During the filming of The Magic Band DVD Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) remarked that the music of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band was, “like bluegrass only weirder”.
Mark Boston’s potential epithet sprang into my head last night when I read an article by Danny Barnes, the former Bad Livers frontman, and guitarist and banjo-player of blue-grass, alt-rock-country, jazz-frisell, and various other genres.
In his essay, Danny describes his take on what Don Van Vliet achieved in his recording of Trout Mask Replica. Danny is particularly interested in Captain Beefheart’s synthesis of different musical and sonic elements and he points out some potentially exciting musical departures for American country musics, based on Trout Mask Replica’s methodology.
Danny was kind enough to respond immediately and enthusiastically to my suggestion that he let us reproduce his essay at this blog. Here it is:
A re-appreciation of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and the potential applications of its experimental ideas in American country musics
By Danny Barnes
For some years this record has been in my mind. I became aware of it in the middle seventies, although it was released some years prior, in 1969. a very interesting albeit strange friend of my oldest brother adored this record and couldn’t speak of it without laughing. it became one of my all time favorite musical works and my vote for one of the greatest recordings ever. there is something so far out in the music on this thing.
In the last few years, my thinking in regard to currently produced american country musics has come to rest on the idea that there could be more interest created by changing the order and composition of certain archetypical structures, and by utilizing different approaches in the recording methodology, as demonstrated to great effect by the experiments on trout mask replica. (see the term granular synthesis in wikipedia as an example of another technique that has yet to become a part of the set of recording ideas for these musics. american country music forms could be approached with ideas such as granular synthesis to a stunning result).
Having grown up with american country, folk and similar forms of music, i didn’t really notice the constant repetition of certain musical motifs, even more so in contemporary statements of these forms. some might argue that, like haiku, the beauty is in the constant rearranging of these basic units of sound, or limiting factors. i don’t use the word limit as a negative phrase, only to describe the process. for example if we say, let’s arrange a piece of music for resonator guitar and washboard and voice, we are limiting or dithering things down so they can be dealt with. compositionally and arrangement-wise this must be done, as the entire cosmos is hard to write music for. (john hartford once told me that style was based on limitation). so i guess i’m using this phrase in a quantitative way rather than a qualitative way.
There are certain thematic objects that are the basis of the language of traditional american country musics. for example (this is obviously tremendously simplified) in a bar of 2/4, in bluegrass music for example, the bass has a specified figure, the fiddle, banjo and mandolin typically play modal scale patterns in sixteenth notes, the strum of the guitar and the path of the vocal melody are architecturally similar from one piece of music to the next.
Much of the variation consists of regional dialect. as in the different accented rhythms that ralph stanley and earl scruggs and don reno would use to play the same melody. it’s almost like comparing differing accents of the speaking voice.
This is indeed a fascinating study, of course. differences in the way a person from georgia, virginia, louisiana, and missouri, and new york would say a certain phrase can be a very interesting thing to observe. the different ways they might play the same melody on a fiddle are likewise interesting, and to my way of thinking, can be related to speech patterns.
This is all well and good, and continues to hold our attention to a certain extent. however my feeling is that some new ideas would be healthy for everyone, because in the above example, the artists are, after all, saying the same thing. and i think that the type of experiments developed by the good captain can and should be brought to american country music forms. his is an unrestrained playfulness and open-mindedness in regard to structural components, in opposition to a stylistic dogmatism.
The experiments on trout mask replica have been banging around in the back of my mind for several decades. i recently went back to it and have been listening to it quite a bit. the way the music was apparently de-constructed and re-assembled, produces a most striking result. (i have no idea of his actual process, other than what i have read, but the music reminds me of working in a garage for some reason). some of the lo-fi technology, while i doubt the term existed then, has become the language of much of the interesting pop music of the more current timeframe ( not that these contemporary artists consciously copied captain beefheart, but i can still hear a certain thematic unity in the latin playboys first cd, samples of vinyl noise that run throughout certain hip hop tracks, wu tang, the fractured bass sample that busta rhymes if you really want to party with me is based on, dj spooky, the way turntablists reconstruct music architecturally, the list goes on for quite some time).
There are raw elements of traditional american blues and jazz in the music of trout mask replica, but a whole new type of language was created from the arrangement of the musical monads, or within the atomic structure, the micro view. the recording techniques themselves also become a part of the composition. example, in one of the spoken word pieces, the portable tape recorder used to gather sounds, produces some audible thumps as the switch is turned on and off, and becomes a component of the overall effect. captain beefheart didn’t try to hide the brush strokes, as it were.
I think that alternative country, or whatever that is called, americana, current folk, bluegrass music, and american country musics in general could well benefit from more experimentation of the rhythmic, melodic, and sonic concepts, along these lines. the procedures of how these musics are recorded could use some new thought. my take on it is that we are faced with a copy of a copy of a copy, and the original aristotelian archetype, if you will, has perhaps been lost. the societal relevance perhaps comes into question, the essential context. the typical newer versions of the music sound okay but what is being said? and why? what is the relation between the poetry and the actor, or the singer and the song?
There are so many things that can be done with the basic tonal ideas of american country musics. the potential is limitless. but if the same basic homogenized building blocks get used over and over again, the overall point can become unclear. then what is the purpose of this music? most especially when so many of the back catalogs are available in boxed sets with copious notes, and contain perhaps better renditions and more interesting recording techniques.
At one point, even the music that is now being copied was new and different. my understanding was that bill monroe was quite the innovator. so was muddy waters. and johnny cash. this could be a very long list. to which i would add captain beefheart.
On Trout Mask Replica, the innovations come dripping out of the speakers. every song is de-constructed and re-assembled in the most intriguing way. captain beefheart’s music still sounds fresh and new to me. trout mask replica is such an interesting stew, it’s hard to place it on a time line. it could totally come out today, yet it has some pastiche of 78 rpm delta blues, and contemporary cut and paste art techniques, found art, outsider art, beatnik poetry, and hard to classify sonic weirdness and gleeful experimentation, contemporary composed music and avant-garde.
A fellow living up here near me is buell neidlinger. i consider him to be one of the greatest musicians that i have ever witnessed. his resume has him playing with the greatest figures of western music. buell told me of sitting in with captain beefheart at their rehearsal studio, i believe, and declared the music to be the “greatest erector set ever constructed!” buell is a musician of the highest caliber and never spoke very highly of anyone’s music to me except for igor stravinsky, cecil taylor and cats like that (buell played and recorded with them both, as well as hundreds of other of the heaviest musicians).
Once, while buell played on a recording of some music i had written (which is an activity quite like trying to go a few rounds with joe louis), the engineer said, referring to buell’s track, ” i think he made a mistake in that middle section.” upon listening to the playback, i realized buell had reconstructed the fundamental idea on the fly and turned the whole bass part around, it was awesome! (interesting to note that the engineer heard this as a mistake). these types of connections began to occupy my mind at that point. buell, to me, had re-invented the role of how an acoustic bass could be played in an american country type setting. we kept the track just like it was. it really lifted the whole piece up into the stratosphere. this is a one measure example of what can happen when a musician knows a form so well that he or she can innovate within and without the parameters. (this is what i am trying to do with my banjo playing in case you were wondering).
On Trout Mask Replica this goes on in virtually every bar of music for the entire twenty six tracks. with parts stacked vertically on other parts. it’s like finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and realizing that it is perhaps more advanced than yours.
On this, Captain Beefheart’s masterpiece, there is hardly a section of music that you can really tell what is going to happen next. yet it sounds strangely familiar. it’s kind of like listening to all music at once. the effect is interesting and invigorating. it’s kind of beautiful and ugly at the same time. man, i love this record.