Captain Beefheart - Safe As Milk - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Captain Beefheart - Safe As Milk

by Kevin Orton Rating:9 Release Date:1967-06-01

There's nothing safe about the debut album of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Fifty years after it’s release, it still sounds just as sour as it ever did. While not as whacked as the surrealistic masterpiece,Trout Mask Replica, Safe As Milk is not only one of Don Van Vliet’s (aka Captain Beefheart), most accessible albums, but one of his most rewarding and consistent. That's not to say it isn't twisted or subversive. If a pissed off Howlin’ Wolf dropped acid and enlisted Ry Cooder on lead guitar, chances are the results wouldn’t be too off the mark from this 1967 milestone. Beefheart’s vocals are so heavily influenced by Wolf, it verges on parody. In addition, a 20-year old Ry Cooder not only plays guitar, but is also responsible for most of the arrangements.

The opening lines of ‘Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do’ are straight out of Muddy Waters’ classic, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’. Its opening line lifted from the fashionably obscure, ‘New Minglewood’s Blues’ by Cannon’s Jug Stompers. In addition, there’s a cover of Robert Pete Williams’ ‘Grown So Ugly’. In terms of influences, Beefheart was mining the same Blues as the Doors and Stones, but it’s what he did with those influences, that sets him apart. ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ takes hard scrabble Blues and give it the aural equivalent of a tab of acid. On ‘Dropout Boogie’, we get a hint at what was to come with, Trout Mask Replica. Suddenly, these are not so friendly or familiar sounds. In fact, they’re downright jeering and demonic.

The furiously surreal ‘Electricity’ pushes things even further beyond the Looking Glass. Beefheart earning his moniker with a remarkably snarling vocal. Meanwhile, ‘Yellow Brick Road’ manages to be sarcastically jaunty.

The album was originally going to be entitled, Abba Zaba after the Captain’s favorite candy bar. However, the manufacturers weren’t so keen on the idea. Regardless, the song, ‘ABBA Zaba’ touches on Donovan ‘Barabajagal’ territory. Along with, ‘Electricity’ it’s a Beefheart classic.

‘Plastic Factory’ dips back into gut bucket Blues with a vengeance. Beefheart taking to the harmonica with Little Walter abandon. If things couldn’t get any more eclectic, ‘Where There’s Woman’ is a tripped-out Garage Psyche ballad. One of my favorite tracks on the album. Its almost straightforward by his standards. By contrast, ‘Autumn’s Child’ is one of Milk’s most dazzlingly bizarre numbers. More than anything, one can hear Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd on this one. What's also notable are Van Vleit’s passionately pleading vocals. There’s almost a hint of vulnerability. A haunting end to a perverse, bum trip of an album.

Of course nowadays, no reissue is complete without a handful of bonus tracks. Most of which are ornery instrumentals which sound like early draft jams for Trout Mask Replica. While, confections such as ‘Safe As Milk (Take 5)’ and ‘Trust Us (Take 9)’ are of some interest, neither really add to the album as whole. The rambling, surreal, ‘Korn Ring Finger’ however, is a cut above the rest.

If Safe As Milk is Captain Beefheart at his most accessible, it isn’t saying much. This is still an ambitious and uncompromising listen. While not as willfully distorted as Trout Mask Replica, it remains a fiery and experimental debut. Its traditional Blues roots are as gnarled and twisted as it gets. The fruit born it bears is decidedly an acquired taste, more bitter than sweet. He wasn’t pandering to the Summer of Love so much as thumbing his nose up and lampooning it.

While later Captain Beefheart albums like Bat Chain Puller and Ice Cream For Crow have much to commend them, they’re more or less variations of what he laid down here and on Trout Mask Replica. Beyond that, there was really no where left for him to go. Love or hate his work, there’s no denying Van Vliet not only challenged but changed the face of Popular Music. His influence can be heard on countless bands from the Fall to XTC. Not to mention the Birthday Party and Soft Boys. Tom Waits certainly hasn’t been shy about citing the good Captain’s influence. So, when you tire of reading about how “seminal” this stuff is, let Safe As Milk serve as your introduction to the Mad as a Hatter world of Captain Beefheart. 

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