The Case for Why Captain Beefheart’s Awful Sounding Album, Trout Mask Replica, Is a True Masterpiece

I’ve had Trout Mask Repli­ca in my col­lec­tion for years. I can’t say I reg­u­lar­ly pull it out to give it a lis­ten, but I know I’d nev­er get rid of it. It’s a some­times impen­e­tra­ble slab of genius, wrought from end­less ses­sions and then a short burst of record­ing, led by a man who couldn’t read music, was prone to fits of vio­lent anger, but dammit knew what he want­ed. (And Zap­pa pro­duced.) When I learned lat­er that the house where a lot of this went down was locat­ed in the hills behind the sub­urbs of Wood­land Hills, it made the insur­rec­tion of the album all the more mag­i­cal.

But yes, it’s a hard one to get into. There are no “hits.” There’s no foot tap­pin’ pop (well, mayyyyybe “Ella Guru,” and only because I knew it first as a cov­er by XTC.) It’s dis­cor­dant. Don Van Vli­et aka Cap­tain Beef­heart sounds pos­sessed by Howl­in’ Wolf try­ing to sing nurs­ery rhymes on acid, and it often plays like mem­bers of the band are in dif­fer­ent areas of the house with a vague idea of what the oth­ers are doing. (This is actu­al­ly a bit close to the truth).

Vox’s con­tin­u­ing series “Ear­worm,” host­ed by Estelle Caswell, attempts to con­vert lis­ten­ers who may have nev­er heard of the album, by tak­ing apart the open­ing track, “Frown­land.”

As Caswell explains, with help from musi­col­o­gists Samuel Andreyev and Susan Rogers, Van Vli­et meld­ed blues and free jazz, and played it with a decon­struct­ed rock band instru­men­ta­tion. Drums and bass did not lock down a rhythm–they played inde­pen­dent of the oth­ers, with the bass even play­ing chords. Rhythm and lead gui­tar played two dif­fer­ent time sig­na­tures each, and nei­ther were easy, 4/4 rhythms. And then there’s the sax­o­phone work, drop­ping in to squonk and thrash like Ornette Cole­man. As Mag­ic Band mem­bers point out, Van Vli­et didn’t under­stand that a bass or a gui­tar did not have the same range of notes as an 88-key piano, which was Van Vliet’s song­writ­ing instru­ment.

How­ev­er, only jazz­bos dig on learn­ing about polyrhythms. There’s so many oth­er rea­sons to appre­ci­ate Trout Mask. For one, it’s in the proud tra­di­tion of Euro­pean sur­re­al­ism but also comes from a par­tic­u­lar “old weird Amer­i­ca” that pro­duced some of our most bril­liant nut­cas­es. (How many peo­ple, learn­ing that Van Vli­et was raised near Joshua Tree, nod­ded in enlight­en­ment? Of course he was.) You want drug music, the album says…well then, this is the uncut stuff.

And then some­times it real­ly just hits hard: “Moon­light On Ver­mont” is relent­less, with a cor­r­us­cat­ing gui­tar line and Beef­heart worked up into a lath­er over “that old time reli­gion.” He quotes Blind Willie John­son, con­flates pagan­ism and Puri­tanism, and tran­scends both. (Maybe this is the gate­way song for new­bies?)

The Vox video pre­cedes its defense with some neg­a­tive reviews from the con­tem­po­rary press, but this Dick Lar­son review from the time under­stood it from the get go, who writes about it as a giant step for­ward after Beefheart’s two pre­vi­ous, more acces­si­ble albums:

Dylan would sym­pa­thise with Beefheart’s ‘nature-and-love-trips’, but the Cap­tain is faster and more bul­bous (and he’s got his band). But this is it. In straight­en­ing out his music, he’s found some kind of reli­gion. It may be in hair pies (yes!) or in Frown­land, but main­ly it’s peo­ple, chil­dren and coun­try men and women. And this is a new delight for Beef­heart – a rough out­door human­i­ty blend­ed with humour and a rich ver­bal vom­it of imagery.

It is a wild album, lit­er­al­ly. There are field record­ings in between the music, with sounds of crick­ets and a plane pass­ing over­head. The LP art shows the band stand­ing, crouch­ing, and hid­ing in the over­grown back­yard of the house. There’s mys­te­ri­ous things in the stream below and only some of them are fish.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tom Waits Makes a List of His Top 20 Favorite Albums of All Time

Hear a Rare Poet­ry Read­ing by Cap­tain Beef­heart (1993)

Cap­tain Beef­heart Issues His “Ten Com­mand­ments of Gui­tar Play­ing”

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (8)
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  • Bill Pruitt says:

    A good intro is the Rolling Stone cov­er piece that came out the next year. TMR is good, but not as as good as Clear Spot which does have “hits.” or Lick My Decals Off, or Dust Suck­er or Doc at the Radar Sta­tion. Thanks for the arti­cle.

  • Fred says:

    I like Beaf­heart, but it is dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to. I like it when he comes up in a ran­dom playlist, but to sit down and give an album a good lis­ten, well I guess only us old hip­pies do that.

  • Frederick Harrison says:

    There’s a repeat­ed line in “Moon on Ver­mont” — “Come out to show them” and it remind­ed me of an ear­ly Steve Reich tape loop from 1966 that repeat­ed the same phrase slight­ly out of sync with itself. Coin­ci­dence or was Van Vli­et quot­ing the Reich piece? Reich spent time at Mills Col­lege in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the ear­ly 60s so its pos­si­ble that Van Vli­et heard his work either through per­for­mance or via his asso­ci­a­tion with Frank Zap­pa.

  • Walrus says:

    I’ve known this thing since a long time ago because of /mu/, and I usu­al­ly don’t like avant-garde stuff but this is great. Should’ve lis­tened to it soon­er.

  • Matt says:

    I still don’t get it.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Son­ic Youth, for exam­ple. I love a lot of exper­i­men­tal music. This just sounds like it was rushed and crammed onto tape. The time sig­na­ture changes come off as non­sense to me — like let’s over­lay our work in dif­fer­ent times then just SAY it’s genius and was inten­tion­al. Some­times it works out by luck but most of the time it sounds like just a mess. Same with the pro­duc­tion — I don’t hear by choice, I hear “we only have 6 hours of stu­dio time.”

    His­tor­i­cal­ly, I can see the rel­e­vance, but as a musi­cal piece of work — even an exper­i­men­tal one at that — I think chil­dren simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mash­ing out what­ev­er on instru­ments with lit­tle to no musi­cal abil­i­ty would sound exact­ly the same as this. Just throw on some drum machines with some­what over­lap­ping rhythms and say you’re a genius on the way home. Becom­ing more famil­iar with the final result like­ly makes peo­ple feel it could be inten­tion­al.

    So it baf­fles me that so many of my heroes admire it and point to it. Is it just the irrev­er­ence of it that they real­ly love? Seems to me that’s a very big part of it. They all went through No Wave because of punk aes­thet­ics to begin with.

    In its defense, I’ll be back to try again in a few months/years.

  • Zanglezort Fleeblemanzen says:

    It’s not a clas­sic, it’s a mean­der­ing, bad­ly played pile of steam­ing horsesh*t loved only by hip­sters and the hard of hear­ing.

  • someone else says:

    If you are indeed cor­rect, then why would a per­son lis­ten to it?

  • Ian says:

    “Van Vli­et meld­ed blues and free jazz, and played it with a decon­struct­ed rock band instru­men­ta­tion. Drums and bass did not lock down a rhythm–they played inde­pen­dent of the oth­ers, with the bass even play­ing chords.”

    So he wrote ‘anti-music’. If I make a film that decon­structs the use of lights so every­thing is pitch black and make all the dia­log pig-Latin, I’m not push­ing the bounds of film, I’m mak­ing anti-film.

    And to think this is con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with King Crim­son and Mahav­ish­nu Orches­tra…

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