Prior to releasing their mind-blowing debut of blues-gone askew, the only material to exist from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were a handful of singles released in 1966 on A&M Records. The first of which was an exciting, rollicking version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” backed with the original “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” (both can be found on the 1984 release “The Legendary A&M Sessions.”) While these tracks are odd only by comparison to the band’s supposed peers, the single and its B-Side are the most conventional, accessible material in Captain Beefheart’s catalog; the fuzz-distortion on “Diddy Wah Diddy” was a limit that other garage bands were afraid to push, while “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling” is extremely poppy, and only Don Van Vliet’s Howlin’ Wolf-style vocal rasp makes it challenging.
When the band approached the label about a full record, the band balked and decided to drop the band from their roster as soon as they heard demos and deemed the material “too unconventional.” After shifting the original line-up of the band, moving Alex St. Claire from drums to guitar, dropping Doug Moon and Richard Hepner, and picking up Ry Cooder on guitar, they signed to Kama Sutra subsidiary Buddha Records to release Safe as Milk just after the Summer of Love, in September, 1967.
According to Mike Barnes’ biography, Captain Beefheart, the original demos for Safe as Milk were a handful of the more R&B-influenced material. The album opens up, however, with a ripping Delta Blues tune, “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do,” featuring a slide that evokes Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson immediately. And while most of the tracks carries the sensibilities of the music of the mighty Mississip’, some are straight California-style psych freakouts. “Zig Zag Wonderer” is a murky bass-heavy rhythmic rage, that opens with the dreamy harp-like open chord and a whisper of “Zig Zag!” that seems to foretell the coming of acid rock. “Plastic Factory,” while falling wayside of the blues tradition lyrically, is a juke-joint stomp of workin’ blues.
“Electricity,” which was later covered by Sonic Youth, stands out as it combines these attributes of both of the predominant styles perfectly into a trademark Beefheart tune. It helps that, in addition to his growling vocal style, he also stretches out into a vocal effect that can only be described as that of a haunted soul, enjoying one last dance before the grave. Meanwhile, a theremin played by Sam Hoffman (a podiatrist-turned noted horror movie score player, who also died shortly after this album’s release) creeps out behind the jangling blues guitars, merging California to the Delta — emphasized even further by the tambourine played by Taj Mahal (yes, that Taj Mahal!). In short, it’s one of those perfect tracks that shows how masterfully an artist can merge his closest influences into something startlingly unique.
And then there are the R&B tunes, which come from the same vein as oft-collaborator and fellow avant-garde composer Frank Zappa. “I’m Glad” is musically soothing and meant for slow-dancing; yet while Van Vliet sings with earnestness, the background vocals are high pitched and sarcastic, a knowing wink to the repetitive and stagnant qualities of R&B as a genre. “Where There’s Woman” is much less teasing, but even more surreal with lyrics that verge on mysticism: “Where there’s evil a hounds tooth bears white?” Strange way to pay tribute to your love, but then again, this is love in the mid-sixties, so what do I know.
Full of strange moment, bridging a gap from humorous to haunting, Safe as Milk has not aged, much like the rest of Captain Beefheart’s work. Maybe because it’s always been outsider-freak music, no matter how accessible the effort. Even Unconditionally Guaranteed, a record made with the intention of being a contemporary rock chart-topper, is still too weird, yet is no worse for wear on age. If anything, one or two tracks are weighed down by their production values, but it doesn’t change the electricity coming from the Magic Band’s performances, and the brilliance of Don Van Vliet’s compositional style. Avant-Garde music has never been more danceable, or hard-rocking, as it is on Safe as Milk, an album that deserves more credit alongside the widely-beloved (in the cult sense) Beefheart classics Trout Mask Replica and Doc at the Radar Station.
And just for the hell of it, here’s a video of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band doing “Diddy Wah Diddy” on classic rock television show, “Where the Action Is!”