When thinking about 1969, a few things usually come to mind, such as Woodstock and the Moon landing. However, that year also brought listeners one of the most unique yet polarizing albums of all time: Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Just one look at the album cover tells you everything you need to know about the music within. With the band’s leader and singer, Don Van Vliet wearing a green wool coat, a pilgrim hat, and a carp’s head plastered on his face in front of a red background, one can only assume that the music will be grotesque and not accessible to casual music fans.
Whoever assumes that notion will be absolutely correct upon first listening to it, as the double album is incredibly dissonant and polytonal, and each musician is playing different keys and tempos against each other. Add to that Beefheart’s booming Howlin’ Wolf-esque voice, which will make listening to it a challenge; it doesn’t help that the album is over an hour long. But, like a Dali painting (who the band were fans of), the cacophonous mishmash is woven together beautifully despite the dissonance throughout.
It opens with the track “Frownland,” which plunges listeners headfirst into a catchy yet off-kilter guitar line, accompanied by a second guitar playing in a different rhythm, a bass guitar playing strummed chords, drums that are covered by cardboard, and the Captain’s voice which is mixed louder than all the other instruments. Such a song can turn most people away, but when listening closely to the lyrics, the message behind it is actually timeless, emanating a sense of beauty within an otherwise unlistenable song. “Where a man can stand / by another man / without an ego flying / and no man lying / and no one dying by an earthly hand” was just as relevant in 1969 as it is today.
Other themes that Trout Mask reflects on are war and how history repeats itself (“Dachau Blues”), insanity (“Moonlight on Vermont”), and homelessness (“Hobo Chang Ba”). Van Vliet’s poetry explains his philosophies beautifully and should certainly be read separately from the music to fully understand what he was trying to convey.
Ironically, the making of the album was perhaps more interesting than the album itself. The band lived together in this house for nine months, rehearsing for 14 hours every day. Van Vliet didn’t know music theory and couldn’t play any instruments, yet he would play random notes on the piano, which his drummer, John French (Drumbo) was tasked to transcribe in the most coherent way he could. Essentially, French would have to teach the music to the rest of the band. If they ever made mistakes or defied the Captain, he would yell at them in his Howlin’ Wolf voice, beat them, or make the band members turn against each other. In a way, Beefheart had acted as a cult leader, with the band being forced to “live” Trout Mask Replica for those nine months. He decided when they would be allowed to leave and kept tabs on where they went. The band members would also be forced to listen to Beefheart’s poetry readings, and if they criticized it or showed boredom, he would punish them. He was an incredibly difficult man to live with, and the band worked tirelessly to make the album a reality, not for Van Vliet himself, but because they felt in their hearts that they were making history. In essence… they were.
On top of that, French was forced to cover his drums with cardboard to practice, since their neighbors often made noise complaints. The guitarists (Bill Harklerload, A.K.A. Zoot Horn Rollo, and Jeff Cotton, A.K.A. Antennae Jimmy Semens, respectively) and bassist (Mark Boston, A.K.A. Rockette Morton) would have to rehearse without using their amps, while pressing the guitar heads against the walls to hear it fully. Van Vliet claimed to be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1971, according to the book, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic, which French himself wrote. The book also talks about the rest of French’s career while working with Van Vliet, as he was his most consistent bandmate.
Interestingly, the album was financed and recorded by Frank Zappa, who was a friend of Van Vliet in high school. He even makes an appearance in the song “The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica),” giving feedback on the song in his studio during a Mothers of Invention session. The album has never had a proper remaster, as the Zappa estate owns the rights to it.
An album like Trout Mask would never have existed without an eccentric leader like Don Van Vliet helming the project. Because he was more of a painter than a musician, one must look at the LP in the way that you would view an abstract painting. One can infer that Van Vliet never intended to create a commercialized album that would be on the radio – it was more of a passion project for him, and his bandmates’ excellent musicianship helped make it come to life.
What’s being played may not sound like they belong in the same piece, but when melded together, the music is a complete piece of art in its own way. It may not be accessible for most people, but if you are able to listen to it more than once, it can be immensely satisfying; it’s easy to see the amount dedication displayed by the musicians, as they truly were passionate in the countless hours they spent rehearsing it.
One thing is for certain: no album like it has ever existed before or after. Trout Mask Replica is a monolithic work of its own, and it’s something that simply cannot be replicated.