July 24, 2021

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, “Trout Mask Replica”

“Despite its pungent smell, Van Vliet carried the fish with him during the two-hour photo session in the studio”

Produced by Frank Zappa, the premiere of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band was an album mythologized to the extreme. Its innovative cover was not far behind.

A section by XAVIER VALIÑO.

Designer: Cal Schenkel.
Photographer: Ed Caraeff.
Issue date: June 16, 1969.
Label: Straight / Reprise.
Productor: Frank Zappa.

Probably all the descriptions that one has heard about the content of “Trout mask replica” have some truth: it is surprising, disconcerting, inscrutable, unique, dense, exhilarating, impossible, timeless, strangely beautiful, uncertain, disturbing and rewarding for whoever ends up entering its world. No, it is not background music at all.

It is difficult to escape the reactions of love and hate that the album provokes. The musicians who recorded it were aware of it, starting with Don Van Vliet, the visionary genius behind Captain Beefheart. When a journalist confessed to its author that the album did not fit, he replied: “That’s good. You just have to put it on and then go back to doing whatever it was you were doing before, and at some point it will end up coming to you ”.

Its most ardent supporter, Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, summed up the process of those who have been hooked on the record very well in a BBC documentary: “It was a double disc and it cost seven dollars, so it was too expensive. But since it had Frank Zappa’s name on it, I ended up buying it. I took it home and put it on. The first time it seemed like the worst thing I had ever heard in my life. They weren’t even trying to sound good! Frank Zappa produced it, so I gave him a second chance. I thought, ‘It sounds horrible, but they clearly wanted to sound like this.’ On the third or fourth listen it started to grow inside of me. With the fifth and sixth I loved it. By the seventh and eighth I thought it was the best album ever, and I still believe it. For me it is the combination of the entire history of blues, with rock and roll, experimental music and free jazz in it, all played by extremely talented instrumentalists. Add the most incredible voice in music history, Don Van Vliet. He’s the modern Howlin ‘Wolf. “

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“Trout Mask Replica” is Captain Beefheart’s best known work for one reason only: there will never ever be anything remotely like this record. Despite the apparent anarchy that emerges from its grooves, everything was perfectly thought out and accurately interpreted from the notes written by Van Vliet, one by one, of the entire album. Without a record deal, Frank Zappa came to the rescue of his childhood friend, becoming his musical benefactor. It offered him total artistic freedom, and the group locked themselves in for eight months to prepare the album.

During that time, the musicians shared a rented home in the Woodland Hills outside Los Angeles under Van Vliet’s full artistic and emotional control. On more than one occasion, one of the musicians was separated from the group and Van Vliet reprimanded him until it collapsed declaring total submission. The material conditions were not the most adequate either: without income, they lived on charity and contributions from relatives, almost without eating. Only once a week could one of them go out to buy some vegetables. At home he rehearsed more than fourteen hours a day, without any other distraction.

Despite her long gestation, The album was recorded in a few days in March 1969, with the exception of two previously recorded songs and a recording that Zappa had previously made in the same house.. At the time, the album had no title or packaging. For this, Zappa decided to have Cal Schenkel, who was the designer of the two labels that Zappa had then, Bizarre and Straight Records. Zappa called him his “art engineer.”

Calvin Schenkel will always be remembered for his covers for Zappa. He was born in 1947 and studied at the Philadelphia School of Art, where he met Sandy Hurvitz, a singer-songwriter who would record under the names Essra Mohawk and Jamie Carter. He did not finish his studies and left for California at the age of 18. His first contact with the world of Zappa was totally accidental, when he was picked up hitchhiking by a car full of Los Angeles hippies who took him right to where the group The Mothers of Invention was recording their debut album, “Freak out.” Upon arrival, they were asked to shout for the song ‘Song of monster magnet’. That first approach to the particular universe of Zappa was something fleeting, since Schenkel returned to Philadelphia almost immediately.

Meanwhile, her friend Hurvitz played the keyboard and performed duet with Ray Collins at performances of The Mothers of Invention at New York’s Garrick Theater. When Zappa discussed his idea for a bombastic design for the cover of “We’re only in it for the money,” featuring “Sgt. The Beatles’ Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ”as a model, Hurvitz suggested that he call Cal Schenkel.

Zappa, who could also be considered something of a designer, immediately saw the possibilities of Schenkel’s designs. Zappa’s music at the time was collage, Dada, electronic, with elements of jazz, doowop, and much more. The impact of good design was clear to him, and Schenkel seemed like the ideal person to bring Zappa’s ideas to life.

Thus began their work together, a collaboration that lasted for ten years exclusively, to the point that Schenkel followed Zappa when he moved from New York to Laurel Canyon in 1968, establishing his studio high up in a eucalyptus tree at side of the singer’s house. In his role, sometimes it was Zappa who suggested ideas for the covers; at other times, Schenkel was free to create his own designs. This was the case, for example, with the use of infrared photography in “Hot Rats”, something new in the sixties, and which gave the album exactly the kind of alienation that Zappa was looking for in those days.

Few collaborators in the Zappa environment had as much credit as Schenkel. In “We’re only in it for the money” he let him pose holding some eggs in the lower right part of the album cover, and he can also be seen on the inside of the unfolded cover of “Just another band from LA ». But that was not all: in “The grand wazoo”, Zappa dedicated a song to him: ‘For Calvin and his next two hitchhikers’ (“For Calvin and his two next hitchhikers”), in relation to that day they met.

When Zappa later created his own record labels in the late 1960s, Straight and Bizarre, Schenkel continued to do the same job on covers for Tom Waits, Tim Buckley or Lenny Bruce records. Of all of them, the most remembered is the one he signed for Captain Beefheart’s fourth album, “Trout mask replica”, a title that also started from his idea for the cover.

At the time, Schenkel was working with photographer Ed Caraeff. In the summer of 1967 they chained order after order without rest. For the cover design of the new Captain Beefheart album they wanted to do something simple and eye-catching. At first they looked at the lyrics of one of his songs, ‘Old fart at play’, in which Van Vliet mentions a fish head twice:

“He ran down behind the hill
and slipped on his wooden fish head.
The mouth moved and bit all the bees.

Back to the bungalow
mom was prepared and adorned
with her wavy red enamel brooch
when the fish head broke the window ”.

It was considered to make a mask with the head of a fish, but they did not have material time, so Schenkel bought a head of a large carp at the fish market on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. He took her back to his study and extracted all the soft flesh from inside her. They assembled it like a mask, putting a small string on it to join the two ends, and gave it to Van Vliet to put on. Despite its pungent smell, Van Vliet carried it with him during the two-hour photo session in the studio. by Cal Schenkel in Melrose and La Brea (Los Angeles). As it was so heavy, Van Vliet had to hold it with his thumb, as can be seen in the image that was finally chosen.

Captain Beefheart’s outfit that day was completed by a green jacket with a wool collar and, covering his head, a long black top hat topped with a badminton shuttlecock on top. He liked his role so much that he started playing a saxophone, something Schenkel documented in an 8mm home movie. The contrast with the pink background was extremely powerful, and on this a sober typeface was placed in the final design that Schenkel did not like because he thought it should be more powerful, but that he finally accepted at the request of Frank Zappa himself.

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For the back cover, artist John Williams drew a diagram with the fish’s head. At the same time, Schenkel shot some photos in the studio and others in the house the group shared in the Woodland Hills. Finally, they ended up opting for one of them, specifically the one in which the quintet posed on a bridge of the property that served to cross a sloping ravine, in an image filtered by the sun’s rays.

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The inner fold-out folder featured images of the group made by Ed Caraeff and taken from the same session, which Schenkel solarized and chemically treated with infrared and various filters. The vacuum cleaner that was shown in them had already appeared on Frank Zappa’s album Hot Rats, released a month before, to accompany the lyrics of “Willie the Pimp”, which featured the voice of Don Van Vliet.

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The first editions of the album were accompanied by a 6-page booklet, illustrated by someone called The Mascara Snake, who was none other than Van Vliet’s cousin, Victor Hayden. In the first of its pages there was a school portrait of Don Van Vliet and in the end a poem entitled ‘Manta Ray’.

Furthermore, lThe first promotional issue sent to the media included an envelope with poems headed by a quote from a fictional disc jockey that read: ‘»Dachau Blues’ is a great cut. I wish someone human had recorded it. ” Specifically, there were five poems by Van Vliet written by handOne for each member of the band, all except John “Drumbo” French. The drummer, who had been violently expelled from the group by throwing him down some stairs after finishing the recording of the album, also did not appear in the photos of the album or in the credits of the same.

Seven years later, Don Van Vliet and Cal Schenkel jointly exhibited at the Greenfields Gallery at the University of Olympia in Washington, where a young Matt Groening was studying. Perhaps there his obsession with Captain Beefheart began to unconsciously take shape, which would be revealed years later. The two responsible for that album and its cover would never work together again. It was not necessary: ​​in one session they had perfectly captured the content of that hilarious, hallucinatory, and disorienting album, beautiful and ugly at the same time, which is for those who contemplate and listen as an amalgam of everything they know and do not know. It suited him like a glove, even excusing them for putting in their title that it was a replica of a trout mask, when it really was a giant carp.

Previous installment of The best rock covers: The Pogues, “Rum, sodomy & the lash”.