Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Trout Mask Revisited, Part 1

I’ve been a bit busy, what with researching for the Barry Guy biography, so haven’t found a lot of time for blogging. However, after visiting my Captain Beefheart-adoring friend in Sheffield, I decided to return to the lifetime task of decoding Trout (although it look more like a carp on the record cover) Mask Replica (TMR). Now TRM is a cultural avant milestone, and listening to it thoroughly is analogous to the task of properly exploring Ulysses (my favourite book) in the world of literature, or perhaps a proper evaluation of the films of Tarkovsky (who I don’t especially ‘get’,) or getting a proper handle on Coltrane’s Ascension. Anyway you look at it, it is a dense, difficult and demanding recording.

One does need a bit of a historic perspective on this ‘masterpiece’ (I will probably have recourse to a lot of inverted commas in these blogs, Beefheart’s work necessitates their use, I find). Many, many listeners, including my beloved wife, would not describe TMR as ‘music’ (see, I’m using them already). You would have to be disingenuous or passive-aggressive in the extreme, to not admit that this former double album, now a single CD, is not an incredibly disturbing and dissonant and dislocating listening experience, at least on first hearing (unless you’re one of those ‘look at me, I’m well-weird, me’ types). Certainly, when I first heard it, I was as perplexed and annoyed as I was when I was first exposed to free improvisation, which also both got my goat and yet presented a challenge.

To set the scene for younger readers and listeners - TMR  was first released in America in 1970, but wasn’t readily available in this country until ten years later, when Reprise Records released it over here. Before that it was only available as an expensive import (older readers will remember the thrill of getting your hands on American imports, whose covers were  were made of  more durable and tough cardboard, or so it seemed, being coated with Yankee fairy dust). I remember beggaring myself buying the Mothers of Invention’s Uncle Meat as an import in early 1973, on Bizarre Records, the same label that released TMR.  I never regretted it - in those times, it often involved considerable expenditure of teenage pocket money to get to hear particular music. I first set eyes on TMR at Warwick University in late 1974. A fellow long-hair, educated at St. Paul’s and loaded (in more ways than one) had a copy and kindly lent it to me. I listened to it, initially in homeopathic doses, and gradually got to grips, over several weeks, with Side One. I do remember that Ella Guru was the track that initially clicked with me (but even this was odd in the extreme). 

It’s important to remember that this was originally two albums, with four sides, an architecture that is totally lost on the CD version (although the latter does have the ‘advantage’ of having the lyrics printed out). This format was a good way of gradually getting into the record, as opposed to being confronted with it in its entirety, as on the CD - each side has a very strong opening and closing number: to wit:

Side One: Begins with Frownland, which You Tube’s Samuel Andreyev thinks is the most musically complex track, on this most complex of records, and ends with the bone-crunching Moonlight On Vermont (my personal fave)

Side Two: Pachuco Cadaver starts this side strongly and ends with the instrumental Dali’s Car, which gave it’s name to a later English band.

Side Three: Begins with the album’s other instrumental Hair Pie, Bake 2 (cute!) and ends with the tremendous, mostly-instrumental, Ant Man Bee.

Side Four: The verbal recital Orange Claw Hammer starts this side, which end with another number with an long instrumental coda, Veteran’s Day Poppy.

To be continued.

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