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Opinion | Celebrating 50 years of a maverick’s masterpiece

  • Trout Mask Replica, the masterpiece by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, turned 50 this June
  • The 28 songs on it are like a trip into the mind and unique creativity of an under-celebrated musical genius

Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) posing for a portrait, circa 1969.
Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) posing for a portrait, circa 1969. (Photo: Getty Images)

I have to be careful when I get an urge to play Trout Mask Replica on my music system at home. First, I have to ensure no one is at home; and then I have to be mindful about the volume level to which I crank it up so that the neighbours don’t come knocking to angrily convey their annoyance (it has happened a couple of times). It’s much easier, however, to play the album with my headphones on. That way, I can enjoy one of the most wonderfully bizarre albums to have been made in the past half-century without any hindrance.

Half a century. That’s how old Trout Mask Replica, the masterpiece by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, turned in June. Its 28 songs, with a total duration of more than 78 minutes, are like a trip into the mind and unique creativity of an under-celebrated musical genius. Trout Mask Replica’s tracks defy generic classification. There’s avant-garde jazz; there’s old-school R&B; there’s spare, stripped-down blues; and there’s what you could call precursors of music that would much later come to be labelled punk and garage rock. And last but not least, there’s the producer of the album—none other than a man named Frank Zappa, another eccentric pioneer in his own right.

The double album, Captain Beefheart’s (birth name: Don Van Vliet) third, is unlike any that one encounters in the history of rock music. It isn’t an easy album to negotiate or instantly like. But over time (and with a bit of perseverance), one realizes how magnificent it really is. The words “indie" and “alternative" are used indiscriminately nowadays to describe rock music that is a bit different from radio-friendly mainstream stuff, or, as is the case sometimes, to label music that is not easily classifiable. But if you want to listen to someone who pioneered true indie or alternative music, an introduction to Captain Beefheart is a must.

When Captain Beefheart (who died aged 69 in 2010) launched his debut album, Safe As Milk, in 1967, you would never have guessed what would come later in his career. Safe As Milk is an album inspired by the Delta blues. Beefheart growls like Howlin’ Wolf; a 20-year-old prodigy, Ry Cooder, is on guitar duty; and although garage-y raggedness inflects many of the songs, it is, in the end, a blues-rock album. And a pretty good one at that. Beefheart began his career as an artist, a painter and sculptor, and although little is known about his early years, he claimed not to have undergone much of a formal education, dropping out of school early. He meandered into making music and befriending Zappa when the two were still in their teens; they would collaborate during much of their careers.

But it was with Trout Mask Replica that Captain Beefheart came into his eccentric own. As producer for the album, Zappa gave Beefheart complete freedom—to write, arrange and record the album. And Beefheart used that to its fullest. The practice sessions in a house in suburban Los Angeles were bizarre. He sacked many of his original bandmates and recruited new ones; imposed strict rules (some accounts say they weren’t allowed to leave the house and had to follow weirdly spartan diets); used unconventional means to compose songs (playing tunes on the piano, an instrument he didn’t really know how to play); and never rehearsed his vocals with his band.

Those house sessions ran for six months before the band began recording. The band is believed to have recorded around 20 of the songs on the album in less than 6 hours, with Beefheart layering his vocals on each separately, sometimes even recording them over the phone. The result is an album that is complex, challenging to the ear, but astonishingly prescient. Trout Mask Replica smashes established conventions of rock ‘n’ roll music, incorporating free jazz, blues, rock and spoken-word sequences, to create a delightfully messy mass of music.

It could take four, five or even six listening sessions to actually get into the album but once you are in, it all makes sense. A BBC documentary (it is available in full on YouTube) on Captain Beefheart, presented by the late legendary radio jockey John Peel, provides deep insight into his influences while growing up in the Mojave Desert; his attraction to old-school blues; his friendship with Zappa; and the styles he adopted during his maverick career.

Trout Mask Replica would mark the beginning of Beefheart’s experiments with music; he continued to push the boundaries of convention throughout his career, producing more than a dozen studio albums till 1982, when he gave it all up and became a painter of American landscapes. But those albums have influenced legions of later-generation musicians as well as new genres that sprang up during the past many decades—punk, new wave and post-rock. You can, retrospectively, find all these in Captain Beefheart’s albums, particularly in Trout Mask Replica, his magnum opus.

What is most astonishing is how relevant that third album sounds five decades later. It brims with imperfection—tape hisses, ambient noise and intentional distortions—yet it has memorable hooks and melodies that endear it to a modern-day listener. If grunge, punk, indie and alternative rock were to have a single founder, it would have to be Captain Beefheart.


Five tracks from ‘Trout Mask Replica’ to bookend this week

1. ‘She’s Too Much For My Mirror’

2. ‘Pachuco Cadaver’

3. ‘Ella Guru’

4. ‘Steal Softly Thru Snow’

5. ‘Frownland’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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