With the 33 1/3 series of music chapbooks once again gearing up for more album titles to cover, we thought we'd re-run an excerpt from Kevin Courrier's book on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica which ran in Critics at Large as an obit when the Captain went to spirit in 2010.
I first discovered him in 1969 through my love of the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa would produce Beefheart's atonal masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. Although quite a contentious album, this 1969 two-record set had far ranging influence in both punk and alternative rock. Back in 2007, I was fortunate enough to have written a chapbook on Trout Mask Replica for the Continuum Press 33 1/3 music series. As a way of paying tribute to Beefheart, here are some edited passages from that book - which is still available at better bookstores:
Trout Mask Replica is an album so assured in its isolated world-view that no matter how much it might alienate potential listeners, it still demands to be heard on its own terms. Yet unlike most commercial pop, Beefheart doesn't write songs to seduce an audience. We're not asked to identify with him in this music for his songs don't represent a conventional baring of the artist's soul. Beefheart instead invites us to experience Trout Mask Replica, rather than telling us what to experience. So whoever you choose to share this strident and peculiar record with you're always going to be on your own with it. Which is whyTrout Mask Replica embodied the punk aesthetic eight years before it happened in the UK with The Sex Pistols. If the sixties hippie culture was clannish, punks were solitary.
In time, though, Trout Mask would quite naturally inspire countless other artists - from The Clash to P.J. Harvey - in finding their own sound, their own voice and to show them how to walk comfortably alone in the world. Yet the record doesn't provide a map to guide you in finding your way in this world, the way other great pop records can. This album was about discovering yourself as an alien. If pop music provides a utopian spirit for audiences to share, Beefheart's utopia is the true definition of the word - nowhere - a desert island of the mind. Or as he once described it, music from the other side of the fence.
|Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band|
However, Beefheart's most radical move, with the firm assistance of drummer John French who transcribed and taught the music to the band, was to remove from his compositions the security of harmony ("the mother's heartbeat" according to Beefheart), where we traditionally seek a warm spot in the songs we come to love. There may be no lulling melodies to draw us into the musical canvas ofTrout Mask but that doesn't mean that melodies don't exist. It's just that these spiky and jagged themes are quickly gone before we can catch them on first listen. The fleeting let's-try-it-on inventiveness of the compositions, in fact, come across with a shocking ebullience. As a listening experience, Trout Mask Replica is the story of an artist who finds himself at his most liberated. It is a tale of one who refuses the comforts of security, yet still continues to dream of a world where man and beast can commingle in harmony. In staking that territory, from a musical standpoint, Beefheart doesn't rely on the lovely pop hooks that we ache to hear as listeners. The freedom Trout Mask offers is freedom from the familiar - the very element that often makes an album a hit, or at least, a mass audience favourite.
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|Captain Beefheart & Frank Zappa|
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