Wild Life: decoding Trout Mask Replica

Recently, I perused a thread on the Steve Hoffman forums about Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. The question was from a music fan who didn’t like Trout Mask at all, but sensed they were missing out on something. To use their own expression, “I’ve tried to listen to Trout Mask Replica many times, but can’t make it through the whole album.” Could fellow music fans on the forum suggest anything? What he wanted was a way of introducing a new starter to the work of the Captain.

Members duly responded by posting playlists. The trend of the replies was that Trout Mask could be made more tolerable if you listened to the Captain’s discography in the optimal order. Each member had their own idea of which albums to hear first, and which to promote in the running order. One plausible approach was that one should hear the “accessible” records first, then work your way up to the more “difficult” Trout Mask album.

It’s a great way to have a fun discussion about records. But I confess I find this line of reasoning rather restrictive. I question the assumption that an artist’s discography is the single source of truth; it seems predicated on the idea that, as a music fan, one’s record collection is the central model, a prism through which everything you need to know can be understood. This doesn’t always work, particularly in the case of the Captain, whose recorded output is erratic and unpredictable. It’s a unique body of work, without any doubt, but doesn’t contain the whole story. 1

Instead, let’s propose some other suggestions which I would make, in the interests of opening up the question and attempting to enhance our appreciation of Trout Mask.

    1. Listen to some other music, not just that of the Captain. For starters, I would suggest free jazz records by Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman; bop records by Thelonious; and some examples of blues singers known to have influenced Don van Vliet’s singing style, for instance Howling Wolf and Son House.
    2. Bend an ear to some specific records which Don is known to have owned, and listened to; one obvious example is Blow Boys Blow (Tradition Records, 1958), the LP of traditional sea shanties interpreted by the folk song revivalists Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd. This particular record would help a listener “decode” ‘Orange Claw Hammer’ to some extent, particularly if one hears the radio broadcast version sung by the Captain with Zappa playing his 12-string guitar. Another one is Jazz Canto Vol. 1 (World Pacific Records, 1958), which gives abundant clues as to how Don arrived at his unique blend of poetry, spoken word, and speech-song.
    3. Read Mike Barnes’ excellent book Captain Beefheart: The Biography (Quartet Books, 2000). Barnes made a particularly detailed study of the extensive contributions of John French to the realisation of Trout Mask, a story which remained hidden for a long time, partially due to the efforts of Don himself who didn’t care to have the spotlight fall on anyone but himself. You won’t learn that story from the LP alone; French isn’t even credited on the cover, although he does appear in the back cover photo. Once French’s work begins to be understood, the dense musical language of Trout Mask begins to make more sense.
    4. Try and appreciate the contribution of Frank Zappa, who produced the record. The answer is not simply to purchase and listen to the entire back catalogue of Zappa, but to consider his skills as a producer and an enabler. To put that in context, look at what he did for Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs, both of whom could be characterised as “naive” musicians and music-biz outsiders; Zappa’s triumph was to turn raw talent into listenable (and marketable) records, without compromising the artistic vision of these far-out individuals. 2 I propose that Trout Mask is another such triumph, and Zappa’s input is one reason why it remains a unique entry in the Beefheart canon. As an example of Zappa’s hands-on enabling, the anecdote I love best is when he instantly turned up all the dials on Zoot Horn Rollo’s amplifier; the young and naive guitarist was taken aback at such boldness. The result? ‘Moonlight on Vermont’, with its unforgettable (and very loud) guitar sound.
    5. Show some love for the visuals of Trout Mask; they can help you find a way in to the record. Cal Schenkel’s cover image is indelibly strange, and effortlessly picks up on the fish imagery that swims throughout the whole LP. The inner cover with its saturated colour negatives by Ed Caraeff also tells you a lot about the band, and the music; as does the back cover, where a simple heat-dryer turns into a ray-gun device in the hands of the Captain. The nicknames of the band are also important clues; don’t forget it was Zappa who named him Captain Beefheart, and Don picked up on the idea to rename his band members (a tradition he continued into the 1980s records). It’s part of Magic Band lore; through the naming, you become a member of The Magic Band.
    6. Read Fred Frith’s analysis of the music in The Lives And Times of Captain Beefheart. While he’s looking at it from a musicological point of view, and specifically that of a guitar player, Frith doesn’t use alienating language and communicates the real value of the music on Trout Mask. The strength of it is its freedom; elements which we normally associate with improvisation have been made into something that can be replayed, something constant and repeatable. If you doubt this, then simply listen to the so-called Trout Mask rehearsal tapes, and hear the miracle for yourself. The importance of this, says Frith, is that the divisions between what is possible and what is impossible start to become blurred. How many records can do that?

    This starts to shade into another area; years ago, Ed Baxter said to me that Trout Mask contains “a lot of musical information”, and I’ve been fascinated by the idea ever since. It confirms my view that the Captain’s music is in fact a new musical language, which, when we’ve properly equipped ourselves, we must work hard in order to read it and to understand it.

    Me, I’ve been listening to Trout Mask Replica since 1979; I still haven’t got to the bottom of it, and I suspect it’s likely to be a near-unfathomable repository of ideas.

    All images on this page by Ed Pinsent.

  1. In fact, I would argue that no musician’s life resides solely in their recorded output. The Grateful Dead, for instance, were primarily a live band, and arguably poorly-represented on the studio albums. It’s only in recent years that we’ve been able to access their live shows, through the extensive reissue programmes and the audience tape collection on the Wayback Machine.
  2. Very coincidentally, the Fischer LP is also a double album and also on one of Zappa’s labels.