The Captain's Strange Voyage

Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:6 August 2020 

One of the wonderful things about popular music is the way it has splintered into a thousand sparkling threads, like a fireworks display in slow motion. There are more genres, sub-sections, and styles than could be examined in a lifetime… and it all started less than seventy years ago. Yet despite the best efforts of writers to nail down every variant on the rock and roll menu, some artists simply defy neat description. Such a figure was painter, poet, and musician Don van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. And the magnum opus of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was Trout Mask Replica.

Released in 1969 on Frank Zappa’s Straight label, with a lurid pink cover and a startling fish-head figure apparently waving at the world, this extraordinary double album has been mesmerising and repelling listeners for just over half a century. That it still produces the same discrepant reactions says much about the potency of this unsettling canvas of skewed-blues.

Don Vliet gathered his musicians (and ungathered them too—he was notorious for singling out, persecuting, then expelling those who fell out of favour) in a rented two-bedroom house in suburban Los Angeles. Money was non-existent and food in short supply. Sometimes Vliet would feed coffee to a band member and harangue them through a sleep-deprived haze. There was starvation, fatigue and mind-messing. It was more like a cult than a commune, more like a roller-coaster than a train.

The goal of all this intensity was to produce a music that, while rooted in deep blues, dismantled and reassembled the building blocks into something different. That goal was most certainly achieved. With colliding rhythms—musicians are often playing in different time signatures—and instruments being used as noise-makers by players who never learned them, there is an anarchic spirit throughout Trout Mask Replica that is impossible to capture in words. Yet the album is fascinating, in the same way that abstract expressionism in visual art is fascinating. Beefheart takes a jackhammer to the very conventions that make pop music popular—melody, rhythm, repetition—yet does so with such verve, such self-belief, we think the fault is not in his stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

In opening track “Frownland”, Beefheart’s gravelly voice delivers a kind of blues rant over a band seemingly playing an entirely different song. Next comes a kind of vocal tone poem, Sprechstimme perhaps, where the Captain sounds like an acid fried early settler intoning a love poem. And so it goes, with moments of melody and cohesion (“Moonlight on Vermont”) slugging it out with schizoid poetry (“Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish”). 

In past times a sorbet was served during a banquet to break up the richness of the main courses. Trout Mask Replica is to a sorbet as napalm is to a firework. If you want your musical brain rearranged, buy the record. And I do mean the vinyl. Tackling TMR side by side offers opportunities for respite and thus some slight protection for your digestive system. The LP has produced some fabulous quotes over the years, such as “rather like trying to befriend a porcupine” and “Jackson Pollock trying to play like John Lee Hooker”. Yet there is cheek and humour here too. In sum, there’s nothing else like Trout Mask Replica from the sixties, and little in the whole of popular music.

© Bruce Jenkins 2020

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