Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Safe As Milk
by Tom 'Tearaway' Schulte
In a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone, the Captain quoted thus, "During our Safe As Milk era, we were over in England and I walked right off the stage about ten feet in mid-air. Then fell down about six feet, got up and ran back up on the stage and asked them, 'Why'd you drop me?' Because it was them holding me up with the vast potentiality of their energy. But once I'd begun to do it out there over their heads, they looked up and began to think en masse, 'How the hell is he doing that?' - the contact was broken."
Prefiguring he sentiment and accessibility of Unconditionally Guaranteed, Safe As Milk is a crucial album toward understanding the hold the Zig Zag Wanderer (side one, cut two) has had on a portion of the discerning body of music fans sense first stomping a floppy boot down on the scene. Pieced together from re-recorded material rejected by A&M boss Jerry Moss as "too negative," Safe As Milk is an impressive Frankenstein born of the current from a creative storm that still affects music today. Consider the closing number to the first side, "Electricity." The twisted phrasing and twiddled knobs of sci-fi electric sounds typify a blues imported into the psychedelic era and curled around a garage vice to suit the Captain's feral, desert-inspired sonic visions. Consider further "Yellow Brick Road." Here a base R&B structure is presented in unexpected, divergent and even changing meter to offbeat and unique effect. Further fragmentation of the idiom happens with the jungle blues hallucination "Abba Zaba," the song that lent its name to a late Magic Band live album. A rootsier, Howlin' Wolf referencing "Plastic Factory," featuring manic harmonica, builds an insanely beautiful shiny beast out of the formulaic Delta Blues.
Captain Beefheart once said "I don't think I do magic, I think I do spells." His wizardry even works on enchanting already crafted songs. As evidence, one cover is included here, Robert Pete Williams' "Grown So Ugly" which is an exciting, jangly study in guitar contrast from the album's two pickers, Ry Cooder and Jeff Cotton. The Captain, only his mid-20's at the time, already boasted a versatile and distinctive voice of multi-octave range. I've read that 5, 4 1/2 and even 7 1/2 octaves have been counted. This unpredictable voice turns somewhat soulful on the nostalgic album closer "Autumn's Child," which is ready to run over the credits of a Spaghetti Western. The real Beefheart "magic" in this album lies in the charge of "Electricity." This pulsing heart of the album featuring a non-standard time signature and floating drum foundation in a Grunt People square dance that incites the Captain to the vocal acrobatics that at least twice blew out microphones with this number, once in the studio and once on TV.
Even in the numbers that could have arisen in any hippie blues-based project of the time, like "Call On Me" and "Zig Zag Wanderer," become singular and distinctly Beefheart due to the Captains outrageous singing. Beefheart is pulling out the building blocks of rock-n-roll and piecing them together in truly progressive ways, using weirdness and insanity as mortar.
Considering future projects of Beefheart's like Trout Mask Replica, Safe As Milk can come across as minimalist, a zygote of future glory. It can also be seen that the Captain heard his share of Howlin' Wolf and British R&B prior to putting this material together, but while he was able to build on them, no one but Captain Beefheart has succeeded to build significantly on this experimental blues-rock monument. Safe As Milk dances raggedly singing atonally on a crater rim near chaos and far from convention leaving cartoon bubbles in the air of surreal lyrics.
Also see Alastair Dickson's review of Safe As Milk
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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