Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Trout Mask Replica

The circumstances surrounding the recording of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's third album, Trout Mask Replica, were about as hellish and unbelievable as one could imagine. Captain Beefheart himself (AKA Don Van Vliet), a self-described paranoid schizophrenic, essentially held the band hostage as they learned and recorded the songs that would make it onto the record. But for a little context, let’s rewind.

The band’s first single, a cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy," was released by A&M in March 1966, but after it and a subsequent single failed to find commercial success, the label dropped the band. Buddha Records picked up the band and released the debut LP, Safe As Milk, - and while the album found a measure of critical and commercial success, the label quickly became known for artists specializing in "bubblegum pop."

After a few independent studio sessions, the bulk of which would become the "Strictly Personal" and "Mirror Man" records, it fell to Van Vliet's childhood friend and ├╝ber-musician Frank Zappa to help realize the Magic Band's musical potential. It was around this time that Zappa had started a pair of record labels (Bizarre Records and Straight Records) and offered the band an opportunity to record with total artistic freedom. The resulting sessions produced the songs that would make up Trout Mask Replica.

In 1968, while spending most of their time among the enclave at Zappa's house in the Canyon, the band rented a small house in Woodland Hills, a Valley suburb of Los Angeles. Van Vliet began asserting his creative and emotional dominance over the band immediately, including sessions of lengthy verbal abuse and, according to the band, physical violence. The whole situation was described by drummer John French as having a "cultlike" atmosphere; indeed, the atmosphere has often been called "Manson-esque."

Drugs, of course, were everywhere, with LSD the usual drug of choice, no doubt fuelling Beefheart's purported belief that the house was built on the site of Native American burial ground and that he could communicate with their spirits. 

Beefheart persuaded the band that women and sex would interfere with the music and so the band just played and played. Then there were the "brainwashing" sessions, fistfights that broke out in the fractious atmosphere. There was no money to speak of and they starved, were struck down with illnesses and could often be found wandering around looking for food, in one report a band member aimlessly meandering about the wealthy neighborhood in a dress, army boots and a helmet, a crazed look in his eyes. Duh. Hunger and LSD will do that.

Eventually they all would leave at one point or another, but most came back for food and to recuperate. The group even got arrested once after a shoplifting spree because they had no money to buy food and had to get Zappa to bail them out. 

Call it what you will, the music the band produced was fractured, awe-inspiring and often downright bizarre. Working from within a confluence of genres, including folk, jazz, rock and blues, the band became the model for rhythmic experimentation. The album is often difficult to listen to – no, it’s always difficult to listen to. As an example, the two guitar leads on the opening track "Frownland" are playing in different time signatures – one in 5/4 time, the other in 7/4 time. Meanwhile the bass acts as a third guitar, but unusually playing chords; and that's not thirty seconds into the track.

Several songs incorporated brief sections of other songs, such as Gene Autry's recording of "Rancho Grande" being used as one of the guitar parts in "Veteran’s Day Poppy." Other examples included the use of Steve Reich's "Come Out" as inspiration for "Moonlight on Vermont" and the Miles Davis-cribbing "Sugar 'n' Spikes," which took a melodic turn from Davis' recording of "Concierto de Aranjuez." But these influences weren’t wholesale mimicry; the band twisted and reformed the sounds into something completely new and uniquepaying homage to their source material.

Again, Trout Mask Replica is no easy listen. It's a sprawling double album of surrealist jazz, deranged delta blues like Charlie Patton and Skip James as well as apparently nonsense lyrics amidst jarring chords that leave the listener frazzled and disoriented.

Just what, for instance, can one make of "Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish?"
Speckled speculation 
Fedlocks waddlin’ feast 
Archaic faces frenzy 
Ceramic fists artificial deceased 
‘n cists rancid buds burst

Purely Joycian.

Trout Mask Replica is utterly compelling, drawing one into its world. It gives no quarter, no compromise. The idiosyncratic vision is pasted across all 28 songs, forming one of the most comprehensive and enduring musical visions in rock. 

Tom Waits: "Beefheart was the roughest diamond in the mine... enter the strange matrix of his mind, and lose yours."

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