Trout Mask Replica

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Trout Mask Replica
Studio album by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Released June 16, 1969
Recorded August 1968 at Sunset Sound Recorders and March 1969 at Whitney Studios, Los Angeles, California
Genre Avant-garde, art rock, blues rock, protopunk, psychedelic rock, experimental rock, free jazz, spoken word
Length 78:51
Label Straight, Reprise
Producer Frank Zappa
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band chronology
Strictly Personal
(1968)
Trout Mask Replica
(1969)
Lick My Decals Off, Baby
(1970)

Trout Mask Replica is the third album by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, released in June 1969. Produced by Beefheart's friend and former schoolmate Frank Zappa, it was originally released as a double album on Zappa's Straight Records label. Combining elements of blues, avant-garde, free jazz and other genres of American music,[1] the album is regarded as an important work of experimental music and a major influence on genres such as alternative rock, progressive rock, math rock and post-punk.[1][2]

Most of Trout Mask Replica was recorded in March 1969 at Whitney Studios in Los Angeles, California. The lineup of The Magic Band at this time consisted of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton on guitar, Mark Boston on bass guitar, Victor Hayden on bass clarinet, and John French on drums and percussion. Beefheart played several brass and woodwind instruments (including saxophone, musette, and hunting horn) and contributed most of the vocal parts, with Zappa and various members of the band providing occasional vocals and narration. The well-rehearsed Magic Band recorded all instrumental tracks[a 1] for Trout Mask Replica in a single six-hour recording session; Van Vliet's vocal and horn tracks were laid down over the next few days. Upon release in the US, Trout Mask Replica sold poorly and failed to chart. It was more successful in the UK, where it spent a week on the charts, at #21.[3]

A widely recognized and acclaimed composition, Trout Mask Replica was ranked #60 on Rolling Stone's 2012 list The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Allmusic's Steve Huey wrote that "its inspiring reimagining of what was possible in a rock context laid the groundwork for countless future experiments in rock surrealism, especially during the punk/new wave era."[1]

Background[edit]

Beefheart and the Magic Band had a history of difficult relationships with their recording labels. A&M released the group's first single, a cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy", but dropped the contract after their first two singles failed to produce hits. Then Buddah Records released the band's (and the label's) first album, 1967's Safe as Milk. Soon afterward Buddah began specializing in "bubblegum pop", a style in which Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band clearly had no place, and the group again found themselves without a record label. In late 1967 and the spring of 1968 the group had several sets of recording sessions for what eventually became the Strictly Personal and Mirror Man albums, but due to contractual uncertainties they did not know if the material would ever be released. Around this time Van Vliet's high school friend Frank Zappa started his own pair of record labels, Bizarre and Straight, and offered Captain Beefheart, a name Zappa had given him, the opportunity to record an album with complete artistic freedom. The result was Trout Mask Replica.

The group rehearsed Van Vliet's difficult compositions for eight months, living communally in a small rented house in the Woodland Hills suburb of Los Angeles. Van Vliet implemented his vision by asserting complete artistic and emotional domination of his musicians. At various times one or another of the group members was put "in the barrel", with Van Vliet berating him continually, sometimes for days, until the musician collapsed in tears or in total submission to Van Vliet.[4] According to John French and Bill Harkleroad these sessions often included physical violence. French described the situation as "cultlike"[5] and a visiting friend said "the environment in that house was positively Manson-esque."[6] Their material circumstances also were dire. With no income other than welfare and contributions from relatives, the group survived on a bare subsistence diet. French recounted living on no more than a small cup of soybeans a day for a month[7] and at one point band members were arrested for shoplifting food (with Zappa bailing them out).[8] A visitor described their appearance as "cadaverous" and said that "they all looked in poor health". Band members were restricted from leaving the house and practiced for 14 or more hours a day. Vliet once told drummer John French he had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and thus he would see nonexistent conspiracies that explained this behaviour.[9]

Composition and production[edit]

Composition[edit]

"Pena"; an example of the album's avant-garde instrumentation and bizarre lyrical content. "Fast n' bulbous" and "that's right the mascara snake" refrain throughout the album.

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The compositions on Trout Mask Replica draw their inspiration primarily from blues and free jazz but also include elements of genres ranging from folk music to the current avant-garde of classical music to sea shanties and beyond. Van Vliet's vocals range from growling blues singing to frenzied falsetto to laconic, casual ramblings. His lyrics contained all manner of references: music history, American and international politics, the Holocaust, love and sexuality, Steve Reich, gospel music, conformity, and man's impact on his surroundings.

According to Van Vliet all of the songs on the album were written in a single eight-hour session. Band members have stated that two of the songs ("Moonlight on Vermont" and "Sugar 'n Spikes") were written around December 1967, while "Veteran's Day Poppy" was written around late May or early June 1968. Most of the rest were composed over a period of several months in the summer and fall of 1968 in an unprecedented process of experimentation. One influence on the compositional process was a tape that Van Vliet's friend Gary Marker had played for him. Marker, an aspiring recording engineer, was learning how to splice audio tape. He practiced by combining sections of various recordings so that they would join smoothly and maintain a consistent beat despite being from different sources. When Van Vliet heard the tape he said excitedly, "That's what I want!"[10]

Van Vliet used a piano—an instrument he had never played before—as his main compositional tool. Since he had no experience with the piano and no conventional musical knowledge at all, he was able to experiment with few preconceived ideas of musical form or structure. Beefheart sat at the piano until he found a rhythmic or melodic pattern that he liked. Mike Barnes compared this approach to John Cage's "maverick irreverence toward classical tradition".[11] John French then transcribed this pattern, typically only a measure or two long, into musical notation. After Beefheart was finished French would then piece these fragments together into compositions, reminiscent of the splicing together of disparate source material on Marker's tape. French decided which part would be played on which instrument and taught each player their part, although Van Vliet had final say over the ultimate shape of the product. Band member Bill Harkleroad has remarked on "how haphazardly the individual parts were done, worked on very surgically, stuck together, and then sculpted afterwards." Once completed each song was played in exactly the same way every time, eschewing the improvisation that typifies most popular music in favor of an approach more like a formal, classical composition. Guitarist Fred Frith noted that during this process "forces that usually emerge in improvisation are harnessed and made constant, repeatable."[12]

French has stated that about three-quarters of the songs were composed at the piano. The rest mostly consisted of parts that were whistled by Van Vliet. In a few cases part of the song was composed at the piano while others were whistled. Three of the pieces were unaccompanied vocal solos ("Well", "The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back", and "Orange Claw Hammer") while one was a spontaneous improvisation ("China Pig").

Several of the compositions include brief passages from other songs. Some were childhood reminiscences, such as Gene Autry's recording "Rancho Grande" from which one of the guitar lines in "Veteran's Day Poppy" was adapted, or the "Shortnin' Bread" melody used in "Pachuco Cadaver". Others were more contemporary, such as the quote "come out to show dem [them]" from Steve Reich's "Come Out" used in "Moonlight on Vermont", or a melodic fragment from the Miles Davis recording of Concierto de Aranjuez used as the basis for the bridge of "Sugar 'n Spikes". The ending of "Moonlight on Vermont" also includes the refrain from the spiritual "Old-Time Religion". A nonmusical influence was the art of Salvador Dalí; the instrumental "Dali's Car" was inspired by the band's viewing of an installation of Dalí's Rainy Taxi.

Recording[edit]

"Moonlight on Vermont" illustrates the album's sound and composition.

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"Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy" were recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders in August 1968, about seven months before the rest of the songs. These songs featured a lineup of Van Vliet, Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton on guitar, John French on drums, and Van Vliet's friend Gary Marker serving temporarily on bass as replacement for the recently departed Jerry Handley. About a month later Mark Boston joined the band as full-time bassist. The lineup of Van Vliet, Harkleroad, Cotton, French and Boston recorded the rest of the tracks, with Van Vliet's cousin Victor Hayden occasionally guesting on bass clarinet and vocals.

Zappa originally proposed to record the album as an "ethnic field recording" in the house where the band lived. Working with Zappa and engineer Dick Kunc the band recorded some provisional backing tracks at the Woodland Hills house with sound separation obtained simply by having different instruments in different rooms. Zappa thought these provisional recordings turned out well, but Van Vliet became suspicious that Zappa was trying to record the album on the cheap and insisted on using a professional studio. Zappa would say of Van Vliet's approach that it was "impossible to tell him why things should be such and such a way. It seemed to me that if he was going to create a unique object, that the best thing for me to do was to keep my mouth shut as much as possible and just let him do whatever he wanted to do whether I thought it was wrong or not."[7] One of the tracks recorded by Zappa and Kunc at the house, "Hair Pie: Bake 1", appeared on the finished album. Three other tracks appearing on the album were recorded on a cassette recorder at the house, the a cappella poems "The Dust Blows Forward 'n The Dust Blows Back" and "Orange Claw Hammer," and the improvised blues "China Pig" with former Magic Band member Doug Moon accompanying Van Vliet on guitar. "The Blimp" was recorded by Zappa in his studio while on the phone with Van Vliet prior to the album's sessions; Jeff Cotton was put on the phone to recite Van Vliet's latest poem, which Zappa recorded and put over a Mothers of Invention backing track (which had been known to the Mothers, unacknowledged on Trout Mask's credits, as "Charles Ives", the name of the modernist American composer).

When they entered the studio the band knocked out 20 instrumental tracks in a single six-hour recording session.[13] Van Vliet spent the next few days overdubbing the vocals. Instead of singing while monitoring the instrumental tracks over headphones, he heard only the slight sound leakage through the studio window.[14] As a result the vocals are only vaguely in sync with the instrumental backing; when asked later about synchronization he remarked, "That's what they do before a commando raid, isn't it?"[15]

Van Vliet used the ensuing publicity, particularly with a 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Langdon Winner, to promulgate a number of myths which were subsequently quoted as fact. Winner's article stated, for instance, that neither Van Vliet nor the members of the Magic Band ever took drugs, but Harkleroad and French later discredited this. Van Vliet also claimed to have taught both Harkleroad and Mark Boston from scratch; in fact the pair were already accomplished musicians before joining the band.[14] Van Vliet also took complete credit for composition and arranging, a claim that band members strongly disputed in later years. A subsequent 'overview' of the work, during recording, can be found in the Grow Fins CD box set (CDs 3 & 4) and its vinyl 3-volume alternatives.

Legacy[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 5/5 stars [16]
Q 5/5 stars 1994
Rolling Stone 5/5 stars [17]

Since its release, Trout Mask Replica has been acknowledged not only as Captain Beefheart's masterpiece, but as one of the greatest albums of all time. BBC disc jockey John Peel said of the album: "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."[18] Critic Robert Christgau gave the album a positive rating of B+, saying that Trout Mask Replica's "weirdness" prevented him from granting it a higher grade. He commented that it was "... great played at high volume when you're feeling shitty, because you'll never feel as shitty as this record."[19] Critic Steve Huey of Allmusic writes that the album's influence "was felt more in spirit than in direct copycatting, as a catalyst rather than a literal musical starting point. However, its inspiring reimagining of what was possible in a rock context laid the groundwork for countless experiments in rock surrealism to follow, especially during the punk/new wave era."[1]

Included in The Mothers Of Invention's Uncle Meat gatefold was a small book including references to the songs "Pachuco Cadaver" and "Moonlight on Vermont."

The album's unconventional nature often alienates new listeners. Cartoonist and writer Matt Groening tells of listening to Trout Mask Replica at the age of 15: "I thought it was the worst thing I'd ever heard. I said to myself, they're not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn't believe Frank Zappa could do this to me – and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realised they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard".[7][20] John Harris of The Guardian later discussed the idea that the album requires several listens to "get it", concluding it still sounded "awful" after six listens.[2] Filmmaker David Lynch has called Trout Mask Replica his favorite album of all time,[citation needed] and John Lydon has also listed the album as one of his favourites, noting, "The first time I played that album, I laughed all the way through."[citation needed]

In 2003, the album was ranked 58th by Rolling Stone in their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (60th on the 2012 list):[21] "On first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds like raw Delta blues", with Beefheart "singing and ranting and reciting poetry over fractured guitar licks. But the seeming sonic chaos is an illusion ... Tracks such as 'Ella Guru' and 'My Human Gets Me Blues' are the direct predecessors of modern musical primitives such as Tom Waits and PJ Harvey".[22] In his 1995 book The Alternative Music Almanac, Alan Cross placed the album in the #2 spot on his list of "10 Classic Alternative Albums". In 1995, Mojo put the album 28th on their "The 100 Greatest Albums Ever Made" list[23] and 51st on their list of "The 100 Records That Changed the World".[24]

On April 6, 2011, the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry for the year 2010 by the Library of Congress.[25] On January 13, 2012, as part of its "Inside the National Recording Registry" series, the public radio program Studio 360 broadcast a tribute to the album featuring drummer John French, biographer Mike Barnes, and Beefheart devotee Tom Waits.

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written, composed and arranged by Don Van Vliet.[26]

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Frownland"   1:41
2. "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back"   1:53
3. "Dachau Blues"   2:21
4. "Ella Guru"   2:26
5. "Hair Pie: Bake 1"   4:58
6. "Moonlight on Vermont"   3:59
Side two
No. Title Length
7. "Pachuco Cadaver"   4:40
8. "Bills Corpse"   1:48
9. "Sweet Sweet Bulbs"   2:21
10. "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish"   2:25
11. "China Pig"   4:02
12. "My Human Gets Me Blues"   2:46
13. "Dali's Car"   1:26
Side three
No. Title Length
14. "Hair Pie: Bake 2"   2:23
15. "Pena"   2:33
16. "Well"   2:07
17. "When Big Joan Sets Up"   5:18
18. "Fallin' Ditch"   2:08
19. "Sugar 'n Spikes"   2:30
20. "Ant Man Bee"   3:57
Side four
No. Title Length
21. "Orange Claw Hammer"   3:34
22. "Wild Life"   3:09
23. "She's Too Much for My Mirror"   1:40
24. "Hobo Chang Ba"   2:02
25. "The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)"   2:04
26. "Steal Softly thru Snow"   2:18
27. "Old Fart at Play"   1:51
28. "Veteran's Day Poppy"   4:31

Personnel[edit]

Musicians
The Magic Band
  • Drumbo (John French) – drums, percussion, engineer (uncredited on the original release)
  • Antennae Jimmy Semens (Jeff Cotton) – guitar, "steel appendage guitar" (slide guitar using a metal slide), lead vocals on "Pena" and "The Blimp", "flesh horn" (vocal with hand cupped over mouth) on "Ella Guru", speaking voice on "Old Fart at Play"
  • Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) – guitar, "glass finger guitar" (slide guitar using a glass slide), flute on "Hobo Chang Ba"
  • Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) – bass guitar, narration on "Dachau Blues" and "Fallin' Ditch"
  • The Mascara Snake (Victor Hayden) – bass clarinet, backing vocals on "Ella Guru", speaking voice on "Pena"
Additional personnel

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Excluding the "home recordings" and "Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy", recorded in 1968

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Steve Huey. "Trout Mask Replica > Review". AMG. Retrieved 2012-01-19. 
  2. ^ a b Harris, John (2006-08-04). "Mission: unlistenable". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-05-26. 
  3. ^ Brown, Tony; Kutner, Jon; Warwick, Neil. The Complete Book of the British Charts: Singles & Albums (Omnibus Press, 2004), p. 205
  4. ^ "vanity project interviews: The Magic Band". Vpinterviews.blogspot.com. 2005-04-21. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  5. ^ "Burundo Drumbi! - John French's Series of Q&As, 2000/1". The Captain Beefheart Radar Station. Retrieved 2007-12-09. 
  6. ^ Barnes, Mike. Captain Beefheart. Quartet Books, ISBN 0-7043-8073-0.
  7. ^ a b c Elaine Shepard (Producer), Declan Smith (Film research) (1997). The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart (Documentary). BBC. 
  8. ^ French 2010, pp. 389-391.
  9. ^ "Don't argue the Captain"
  10. ^ Captain Beefheart: Under Review. Music Video Distributors. 2006. 
  11. ^ Barnes, Mike p.71
  12. ^ Fred Frith, 1974, New Musical Express (exact date unknown), as quoted in Barnes.
  13. ^ Miles, Barry (2005). Zappa: A Biography. pp. 182–183. Grove Press
  14. ^ a b Chusid, Irwin (2000). Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, pp. 129–140. London: Cherry Red Books. ISBN 1-901447-11-1
  15. ^ From Zig Zag magazine, No. 8, 1969 (as cited by M. Barnes in Captain Beefheart)
  16. ^ Huey, Steve. "Allmusic review". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 10 July 2013. 
  17. ^ "Rolling Stone Album Guide - 5 Star Record List 1983". Rocklist.net. Retrieved 10 July 2013. 
  18. ^ Barnes, Mike (February 1999). "Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved 2007-12-09. 
  19. ^ "CG: Artist 222". Robert Christgau. 2006-12-01. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  20. ^ Graham Johnston. "The Captain Beefheart Radar Station - Plastic Factory". Beefheart.com. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  21. ^ "60) Trout Mask Replica". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 7 August 2012. 
  22. ^ "58) Trout Mask Replica". Rolling Stone. Nov 1, 2003. Retrieved 2010-02-11. [dead link]
  23. ^ "Rocklist.net...Mojo Lists". Rocklistmusic.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  24. ^ "Acclaimed Music Forum". Pub37.bravenet.com. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  25. ^ "National Recording Preservation Board, 2010 Selections". Loc.gov. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  26. ^ Courrier, Kevin. Trout Mask Replica. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

References[edit]

  • Barnes, Mike (2004). Captain Beefheart: The Biography. 
  • Courrier, Kevin (2007). Trout Mask Replica. 
  • French, John (2010). Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic. 

External links[edit]