"Lost" Album of the Week: Captain Beefheart 'Safe As Milk'

On February 3, 2016


Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Captain Beefheart's 1967 album Safe as Milk. 

For many of today’s music fans, the mere name Captain Beefheart is enough to turn them away. Marc Maron has a great stand-up bit about it, saying: “I will never be smart enough, or large enough of mind, to assess and understand Captain Beefheart.” Like the heady voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, Don Van Vliet’s Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band is a sound that takes time, a style that you have to ease into over the years before finding that bright white moment of milky clarity where all of his nonsense seems to fall suddenly into place. And Safe As Milk is more than just a powerful debut. It’s the infinite icebreaker to the band’s lasting legacy, and its creation started when Vliet was still a young teenager. His parents moved from Los Angeles to the Mojave desert, where his father drove a bread delivery truck to pay the bills. An only child and artistic prodigy, Vliet felt bored and isolated out there. But this environment no doubt served his creativity, as he and his school friend Frank Zappa would spend their time spinning records together and studying the music of blues guitar legends like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, & Muddy Waters. Despite his heavy interest in sculpture, painting, and music, Vliet dropped his college courses as an art major, proclaiming: "If you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school.” Legend says that after dropping out of college, he took a job as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, once knocking on the door of Alduous Huxley. Relating the story to David Hepworth in 1982, he recalled: "When I was a young man, I was the best vacuum cleaner salesman in southern California. I used to work door to door. One day I knocked on a door and a tall, gaunt man appeared. He had an English accent and he looked like a bird. I recognised him at once. I'd read Brave New World. It was Aldous Huxley. I knew I couldn't do my usual sales patter so I pointed at the vacuum cleaner at my feet and said: 'Sir! This sucks!"

Vliet & company were hardly into their twenties by the time they’d recorded a few singles, gained a following by playing local dances and parties, and attracted a major record label. That early incarnation of the Magic Band then headed to Hollywood to cut their first record with producers Richard Perry & Bob Krasnow, who would go on to turn out the best work from Harry Nilsson, Ella Fitzgerald, Funkadelic, Tina Turner, and other international hit-makers. Ry Cooder, then just 20-years-old, was brought in to help steer the album towards some sort of recognizable finality. Taj Mahal is even credited for some percussive additions, playing washboard and tambourine on a few songs. His role was no doubt brought about at Ry Cooder’s insistence, as the two had formed one of America’s first interracial bands together a few years earlier, calling themselves the Rising Sons.

Perhaps the world’s first “art rock” album, Safe As Milk was expected to be a huge success, modeled after the rising popularity of blues-based guitar bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. And if a commercial success was what the label wanted, they’d certainly landed the cuts to make it happen. Side one alone goes from the French Quarter slide guitar of ‘Sure Nuff N’ Yes I Do,’ to R&B balladry like “I’m Glad,” and grotesque riff rock in “Electricity.” All throughout is an even mixture of southern rock and harmonica-driven blues, to the unpredictably avant-garde. And to close is the pulsing onslaught of guitars and drums in ‘Abba Zaba’ and ‘Autumn’s Child,’ as if the end of the record is simply melting away from the needle, as if Vliet wanted to burn down everything he’d built up over the course of the album. The entire band is glued together by Vliet’s masterful, wild-man delivery, and a voice that ranges from rocky growls to boyish yelps. Not to mention that this was truly one of the coolest groups of musicians to ever take the stage together. Watching them perform ‘I’m Gonna Booglerize You Baby’ on European television in the early 70’s, and it’s a wonder that they’re all still standing at the end.

Cooder quit the band just before their scheduled performance at the famed Monterey Pop Festival, the same California music festival that broke the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other rock icons in the '60s. Playing a warm-up show at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival just a week before, they were only midway through their set when Vliet, overwhelmed with LSD, looked out into the audience, straightened his tie, and stepped clear off the 10 foot high stage, later explaining that he’d seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish, bubbles floating out of her mouth, and he wanted to talk to her. Cooder decided right then and there that he could no longer stand to work with these characters, and the cancellation of their subsequent tour dates, including Monterey, might have been what doomed Safe As Milk from reaching the mainstream. The decision ended up being the right one for Cooder, as he would go on to establish himself as a slide guitar virtuoso, playing guitar with the world’s biggest and greatest groups like the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Ali Farka Touré, as well as producing what may be the best-known Cuban album ever recorded, the Buena Vista Social Club. In 2003 he was ranked eighth in Rolling Stone’s ‘100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

The original 1967 mono pressings from Buddah Records run for hundreds of dollars. The stereo edition, pressed later that same year, sells similarly, with one Discogs listing at a going price of $300. Sundazed Music reissued the album in mono on 180-gram vinyl in 2013, complete with the original insert artwork and the now-famous “baby face” bumper sticker. These copies are readily available for around $20-30.

Despite the lasting listenability of Safe As Milk, it’s the third Captain Beefheart album, Trout Mask Replica, that most critics consider to be Vliet’s true masterpiece. The band holed up in a house outside of Los Angeles for eight months straight, writing and arranging the parts with meticulous detail. Only once per week did Vliet allow someone to leave, alone, to go out and get/steal groceries for the crew. Such captivity sounds brutally unnecessary, but at the end of the eight months, when it came time to record the album and Zappa booked them some studio time, they had each and every part so tightly dialed-in that the entire album was recorded in four-and-a-half hours. Zappa was dumbfounded when they called to inform him that the record was finished so quickly.

Although Vliet did manage to acquire a cult following and some degree of fame within his lifetime, each release saw him treading further and further into the avant-garde. There was the awkward interview on European television where he pretends to cover the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday,’ or an even more awkward interview with David Letterman in the early 80’s, where he dodges questions about his early schooling and life in the desert. The audience can’t help but to laugh at his strangeness, sometimes to an almost sickening air of embarrassment.

The final Beefheart album, Ice Cream for Crow, came in 1982, before Vliet retired from music altogether to pursue his painting full-time. A strange, artistic, mostly spoken-word composition, Ice Cream for Crow is as fitting a send-off as any, the front cover picturing Vliet standing alone with his hat held to his chest, as if to take a bow and say goodbye to all the listeners who’d made it thus far. He withdrew from his previously public persona of touring and performing, and became more of a recluse, a hermit, rarely seen in public outside of his art exhibitions. His death in 2010 was covered by news outlets across the globe, from the New York Times and Rolling Stone to the BBC and the Guardian, securing his place as a worldwide inspiration to noise-makers and mess-painters for generations to come, and leaving the rest scrambling to understand it.

Stream Safe as Milk in full below.

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