Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Safe As Milk
by Alastair Dickson
Safe As Milk has a mixed reputation among enthusiasts for Captain Beefheart’s music. Some would agree with Langdon Winner’s claim that it is an underrated masterpiece. For others - the majority I suspect - it is a slightly superfluous early LP well down the list of necessary buys. Why this difference of opinion? There are probably several reasons to do with shifting fashion. For one thing, Safe As Milk is recognizably a portfolio album of the type common in pop music until around 1967-68, rather than an LP which appears as a cohesive work in itself.
In Safe As Milk, there is some sense of difference from popular music, but not yet distance. The standard account of Beefheart’s break with A&M Records, who had released his early singles, has it that the song "Electricity" was the breaking point: A&M were not prepared to release an album which featured that song; Beefheart would not issue an album without it. To the impasse with A&M’s judgment of commercial limits had to be added a struggle within the band concerning limits. The Magic Band did not want to play Beefheart’s songs. Guitarist Doug Moon wanted to stay within the blues repertoire which can be heard on the early singles and the known concert recording from the Avalon Ballroom (much of which will appear on the forthcoming Revenant box set). Beefheart said that this had forced him into a strategem to legitimize his songs, by establishing a temporary writing partnership with a professional songwriter, Herb Bermann. At the same time, Beefheart was placing reciprocal pressure on Moon concerning the new possibilities in guitar playing which excited him when they first saw Ry Cooder playing in the Rising Sons. This was the sound which he wanted to bring into the Magic Band, and Safe As Milk represents the point at which Moon was ousted and Cooder was brought in for the LP sessions.
So Safe As Milk is the sedimentation of a process through which a distinctive sound was being born. Each instrument was beginning to operate in its own space. In the mono mix which I first heard as much as in the dubious stereo mix, there is a different musical space which is seldom found elsewhere. This is despite the sonic quality of the final recording, regretted by all those involved: when Richard Perry was drafted in as producer midway through work on the LP, his first action was to have the original 8 track session tapes transferred to the then more familiar 4 track tapes, degrading the sound quality. Over the next few years, this instrumental mix would be held together by the contributions of the other significant change to the band, the addition of John French on drums. French’s contribution was immediately important, especially the "African" drum part for "Abba Zabba", but would become more so over the next couple of years as he diligently adopted the role of musical director in bringing Beefheart’s most adventurous music to fruition. In Spring 1967, then, Safe As Milk was recorded with a Magic Band nucleus of Alx St. Claire (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass) and John French (drums), augmented by various musicians, notably Ry Cooder (guitar and bass) and Russ Titelman (guitar).
"Sure ‘Nuff ‘N’ Yes I Do" opens the LP by placing the Magic Band firmly in the blues tradition, dropping quickly from a solo slide guitar accompanying the plaintive "I was born in the desert..." opening verse into a boastful blues derived from "Rollin’ and Tumblin’".
"Zigzag Wanderer" is the first track to indicate that something more unsettling than electric blues is afoot. A fast track which establishes its own formal structure as it moves through precisely played sections. The call-and-response vocals recall the most adventurous of the A&M releases, "Moonchild." In the middle section the Captain’s vocals chew and snap at his words over a moving bassline, before the song pulls back full circle.
"Call On Me" may seem like a retreat from the new territory opened by the preceding track. However it is more indicative of the progress that the Band were making. In the pre-LP demos, this had been a slow ballad; now it had been improved immeasurably by being speeded-up into a soul song.
It is followed by the first song from the LP which would find a place in the Magic Band's repertoire in later years, "Dropout Boogie." Blending the vocal delivery and attitude of the Mothers' "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" with the early Kinks, the song surprises by swerving into original space with the audacity of the strange but simple (string) harp-based instrumental break. Covering the song, the Edgar Broughton Band normalised the break by splicing in The Shadows' "Apache" in place of the original's uncomfortable timing.
Some early UK versions of the LP omitted "I’m Glad." It is the weakest song on the LP, although there are a couple of points where the Captain's phrasing shows that he could have been a mainstream vocalist - and he does so far more effectively than on the 1974 Unconditionally Guaranteed LP where the vocals remain earthbound.
"Electricity" closes side one and is the stuff of legends. The song which had caused the split with A&M, the vocal performance which destroyed the microphone, a song guaranteed to get an extreme love it or hate it reaction. What has received less attention is the extent to which the song which appeared on the LP had been developed in the studio. One person involved in the Safe As Milk sessions describes the original song as a "psychedelic dirge"; there is a tape of the 1968 Magic Band playing a version extended into that direction. In the studio, the musicians added motifs to give the song more of a sense of development. If the song is remembered, inevitably, for the power of the cries of "Eee-lectri-ci-ty," it should also be remembered for the quality of that collaboration, possibly the first of many times when the Magic Band musicians would have the opportunity and even a duty to develop the music under the main theme. Another curio about this piece is the use of the theramin to provide a suitably "electric" accompaniment. The original idea was to use the sound of an electric saw cutting metal, but this didn’t work out. If it had, might "Electricity" have been the first piece of industrial music?
Side two opens with a few moments of electronic jiggerypokery and then "Yellow Brick Road." This is one of the most subtle and accessible arrangements on the LP, with auxiliary percussion from Taj Mahal and Milt Holland and fine guitar lines. The song was released as a single and, who knows, the possibilities might even have been there...
"Abba Zabba" is surely the stand-out track on the LP. Despite some versions of the LP blunting its impact by fading-in John French’s "African" drum pattern, they fail to undermine the strength of the track. The guitars slide and slither around the central vocal parts, the pace changes, drops to solo bass and drums before pulling back to the main song. Not surprisingly, the song remained in the repertoire of successive Magic Bands, although not always retaining the lightness of touch of the original LP version.
The electric blues of "Plastic Factory" was one track which had survived since what was probably the projected LP for A&M records in 1966. It is unique in the Captain Beefheart ouevre in that one of the Magic Band musicians, Jerry Handley, actually got a co-writing credit.
The two tracks which feature Russ Titelman on guitar, "Where There’s Woman" and "Autumn’s Child" are let down by unimaginative arrangements. They indicate just how much depth was added to Magic Band’s sound by Cooder’s twisting guitar lines. That said, the easily overlooked "Where There’s Woman" does have a well-paced and controlled vocal performance. Ry Cooder’s arrangement of "Grown So Ugly" is another oddity on the LP. Like "So Glad" it was omitted from some early UK versions of the LP and can still seem something of an interloper. The production really lets this track down, with naive stereo imaging and a lack of presence on the vocals.
"Autumn’s Child" closes the LP with a song whose lyrical mood may anticipates "Pachuco Cadaver" on Trout Mask Replica. As with "Abba Zabba" and "Where There’s Woman," the song succeeds in sustaining itself across quieter more contemplative sections, even if the theramin fails to disguise rather dull accompaniment playing.
In a 1967 radio interview, Frank Zappa recommended Safe As Milk for the rootedness of the lyrics: "Many of the lyrics that Don Van Vliet has manufactured for these tunes are stories about his early childhood." Surely that quality of particularity should have gained an audience for the record? And yet it seems to have been received with indifference in its home territory.
In Europe, the reception was more enthusiastic, despite many of the reference points to types of candy, etc. being lost on the listener. In the mainstream, the Eurovision singer Lulu could be found naming Safe As Milk as a favourite album. Outside the mainstream, Drachen Theaker of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown has described how astonished they were by the Safe As Milk material when both bands played at Cannes in early 1968: the Magic Band were accomplishing what the Crazy World had been trying to work towards.
It was curious that the most "Beefheartian" of the songs recorded for A&M had been David Gates’ "Moonchild," and it is the vocal interplay of that song which provides the direct ancestor of the more intricate songs on Safe As Milk. There is a precision in the performance of the songs on Safe As Milk which was discarded in favour of a vocal spontaneity in many of Beefheart’s later recordings. This is especially marked in the interplay between the main vocal and the background vocals in several songs on the second side. Apparently, one important contribution by producer Richard Perry was to count-in and cue Beefheart when the vocal tracks were being done.
In the months that followed, Beefheart’s songwriting moved off in a more ambitious directions. On the up-side, this produced an impressive fluidity in the song Safe As Milk; less successful was the bombastic psychedelic shamanism in the attempts to develop "Trust Us" as a follow-up for the first singles and LP. Judging from the various sessions working at that material from late 1967 through to mid 1968, the Magic Band don’t seem to have been altogether comfortable with the under-achieved realisation of what became Strictly Personal. It was the developing role of John French as amanuensis which probably triggered the much more promising change of direction towards the Trout Mask Replica material.
Overall, if Safe As Milk seems to adhere to a pop psychedelia, it is none the worse for that. It was recorded at a time when pop and rock music were about to diverge, to what was often their mutual detriment. Safe As Milk tries to avoid the either/or choice and produce something distinct without slipping into a self-conscious avant-gardism.
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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