Does it start at the bottom or does it start at the top?

A nice feature about Captain Beefheart has just gone online in one of The Guardian’s podcasts. Beefheart fan Jon Dennis chats to John Harris (author of the Guardian’s recent Mission: Unlistenable) about how best to get into Beefheart and why people should bother.

Their conclusion? Leave Trout Mask Replica to the hardcore weirdos, Clear Spot is one of the greatest albums ever recorded and everyone should be listening to it. It’s hard to disagree.

I have often felt that our tendency to bang on about Trout Mask Replica as a pinnacle of artistic achievement in music (which I think it is) has probably done Beefheart a great disservice. Anyone curious about the music is going to be faced with an off-putting 70+ minute onslaught of oddness which usually takes a bit of effort to come to appreciate. There are no reference points for TMR since nothing else sounds like it.

Let’s start talking up some of his other albums as well and shift the focus; they are likely to serve as a much more engaging introduction to this great music and will ensure people don’t buy one album which they don’t like and then write it all off. An appreciation of TMR is more likely to follow on and if not, well Clear Spot is a sensational album in its own right so who cares? Now there’s a strategy!

Incidentally, the Mission: Unlistenable article contains one of the best descriptions of TMR ever, from Andy Partridge:

“You’re running around stairs and gangways and gantries – things are swinging across, and you’ve got to grab them to get to the next level. It’s like being trapped in a mad, giant watch. Do you know what I mean?”

Absolutely. Download the podcast, the Beefheart feature starts after about 17 minutes with a burst of Ice Cream For Crow.


  1. Seems to me that you either love TMR or find it unlistenable. Clear Spot, Safe As Milk, or The Spotlight Kid for my money would all be good starting points for anyone interested in the Captain. Even his input on the Zappa/Beefheart/Mothers Bongo Fury lp might get some interested. Actually, I would start to worry if a masterpiece like Trout Mask Replica became mainstream–I don’t want to hear it blasting from some soccer mom’s mini-van…

  2. I can’t ever see TMR becoming ‘mainstream’.
    But I do take the point made.
    Clear Spot IS fantastic – I know several people who bought the CD (with Spotlight Kid) because I harped on about it soooo much and they loved it – but were appalled by TMR when I played it to them (some of them thinking I was winding them up) .
    But even my muso and stoner friends struggle with TMR and Decals. I gave up trying to make them try and stay in for the long haul – but it does my heart good to hear Clear Spot, Safe as Milk, etc. playing when I go to visit.
    At the risk of sounding like a snob – I still think there are lots of people who namecheck TMR (and Beefheart in general) because they feel it gives them credibility.
    I don’t see the point of ‘trying’ to like something – you either do or you don’t.
    Seems like a real waste of time to attempt to appreciate something, because you feel you ‘have to’- life is way too short!
    I’m just glad there are so many people who genuinely do appreciate Captain Beefheart & Magic Band.

  3. I’d be all too glad to hear Trout Mask blasting from a passing mini-van.

  4. I think it is worth putting the effort and time in to albums like Trout mask replica. WHen i first heard it i ‘liked’ it in a fairly superficial way, in that i thought it was great that this band made the effort and took the risk of creating this incredibly odd and intense music. I also loved some of the lyrics that stood out most. To appreciate the album fully has taken me years, and i’m still not there, but i wouldn’t want to rush it and use it up… i like the fact it remains a mystery. I worked out some of the guitar parts the other day, and in doing so uncovered a whole new layer of structure i hadn’t noticed. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, to get the most out of a book the reader should put in as much time and effort as the writer did. While this is obviously fairly impractical advice, Thoreau had a point, and Trout Mask definetly benifits from this kind of painstaking listening. But i’m actually not keen on clear-spot. Bongo Fury is far more interesting, as is Doc, Decals, Safe as milk and others.

  5. ‘I’d be all too glad to hear Trout Mask blasting from a passing mini-van’.

    or preferably ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’…from the van’s cd machine…

  6. Perhaps it is because I am a musician and I had analyzed music quite a bit (well, I first heard Stravinsky at age 8, and I thought it was the greatest music that I’d ever heard…still do), but I seem to be one of the few people who understood TMR when I first heard it (when I was 17). In fact, I loved it the first time that I heard it.

    Personally, though, I don’t care much for Clear Spot (though I do like parts of The Spotlight Kid), and I think that there are much better entry points into his work that aren’t as intensely difficult as TMR or Decals, yet retain a good deal of his compositional brilliance. What about Shiny Beast (or the original Bat Chain Puller, for that much), Doc At The Radar Station, or Strictly Personal?

  7. Hey anon,

    I agree with you there chum.

  8. No debate here friends – Beefheart has always been in the same league as Stockhausen, Messiaen, Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. He is an original artist & his work is no more “like” anyone else than Paul Klee’s or Kandinsky’s msterpieces.
    On the other hand, as Charlie Mingus once said “if you need someone to tell you it’s great, it’s already too late for you!”.
    Listen to Orange Claw Hammer again & see what I mean.

  9. I borrowed Trout Mask from a mate in a shared house in 1977 and hated it. So gave it back next day, earning a bit of contempt. As you do. A few days later I heard this amazing music coming through the wall (Ella Guru) and asked him “what’s this, then?”. So I borrowed it again…Trout Mask is wondrous but I’ve never listened all the way through in one sitting as it scrambles me – for newcomers I’d say “try Ella Guru and Moonlight On Vermont for starters, then dip in”. But I’ve since found Shiny Beast works best on new ears, especially Tropical Hot Dog Night, then go back to Floppy Boot Stomp – it gives people a chance to find their feet before you knock their heads off again. Now I’m smugly riding the Beefheart storms with no fear so I forget what it was like to hear it all as discord. And I’d really love to hear it through some soccer mum’s minivan, especially if the speakers are a bit knackered

  10. I spent an evening alone when 15 at a cottage in Yorkshire with the l.p & my task was? to listen to the whole lp…i got to sd 3 & gave up;amazing…it was’nt long before i was a Beefheart nut – i am 42 now!Tragic about the magic(ha!) band – i saw them in Nottingham last year…excellent & caught don at york in 1980…i am the one on the bootleg shouting “oh man that’s so heavy!”Trout Mask is the greatest achivement in modern music over the past 50odd years…Hiway61 may be earthbound but TMR is outer limits & all the way back again.

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