Safe As Milk (1967)
Don Van Vliet: vocals, harmonica, marimba
Alex St. Clair Snouffer: guitar, bass (9, 10), percussion
Jerry Handley: bass (except on 8, 9, 10)
Ry Cooder: guitar, slide guitar, bass (8), percussion
John French ‘Drumbo’: drums
Sam Hoffman: theremin (6, 12)
Russ Titelman: guitar
Richard Perry: harpsichord
Milt Holland: log drum, tambourine, percussion (2, 4, 8)
Taj Mahal: tambourine, percussion (7)
Studios: Sunset Sound; RCA
Producers: Richard Perry, Bob Krasnow
Engineer (and demos): Gary (Magic) Marker
This album is a very good entry point for those who are unfamiliar with the work of Captain Beefheart. Don had been listening to jazz musicians John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, and had a clear vision for the way he wanted the band to go. He wanted to be more experimental and move away from straightforward blues to incorporate African rhythms and jazz, and take on the acid vibe of the day. However, that was a work in progress, and for this album he retained the heavy blues base which made it accessible to the uninitiated. This was still desert blues, but now with an acid tinge.
Much was happening in 1966. It was a watershed year of great change. The key factor was drugs. While marijuana and speed had been staple drugs for the blues/R&B vibe, there was now the sudden influx of LSD. It transformed the attitudes of the musicians and audiences. In England, this had an impact on established bands like The Yardbirds, the Stones, The Animals and The Pretty Things, who changed quite dramatically from straightforward bands playing Chicago blues, into experimental psychedelic bands. The process could be clearly seen with The Beatles’ evolution on albums from ‘Please Please Me’ to the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Newer psychedelic bands like Pink Floyd and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were starting out just as a new underground venue scene sprang up to cater for them.
On America’s West Coast, a new style of music labelled acid rock was emerging. Bands such as The Doors, Love, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Country Joe and The Fish and Grateful Dead, were sweeping in. Beefheart was on the crest of this wave.
In order to achieve his new vision, Don knew that changes had to be made. Clearly some of the band members – though well versed in the blues – were unable to make the transition to acid rock. The first to go was drummer Paul Blakely, who was replaced by John French (later named Drumbo). This was an important change, because not only was John (incidentally, also from Lancaster) an accomplished drummer and master of the complex polyrhythms that Don was envisioning, but he could also read and transcribe music, so was able to interpret Don’s ideas from his piano-playing, humming or singing, notating them and organising the band to play the music that was coming from Don’s mind. This talent would become more and more important as the band developed, the music became more complex, and the Captain became stranger and stranger.
With John onboard, the band moved to Los Angeles in order to break into the wider music arena and seek a record deal. The underground scene was beginning to take off with venues like the Avalon Ballroom, where they found their own specific type of audience. The second change, was to find a guitarist who could handle the more complex arrangements. Don had been impressed by the guitar-playing of young musician Ryland Cooder who was in a moderately successful folk/R&B band called The Rising Sons. Ry was a 20-year-old guitar/slide prodigy whose skills Don coveted. Don knew that Ry could transform the band’s sound. However, what followed was – sadly – a game of intrigue and deception.
The Rising Sons comprised Taj Mahal and Ry on guitar, and Gary ‘Magic’ Marker on bass. In order to lure Ry into his band, Don promised Gary Marker both the management of the band, and production of their new album. The ruse worked. Ry joined them and was the key to developing their sound and helping to arrange the more intricate songs. Ry’s inclusion sparked the firing of guitarist Doug Moon, who couldn’t get the hang of the new music. It nearly proved to be the end for Jerry Handley too. Session musicians were brought in to play some of the bass parts.
Unfortunately for Gary, things didn’t work out as promised. The band recorded a number of demos with him, but just before they went into the RCA studios, he was demoted to sound engineer. Richard Perry took over. This was Perry’s first job as a producer. (He went on to produce just about everybody from Ringo Starr to Carly Simon and Art Garfunkel, and is now revered). However, during this first project, he became overwhelmed with the complexities of the Beefheart album, and Bob Krasnow had to step in to complete the job. Ry was not impressed with the final result, feeling that the album should’ve been completely remixed. This would’ve been difficult because Richard had combined many of the tracks together into a single one.
Interestingly, there still exists an unreleased acetate of some of the Gary Marker demos, including a couple of R&B versions of blues tracks (perhaps recorded live at the Avalon Ballroom), and Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry numbers: neither of which appear on the later album.
Not only had the band’s music developed, but the lyrics had also taken a leap forward. Of the 12 tracks, 11 were originals. The one blues cover was ‘Grown So Ugly’ by Louisiana blues musician Robert Pete Williams. A number of the tracks were written in an abstract poetic style: a move on from the straightforward lyrics of the A&M sessions. Eight of the 12 tracks were co-written with one Herb Bermann, though nothing was known of this mythical figure for many years. People claim to have been introduced to three different people, all of whom were supposed to be Herb Bermann. Don once said that he was fictional and was created just to confuse the publishers. Herb Bermann was in fact a poet living in the Lancaster region. He later emerged from the shadows and claimed to have written all of this album’s lyrics. Truth can be stranger than fiction. Certainly, the tracks attributed to Herb Bermann are different and generally superior to the others. Was the hype around Bermann another twist of the Captain’s rich imagination and his desire to create mystery? The relationship with this desert poet certainly seemed to alter Don’s approach to poetic lyric writing, as his following work displays a unique and surreal quality.
Ry found recording the album to be a traumatic experience, and after playing a gig in which the Captain – high on acid and claiming to have seen a girl in the audience morph into a fish, blowing bubbles out of her mouth – adjusted his tie and stepped off the ten-foot-high stage and landed on Bob Krasnow, Ry decided to leave the band. He’d found it impossible to work with Don, and called him ‘a music Nazi’, although he was impressed with Don’s musical ideas, and thought Safe As Milk was an incredible album, even if badly mixed. Nevertheless, the album had been recorded, changes made, and the band was moving forward.
There are various stories about the record’s label Buddah. The band’s first label A&M rejected the demos outright after hearing ‘Electricity’ – they were horrified by what they considered to be vulgar lyrics, and immediately severed all links with the band. Beefheart had become far too weird for them! Apparently, demos were hawked around many places before Buddah finally gave the band the go-ahead.
Originally the album title was to be Abba-Zaba – a chewy taffy candy bar with a creamy peanut butter centre and a distinctive yellow-and-black-checked wrapper. The candy bar manufacturers were not keen on being associated with Beefheart. The album title was changed, but the characteristic yellow-and-black checks were retained for the cover. The title Safe As Milk was generally thought to be an allusion to LSD properties, and was a statement that immediately connected to the underground audience Don was seeking.
The album was released in 1967, at the forefront of the acid rock revolution crashing out of West Coast, USA. In 1970 when Buddah’s distribution passed to Polydor, they reissued it on their budget Pye Marble Arch label cut from 12 tracks to ten, omitting ‘I’m Glad’ and ‘Grown So Ugly’). A further reissue on the Buddah label in Polydor’s budget 99 series was in stereo for the first time, with the title changed to Dropout Boogie: firstly, as a ten-track and then with the two missing tracks reinstated. The 1999 CD release, on Sony’s correctly spelt Buddha label, features all twelve tracks plus seven bonus tracks from the sessions of the proposed partially live follow-up album The Mirror Man.
I can still remember the thrill of Mike playing me that album. The acid-drenched desert blues jiggled my brain cells with delight. I hadn’t heard anything like it before.