Beefheart’s most accessible work
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's debut album, Safe As Milk, remains the best introduction to one of the most unclassifiable guys in rock history. The record is explosive and strange - yet totally accessible and full of memorable tunes, even in its more experimental moments like Electricity or Abba Zaba; although what predominates here is totally cool blues rock, with Beefheart's ferocious howls and the wonderful guitar playing of a young Ry Cooder.
Don Vliet had joined his friend Alex Snouffer's Magic Band in 1964 as a singer, but before long his deep Howlin' Wolf voice, surreal lyrics and charismatic, over-the-top personality had made him the leader of the band, that changed theur name to Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, so Vliet became Beefheart and added a Van to his surname, Snoffer became Alex St. Clair and the band was consolidated with Jerry Handley on bass and John French on drums. After a couple of singles on A&M Buddah signed them to record their first album and Beefheart decided he needed a new magical element in his band - in this case it was Cooder, who was barely 20 years old, and who had excelled in Taj Mahal's Rising Sons.
Cooder accepted the invitation and took the opportunity to get his first electric guitar, a '67 Daphne Blue Stratocaster, which would become the main instrument of his career. Here he began to strike gold from the first notes of Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do, a song that proved that Beefheart was right and Cooder was the perfect fit for the band, being the arranger of the song. The song, and the album, opened with the world discovering the world's most recognisable electric slide sound - that of Cooder. It was soon joined by Beefheart's voice howling the following statement: "Well I was born in the desert came on up from New Orleans, Came up on a tornado sunlight in the sky, I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye" … before the rest of the band came in like a whirlwind.
Zig Zag Wanderer was pure glory, with an early Stones riff and a dirty, wild sound over which the singer's shriek prevailed. Call On Me was an old song written by the band's former drummer, Vic Mortensen, with lyrics by Van Vliet, who sign it himself. It's another facet of an explosive band that doesn't shy away from its poppy, acid side. Dropout Boogie sounds menacing and garagey, which shows off the band's more innovative side but without losing sight of accessibility. I'm Glad is a lovely doo wop ballad with Beefheart on vocals and falsetto; it seems incredible that in less than two years Beefheart went from this to Hair Pie: Bake 1.
But the first traces of Trout Mask Replica can also be seen on this album, specifically on the experimental Electricity, with its crazy Theremin and strange vocals. Even so, it's still far more accessible than any song on that album, Moonlight In Vermont included. Yellow Brick Road is the closest thing to a song with hit single potential for the band, a sort of country blues, with a brutal chorus and totally hummable verses.
The edges return with the psychedelic Abba Zaba, the most 1967-sounding song on the album. Of course, Beefheart's psychedelia is also totally original and his own, with Cooder's bass solo included. Plastic Factory sounds like early Stones again, with Beefheart's harmonica smoking, but despite being one of the most conventional songs on the album it also has its brusk changes, like that waltz-like change of pace. Where There's A Woman is another R&B ballad in which Vliet shows what a great singer he is and how expressive his voice can be.
On Grown So Ugly Cooder once again delivers a huge blues riff over which Beefheart unleashes his vocals, while on Autumn's Child the psychedelic effluvia returns in a song that is a strange delight, with a bizarre chorus and charming verses, over which Beefheart's surreal poetry once again hovers.
The album was not very successful for several reasons, mainly that Van Vliet was so into LSD and his behaviour was so erratic that Cooder left the band and their scheduled performance at the Monterey Festival had to be cancelled, but it also had to do with a record company that didn't back them because songs like Electricity scared them off. Anyway, it was clear that Beefheart never had in mind to sell records - just take a look at his career - as his thing was something else, pure art.
Trout Mask Replica may still be the most controversial and acclaimed work of his career but I still prefer this album, a work that captivated the Beatles, mainly John Lennon, and all the restless minds that listened to it. It is a brave and unconventional blues rock album but understandable if we compare it to what was to come. As Cooder later declared, "Beefheart had great ideas, which are not always logical, but always interesting".