Captain Beefheart Album Survey, Pt. 2: Weird Scenes


Trout Mask Replica (Bizarre/Straight)

Beefheart's weird genius was finally unleashed to the fullest in 1969. It came partly thanks to a switch to his pal Frank Zappa's label but mostly, it would seem, because Beefheart found a new way to make his music. On Strictly Personal, intricate structures of intermeshing motifs had alternated with hippie-jam slackness. Now he took complete control and made the music largely consist of composed modules. Beefheart later explained to Lester Bangs that his compositional process involved recording demos of his pieces himself, "usually on a piano or a Moog synthesizer. Then I can shape it to be exactly the way I want it, after I get it down there. It's almost exactly like sculpture."

Much of TMR, however, was transcribed with paper and pencil by John "Drumbo" French from Beefheart's piano examples.

The learning process for this complex music was long and arduous and involved the musicians surrendering their identities and independence to disturbing degrees (the period leading up to the recording is documented on two of the five discs in Revenant's Grow Fins box set and in revealing interviews with band members in the booklet). The result was a sprawling two-LP set unprecedented in rock history, a willful act of outsider creativity that presented an alternate world. The long rehearsals paid off in the studio, as the basic tracks for twenty songs were laid down in an incredible four-and-a-half hours.

Part of the magic of the album is its considerable variety. There are three tracks -- "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back," "Well," and "Orange Claw Hammer" -- on which Beefheart sings unaccompanied, in primitive style not only vocally but also technologically: he recorded himself onto cassette tape, which audibly clicks on and off in the middle of lines as he stops, rewinds, and corrects. Other tracks have spoken intros or outros tacked on: "Dachau Blues" ends with a bit about someone catching rats, "Hair Pie: Bake 1" ends in a bit of grassroots market research as Beefheart tests a tune on somebody, "Pena" has a famous "fast and bulbous" intro, "Fallin' Ditch" has an intro skit featuring Rockette Morton (bassist Mark Boston), and "She's Too Much for My Mirror" has a "slate" intro. In all cases, these intros/outros add whimsical humor, but they also cleanse listeners' ears between the dense musical offerings.

Only one musical track is not modular in construction: "China Pig" is a country blues number with Beefheart accompanied only by the slide guitar of guest Doug Moon, an early Beefheart collaborator. There are three instrumentals: "Hair Pie: Bake 1" starts with Beefheart on sax and The Mascara Snake (Victor Hayden) on bass clarinet improvising freely, with a modular band construction eventually joining under them. The delicate "Dali's Car" is for guitars only. "Hair Pie: Bake 2" is just the Magic Band, Beefheart sitting it out. There are also what sound like pieces that started as instrumentals and had spoken parts added: "Pachuco Cadaver" (with a long instrumental ending), "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish," and "Pena" (with the voice not Beefheart's, but that of guitarist Antennae Jimmy Semens AKA Jeff Cotton).

Two other tracks stand out as unusual: "Old Fart at Play" starts out as Beefheart speaking, accompanied by the Magic Band, but later he's unaccompanied, the band dropping out at the point in the story where a magical transformation takes place. And although on the album it says "All songs written by Captain Beefheart," it's widely stated that "The Blimp" has music by Zappa -- a dumbed-down imitation of Beefheart's style -- accompanying a nearly nonsensical Beefheart parody of the radio report of the Hindenburg disaster.

Beefheart sings on the rest of the modular songs: "Frownland," "Dachau Blues," "Ella Guru," "Moonlight on Vermont," "Bill's Corpse," "Sweet Sweet Bulbs," "My Human Gets Me Blues," "When Big Joan Sets Up" (which includes a section of Beefheart solo free improv on soprano sax and other sections of overdubbing -- at times his soprano and vocal are simultaneous), "Fallin' Ditch," "Sugar 'n Spikes," "Ant Man Bee" (where Beefheart plays tenor and soprano sax simultaneously, albeit primitively -- he's no Rahsaan Roland Kirk), "Wild Life," "She's Too Much for My Mirror," "Hobo Chang Ba," "Steal Softly Thru Snow," and "Veteran’s Day Poppy" (which overlaps two distinct compositions). One can take these songs plus "China Pig," cutting the tacked-on intros/outros, and construct a more focused, harder-hitting one-LP version of the album. It's a snap nowadays with iTunes and an MP3 editor, but I suspect many members of post-punk bands had done something like this with cassette tapes, because lots of post-punk albums display a considerable influence of these songs, mostly in the rhythms but occasionally in composition as well. However, the heretical condensation described above would have interfered with the full display of Beefheart's themes. Roughly speaking, these are;

Anti-war: "Ant Man Bee," "Dachau Blues," "Steal Softly Thru Snow," and the album's powerful climax, "Veterans Day Poppy"

Rejection of modernity; preference for simpler times and rural settings: "Frownland," "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back," "Sweet Sweet Bulbs," "China Pig," "Well," "Fallin' Ditch," "Sugar 'n Spikes," "Orange Claw Hammer," "Wild Life," "Old Fart at Play," and "The Blimp"

Portraits of non-conformist women: "Ella Guru," "Pachuco Cadaver," "Bill's Corpse," "Sweet Sweet Bulbs," "My Human Gets Me Blues," "Pena," "When Big Joan Sets Up," "She's Too Much for My Mirror"

(The surreal wordplay of "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish" makes it uncategorizable, though I'd love to hear theories!)

As serious as these themes are, they play out with considerable humor and witty manipulation of words on the levels of both sound and imagery. And Beefheart's delivery of the words, in such a wide range of vocal timbres and characters, reveals a virtuoso showman/actor, but also a keen student of blues vocal traditions that he transports into his own realm and makes his own distinctive uses of.

Trout Mask Replica is, on every level, an album of so many facets, such amazing intricacy, that it never fails to inspire fascination no matter how often one plays it. There is always something more to notice for the first time. And, in particular, the richness of its musical material is such that each song has as much packed into it as four or five ordinary rock songs.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (Bizarre/Straight)

This 1970 album has all the unhinged intensity of Trout Mask, with similar musical structures and construction method, but minus the sloppy production and taped interludes. So, less eccentric but more focused. This wasn't pushed on Beefheart by an unsympathetic producer, either: Beefheart produced the album himself. There's one big band change to take into account: Semens is out, sort of replaced by Art Tripp, meaning that there's only one guitarist (Bill Harkleroad, AKA Zoot Horn Rollo) but sometimes two percussionists. Tripp brings his marimba, beginning a Beefheart love affair with the instrument that would continue to grow over the decade, though it's only heard on six tracks here, playing the second guitar parts. "Peon" is a duet for guitar and bass, "Japan in a Dishpan" lays out modules over which the Captain blows soprano sax with abandon, and "One Red Rose That I Mean" is a solo guitar piece. In an interesting move, Beefheart includes two lyrics, or poems, on the lyric sheet that are not heard, as though the vocal-only tracks of Trout Mask Replica were being replaced by written equivalents. Everything else is Beefheart singing over modular songs with the now-familiar angular rhythms; his harmonica playing also makes a comeback. The lyrics mostly involve relationships on the one hand and ecology on the other, though rarely in straightforward terms. LMDOB is one of the must-have Beefheart albums, considered by some fans his high point and definitely one of his five best LPs. It got him on the cover of Rolling Stone, but he still wasn't a star, so changes would be made on the following LPs, as described in my next installment of this overview. (Click here for Part 1.)