Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band: Safe As Milk Page 2

The year before, when Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band had won the Teenage Fair 'battle of the bands' at the Hollywood Palladium, also on the bill were blues outfit The Rising Sons, which included teenage hot-shot guitarist Ry Cooder and bass player Gary Marker. The groups had become friends, and when Marker realised in 1966 that Magic Band guitarist Doug Moon was on his way out, he did a deal with Van Vliet – The Rising Sons had just disbanded so he would try to 'work on' Cooder to get him to join in exchange for Marker producing their debut album.


The band in 1977: (l-r) Eric Drew Feldman, Richard Redus, Bruce Fowler, Don Van Vliet, Robert Williams, Jeff Moris Tepper

Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band had been dropped by A&M at this point but were picked up by Kama Sutra Records subsidiary label Buddah, whose Bob Krasnow also persuaded Cooder that the group would be 'bigger than The Beatles' and that he was needed to get them ready for recording.


The group on the LP's rear sleeve: (l-r) French, Handley, Van Vliet, St Clair

Cooder agreed, but as arranger he found some of Van Vliet's ideas highly unusual. He noted that anything that stayed in 4/4 time for too long was considered 'corny' and, as he told John Tobler of ZigZag magazine, Van Vliet would 'look at music in a real un-linear way'.

In rehearsals, Cooder found intra-group relations fractious – the 'hornets' nest', as he called The Magic Band – but he was a respected and organising presence. Another new addition to the group was John French, a talented 18-year-old drummer and vocalist who had joined from Blues In A Bottle.


Ad from 1967 featuring lyrics from the album

Milk Made
With an uncharacteristic lack of confidence, Van Vliet had persuaded Herb Bermann, a published writer he had met in Lancaster, to collaborate on lyrics to give them 'credibility' with the rest of the band. But the material on what would become Safe As Milk expanded on the invention of their earlier A&M recordings. The title was an ironic reference to Strontium-90 having been found in human breast milk after the resumption of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1961, but was thought by some to mean drugs.


Don Van Vliet in 1980 with the guitarist Gary Lucas

On 'Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do', St Clair and Cooder's slide and rhythm guitars are impressively incisive and show a delta blues influence with added syncopation, which is also apparent on a cover of blues artist Robert Pete Williams' rumination on ageing, 'Grown So Ugly'. Van Vliet's love of soul and doo-wop is clear on 'I'm Glad', which bears a resemblance to The Miracles' 1965 single 'Ooo Baby Baby'.


All the notes – Don Van Vliet poses for a Mercury Records promo shot

'Plastic Factory' is a blues stomper on which Van Vliet warns against getting stuck in a dead-end job, while 'Dropout Boogie' juxtaposes LSD guru Timothy Leary's dictum 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' with the pressure to get a job and settle down – at each juncture Van Vliet challenges the protagonist with, 'and what about after that?'. No doubt to prevent it becoming 'corny', in this song Van Vliet inserted a curious waltz time interlude, punctuated with marimba, into the driving fuzz guitars. The album's two most original songs are the turbulent 'Electricity', with its eerie theremin, and 'Abba Zaba' – named after a peanut butter toffee bar – which has complex African-influenced bass and drum patterns, with ethnomusicologist Milt Holland adding percussion.


Ry Cooder caught on camera in 2018

Stage Flight
Safe As Milk was issued in September 1967, with cover art featuring the band in suits that made them look more like smalltown gangsters than hippies. They were lined up to play a potential breakthrough gig at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 and in preparation played the previous week at the Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival at Mount Tamalpais, California. Never comfortable singing live, Van Vliet took LSD and the set was cut short when, disoriented, he rather farcically fell off the stage.

Cooder quit there and then despite French's attempts to persuade him to stay, and the Monterey gig was canned. Yet The Magic Band continued, progressing musically as they followed up the highly regarded Safe As Milk with albums across the next decade and beyond.