Review Summary: Quirky, inventive and at times hugely suprising Captain Beefheart's debut album is one that invokes strong opinions whether you like it or not. Probably his most accessible album, Safe as Milk offers a strong introduction to the music of Captain Beefheart
Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, is frequently cited as one of the most underappreciated musical forces of the sixties music explosion. Renowned for his quirky creativity and powerful voice, the Captain has been referenced by many modern musicians and DJs as one of their big influences (notably John Frusciante, John Peel and Mike Patton). His Magic Band underwent many changes during his musical career but on Safe as Milk, his 1967 debut album, the band was Alex St. Clair Snouffer and a young Ry Cooder on guitar, Jerry Handley on bass and John French on drums.
A childhood friend of Frank Zappa, who gave Van Vliet his pseudonym, Beefheart was to earn a reputation as one of the foremost musical innovators of his generation, although not in the mainstream scene. Many of the tracks on Safe as Milk stay close to his love of the blues and opener Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do could have come straight from a Howlin' Wolf record. This bluesy feel makes Beefheart's debut arguably his most accessible album, but that is not to say that it is an easy listen for the first time; frequent key and tempo changes litter many of the tracks on this album and some of the songs lack any traditional structure completely. Although this can make Safe as Milk tough for the newcomer it also makes it a very rewarding album to listen to with great longetivity.
With such an odd musical vision it takes a good group of musicians to keep up with Captain Beefheart's ideas. Luckily Safe as Milk has arguably the strongest line-up of the Magic Band to appear on any of Beefheart's records, complementing the singer's unique voice rather than playing second-fiddle to it as was to happen on later albums such as the more critically acclaimed Trout Mask Replica. Ry Cooder, who would later go on to make a name for himself away from the Magic Band, was only twenty years old during the recording of the album; his guitar playing alternates between crisp, precise picking and dreamily psychedelic chords and slide-guitar work. Despite his strengths as a straight blues guitarist (demonstrated on Sure 'Nuff... and Where There's Woman) he displays versatility throughout, able to play along with equal ease on the foot-tapping Zig-Zag Wanderer. This song also showcases what is possibly the best rhythm section to play with Van Vliet, with both drums and bass interlocking smartly without being too flashy and providing welcome grooviness to tracks such as the aforementioned Zig-Zag Wanderer and the nonsensical Abba Zaba, which pulsates with an African-inspired drumbeat.
The most important instrument on the album, however, is unavoidably the voice of Captain Beefheart himself. Possessed of an incredible vocal range (allegedly four and a half octaves), the Captain twists and contorts his voice in astonishing ways on tracks like the downbeat but inexplicably groovy Dropout Boogie and Electricity. Electricity is the stand-out track from the album and neatly sums up the general mood of Safe as Milk. Lurching from rhythm to rhythm there are several distinct phases to the song, but it avoids a strict verse-chorus-bridge feel. When you first hear the Captain's otherworldly howl of eeeeellleeeectriiiiiciiiiteeeeehhh it will send shivers down your spine and perhaps help you understand why the band was supposedly dropped by their first label because they felt the song was "too negative." However Beefheart outside of his vocal tricks, also has the voice of a great blues singer, evident on the transcendent Autumn's Child (probably my personal favourite of the album), where the Captain and his Magic Band jump effortlessly between moods and styles.
Although this album may not be to everyone's tastes (hence the 4.5 rating, although I personally would give it one of 6 if I could), the audacity and creativity of this debut album is evident for all to hear. Give it a listen and it may well be worth the risk, for once you enter the musical world of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band there is no going back.
Favourite Tracks: Zig Zag Wanderer, Electricity, Abba Zaba, Autumn's Child.