Sunday, 30 July 2017

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band "Trout Mask Replica"

Pop's great leap forward. Taking account of the innovations in songwriting made by The Beatles, particularly "Strawberry Fields Forever", and Frank Zappa's exploration of formal composition and juxtaposition, Captain Beefheart and his fellow musicians were the first to tackle the form of pop music, to take apart the building blocks of the music and put them together in a way different from anyone before.

This achievement was not recognised at the time. Critics and fans were confused by scarcity of traditional musical moves and assumed that the music was a melding of blues forms with free jazz. Subsequent study, and the release of earlier recordings, demonstrate that there is very little that is free about this music. Beefheart himself always referred to these pieces as compositions and they are composed, albeit not in a traditional style. Away from the myth (that the songs were composed in an 8 hour shift by Beefheart on a piano after he had stared at it for a while) and the trappings of Beefheart's own language (exploding note theory) is the even weirder story of how half a dozen, starving beat musicians locked themselves away in a house and over the course of 9 months invented the most startling pop music anyone had heard to that point.

There are a number of different styles reflected across the album. Some pieces are poetic narration, "China Pig" is a straight forward blues, some pieces are sung in the style of field chants, "Moonlight on Vermont" is an early statement of rock riffology. Far from unmelodic, the songs are chocked with melody. Snippets of music taken from Beefheart's childhood, TV adverts, other pop songs, and recognisable riffage all break out amidst the dissonance. Musical motifs and phrases reoccur, sometimes played in unison, sometimes separately. The music deploys serious musical concepts like counterpoint and polyrhythm in a playful fashion and this, together with some of the jokier moments on the recording made people think that the group were not serious. But this is deeply serious music - people do not devote 9 months of their life, every waking day, and forego all possible sources of earnings, for a series of jokes.

Each of the major compositions (major in terms of significance rather than length or portentousness) can be broken down into small chunks of repeated elements. These elements consist of a short musical phrase played by each of the two lead guitars and the bass. Each phrase is repeated, sometimes four times, sometimes more, and some phrases are repeated again later in the composition. The difficulty that many listeners have with this music is that each phrase played by each instrumentalist is usually separate from that played by the others, both in terms of tempo and key. The rules of musical harmony and rhythm are shattered. Each note has its own worth and contains within itself the possibility to be followed by any other note without concern for key or pitch (Beefheart's exploding note theory). What stops the music from collapsing into chaos is that each phrase is the same length for each instrumentalist. Thus they are able to start and stop at the same time and it is this which made the music reproducable by performers who were not conventional trained musicians able to sight read sheet music.

It is the job of the drummer to keep all this together, to play out the length of each phrase and to accompany and emphasise some elements of the musical parts and to contrast with others. The drummer sometimes plays a conventional rhythm and sometimes plays polyrhythms. It is the greatest drumming performance that I am aware of in pop music. Even more extraordinary is the fact that it was the drummer (whose name is John French) who transcribed the musical parts for the other musicians to play as well as transcribing his own drum parts to the extent that he would later record an lp consisting of just the drum parts for some of these songs (just the drums, no other instruments, and an amazing listen it is too).

Fittingly considering the musical accompaniment, the lyrics for the compositions on "Trout Mask Replica" are unlike anything else up to that point. The subject matter of some of the songs is sometimes the usual material of pop music - feeling happy, girls, but it is handled elliptically. Other subjects addressed include the holocaust, man's relationship with nature, a comparison between how men and ants fight amongst themselves over small things while bees are able to share, how societies establish themselves and develop. 

The language used and sentence constructs are closer to poetry than conventional pop lyrics. Phrases are repeated but there are no choruses, again fitting with the dislocated nature of the music. Unusual words like "hominy" (coarsely ground corn), "gingham", "faucet", "atomiser", "bobbin", "floozy", "speidel" (a brand of watch), "Merc Montclair" (a type of car) signify an older America. And these words are not accidental, several of them occurring more than once in different songs. Birds, ants, bees, worms, a fly, butterflies, fish, a jack rabbit, a horse, bears, wild geese, swans, mice, gophers, alligators, and a white elephant are all mentioned, sometimes recurring in different songs. This may be the most animalistic lp of all time. Characters such as hobbos, bums, old women, mothers, fathers, daughters, Lousey, Big Joan, Ella Guru, Mrs Wooten and Little Nitty, Ole Gray, and Bimbo Limbo Spam all appear. The ocean, the sea, the sky, the sun, and the moon are referenced repeatedly.

Did Frank Zappa ruin "Trout Mask Replica"? Frank Zappa produced the lp and left us with a fairly muddy sound. The drums in particular lack oomph. The vocals are pushed to the front of the sound, along with the horn parts, leaving the band relegated to the background for many pieces. Zappa interposes himself on some parts of the album with interjections and one song directed to himself ("it's the Blimp, Frank") which features a recording of his own group rather than The Magic Band. His other significant double album production of this time by an artist other than himself was his overseeing of "An Evening with Wild Man Fischer", a recording of a local eccentric/mentally damaged person. Along with his production of The GTOs (an album made by groupie hangers on), was Zappa cultivating a stable of freakish outsiders and harnessing them for cheap laughs and did he see Beefheart and his music as another example of this? It is a point worth considering.

However, it should be recognised that possibly only Zappa had the willingness and the means to produce a record by Beefheart at this point in Beefheart's career. Beefheart had fallen out with his record company over their post-production ruination (as he saw it) of his previous lp, the blues and psychedelia driven "Strictly Personal". Beefheart had also wanted to put out a double lp, "It Comes To You in a Plain Brown Wrapper", comprising these recordings and the longer pieces subsequently released as "Mirror Man". Beefheart always saw himself, rightly, as an Important Artist, and probably felt he should be allowed to make a major statement like The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix had done with their double albums. Zappa not only agreed to record and release a new Beefheart lp but also to make it a double album, thus satisfying Beefheart's ego. As with the Wild Man Fischer and GTOs lps, there can only have been a limited financial incentive for Zappa to do this. None of these were conventionally commercial propositions. Zappa also produced all these lps at a time of great creative endeavour for himself and his own output. It seems unikely that he would have diverted his efforts into these channels unless he thought there was something more meaningful that could be uncovered.

However, it is also the case that producing these three lps did not involve Zappa in too much work. Both Wild Man Fischer and Beefheart often perform unaccompanied necessitating little effort from any producer and their lps include non-studio recordings. "Trout Mask Replica" includes what are clear one-take errors (such as Beefheart being unable to get all of the words into "She's Too Much For My Mirror") which were not subsequently corrected. Beefheart's next lp, "Lick My Decals Off, Baby", has a much clearer production than "Trout Mask Replica" with a greater separation and differentiation of the various instruments. However, not all of this is Zappa's fault. He appears to have been taken aback by the Magic Band's ability to play their pieces straight through in one take. They were so well drilled and used to playing as a collective that they may not have been able to play their individual parts separately to facilitate separation of the instruments. John French played at least one of the songs on the album with cardboard covering his drums and cymbals, which cannot have helped with getting a good drum sound (nor with playing the instrument). Beefheart himself had not bothered rehearsing with the band so no-one (including him) knew where the vocal parts would fit with the music. It is alleged that he recorded his vocal and saxophone parts without headphones so he could not even hear much of the music. And doubtless Beefheart himself insisted that his performance should be to the fore.

The mixture of sources used for the lp does give "Trout Mask Replica" variation across the four sides but not always satisfactorily. "Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy" are sensational recordings but jar with their surroundings. Some of the album was recorded at The Magic Band's house rather than in a studio ("a bush recording" as Beefheart has it) and being interupted by their new neighbours. "China Pig", a spontaneous recording, sounds like it was recorded on a cassette player with a former member of the group and his straight blues playing does not fit with the more advanced material elsewhere on the record. The vocals for "The Blimp" are dialled in, literally being recorded over the phone, and then played back over a recording of Zappa's Mothers of Invention. And then there are the occasional bants between Beefheart and the musicians. All of these are mere trappings. Entertaining in their own right, they can detract from the main meat of The Magic Band recordings at Whitney Studios in March 1969. The result is that sometimes "Trout Mask Replica" is dismissed as freaky outsider music that is cool because it is so far out. Rather than the album be recognised as a major art statement and art achievement of the later 20th century. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future but few would be surprised, I think, to discover musicians in 22nd century conservatoires still trying to unpick exactly what is occurring in these recordings and to attempt to reproduce them. Good luck with that, everybody.

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