Safe as Milk
|Safe as Milk|
|Studio album by Captain Beefheart|
RCA Studios, Los Angeles
|Genre||Blues rock, psychedelic rock|
|Producer||Richard Perry & Bob Krasnow|
|Captain Beefheart chronology|
Safe as Milk is the début album by Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band, originally released in 1967. It is a heavily blues-influenced work, but also hints at many of the features—such as surreal lyrics and odd time signatures—that would later become trademarks of Beefheart's music.
The album is also notable for the involvement of a 20-year-old Ry Cooder, who played guitar and wrote some of the arrangements.
Before recording Safe as Milk, the band had previously released a couple of singles through A&M Records, and it was to this company that the group first proposed their début album in 1966. They presented the label with a set of heavily R&B-influenced demos, which the label apparently felt were too unconventional, and A&M decided to drop the band. (Beefheart later claimed the label dropped them after hearing the song "Electricity" and declaring it "too negative".) The conversation between Vliet and Zappa on "The Birth Of Captain Beefheart" (Mystery Disc CD) reveals that A&M's Jerry Moss thought the content too risque for his daughter's ears. This, plus Leonard Grant's severance as manager, added to the discontent. The band instead turned to Bob Krasnow, who was then working for Kama Sutra Records; he recruited them to record for the company's new subsidiary label, Buddah.
Meanwhile, Beefheart had been secretly planning changes to the Magic Band's line-up—a practice that would become common throughout the period of the group's existence. The group that recorded the two A&M singles had consisted of Doug Moon and Richard Hepner on guitars, Jerry Handley on bass, and Alex St. Clair on drums. But Hepner had already left, and Beefheart was keen to replace Moon with Ry Cooder, who was then playing with Gary Marker and Taj Mahal in the Rising Sons. These and other changes eventually resulted in a Magic Band consisting of Handley on bass, St. Clair on guitar, and John French on drums, with Cooder providing additional guitar parts. Cooder's arrival had been swayed by Marker, who had spent time with Vliet and had been given to believe he would produce the album; in fact Marker was only engaged in demo recording.
The album is featured in the 2000 film High Fidelity. It is the album that the character Barry, played by Jack Black, continually refuses to sell to a customer - whom he deems unsuitable to own it.
Music and lyrics
The album is heavily influenced by the Delta blues, and this is apparent from the opening bars of the first track, "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do", which is based on Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'". The opening lyric, "Well I was born in the desert...", quotes "New Minglewood Blues" by Cannon's Jug Stompers, an early version of the "Rollin' and Tumblin". Elsewhere, the album features a version of Robert Pete Williams' "Grown So Ugly", arranged here by Cooder.
Another of the more distinctive songs on the album is "Abba Zaba", one of three compositions credited solely to Beefheart (using his real name of Don Van Vliet). An Allmusic review of the track states, in reference to its music, "Although not directly blues influenced “Abba Zaba” contains peripheral elements of the wiry delta sound that informed much of the album," noting that Cooder's influence is heard here in the "chiming, intricate guitar lines" and "up front and biting bass work." The track is named after the Abba-Zaba candy bar, which was supposedly a favorite of the young Beefheart. The band had, at one point, planned to name the album after the confection. When the bar's manufacturer, the Cardinet Candy Co., refused permission for use of the name, however, the album was retitled. The black and yellow checkerboard pattern on the album's back sleeve, designed by Tom Wilkes, is a relic of this idea — echoing the black and yellow colors of the candy bar wrapper.
For some time, the involvement of a Herb Bermann as co-writer on eight of the tracks was a point of confusion, as Vliet did not employ him, or indeed any regular co-writer at any other time in his career, and never discussed or clarified his role in the album. There was little record of his existence, though his name incidentally also appeared in a reference to an unproduced screenplay for After the Gold Rush on the 1971 Neil Young album of the same name. Various Magic Band members had in fact indicated that the name may have been nothing other than a publishing-related pseudonym. It was only in 2003 that Bermann himself was finally located and interviewed, and his involvement as co-writer confirmed.
Critical and popular reception
The record did not achieve popular success on its release, failing to chart in either the United States, where none of Beefheart's albums would ever enter the top 100, or in the United Kingdom, where the band would enjoy modest success with later works such as Trout Mask Replica (1969). Scaruffi notes, "Although in this period the group produced great freak-music, almost no one noticed. Well received only by the few radicals in his circle, Beefheart felt like a solitary cactus in a desert full of quick sand."
The album made a greater impact in Europe than in the U.S. The Beatles were among those who took note of its content: John Lennon placed two of the album's promotional bumper stickers on a cabinet in the sunroom where he spent most of his time at his home.
"Electricity" was covered by Sonic Youth. It was released as the final track on the deluxe edition of their album Daydream Nation. "Dropout Boogie" became an inspiration to the Edgar Broughton Band, with their radical 1970 single mix Apache Drop Out, in which they cut it with their interpretation of the Shadows' "Apache" instrumental. The Magic Band track has also been covered by the Kills on their 2002 Black Rooster EP.
The album was released in the UK on Pye International, and subsequently reissued in Pye's budget Marble Arch series (albeit bearing Pye International labels on the disc itself) as a 10-track, omitting "I'm Glad" and "Grown So Ugly". When Buddah's UK distribution passed to Polydor in 1970 it was again reissued, this time on Buddah in Polydor's budget 99 series and retitled Dropout Boogie. Initially the tracklisting of this release matched the Marble Arch version, but the missing tracks were quickly restored. This 99 series release was also the first appearance in the UK of a stereo mix of the album.
In 1999 the now correctly spelt Buddha Records, owned by Sony BMG who had acquired Buddah's back catalogue, remastered the album onto CD. They added seven bonus tracks, taken from the sessions for the unreleased 'Brown Wrapper' follow-up album. These tracks had been recorded around November 1967 (two months after Safe as Milk's release), and were from the same sessions that yielded the songs on Mirror Man (1971). BMG's Buddha also released The Mirror Man Sessions on CD in 1999, effectively an official issue of the unphased versions of Mirror Man, with five further bonus tracks taken from the same sessions.
In 2013, Sundazed Records released the mono mix of Safe As Milk on LP and CD. 
All songs written by Herb Bermann and Don Van Vliet except where noted. All CD bonus tracks written Don Van Vliet.
|1.||"Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do"||2:15|
|2.||"Zig Zag Wanderer"||2:40|
|3.||"Call on Me"" (Van Vliet)||2:37|
|5.||"I'm Glad" (Van Vliet)||3:31|
|7.||"Yellow Brick Road"||2:28|
|8.||"Abba Zaba" (Van Vliet)||2:44|
|9.||"Plastic Factory" (Van Vliet, Bermann, Jerry Handley)||3:08|
|10.||"Where There's Woman"||2:09|
|11.||"Grown So Ugly" (Robert Pete Williams)||2:27|
|CD bonus tracks|
|13.||"Safe as Milk (Take 5)"||4:13|
|15.||"Big Black Baby Shoes"||4:50|
|17.||"Dirty Blue Gene"||2:43|
|18.||"Trust Us (Take 9)"||7:22|
|19.||"Korn Ring Finger"||7:26|
- Don Van Vliet – vocals, harmonica, bass marimba, arrangements
- The Magic Band
- Additional musicians
- Unterberger, Richie. Allmusic review
- Barnes, p. 28
- Barnes, p. 29
- Barnes, p. 30
- Barnes, p. 36
- Barnes, p. 42
- Planer, Lindsay. Allmusic song review: "Abba Zaba"
- The search for the mystery co-songwriter from ‘Safe As Milk’
- Scaruffi, Piero (1999). 'The History of Rock Music: Captain Beefheart'
- Photo of John Lennon lounging at his Surrey home, with "Safe as Milk" bumper stickers visible
- Some sources credit "Call on Me" to earlier Magic Band drummer Vic Mortensen, and not Van Vliet or Bermann.
- Barnes, Mike (2000). Captain Beefheart. Omnibus Press. ISBN 1-84449-412-8