When the weirdest thing about an album is not the smartly sartorial fish-man on the cover, then you realise you are dealing with a rather peculiar artefact. Captain Beefheart is a well-known iconoclast of epic proportions, but when it comes to the wild creation of Trout Mask Replica, he took searching for the heart of creativity to weird new heights. This is the tale of the mayhem in the making.
At the time Don Van Vliet, the Captain himself, was out of a label and out of luck. Then a blast from his childhood past would offer a helping hand. Frank Zappa had grown up with Vliet in what must surely be one of the weirdest High Schools in Los Angeles County, which would place it high in the running for weirdest worldwide, and Zappa had just set up two of his own labels.
Bizarre and Straight were the names of the labels. Naturally, he signed the madman Vliet to Straight and gave him total creative control over his next album. This is a decision that would prove interesting, to say the least. With the keys to creative oblivion tucked firmly away in the back pocket of his jeans, Vliet and his merry band of musical brethren absconded to a small, rented house in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles.
Therein a commune was formed and at the heart of it was the Captain who at times seemed to have lost sight of the album entirely. For eight months the band remained in this stuffy abode, and everything seemed to unravel. After years of being passed around labels like the cornetto of a joint, he was determined to craft an album that would make Zappa proud, although it’s hard to see how that led to The Barrel particularly.
To explain The Barrel, we shall lean on a vignette put forth by John French, otherwise known as Drumbo, no prizes for guessing what he played. When he was drafted in, he recalled making a mistake one session and having Vliet fly off the proverbial handle. Vliet commanded Drumbo to “get in the barrel”. Unwittingly he climbed into the old beer cask at the behest of the Captain. Therein, Vliet repeatedly struck the barrel with a stick and berated Drumbo’s performance with a fury akin to the Devil’s father on the sidelines of a football game.
In short, perhaps the best description of the commune comes from French’s visiting friend who described the vibe of the mass boudoir as “positively Manson-esque”. As far as rehearsal spaces go, that’s the sort of comparison you’d usually hope to avoid. At least Manson had an income though, the austerity in Vliet’s HQ was verging on some sort of Soviet reverse opulence. The entire commune had zero income other than welfare for the duration of their stay and powered through 14-hour practice sessions every day fuelled by no more than a cup of soybeans that had usually been stolen on scavenger hunts.
So, what exactly were they playing up in that commune on the hill? Well, at the very start of the process, Vliet had already written all of the songs, all 28 of them that is. He had written them all on the piano in a single sitting just shy of nine hours. He had never played the piano before, thus it took him a little while to “figure out the fingering”. Thereafter he presented these loose riffs devoid of a tonal centre to the band and burdened them with playing along. Naturally, nobody knew what the hell to play.
With extreme punishments for stepping out of line, the process moved forward tentatively. As Drumbo puts it, “It was as though someone had taken a blank jigsaw puzzle, randomly picked up pieces and scribbled little pictures on each one, and said, ‘Put this together, I’ll be out later to see the thing when it’s done’.”
The same can be said when the pieces were finally ready to be put together. One of the initial recordings involved Zappa coming to the house with engineer Dick Kunc and setting up the recording equipment in the centre of the house then achieving sound separation by having each musician play behind a closed door in a different room of the house.
Even when Vliet entered the studio for more professional phases, he recorded the overdubbed vocals by hearing the original songs through a slightly ajar window. Owing to the fact that he could barely hear the melody the vocals remain complete unsynchronised. When this was pointed out to him, he presumably left the studio like The Fonz twirling his keys on his fingers as he quipped, “[Synchronising?] That’s what they do before a commando raid, isn’t it?”
The result is an album that remains beyond review. The mayhem bleeds through, but depending on who you ask, a few moments of magic can be found in the melee. All that is left to say, is that there is certainly nothing so strange as folk.