Safe as Milk

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Safe as Milk
Safe as Milk.jpg
Studio album by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Released June 1967[citation needed]
Recorded Spring 1967
RCA Studios, Los Angeles
Genre Blues rock, psychedelic rock, garage rock[1]
Length 33:40
Label Buddah
Producer Richard Perry & Bob Krasnow
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band chronology
Safe as Milk
Strictly Personal
Singles from Safe as Milk
  1. ""Yellow Brick Road"/"Abba Zabba""
    Released: August 17, 1967
  2. ""Plastic Factory"/"Where There's a Woman""
    Released: March 25, 1969

Safe as Milk is the debut album by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, released in 1967. A heavily blues-influenced work, the album featured a 20-year-old Ry Cooder, who played guitar and wrote some of the arrangements.

Today, Safe as Milk is one of Beefheart's most acclaimed works. It hints at many of the features — such as odd time signatures ("Abba Zaba," "Dropout Boogie") and surreal lyrics ("Electricity") — that would become trademarks of Beefheart's music.


Before recording Safe as Milk, the band had 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.[2] They presented the label with a set of R&B-influenced demos, which the label felt were too unconventional and decided to drop the band.[2] Beefheart later said the label dropped them after hearing the song "Electricity" and declaring it "too negative".[3] A&M's Jerry Moss thought the content too risqué 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.[4]

Meanwhile, Beefheart had been secretly planning changes to the Magic Band's line-up—a practice common throughout 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. 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 resulted in a Magic Band with 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[edit]

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", based on Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'".[5] The opening lyric, "Well I was born in the desert ...", quotes "New Minglewood Blues" by Cannon's Jug Stompers, an early version of "Rollin' and Tumblin". Elsewhere, the album features a version of Robert Pete Williams' "Grown So Ugly" arranged by Cooder.[6]

Another of the more distinctive songs on the album is "Abba Zaba", one of three compositions credited solely to Beefheart using his real name. An AllMusic review of the track states, "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".[7] 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, but the bar's manufacturer, the Cardinet Candy Co., refused permission for use of the name, and 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.[7]

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.[8]

Critical and popular reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 5/5 stars[9]

Safe As Milk was prominently advertised in Billboard, World Countdown and elsewhere in June 1967.[citation needed] However, the band's planned appearance at the Monterey Festival that month fell through, and the record did not achieve popular success, 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). It has been said that The Beatles admired the album, but the only evidence for this are photographs of John Lennon and George Harrison at their respective homes, with the bumper stickers that accompanied the LP visible in the background.[10] These may well have been given to them by Derek Taylor, who also handled publicity for Beefheart at the time.[citation needed]

The album made a greater impact in Europe than in the U.S., with the British underground DJ John Peel being a noted admirer from the start, though the original British release was in mono only.

"Dropout Boogie" became an inspiration to the Edgar Broughton Band, with their radical 1970 single mix Apache Drop Out, in which they combined it with their interpretation of the Shadows' "Apache" instrumental. "Electricity" was covered by Sonic Youth. It was released as the final track on the deluxe edition of their album Daydream Nation. "Dropout Boogie" was also covered by the Kills on their 2002 Black Rooster EP, and The Fall, during live performances in 2015.[11]

The album was included in Robert Dimery's 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.[12]


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 track listing 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 claimed to have released the mono mix of Safe As Milk on LP and CD.[13] However, it is not an accurate representation of the original mono LP. It is sourced from a vinyl transfer with patches spliced in from the stereo mix to disguise vinyl noise.

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by Herb Bermann and Don Van Vliet except where noted. All CD bonus tracks written Don Van Vliet.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do"   2:15
2. "Zig Zag Wanderer"   2:40
3. "Call on Me[14]" (Van Vliet) 2:37
4. "Dropout Boogie"   2:32
5. "I'm Glad" (Van Vliet) 3:31
6. "Electricity"   3:07
Side two
No. Title Length
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
12. "Autumn's Child"   4:02
CD bonus tracks
No. Title Length
13. "Safe as Milk (Take 5)"   4:13
14. "On Tomorrow"   6:56
15. "Big Black Baby Shoes"   4:50
16. "Flower Pot"   3:55
17. "Dirty Blue Gene"   2:43
18. "Trust Us (Take 9)"   7:22
19. "Korn Ring Finger"   7:26


Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
  • Don Van Vliet – lead vocals, harmonica, marimba, arrangements
  • Alex St. Clair Snouffer – guitar, backing vocals, bass, percussion
  • Ry Cooder – guitar, bass, slide guitar, percussion, arrangements
  • Jerry Handley – bass (except 8, 10), backing vocals
  • John French – drums, backing vocals, percussion
Additional musicians


  1. ^ A.V. Club
  2. ^ a b Barnes, p. 28
  3. ^ Barnes, p. 29
  4. ^ Barnes, p. 30
  5. ^ Barnes, p. 36
  6. ^ Barnes, p. 42
  7. ^ a b Planer, Lindsay. Allmusic song review: "Abba Zaba"
  8. ^ The search for the mystery co-songwriter from ‘Safe As Milk’
  9. ^ Unterberger, Richie. Allmusic review
  10. ^ Photo of John Lennon lounging at his Surrey home, with "Safe as Milk" bumper stickers visible[dead link]
  11. ^ The Fall performing "Dropout Boogie" at Glastonbury, 28th June 2015
  12. ^ ^ Robert Dimery; Michael Lydon (23 March 2010). 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: Revised and Updated Edition. Universe. ISBN 978-0-7893-2074-2.
  13. ^ "Captain Beefheart on Sundazed!". 2015. Retrieved October 31, 2015. 
  14. ^ Some sources credit "Call on Me" to earlier Magic Band drummer Vic Mortensen, and not Van Vliet or Bermann.

External links[edit]