Let’s open with a radical statement: this album is like listening to music for the first time. Yep, I know you’ve heard some journalistic hyperbole before, where an overexcited writer claims, “This is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before”, but unless you’re a disciple of ‘Trout Mask Replica’, this really is a noise that’s never been heard, before or since.
Don Van Vliet as he was known before he picked up his musikal moniker (allegedly from Zappa’s uncle’s swollen bell end) was clearly a genius from an early age, and forms the perfect example of an artist shunted around by an unresponsive, uncaring commercial music industry. This lack of support first manifested in his parents, who declined their child prodigy sculptor the chance to study art in Europe, decamping instead to the Mojave desert. All was not lost though, as it was at school there where he met the aforementioned Zappa, who rescued the Captain from his early label hell, and originally released this mad slab of vinyl on his own label, Straight.
Beefheart was weird from the off. His relatively straight ahead debut LP was rejected by A&M boss Jerry Moss as being too “strange and anticommercial”. This was his blues album.
After flirting around unsuccessfully with a number of rejected and delayed projects he signed to Straight and let Zappa produce the famed “John Peel’s all time favourite album”: ‘Trout Mask Replica’. This masterpiece, based largely on Ornette Coleman’s obtuse jazz structures really is a fucked up acid smorgasbord of craziness. It’s a brilliantly unmistakable album that everyone should hear once, and saw the mad Captain throw his drummer Drumbo down a flight of stairs based on his inability to accurately “play a strawberry”. It stuck out in the loved-up Sixties like a sore thumb, and entire books have been written on it, but mysteriously next to nothing on its (superior) successor, which saw the Captain settle down, focused, experienced and completely in control of his own work, to record a record that would form the perfect blend of his bluesy roots, future paranoia, musical eclecticism and outright insanity.
Opening with the double whammy of ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ (one of the only songs to straddle perfectly that Jack Nicholson seedy/sexy thang...) and ‘Doctor Dark’, two songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Trout...’ before slamming into ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ - a bluesy manic laugh of a song, which when listened to on headphones, makes you shiver uncomfortably as it’s like he’s singing just behind your ear – a trick repeated on the excellent ‘Woe- Is-Uh-Me-Bop’.
The album gives you a second with the stunning ‘Peon’ a bass and guitar work out that celebrates the pure childlike joy of making a noise, before launching into songs such as ‘Bellerin’ Plain’, which lyrically sees the return of much loved character “Hair Pie” and musically sets a fucked up free jazz brass and xylophone repeated on ‘Japan In A Dishpan’, which set the bar for all modern noise bands such as Wolf Eyes.
But it’s side two that really clarifies the album’s position as THE BEST OF ALL TIME. (Sorry, statements like that need to be written in capitals).
Opening with the personal, before expanding his political stance to a world scale, the Captain weaves a bizarre tale across a number of tracks – not like some bloated hippy concept album, but more a loosely linked interpretive collection of mad tunes and themes that challenge the listener to get involved actively by joining up the dots. Opening with “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go”, the Captain wails for a simple life sewing sweet potatoes. The following ‘Petrified Forest’ seems to hint at some kind of dinosaur revenge conspiracy in which the oil created by decaying tissue millions of years ago, not only fuels us now, but also kills us, while the dinosaur can ramble along through space and time.
The following ‘One Red Rose That I Mean’ is quite simply one of the most beautiful pieces ever etched into vinyl; a pure, perfect instrumental beauty that leads into ‘The Buggy Boogie Woogie’; the clearest example of how this album’s music and lyrics perfectly compliment each other, as percussion built from a sweeping broom reflects his sentiment that “What this world needs is a good two dollar room and a good two dollar broom”. Before carrying on his dinotrope with ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dig)’ in which “the new dinosaur is walking in the old dinosaur’s shoes”- a lyrical bent he plays with until the album’s conclusion, making fun with words, and creating new worlds, futures and possibilities from them (“Space age couple… why don’t you quit your cool tomfoolery and shed your nasty jewellery”) before dispensing with human language altogether for one last distorted brass blow out for the album’s conclusion.
This album’s influence is immense – Tom Waits (great as he is) has fashioned a career on copying Vliet’s vocals, and Zappa his music. PJ Harvey has “quoted” him in song, Foals are big fans. In music communities too, it seems you never more than three degrees of separation from this artist. This album had changed my life before I’d even heard it: Billy Mahonie, the UK post-rock band had named their debut LP ‘The Big Dig’ after the album, and affectionately appropriated much of its style. I met a guy called Kele on the BM message board, and this lead to us becoming friends, and my releasing his band’s first single. This lead to me starting a label properly, and his band Bloc Party continues the Captain’s tradition of challenging their audience.
The sickening thing about all of this is the album’s currently out of print... Hopefully I can get a petition together with this article, and maybe persuade Atlantic or whoever it is that has the rights to let me release it, or they’ll have the good sense to do it themselves. In the meantime kids, you have to hear this – get online and steal it.
Words: Tim Dellow
Released: June 1969
Produced by: Captain Beefheart
01. ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’
02. ‘Doctor Dark’
03. ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’
05. ‘Bellerin’ Plain’
07. ‘Japan In A Dishpan’
08. ‘I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold
My Big Toe Till I Have To Go’
09. ‘Petrified Forest’
10. ‘One Red Rose That I Mean’
11. ‘The Buggy Boogie Woogie’
12. ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues
(or the Big Dig)’
13. ‘Space-age Couple’
14. ‘The Clouds Are Full of Wine
(not Whiskey or Rye)’
15. ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’
Captain Beefheart - vocals, harmonica, saxophone.
Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) - guitar, slide guitar.
Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) - bass guitar.
Drumbo (John French) - drums, percussion.
Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) - drums, percussion, marimba.
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