Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin (I)”

Cover of Led Zeppelin's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut LP from 1969 that introduced the world to their unique blend of hard blues rock. While I’ve known their fourth album my whole life and a few of their other albums since I was a teenager, I somehow missed most of their first. Most of my punk-rock friends shrugged off Zeppelin as the hippie-rock of their parents. Yet, my parents didn’t listen to them beyond a few songs on Led Zeppelin IV like “Stairway to Heaven.” The punk rejection is kind of funny considering how album’s “Communication Breakdown” influenced much of the Ramones. Still, punk rejected what they saw as excessive moments of showy musicianship that Zeppelin were already demonstrating on this first album.

Jimmy Page formed the band after years of impressive work as a session musician and a short period with the Yardbirds. He pulled together singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, who previously worked together in the short-lived Band of Joy. Fellow session-musician John Paul Jones joined the Page’s Led Zeppelin to play bass and organ. At first named The New Yardbirds, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin after Keith Moon’s joke that they would go over like a lead balloon.

Good Times Bad Times

The album opens with “Good Times Bad Times,” which was also their first single. From the first 15 seconds of full-band double-stabs, it’s clear that Led Zeppelin intends to be big and loud. Then with the first line of vocals, the drums begin pounding, explosive and rolling. John Bonham dances all over the drums keeping a constant rocking texture going throughout. Considering his heroes included star jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, it’s no surprise that Bonham would use so many fills. This is no simple 4/4 drum pattern and, like Keith Moon, he’s not afraid to hit the cymbals. Page continues the double-stab pattern, but fills the space between with grooving blues riffs.

Page and Zeppelin build most of their songs around riffs. So, we hear usually hear a 1 or 2 bar rocking guitar riff that gets repeated throughout a verse, and then a different riff in the same family for the chorus. He frequently livens up these repetitions with variation through adding or switching a note, as well as bending notes. The bass either plays in unison or a separate riff that provides counter-balance rhythmically and tonally. Rarely is anybody in the band playing something simple. There’s lot of movement and action throughout these recordings.

Of course, I love the lead guitar that was played through a Leslie speaker. I love a rotating speaker when used on guitar, organ, or really anything else. It brings a great life to Page’s solo, that honestly it didn’t need, but help bring it forward. This is likely also accomplished through combination of the hi-mid frequency boost of the horn speaker as well as perhaps a boost pedal, which had just come out the same year.

Your Time Is Gonna Come

John Paul Jones begins “Your Time is Gonna Come” with gospel-blues-rock sounding organ. Then, Bonham kicks in the drum with a crash leading into one of his simpler drum patterns. During the coda, he kicks it up with fills every other bar and ultimately leads into pulsing patterns on the kick and toms. Page plays picked arpeggios on an acoustic guitar. Plant sings folk-blues inspired verse, leading into a soulful chorus of “Your time is gonna come.” In this song, it’s not a good time, but rather he’s warning a woman that has broken his heart that she will some day experience the same. There’s not a lot of rhyming here; they don’t shy from it, but they don’t enforce any sort of pattern.

Made up my mind to break you this time
Won’t be so fine, it’s my turn to cry
Do what you want, I won’t take the brunt
It’s fading away, can’t feel you anymore
Don’t care what you say cause I’m going away to stay
Going to make you pay for that great big hole in my heart
People talking all around
Watch out woman, no longer is the joke gonna be on my heart
You been bad to me woman, but it’s coming back home to you

How Many More Times

The longest and most epic complex song of the album, “How Many More Times” closes the second side. Throughout its 8½ minutes, the band takes us through several rounds of twists and turns. There are times it begins to feel like a freeform jam, but they know what they are doing and where they are going. The band brought together several unused song ideas that Page had written from previous years into a coherent whole. The transitions from section to section work perfectly, especially by the occasional reintroduction of the opening blues-rock riff that reminds the listener where we came from.

Page makes frequent use of a wah pedal on much of the lead guitar. Sometimes he uses it in the “half-cocked” position which causes the pedal to act as a high-frequency boost. He also creates otherworldly effects by playing the guitar with a large bow. This song, in addition to musically interesting interplay of bands as well as unison stabs.. provides a fascinating set of examples of early effects on electric guitar.

There’s a lot that I love about this album, even if the focus on blues-inspired hard rock is not necessarily my favorite. I like when they get more into psychedelic territory like Led Zeppelin III or Physical Graffiti. However, what I really love about this album is the sound of it. Rotating speakers, a variety of expert guitar sounds, the big complex drums, the rolling bass, and the occasional use of organ.