The Greatest Least Successful Record of All Time - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Greatest Least Successful Record of All Time

The Greatest Least Successful Record of All Time

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because in 45 years, absolutely no one will be talking about Bieber’s Believe.

By Eugene S. Robinson

“I ran out of the building. I told them I would never, ever come back again,” said Pete Johnson, co-producer of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s 10th studio album, 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), about his time behind the boards with them. “It was complete chaos and I couldn’t take it.” Johnson never produced another record for the band, or anyone else. Captain Beefheart, also known as Don Van Vliet, scorched the earth, leaving a history of music poorly understood or not understood at all — all perfectly embodied by his third album, Trout Mask Replica.

It’s a record that’s equal parts rock, free jazz, blues and experimental music. All mind-roastingly tasty, even for 1969. Produced by Beefheart associate Frank Zappa, Trout Mask Replica had nearly all of its music recorded in a single six-hour session — and that’s the least abnormal set of circumstances surrounding the recording. While strong bandleaders have been known to do everything from punching their players in the face (Mingus) to holding 8-to-12-hour rehearsal days (Greg Ginn), Beefheart exceeded the excess by mixing physical violence, long rehearsal days and unyielding, cultlike levels of personal control.


He started with corralling his band for two-thirds of a year in a small house that no one was allowed to leave unless it was to shoplift food. It wasn’t uncommon for Beefheart to break his band members down with 14-hour rehearsals, beatings and denial of the aforementioned stolen food. All justified by a variety of paranoid conspiracy theories, all of which worked their way into the record in one form or another.

But regardless of the record’s disturbing provenance, the 28 songs on what used to be called a “double album” caused the late, great BBC disc jockey John Peel to say of the finished product, “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.”

Or as Vuk Valcic, editor-in-chief and founder of Rock-a-Rolla magazine, a contemporary music arts journal, said in a recent phone call, it doesn’t matter to him that the album is ranked 60th on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. “My measurement is pure aural joy, and the bands that can directly credit their entire worldview to this record. Now that means something to me.”

And to us too. 

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