The double LP of Trout Mask Replica was an unexpected sixteenth birthday present. Well, the birthday was not a surprise, but the choice of gift was. This was March 1980. And the present was Trout Mask Replica along with the Factory cassette of A Certain Ratio’s The Graveyard and the Ballroom in its gorgeous plastic wallet.
TMR certainly seemed wonderful and frightening, and some of it made instant sense in the context of new music by The Fall, Pop Group, and other things John Peel might play late at night. It was not an alienating record though, and lots of it made even more glorious sense when a year or so later Edinburgh’s Fire Engines seemed to take the more outright pop parts to shape their revolutionary beat noise. And, anyway, Beefheart was never going to be a problem for kids who grew up on Catweazle, Spike Milligan’s verse, Chinn and Chapman’s songs, Professor Branestawm books, and Wacky Races.
TMR is not a record that would be a Desert Island Discs choice, but it is a particular favourite. There has always been something about the Captain’s work (like the OJs and Postcard Records) that makes one want to reclaim it, which is why the link to Peter Meaden is so appealing, as revealed in the Steve Turner interview which was published in the NME in 1979 where there is reference to Meaden bringing Beefheart to Britain for the first time after becoming obsessed with and an evangelist for Safe As Milk. It is quite a story, which his friend and business partner Norman Jopling tells in Shake It Up Baby, a memoir about his life in pop in the 1960s.
Safe As Milk is such an enduringly joyous record. There is the extraordinarily vibrant ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’, ‘Yellow Brick Road’ (“around the corner the wind blew back”) with echoes of the Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen song from Wizard of Oz, then the ‘Then He Kissed Me’ coda to ‘Call On Me’, later echoed by Joy Division, the enunciation in ‘Electricity’, and ‘I’m Glad’, the beautiful soulful ballad covered by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds for the delight and at the instigation of Pete Meaden.
Sometimes the humour in Beefheart’s work gets lost. Just take, for instance, the wit and beauty of ‘Human Get Me Blues’: “I saw yuh baby dancin’ in yer x’ray gingham dress, I knew you were under duress, I knew you under yer dress”. It is naughty, warm and funny like Richard Brautigan writing The Abortion: An Historical Romance, with that library where one copy of a lost book can be deposited for posterity.
The Captain and his crew always had a close connection to the blues, which presumably was part of the appeal for the likes of Meaden the arch mod, but also there are clear links to Tin Pan Alley, and the Great American Songbook, like ‘Moonlight on Vermont’ being closely allied to Sinatra softly singing ‘Moonlight in Vermont’.
It comes through particularly on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), the most up-to-date Beefheart record as the 1980s began, which is often gloriously easy listening, nice and easy does it, very pop, like ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’ with its classic line about “two flamingos in a fruit fight”, as covered by Coati Mundi, sidekick of Kid Creole. And there is the very funny ‘Harry Irene’, about the couple who ran a canteen.
There is even on Trout Mask Replica an old time feel to things, a slapstick element, linked to the appeal of The Three Stooges, back when there were too many Saturday mornings at the pictures, collecting ABC Minors badges, with endless shorts of Larry, Curly and Moe. Then they turned up again later in Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, borrowed from the local library as a kid, sitting there desperately trying to make sense of it, like Trout Mask Replica, picking out moments of magic and filtering out the irritating aspects, the bad beat-up surrealist stream of consciousness stuff.
That is true of so much art. Even with our absolute cast-iron favourites there tends to be a preferred side, like wishing Dylan did more torch ballads rather than those talkin’ blues rockers, and Sinatra did less ring-a-ding-ding swingin’ and more saloon songs, the contemplative bottom-of-the-glass numbers, like on In The Wee Small Hours, Close To You, Where Are You?, Only The Lonely, No One Cares, Point of No Return, All Alone.
It is the same with writers. While odd is good. abstract is ace, disjointed is delightful, and experiments with form are welcome, when say the occult, the magical realism, the hallucinatory, the fantasy, any of that, comes in that’s when, here, there is a tendency to switch off or skip pages. Like Inspector Montalbano argues in the novel The Paper Moon: “Normality itself seemed sufficiently abnormal to him.” And, daily, it is clear there is nothing as surreal as the so-real.
So, even with Ali’s Autumn, that means being less comfortable with the freeform flights into a dream state, but that is a very minor quibble, and as the gloriously Dickensianally named Byron Stingily (in Ten City) sang: “Different strokes for different folks, whatever makes you happy”.