Play This Old Fart, Trout Mask Replica turns 50— Nick Hilditch -
Temporary Fandoms is a wonderful Facebook group where members listen to entire artist discographies one album per day and the group discuss them, thus making the members ‘temporary fans’ of the artist in question. They have recently listened to the catalogue of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Captain’s highly regarded Trout Mask Replica, we asked Temporary Fandoms founder, Nick Hilditch, to talk about the album, its mythology, what it means to him and why you should hear it.
A few weeks ago I made over 600 people listen to the extraordinary 1969 album, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. That same day, Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Now, I’m not saying that these two things are connected, or that there is any significance in the fact that the album’s acronym (TMR) also gives us ‘Theresa May’s Resignation’, but I will say that there is a mysterious magic at play within the album, and we may have cause to topple future Prime Ministers in a like manner before the year is out. Occultists would tell us that the album’s curious alchemy is particularly potent this year because June 16th 2019 marks its 50th birthday. Like Facebook’s nauseating “friendversaries” and LinkedIn’s vile exhortations to celebrate your colleague’s work anniversaries, album birthdays are a thing now.
I don’t know if this is the best Beefheart record or not. Their lifetime spanned the mid-60s until 1982, when Don Van Vliet (the titular captain by his other stage name) quit the music business in order to focus on his painting. During that time they released twelve albums. Of those, there are several contenders for their greatest work, ranging from their bluesy debut, Safe as Milk, through to the late career highs of Shiny Beast and Doc at The Radar Station. When I’m hankering after the Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica is rarely the one I reach for - there is plenty on other records that scratch that itch. But part of its charm is that it comes with a story. The circumstances of this record’s creation just make it more interesting to talk about. And if you want a record to have bona fide classic status, you can’t scrimp on the backstory. I love Trout Mask Replica. And I love talking about Trout Mask Replica.
The weirdness started before recording even began. If the sleeve notes are to be believed, Trout Mask Replica was arranged by Van Vliet. One man who might disagree is John ‘Drumbo’ French. Van Viet played down French’s contribution which was a recurring theme in Van Vliet’s relationship with collaborators. You could be forgiven for thinking on first hearing Trout Mask Replica that it wasn’t arranged at all, but that would be to dramatically underestimate the work that went into it.
Supposedly Beefheart composed the album on a piano. Nothing weird there, except for the fact that the piano was an instrument he had never played before, and for which he had no apparent talent. French, unlike Beefheart, was a classically trained musician, and he painstakingly transcribed Beefheart’s incoherent phrases into something that a band could actually play, and largely in the bandleader’s absence, taught the band to play it, exactly as Beefheart had conceived it, in rehearsals at which the starving band would labour for up to 14 hours a day for months on end. These rehearsals took place in a rented house in Los Angeles in something close to a cult under the erratic leadership of Don Van Vliet. The worst stories of Van Vliet’s behaviour stem from this time, mainly around alleged bullying of Magic Band members. And yet, in subsequent accounts and interviews, the band members remain justifiably proud of the fruits of all this suffering.
The rigid way in which the haphazardly composed parts were then played has been described as the opposite of improvisation in jazz. Rather than starting with a known tune, and then playing freely around its motifs, the concepts started out in randomness which were then learnt and replayed in a strictly uniform way, like an artist throwing a bucket of paint, then carefully reconstructing the resulting splats.
In comparison to the rehearsals, the actual recording, supervised by Beefheart’s boyhood friend, Frank Zappa, was relatively quick and effortless.
These session were rife with anecdotes and rumours that have since become rock lore. Some of the better known tales concern bizarre expenses that label boss Herb Cohen felt compelled to challenge. The most oft-reported being a request for $800 for a tree surgeon, although my flat-out favourite was a bill for 20 sets of sleigh bells. A concerned Cohen pointed out to the Captain that even if the entire band, Zappa and the recording engineer all played two sets of sleigh bells each, there would still be six left over. “What are you going to do with the other six?” Cohen asked Van Vliet, to which he replied “We’ll overdub them.”
The Captain’s eccentricity didn’t stop with music and expenses. His idiosyncratic use of language and wordplay were very present. From the names of the band members who were rechristened by Van Vliet into titles such as ‘The Macara Snake’ and ‘Antennae Jimmy Semens’, to the eccentric lyrics and that ooze from the album. I can’t be the only one who upon hearing the expression ‘under duress’, finds their mind shouting back “I KNEW YOU WERE UNDER YER DRESS!”.
Of course describing Trout Mask Replica is a fool’s errand. You know what? It’s in your life now. Just listen to it. Then listen to it again. Then put it on while you’re reheating some old beans, or making a slice of toast. Weep in incomprehension when you listen to it for the sixth time, perhaps many days after this cruel introduction, then listen again immediately because you hate yourself, you pathetic middle-aged windbag.
LISTEN TO IT and stop asking why I’m so mean and listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Then, when you’re done listening, start to hear it.
That’s why they’re called the Magic Band.
If this all sounds too daunting, then perhaps start off with the playlist below. We’ve lovingly compiled some of the juiciest cuts of beefheart with the first time listener in mind.