A Token of My Extreme: Captain Beefheart- Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Straight/Reprise; June 16, 1969
"A squid eating dough in a polythene bag is fast and bulbous.. got me?"
Ah, the '60s--while more often remembered for the rise of great musicians like Frank Zappa, Rolling Stones, Dylan, Velvet Underground, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, Hendrix etc. etc. etc., the latter half of the decade was full of nonsensical psychedelic dogshit that doubtless sounded great to hippies addled by massive quantities of acid, brownies, and ether in the middle of that pseudo-profound and highly overrated period of musical history. Needless to say, this has not aged well when separated from its original context. Want proof? Try playing a Jefferson Airplane record in 2010. In its entirety. Without rolling your eyes at least once.
However, a few records skipped all the silly artifice of "trippy" imagery, Lewis Carroll allusions, backwards guitars, stoned jamming, sitars, and New Age blather and attained a level of genuine weirdness that has never lost its edge.
... and Trout Mask Replica still makes all of those records sound fucking staid.
While listening to Captain Beefheart's (a.k.a. Don Van Vilet) most notorious opus for the first time, a few questions inevitably come up:
1) Are they trying to sound like that?
2) How much LSD was consumed during the making of this recording?
3) Did the sound engineer fall asleep at the boards?
4) WHAT THE FUCK?!
The answers are: Yes, the Magic Band spent countless hours practicing at these songs; None, apparently; Zappa produced the album, and I don't think the man slept until he was dead; and indeed. Indeed.
While it may initially sound like a bunch of instruments being tossed down a neverending flight of stairs, there is clear evidence of a guiding hand at work--recognizable if jagged and amelodic blues riffs show up and repeat at points, only to resolve as different riffs entirely; John French's drumming is polyrhythmic in ways entirely foreign to rock music of the era; and Beefheart's mighty Bizarro Howlin' Wolf voice is all over, growling, hooting, hollering, speaking, howling, reciting, talking, even singing--when he's not interjecting bass clarinet/saxophone blasts that sound like they were cribbed straight from an Ornette Coleman record. The few breaks from the insanity come in the form of spoken word or a capella renditions of the Captain's own Dadaist poetry. Oh, and this goes on for nearly eighty minutes. The endurance test reputation of this double album is somewhat deserved.
If the music isn't enough, further separating this from the vast majority of psychedelic dross is a unique sense of whimsy--not in the doofy, acid casualty Syd Barrett sort of way, but the kind that suggests that the band was just on the edge of playing it all off as a joke (listen to the endearing flubs in "Pena"'s spoken intro) if it were not for the Captain's incredibly vivid, witty, and sometimes sobering imagery. Lest you think it's all just random gibberish, here's an excerpt from "Bill's Corpse":
Quietly the rain played down on last of the ashes
Quietly the light played down on her lashes
She smiled 'n twisted she smiled 'n twisted
Hideously looking back at what once was beautiful
Playing naturally magically
O' her ragged hair was shinin' red white 'n blue
All 'n all the children screamin'
Why surely madam you must be dreamin'
You couldn't have done this if you knew what you were doin'
Well the gold fish 'n the bowl lay upside down bloatin'
Full in the sky 'n the plains were bleached white with skeletons
Various species grouped together according
To their past beliefs
The only way they ever all got together was
Not in love but shameful grief
And that's just one example.
Trout Mask Replica is still one of the most daring and utterly unique records ever committed to wax. Even now, its avant-garde pulping of blues and jazz is still startling and influential, and echoes of it can be heard in Pere Ubu, later Tom Waits, Beck, and countless other weird lo-fi acts. It will change how you listen to music if you let it.
That all said, this album is widely acknowledged as one tough nut to crack. I would highly recommend the Captain's previous album, the very bluesy (it features legendary slide guitarist Ry Cooder) and far more accessible Safe As Milk before even trying Trout Mask on for size. It's a classic, and contains some of my all time favorite Beefy numbers. A healthy appreciation of the blues (particularly Howlin' Wolf or Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and maybe even some Frank Zappa (I highly recommend Hot Rats, which has a Beefheart cameo) can't hurt either. Even so, very little can actually prepare you for just how goddamned odd and polarizing this album is, so definitely expect to commit some time with its idiosyncrasies before "Neon Meate Dream of An Octafish" and similar wackiness causes you to run out of the room screaming.