within its unique structures are found a multiplicity of lyrical and musical ideas which tie in with other strands of American culture and music, especially the blues. As the sixties moved towards the seventies, groups in the rock mainstream saw the blues as a vein of raw material to be plundered with impunity. The genre proved strong enough to withstand the mauling of the blues-rockers on both sides of the Atlantic, from the group in the local pub knocking out a twelve-bar blues to the biggest arena rockers. While Led Zeppelin made no apologies for taking the blues and using them as fuel for their hard-rock juggernaut, Electric Flag and The Butterfield Blues Band took a more reverential tack. Jimi Hendrix was miles ahead of the competition, setting the blues tradition on fire and marveling at the beauty of the flames. But the treatment that Cream meted out to Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" substituted the rough-hewn power of Howlin' Wolf's version with insubstantial flash. Such was the cost of progression, the Europeanization of the blues appeared complete.
W.C. Handy was a black musician and bandleader active in the early part of the century whose interest in blues was awakened, according to legend, when he saw a guitarist (reputedly Charley Patton) by the Tutwiler railway station playing a guitar using a knife as a slide. At this point, blues tunes often hinged on a standard change based around one chord (initially derived from the limitations of an earlier one-stringed instrument, the Diddley Bow). Or the pattern could be based on a shifting number of bars, with irregular chord changes. In John Lee Hooker's case, there would sometimes appear to be a chord change in the offing, but instead he would sing a different melodic passage over the same backing.
In his heyday, Handy was more of a popularizer and publisher than a blues performer (although his orchestra did play a formalized version) and documented a lot of blues music as sheet music. In doing so, he had to pin down its mercurial nature, standardizing it with chord changes within a twelve-bar structure. This was accepted by many schooled musicians of the time, thus strengthening the format and making it more 'musical' in a European sense. By the sixties, the 'one-chord blues' was unusual, although it lived on in the work of northern Mississippi bluesmen like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt.
Van Vliet's own take on the "Spoonful" riff was "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" (from Strictly Personal). There, he eschewed any blues-rock guitar fireworks for a neo-urban blues approach that echoed Howlin' Wolf, when the latter claimed his band played music 'Low down and dirty as we could.' Van Vliet's interest in the blues encompassed all points from country blues to urban R&B, but the blues that informs Trout Mask is the older, almost 'songster' style.
On Trout Mask, the syncopation of the Delta blues is echoed in the piano lines which yielded the raw musical material, and is still evident in French's drum patterns. That Van Vliet might not have been able to play the same line twice actually sits him comfortably alongside a blues tradition where structures of songs were so flexible that every performance would be different to some extent. Taken individually, the guitar lines played by (Bill) Harkleroad and (Jeff) Cotton are not so far removed from the way John Lee Hooker's staccato guitar articulations jump around the linear flow of his music, often sounding as if he's trying to race ahead of himself. Likewise some of Hubert Sumlin's guitar work with Howlin' Wolf has a peculiar keening quality that would cut deep into the music before shooting off on a tangent.
Howlin' Wolf said of his mentor, Patton: 'It took a good musician to play behind him because it was kind of off-beat or off-time.' A 'sliding shifting rhythmic pulse' was how Giles Oakley described Patton's timing in The Devil's Music. It would not be stretching the point to draw comparisons with Van Vliet's own sense of timing and the way the instruments react to each other on Trout Mask.
Robert Pete Williams (whose "Grown So Ugly" was covered on Safe As Milk) was a prime exponent of the old spontaneous never-played-the-same-twice form of country blues, where the vocal and guitar lines were interwoven as if in a conversation. Van Vliet's music was also a conversation, but with five conversationalists. Although first recorded in the late fifties, a lot of Williams's music harked back to the thirties, when he first learned to play, and was as strange, haunted and death-obsessed as anything by Robert Johnson. Legendary American guitarist John Fahey's memories of Williams make him sound like one of the amphibious, half-human, half-race of Dagon monstrosities from one of HP Lovecraft's Gothic horror tales. '[He was] the strangest person I ever met. He was like some alien from another world who was part alligator or something.'
Blues lyrics dug deep back into the collective unconscious of folk tradition and brought with them echoes of a semi-tangible, ancient strangeness. Howlin' Wolf rewrote Tommy Johnson's "Cool Drink Of Water Blues" as "I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" and came up with disturbing tales like that of the hapless abattoir worker who looks back on his missed chances in "Killing Floor." In the sixties, Bob Dylan summed up folk tradition thus: 'The main body of it is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all of the songs. Roses growing out of people's hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs and seven years of this and eight years of that and it's all really something that nobody can really touch.'
On Trout Mask, Van Vliet's lyrics showed a quantum leap from his previous work, mixing up folk tales with a sort of neo-Beat poetry and his own highly individual, non-linear narratives. This new take on the American cultural mythos was mixed up with the kaleidoscopic imagery of surrealism-through-psychedelia, beautifully etched lines and droll wit, not forgetting the corny puns. According to Van Vliet, a number of the lyrics were originally poems. As such they have a similar sort of musicality to that which Robert Creely attained in the fifties, when he addressed jazz and blues modulations via poems like "The Joke" and "Jack's Blues."
Sonically and structurally Trout Mask Replica was still way outside the prevailing trends in rock music, not least in the brevity of the material. The impetus of psychedelia was petering out, but the lengthy explorations born from that music, in which Van Vliet had dabbled the previous year, were about to be further extended into the even lengthier formalized structures of progressive rock. This path was epitomized by the English group The Nice, who went from the psychedelic freak-outs of 1967-8 to keyboard player Keith Emerson's classical adaptations and twenty-minute suites within a year. The longest track on Trout Mask was just over five minutes, the majority clocked in at less than three.
"Moonlight On Vermont," from the initial recording sessions, stands on the threshold of the full-blown Trout Mask style, though it still casts a backward glance towards Strictly Personal. Harkleroad's guitar lines are razor sharp and it all locks together into a complicated, serpentine activity. Lyrically, it refers to the forties pop song "Moonlight In Vermont," with the moon exerting a strange pull on the locals' behaviour. As the song closes, Van Vliet sings a tongue-in-cheek version of the old gospel hymn "Old Time Religion," mixed with the refrain 'Come out to show dem' from Steve Reich's 1966 piece "Come Out" (on which he subjected a 'found' voice to tape loop phasing).
In her book I'm With The Band, Pamela Des Barres of the GTOs described an incident when they went round to the Magic Band's house, ostensibly because one of the group had a crush on French. 'We smoked a lot of pot and Don put on a record [Reich's "Come Out"]. We lounged around the living room while a guy with a really deep voice repeated the phrase overandoverandover until it turned into many different ideas. When the record was over, the needle skipped and skipped, so we listened to that for a while too. I, personally, could find no meaning in it, but I tried. We went outside and stood around in a circle, in a semblance of meditation. I rolled my eyeballs in one direction and then the other, trying to stop them in midspin. It was almost impossible.'
From the same sessions, "Veteran's Day Poppy" is full of R&B elements, but the guitars lend aggressive syncopation to the lengthy instrumental coda. Conscription to fight in Vietnam was a real threat, and here Van Vliet chronicles a bereaved mother's lament for her son. Vietnam was a messy conflict which didn't yield many heroes, and Van Vliet finds a powerful anti-war metaphor in the defiant mother who refuses to make the empty gesture of buying the poppy, as 'It can never grow another son.'
A wide timespan of American culture is recontextualized on Trout Mask Replica, demonstrated by the obvious quote from "Old Time Religion." But another stylistic device is one so personal to Van Vliet that few people have noticed. He had demonstrated on earlier recordings that he had a magpie mentality, putting together musical styles and quotations that he particularly liked. Throughout the album, the guitars play snippets of melody from the music of his youth and childhood, which he whistled for them to replicate. In this instance the main slide guitar refrain on the first part of the song is a direct lift from a song that was popular in California in the forties entitled "Ranchero Grande."
"Sugar 'N Spikes" half-conceals another one of Van Vliet's favourite tunes. It starts off on an agitated Delta blues rhythm but the mood swiftly changes as the singing guitar lines shadow the vocals in the chorus. This section is constructed around a melody lifted directly from Miles Davis and Gil Evans's version of Joaqu’n Rodrigo's "Concierto De Aranjuez" from Sketches Of Spain (1959), an album he and Zappa used to listen to as teenagers. The lyrics, however, take the listener back to his homeland. A tale is told of a man in a cold-water flat with 'No H on my faucet' and 'no bed for my mouse.' But the lyrics are wry and humorous and the music melodic, with a later instrumental 'Aranjuez' chorus disrupted by French suddenly rushing off in a flurry of free-time playing.
"Ella Guru" is a pop tune that audibly fractures as the guitars begin to pull in different directions. Meanwhile Van Vliet is hanging out, watching the girls go by, casually informing us in a deep bestial voice, 'Here she comes walkin' lookin' like uh zoo', before going into a series of colourful verbal puns, 'Hi/High', 'yella/Ella' and 'High blue she blew'. Cotton joins in the fun, gurgling and giggling like a hyperventilating cartoon character.
"Sweet Sweet Bulbs" is the album's most touching song. It explores a romantic theme: Van Vliet meeting his true love in her garden, where 'warm sun fingers wave'. Carrying on the 'sun' theme he embraces her but becomes detached just before a kiss, looking up and exclaiming that he can see the sun, 'Phoebe,' in her bonnet 'with the sunset written on it.' The music is in a languid mid-tempo, with a gorgeous bass refrain, though the song goes through patches of turbulence before the melody re-emerges. A few years later, Van Vliet explained the 'bulbs' in question, saying that he and his wife, Jan, 'have a garden and we eat a lot of sprouts, all kinds of sprouts.'
These songs, although hardly straightforward, are still constructed on recognizable lines. At the opposite end of the spectrum sits "Dachau Blues," a refractory composition over which Van Vliet virtually drowns out the music with the intensity of his incantations. It sounds as if he's using his bass clarinet to rail against the atrocities of war in some desperate, garbled language, horrified by visions of a death-dance of skeletons 'dyin' in the ovens'. At the end, three children appear bearing cautionary doves, 'Cryin' please old man stop this misery.' The music is dark and convoluted, but on the recordings made in the group's house the instrumental backing track sounds surprisingly different without Van Vliet's massive voice. When he sings across the instrumentation with this kind of power, it creates a sort of auditory hallucination that blurs the music, the drum parts in particular.
See Part Two of Mike Barnes' epic tome on Trout Mask Replica
Also see Uncle Fester's and the editor's Trout Mask Replica critiques
Also see the rest of the PSF Beefheart tribute
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