Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Trout Mask Revisited, Part 2

This might have to be a three parter, I’m afraid. There is so much to say about this record.

It was on hearing Eugene Chadbourne’s live rendition of The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back a few weeks back that drove these blogs. I was also reminded of that phenomenal version of Beefhearts’s other accapella number on Trout Mask Replica, Orange Claw Hammer, which was finally released on the 5-CD retrospective on Revenant Records, Grow Fins.

It’s funny how Beefheart fans talk in code, recognisable to all of those who share the meta-language: just say ‘Fast and Bulbous’ to any adept! Just like the Monty Python or Withnail & I bores, there are a plethora of Beefheart signatures that can keep fans verbally stroking each other for hours on end. But he is one of those artists that I return to regularly, a pracice that I blogged about earlier in January this year (’My Re-Appreciation Society’). This seems to be a mainly male pastime,as indeed is Beefheart fan worship generally. How many female fans of Beefheart do you know? Really? He does seem to be a male initiation rite for would-be counter-culturists?

Trout Mask Replica seems to be, as has often been remarked, a unique mixture of Delta Blues and Free Jazz, with the addition of crypto-beat poetry and Beefheart’s Howling Wolf-influenced roar. A musical Nerd Fest! But all these references only take us so far. Trout Mask Replica (and Beefheart’s other, lesser works, like Lick My Decals Off Baby) were UNIQUE, beyond partisan approaches, and never to be repeated. We don’t seem to be able to produce these sort of works any more. It has to be remembered that Beefheart was initially treated as one of Zappa’s freak shows on the Bizarre/Straight labels (as was Tim Buckley), and many of us filed him alongside other idiots savants, like Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs and the early Alice Cooper. The myth went round that the album was written and made in 8 hours, in some sort of inspired improvisational frenzy. Any informed hearing of the record renders these notions risible - John French’s drums are basically comparable to the work of great free improv artists like Paul Lytton or Tony Oxley, the guitars of Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo) and Jeff Simmons (Antennae Jimmy Semens) and the bass of Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) produce an interlocking matrix of incomparable power, a machine that many, many months of preparation and practice to unleash, as both Harkleroad’s (Lunar Notes) and French’s (Beefheart:Through the Eyes of Magic) books describe. Made up on the spot? Don’t make me laugh. But these are the sort of The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance-type stories that take root, and prove very difficult to displace.

In fact, the person who got closest to describing the sound of this Magic Band was none other than Ornette Coleman, who coined the idea of Harmolodics-the bass, playing chords, and the drums are independent, and are equal to the guitars, who are also independent. They all produce so much more ‘information’ than on the average rock album. Other twin-guitar groups, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Television, for example, never even came close. It is incredible to think that none of these musicians were formally trained, and were all in their early 20s, apart from Beefheart himself.

To be continued.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby