Safe as Milk

Band: Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Album: Safe as Milk
Best song: “Abba Zaba”
Worst song: “Autumn’s Child” is not much.

Almost everybody knows, or has an image of Frank Zappa in their head, but I bet you most people could name maybe one song out of the 70 records that guy put out.

Marc Maron said the above whilst record shopping with the fine folks at AV Club. Maron’s a very astute dude and few things he’s said have been more spot-on than that. Maron’s ex-girlfriend’s dad was an extrmeemly prolific artist and a personality on which so many things hang, but how many of us know his music?

The AV Clubber suggests that “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” is the touchstone song, but I’m not even sure I could get that out of most people. There are other songs that might make the cut (Maron says “. Or “Valley Girl,” the one that Moon was on,” which could be it, too.), but overall: Everyone knows Zappa and doesn’t know his music. What other artists are like that?

Gwar is definitely one; I can’t name a Gwar song. The Grateful Dead and Phish are definitely punchlines, despite no one actually knowing their songs. I can’t name you a song by Nickelback, but I’m in the minority there (probably). I bet there are a lot of people who can’t name a song from the Butthole Surfers, but they weren’t popular enough for people to ID them in the first place.

Captain Beefheart is definitely one. Even those of us in the “music is my life” community probably can’t name more than three songs by the Captain (a famous friend of Frank Zappa). We can all name his most famous album, but it’s hard to name tracks. We all know the fact that the entire Magic Band quit after one tour because Beefheart was too demanding, but we can’t name songs. We all know that he made up scores of ridiculous stories about himself, but he didn’t release a lot of hit singles.

Trout Mask Replica was ranked 58 (!!!!) on the 2003 Rolling Stone list, which is basically bonkers. I’d be willing to bet that 30% of the people voting on that list had no idea who Beefheart was and couldn’t make heads or tails of the record. It’s one of the few rankings on the list I truly applaud; the RS eds aren’t exactly a risk-taking group, but Trout Mask Replica is a risky fucking record.

Either way, Beefheart’s first album is one that speaks to Don Van Vliet’s most accessible notions. Essentially a psych record rooted in blues, Safe as Milk varies from Trout Mask Replica in that it has straight harmonies and wonderful songs. Where Trout Mask Replica can sound like a finger in the eye of a listener, Safe as Milk is a little more of a fun listen. Unlike Trout Mask Replica, there are few scenes of complete disregard for traditional song structures, but those that exist generally work.

Case in point: “Electricity” is the kind of record that takes as much from the old horror movies as it does from Beefheart’s beloved Delta blues. The theremin work on the song is both spooky and groovy, as it speaks to the later insanity that would drive Trout Mask Replica. The rumor is that “Electricity” is what got the Magic Band dropped from its label, as wikipedia says: “A&M Records, dropped them after co-owner Jerry Moss heard the song and declared it ‘too negative.'” Beefheart’s vocals are nothing we haven’t heard today, but they were definitely a shock in 1967.

But listening now, I’m shocked at how conventional the record mostly is. “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do” is almost a perfect ape of a Muddy Water-style song, while “Yellow Brick Road” is cool “summer of love”-style psychedelia (think Love). “Where There’s Woman” sounds overly desperate when it needs to, but the song amps up and moves into a slowfastslow style that became a thing in the late 1960s. “Plastic Factory” features such a heavy harmonica line that you’d think it was an actual old blues song that’d made it onto Safe as Milk.

The album’s highlight — and what was originally to be the title track — is “Abba Zaba.” From a personal perspective, “Abba Zaba” was my introduction to Beefheart. The song originally appeared on a CD I bought for a dollar when I was 15 and I remember hearing it and thinking “I’ve heard of this guy through his Zappa connections.” But, mostly, I’d bought the “guitar greats” (or some other such nondescript title) because it had a Byrds track on it (“It Won’t Be Wrong”) and a track from John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. But, I checked out “Abba Zaba” and have since been transfixed (the song was likely on the album because Ry Cooder was an early member of the Magic Band).

Opening with the most rudimentary beat, the song then features dancing Eastern-sounding guitar lines and a grooving basslines. Beefheart’s vocals are doubled and tripled on the record for different lines, a tactic used by hip hop groups 15-20 years later to emphasis lines. “Abba Zaba” is truly psychedelic in its form, with a bass breakdown 1:20 into the song, followed by a little skiffle guitar solo and the still rudimentary drum sound kicking the song back into traditional structure. The lyrics — like all of Beefheart’s — are complete nonsense; after all, he named the song after his favorite candy bar. But, the song sticks with the listener.

Cooder’s guitar work holds the song together, no question, despite its move toward the back of the song. It’s hardly the bit of the song that anyone remember — the beat probably takes that honor, as it sounds like someone playing a bucket drum — but paying attention to it will show its rewards.

(Cooder supposedly quit the band because Beefheart was hallucinating during a performance at the 1967 Mt. Tamalpais Festival and left the stage, so I’d say the guitar player probably got out at the right time.)

Safe as Milk is quite the record. I suggest several listens, just so you can say you know more than just Trout Mask Replica as far as the genius of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

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