‘Trout Mask Replica’ Part 1.
‘Trout Mask Replica’ is an album that broke just about every rule in the Rock’n'Roll book.
Musically there are practically no melodies. Few ’tunes’ that you can hum along to. Ridiculously unusual time signatures are difficult enough in their own right, but when each instrument plays to a different one within the same song, even the most ardent of foot-tappers is liable to give up. And just for good measure, the instruments don’t seem to be playing the roles they normally do within Rock - even weird Rock. The drums don’t often create a beat that drives the songs. The last thing the bass is doing is providing any kind of metronomic framework for the other instruments to play on top of. In fact, in total contrast, it’s often the most melodic instrument on the album.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the music on ‘Trout Mask’ sounds weird. But that’s only really the tip of the iceberg. The music on ‘Trout Mask’ is actually more than weird – it’s deeply disconcerting.
Rock – like practically all popular music – is a musical form which is all about the musicians and the instruments coming together to produce something that is a collective, team effort. Each instrument has a role in the overall scheme of things. Sometimes supporting, sometimes leading, sometimes providing the beat, sometimes the melody, but always working alongside the other instruments. The role for each instrument is actually fairly well established in Rock music. But even when more adventurous bands try to turn this on its head, each instrument still interacts in a way that is designed to make the whole come together as one. Afterall, being part of a collective group is part of the fun of making Rock music and a major reason for being in a band.
Not however, if you were in the Magic Band.
In the Magic Band - or at least the ‘Trout Mask’ version - each instrument’s part seemed to be totally separate. And equally prominent. The parts came together of course in the songs but seemingly only because they happened to start at the same time and stop at the same time and found themselves on the same spool of audio tape. They sound like they have been individually and hermetically created. And then introduced to each other, at the last minute, at the mixing party. Where, against all Rock mixing theory and practice, they were all given exactly the same weight and importance. No one played support. Everyone was lead.
Guitarist, Zoot Horn Rollo (oh yes!) summed it up when he said ”Trout Mask Replica sounds like the most democratic record ever made. All the instruments had an equal say in the overall plot”. And that just wasn’t Rock’n'Roll.
Then there are the lyrics. By 1969, Rock lyrics had been forceably liberated from the twee and naively adolescent world they had inhabited in the ’50s and early ’60s, by the likes of the Velvet Underground (see ABON 0092). But no Rock album until ‘Trout Mask’ had been composed of songs with titles like ‘Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish’, ‘Hobo Chang Ba’ or ‘Pachuco Cadaver’, with lyrics to match.
The words or stories they told weren’t just unusual, they actually didn’t do what Rock lyrics were meant to do at all. Most Rock lyrics attempt to find some ‘thing’ in the listeners’ lives and use that as a touch point. They then magnify or glorify or sympathise or champion the thing. Even the Velvet Underground usually stuck to this formula - albeit their ‘thing’ was often something from the seedier side of life that many people would have preferred to ignore. The lyrics on ‘Trout Mask Replica’ in contrast, had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘thing’ in the lives of its listeners. Or indeed with anything that was going on in the wider World at the time it was created. The lyrics could have been written at any time between, say, 1960 and now and they would be as equally in tune or out of tune with the times as they were in 1969.
It’s easy to believe that ‘Trout Mask’ was simply an attempt to shock or annoy its listeners. Or that it was the creation of a bunch of guys on far too many drugs. Many people then, and now, find it difficult to get past that point of view. But they are wrong. And the key to unlocking what ‘Trout Mask’ really is all about is in the 27th of the 28 tracks on the album, ‘Old Fart At Play’.
Because in ‘Old Fart’, the Captain tells us the story of someone who wants to be different, not to conform, but to be their true self. Ok, in this case it involves the wearing of a surrealistic trout mask but the message is clear. When the person wears the trout mask – when they dare to be really different and stick out from the crowd, like a real fish out of water - the mask turns out to be not a mask but the face through which the person can at last finally breathe naturally.
As the Old Fart himself says, with wonder in his voice, ‘His excited eyes from within the dark interior glazed, watered in appreciation of his thoughtful preparation’.
What might have seemed a disguise or even a party trick is revealed after all to be a means of liberation in which the person can really be themselves.
‘Old Fart At Play’ might sound like a silly, impossible to understand, flight of fancy. But it isn’t. It’s a remarkable and deeply moving song that is also the Rosetta Stone to the hieroglyphics of ‘Trout Mask Replica’. ’Old Fart’ not only lets us see that the Captain could show a self-deprecating sense of humour, but also enables us to work out that all the Rock’n'Roll rule breaking on the album wasn’t the old fart at play, wasn’t a disguise, wasn’t intended for shock value and wasn’t part of an elaborate trick. It was the created for very personal reasons – to allow Captain Beefheart to finally break free, to be himself and to breathe freely.
Captain Beefheart died on December 17 2010.
Available on the CD ‘Trout Mask Replica’: Amazon