Trout Mask Replica: Abusive, Unusual and Genius


Ghetty Images

Trout Mask Replica turned 50 in 2019. Its music, as bizarre as it may be, continues to influence the world of music.

Cole Wharton, Writer

Fifty years ago on June 16, 1969, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band released their third album. To many, including myself, Trout Mask Replica, truly is the be-all-end-all in terms of rock music. Trout Mask stretched, expanded and defied the rules of the genre previously set in place and somehow still breaks them today.

With a runtime of 79 minutes and 28 tracks, this sprawling double album is a non-stop odyssey into the abstract and the angular. 

The creative mind behind Trout Mask Replica was Captain Beefhardt himself, AKA Don Van Vliet. A lifetime painter and sculptor, Vliet never saw himself as a musician, and he definitely wasn’t one in the traditional sense.

Trout Mask Replica immediately thrusts you into its world with “Frownland”– the first track of the album. The song fills its first seconds with the sharp sounding dual lead guitars of Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad. When the two come together they create a bubbling ooze of indefinable sound. The bass of Mark Boston and the drums of John French chaotically roll under the song like an avalanche. 

“My smile is stuck, I cannot go back to your frownland” Vliet declares amidst the cacophony. Much like the listener who has listened to the first track of the album, Vliet is ready to harken in a new world. Different to what he knows? Yes, and that’s what he wants. He can’t go back to that frownland. 

The songs of Trout Mask Replica eerily mimic the living conditions the music was birthed from: chaotic, strange and isolated. Besides the environment, these compositions were a product of musical ignorance.

Vliet’s approach to music is more in line with the methods of a visual artist rather than a musical one, using the piano more like a slab of clay and the sound as it’s sculptures. The end result is more akin to Pablo Picasso than Paul McCartney.

Often during the songs in Trout Mask Replica, some or all of the musicians will be playing in different rhythms and keys simultaneously. This is due to Vliet writing the whole record, on a piano, an instrument he didn’t know how to play. On top of this, he paid no mind to consistent musical beats or steady tempos. To organize the parts, since he could not read or write music, French painstakingly transcribed all of Vliet’s bizarre music so the band could learn the songs

On one occasion, the two came to blows which ended in French being thrown down a flight of stairs. In the end, French chose to leave the group, which subsequently led to Vliet obscuring French’s name from Trout Mask’s credits until later releases of the album.

This kind of abuse was not uncommon to the Magic Band who, along with Vliet, wrote, rehearsed and partially recorded the album in a rental home in Woodland Hills, Cal. for eight months. 

These times were grueling for the Magic Band as they faced intense conditions. Vliet resorted to intimidation, manipulation, starvation, isolation, occasional violence and making the band rehearse for 12-14 hours a day to maintain control of them.

After the brutal eight months of abuse and constant practice, Vliet and The Magic Band entered the recording studio. The album was produced by the legendary Frank Zappa, Vliet’s highschool friend. The band was so well rehearsed, they recorded most of the double album’s instrumental tracks within a single six-hour session. After a few days of vocal and horn overdubs, Trout Mask Replica was finished. 

Where some musicians would regard his writing style as nonsensical, for Vliet it was his source of genius. His blissful ignorance became a source of freedom from the rules and norms within rock at the time. This led to a certain atmosphere that’s pervasive throughout the whole album: the contrast between the beautifully childish composition juxtaposed with expertly played complex instrumentals that highlights both elements in a way that makes the album more than just the sum of its parts. 

Upon the albums release and decades after, Trout Mask Replica has continued to polarize listeners and critics for its freakish and offbeat approach. But, it gained as many followers as it has naysayers: In 2011, it was added to the National Recording Registry by The Library of Congress, and in 2012 was ranked number 60 in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time. Vliet’s influence spreads far and wide, as bands from The White Stripes to The Red Hot Chili Peppers have cited Captain Beefheart as an influence on their music.

Underneath the album’s twisted poems and tyrannical backstory, true magic can be found hidden within the sea of noise. The creative forces in Vliet’s head, fed through the tight disciplined musicianship of the band, was nothing short of lightning in a bottle. The music of Don Van Vliet “makes my face wrinkle up real warm”.