First of all, I’m certain that Don Van Vliet would not (necessarily) have approved, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to be stoned for your first listen. You do not want your critical functions to mess up your chance to appreciate this masterpiece.
First and foremost, you need to know that this was a ‘double’ album – twice as long, and twice as expensive, as an ordinary release, so it made quite a statement for its time, ‘though nobody listened. Buried beneath the cacophony of first impression, there is true form here, but you need to suspend your expectations, relax enough to understand that you’re hearing a band that is literally trying to reinvent music, and be comfortable enough to laugh a bit.
As history tells it, “Trout Mask Replica” is a lot more fun to listen to than it was to make. The band members holed up together in a rented house where they rehearsed around the clock for months at a time. Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) would exercise mind control techniques on the band, getting them to subvert to his will in every way, ultimately contorting their playing style to suit his own thoroughly unique vision.
He utilized sensory deprivation techniques, forbidding radio or television. Nobody was allowed to leave the property without prior approval, and since nobody had a job, there was so little food that they survived on rations of beans. Members were taunted, and some even tell tales of physical abuse. In short, they lived a harrowing, cult-like existence that resembled the Manson compound, except in this instance, the outcome was infinitely more creative.
When this released, a lot of music fans might have confused the Magic Band’s dizzying knots of rhythmic contortion with the naïve simplicity of a band like the Shaggs, thinking them equally inept, but they could hardly be more different. Most people simply weren’t getting it. I remember one friend – a musician – post the opinion that the entire record was little more than spontaneous noise, formed into the pretense of ‘real’ music. To the contrary, the Magic Band deliberated over their arrangements, formulating methods of layering incongruous lines into whole cloth, providing an appropriate bed for Van Vliet’s poetic observations. Typical music structures are refracted then pasted together with a genuine sense of purpose.
In so doing, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band invented an entirely new way to create music. In turn, the process also demanded an entirely new way to listen. Matt Groening (creator of ‘The Simpsons’) said the on first listen, “It was the worst thing I’d ever heard.” The, after six or seven listens, “I thought it was the greatest album I’d ever heard.” Nearly fifty years later, it is just as challenging, and just as rewarding.
June 1969 - Billboard Did Not Chart
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