Sunday, September 2, 2012

Seeking Electricity: Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk is 45

 Captain Beefheart - Safe as Milk
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band
Safe As Milk
Rating: **** 

In 1967, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) would release his debut album. That album, Safe as Milk, was released in September of that year with his group, The Magic Band. The album flew under the radar and didn’t achieve any mainstream success. However 45 years later, people are still talking about Captain Beefheart as he is now seen as one of rock music’s greatest cult heroes. Safe as Milk is where it all started.

            Don Van Vliet was born on January 15, 1941. Growing up, Vliet had a love for art and sculpting. He also had a love for rock music and listened to blues records in his spare time. When Vliet attended high school, he met another music lover named Frank Zappa. According to Zappa, he and Vliet would listen to R&B records at Vliet’s house. Not too long after, Vliet took up to becoming a singer. He and Zappa recorded one or two demos until Zappa went off to join the Mothers of Invention. Vliet would eventually form his own group, the Magic Band, in 1965. Vliet also came up with his stage name: Captain Beefheart. The band was signed to A&M Records for a short time. During that period of time, they were able to gain some success with their cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”. The band was dropped by A&M most likely because they felt the band wasn’t conventional. The band signed with Buddah Records and began recording their debut album. While recording the album, the band found help from a young 20-year-old musician named Ry Cooder. With Buddah and Cooder, the Magic Band were able to record the album that A&M wouldn’t allow them to.

            In the wonderfully bizarre discography of Captain Beefheart, this debut album starts with a tame blues number “Sure ‘Nuff N Yes I Do”. Vliet’s vocals are very reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf’s: it sounds bluesy and you can clearly tell that Vliet loved listening to R&B records as a teenager. This is followed by the catchy “Zig Zag Wanderer”, which could’ve also been the opening track. The bass line is great and it sounds like something that could’ve been a hit. “Call On Me” might be weakest track off the album while the psychedelic “Dropout Boogie” has a hint of humor. “I’m Glad” is a really interesting song: by the song title, you would probably think that it’s upbeat. It isn’t. Instead, you have this downbeat doo-wop track. The lyrics are a bit ironic as Vliet sings about an ex-girlfriend, saying he’s glad about the good times they had. For the irony alone, “I’m Glad” is a stand out track. The next song, however, is my personal favorite off the album: “Electricity”. While Safe As Milk is pretty tame compared to the other albums Vliet would release, “Electricity” is where we first hear Vliet and the Magic Band get experimental. The guitars are wonderfully distorted and Vliet’s vocals are just zainy. You’ve got to love the way he yells and elongates “EEEE-LEC-TRIC-ITY!!” It is quite a frantic way to close out the first side.

            Side two opens with the surprisingly calm “Yellow Brick Road”. According to the 1999 CD reissue, Taj Mahal is on percussion on the track.  This is then followed by the humorous “Abba Zaba”. The song really isn’t about anything but it is known that Abba Zaba was a brand of bubble gum. The lyric about “big baboons” is based on the packaging of the gum. The delta blues influence is quite clear on songs such as “Plastic Factory” (which features some impressive harmonica playing from Vliet) and “Where There’s Woman”. “Grown So Ugly” is another bluesy number with some clever lyrics but it’s the eerie “Autumn’s Child” that ends the album. The song is pretty dark, which is rare for songs by Beefheart. The echoing harmonies are just beautiful and I know I sound like a broken record but Vliet’s vocals are superb on this song. In fact, I think this is his best vocal performance on the album.

            When released in September 1967, Safe as Milk failed to do much of anything. It wasn’t in the US charts and it wasn’t in the UK charts. It was in Europe, however, where the Magic Band had a small following. In fact, it has been said the John Lennon was a fan of the album. In a picture of Lennon in his house, you can clearly see two promotional bumper stickers for the album on Lennon’s cabinets. Despite the album not being able to achieve any commercial success, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band continued.  Beefheart was able to make more albums in the next 15 years including Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby, and various others. In 1982, Beefheart released his last album Ice Cream for Crow. After it was released, he retired from the music business all together. Vliet devoted the rest of his life to art, which is something he did when he was younger. Vliet was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis around this time, to the point where he was wheelchair-bound. On December 17, 2010, Don Van Vliet passed away at the age of 69.

            Decades after the release of Safe as Milk, music critics now praise the album as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Along with Beefheart’s other work, he has been cited as an influence by artists such as Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, and countless others. As of 2012, he has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, it probably doesn’t matter if he gets in. Safe as Milk and all of Captain Beefheart’s other albums speak for themselves: this man was ahead of his time. 

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