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"...Came Upon A Tornado..." – Safe As Milk by CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and THE MAGIC BAND (1999 RCA/Buddah Expanded CD Remaster)
on 21 September 2015
Few artists can genuinely have the mantle of genius festooned around their mad foreheads in a garland of Californian daisies – but Captain Beefheart is one of them. His 1967 debut is still a bit of a beast to digest in 2015 – but my admiration for it and him only grow as the years pass. Nothing about this album is "safe" let alone a comforting and warm glass of milk come those night-time tremors - which is of course what makes it so good and groundbreaking. Here goes with the Abba Zaba and the Dropout Boogie...
US released June 1999 (September 1999 in the UK) – "Safe As Milk" by CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and THE MAGIC BAND on BMG/RCA/Buddah 74321 69175 2 (Barcode 743216917525) is an Expanded Edition CD and breaks down as follows (71:13 minutes):
1. Sho 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do
2. Zig Zag Wanderer
3. Call On Me
4. Dropout Boogie
5. I'm Glad
7. Yellow Brick Road [Side 2]
8. Abba Zaba
9. Plastic Factory
10. Where There's Woman
11. Grown So Ugly
12. Autumn's Child
Tracks 1 to 12 are his debut album "Safe As Milk" – released September 1967 in the USA on Buddah BDM 1001 (Mono) and Buddah BDS 5001 (Stereo) and February 1968 in the UK on Pye International NPL 28110 (initially in Mono only). A Stereo version finally showed in 1970 in the UK on Buddah 623 171 – this CD Remaster uses the STEREO mix.
13. Safe As Milk (Take 5)
14. On Tomorrow
15. Big Black Baby Shoes
16. Flower Pot
17. Dirty Blue Gene
18. Trust Us (Take 9)
19. Korn Ring Finger
Tracks 13 to 19 are all Previously Unreleased, Recorded Oct to Nov 1967 with Alex St. Clair Snouffer and Jeff Cotton on Guitars instead of Ry Cooder. Captain Beefheart, Jeff Handley and John French as per the LP line-up.
The 12-page booklet (in a rather dull black and white) has a history of the album and the genre-bending talents of Don Van Vliet of Glendale, California (alias Captain Beefheart) written by JOHN PLATT with help from Mike Barnes and Gary Marker. There are reissue credits and a repro of the 'Baby Jesus' bumper sticker. On the rear of the booklet there’s a gorgeous colour photo of the band as a four-piece – Alex St. Clair Snouffer (Guitar), John French (Drums), Captain Beefheart (Vocals, Harmonica and Bass Marimba) and Jerry Handley (Bass). There are also long notes on the CD Bonus Tracks ("Mirror Sessions" outtakes etc).
The remasters are by ELLIOTT FEDERMAN and come with a warning that "sonic imperfections exist due to the condition of the master tapes". He’s unfortunately proven right about this. Some tracks are fantastic – others very hissy and even corrupted in the top end. There’s also a very definite audio chasm between the album and the bonus tracks – the LP has its rough moments but the Bonus tracks (later 1967 recordings for the second album done just a month after the release of "Safe As Milk") are fantastic sounding - and in truth would probably have sat better as "Trout Mask Replica" outakes. It’s a case of taking the rough with the smooth – but luckily because there isn't that much rough - I'd say they’ve done a superb job with what they had...
It opens with the Howlin’ Wolf/Johnny Winter guitar blues of "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do" - a genius hybrid track with ex Rising Sons guitar wizard RY COODER providing lead guitar. We then get into real Beefheart songscapes with the decidedly rough recording of "Zig Zag Wanderer" – a jagged irksome little monster like the "adaptor...adaptor" distorted guitar chug of "Dropout Boogie" (both tracks benefitting from the percussive drums of Milt Holland). Unfortunately there are heavy hiss levels on "I'm Glad" where Don comes on like some Street Corner vocal group pleading "so sad baby". But as always with the Captain - he can blindside you with how pretty a song he can write when he stops pushing the musical boundaries with the rest of the album. The Byrds-ish "Call My Name" could have been a single too with its "free love" coda ideal for the time.
But if one track practically defines the jagged songwriting strangled-vocals genius of Captain Beefheart it would be the stunning "Electricity". Described as a variant of 'Blues' by some more scholarly than I – it comes at you like a sonic beast from another world and could only be a product of the hyper-inventive super-productive and mad-as-a-dingbat-on-acid 60ts counter-culture. Throughout its jerk-rhythms and weird-sounding guitars - Sam Hoffman plays a thing called a 'Theremin' - an early variant of an electronic Moog instrument that had been used to create those scary outer-space noises in films like "The Day The Earth Stood Still". Combined with Beefheart giving it his best strangling-a-cat voice – its astonishing stuff even now. Pye actually reissued "Electricity" in June 1978 as a British 7” single on Buddah BDS 466 - the audio bosom-buddy B-side to "Sho 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do". Not sure if either was entirely Thursday night 'Top Of The Pops' material but I’d pay good money to see Pans People do an interpretive dance routine for either (yum yum).
Speaking of singles - Pye UK tried the jaunty Side 2 opener "Yellow Brick Road" b/w "Abba Zaba" on Pye International 7N 25443 in January 1968 but not surprisingly it tanked and is now a £50-plus rarity (Taj Mahal plays percussion on "Yellow Brick Road"). His fantastic Bluesy Harmonica gives the brilliant "Plastic Factory" a real Paul Butterfield edge. "Where There's Woman" and "Grown So Ugly" are suitably touching and poisonous at the same time but the album finishes on a total winner. Russ Titelman plays guitar while Sam Hoffman twiddles his Theremin on the brilliant Side 2 finisher "Autumn's Child" – a song where you actually feel like you're listening to a new kind of music being created as you listen.
The BONUS TRACKS are part of the "Mirror Sessions" which were essentially going to be a double-album follow-up for Buddah Records (their 2nd album). Parts of it turned up on the "Mirror Man" LP issued by Buddah in May 1971. "Trout Mask Replica" fans will love the near seven-minute guitar instrumental rampage that is "On Tomorrow". Even better is "Big Black Baby Shoes" – another five-minute sliding guitar instrumental which is discordantly musical in that way only Captain Beefheart can be. "Flower Pot" is brilliant too and my fave bonus amongst the seven – the band boogieing in that jagged "Trout" way through four minutes of Beefheart Funk.
The equally good/strange "Strictly Personal" would follow in 1968 and the epoch-making game-changing double "Trout Mask Replica" in late 1969 – but this is where all that discordant yet melodious jerky-motion started.
An animal-sculpting child prodigy TV star at the age of 10 – Don Van Vliet was always a bit special and a just bit bonkers in the temporal lobe area. Captain Beefheart famously walked off stage once and collapsed into the grass face first – later claiming he stopped the band mid-song (fixed his tie first before he left stage) because he saw a woman in the audience turn into a 'goldfish'. Now that’s my kind of visionary...