I like to think my attitude to music is a broad based religion, but Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band makes me feel like a heretic. Among my friends there are those who ‘get it!’ Lefty claims to have cracked it by pounding the pavements of Hackney, listening to it on his Walkman with vintage (before there ever was vintage) headphones clamped over his ears. And then there is Andy, whose wife still jerks and grimaces today at the memory of having it played at her, over and over, in her husband’s quest to penetrate its arrhythmic mysteries. I myself am banned from even opening my copy in the presence of my wife and have to sneak moments alone with it like a porn addict. The album holds a dread fascination. The soiled inadequacy I feel afterwards would seem to extend the porn metaphor somewhat.
The word ‘challenging’ invariably puts in an appearance when critics attempt to describe the sound of Trout Mask Replica. That along with ‘discordant’, ‘overrated’ and ‘shit’. It polarises listeners. Even those who love it, like Simpsons’ guru Matt Groening, label it ‘a sloppy cacophony’. In his Rolling Stone review, Lester Bangs accepted that it was not ‘in any sense slick, “artistic,” or easy’, but was still moved to acclaim it ‘a total success’. More recently, under the headline Mission: Unlistenable, Guardian music journalist John Harris admitted to ‘a chill feeling’ when confronted by the album’s ‘clang and squall’. He is probably not alone in his incredulous disbelief at the gulf between critical reverence and poor record sales.
Background knowledge of the circumstances of an album’s creation sometimes offers up a sort of talisman. Here it singularly fails to shine any light into the dark corners of its creators’ minds. (The plural is very much deliberate as we will discover). Holed up in a cabin in the Los Angeles foothills, there was talk of ‘mind control’ and behaviour more redolent of a ‘cult’ than with a ramshackle blues project. Most telling of all perhaps, is that producer Frank Zappa – here cast against type as the voice of reason – tried, and failed, to strike a note of caution and restraint! “It seemed to me that if he (Beefheart) 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.”
Even this notion of Beefheart (Dan Van Vliet) as sole custodian of the album’s unique sound is hotly disputed. Despite his claims that all the songs on the album were written in one eight hour session, he and members of the Magic Band, John French and Bill Harkleroad, rehearsed intensively over a period of several months in mid to late 1968. Composing the songs that would comprise the album was an intense affair. There was a brooding ‘Manson-esque’ tension, split by occasional outbursts of violence. Van Vliet – no orthodox musician himself – relied heavily on French to transcribe the fragmentary chaos of their free jazz rock improvisations together. It is meticulously done work. Every jar and glitch and spasm is accounted for. The writing is a marvel of tightly contained randomness. As the music unfolds, it dawns on the listener that this stuff is meant to sound this way!
All of which leaves me none the wiser. I own up to a twenty year obsession with an album I can’t even pretend that I like, let alone love. It is like an itch I cannot scratch and I am at a loss to explain why it even bothers me. It mocks the pretentious side of my character perhaps? I feel awash with a sense of failure every time I push to learn its secrets and it won’t tell me them. But still I keep on trying, and just when I think I have finally latched onto something, it abruptly turns into the sound of someone throwing a set of instruments down a flight of stairs and recording the noise they make. At which point, I usually reach for my copy of Bitches Brew…