You know how museums and collections lend each other great works occasionally? well I have a similar arrangement with my parents. Well that is to say I ‘borrow’ the occasional great work and in return I think kindly of them from time to time. Hey, it works. On one visit years ago I found a load of Captain Beefheart LPs pressed upon me after I confessed to only owning Trout Mask Replica and being, quite frankly, frightened of it. This was some years ago and being me, I filed them away neatly in alphabetical and chronological order* and have only recently explored them properly.
My favourite by far is the most atypical one really, Safe As Milk from 1967, once rumoured to be one of John Lennon’s favourite LPs and, it has to be said, the man had taste. Braced as I was for maximum heavy weirdness, I was lured out of my crash position immediately by opener ‘Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do’, which is a gentle lascivious rickety rolling blues boogie that I could well imagine ZZ Top covering back in ’73. It’s narrowly my favourite thing on the LP and the Captain is in fine voice throughout, gathering conviction as the song continues, who could resist such horny promptings as ‘Got the time to teach ya’ now / Bet you’ll learn some too’ ? the whole tune gives off a certain desiccated vibe reminiscent of some long-abandoned cabin on the edge of the Mojave.
Second track ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ is possibly the most conventional track here, an urgent driving R&B flavoured tune which sounds a lot like Them to me, in fact there are definite similarities with Van Morrison’s singing at times. In fact I already knew the tune from a single I bought years ago by The Rogers Sisters**, thinking it was their best tune. It sounds an awful lot like a gem you’d find on a Nuggets LP and I would imagine there were an awful lot of bands pushing out similar sounds at the time, only a smattering of oddness in the lyrics and some slightly rough around the edges singing really distinguish it for me. In a similar respect I’d issue a big fat ditto on ‘Call On Me’ , a pretty undistinguished late 60’s West coast pop track to these ears.
But then it gets turned up a notch with ‘Dropout Boogie’ and its filthy fuzzed-out guitar tone and filthy-fuzzy vocals too, admonishing the listener to get a job, bring home the butter and to ‘adapt her’. Hmm. My copy being the 10 track Marble version it omits the really rather spiffing, soulful ‘I’m Glad’ and launches straight into ‘Electricity’. This is a great track, growling vox teamed with a basic R&B chord structure and some freaky theremin blandishments, merging into some interesting guitar towards the end. It sounds not unlike a more together Mothers of Invention.
I can take or leave the, appropriately sunny, ‘Yellow brick Road’ but I really like ‘Abba Zaba’, which with its almost Pidgeon English lyrics and almost African guitar tones is a real grower for me. Do people still have growers these days on LPs? or does iTunes make that very concept quaintly old-fashioned – you don’t like it first time out, you zap straight past. Irrelevant old farticisms aside, ‘Plastic Factory’ is a great, great warped blues number, featuring some great harp blowing near the end. The nightmare of,
Phos’phrous chimney burnin’
Time and space a-turnin’
Motor’s engine churnin’
fac’trys no place for me boss man let me be
gets contrasted against the possibility of ‘Wind and wave all blowin’ / Mountain ‘n’ sky showin’. Again my little 10 track version let’s me down here by cutting the stompin’ ‘Grown So Ugly’ from the running order before pitching us into ‘Autumn’s Child’. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this last one, I really like the music and the Captain’s vocals, but the sort-of Greek chorus gang vocals really age it for me, to the point where I reach for the record player.
And there you go, Safe As Milk listened to and enjoyed all the way through without any lasting damage to my psyche. It seems that a lot of people just regard it as a staging post on the way to visit max weirdness, but I think its worth more than that as a good, interesting LP where the tendrils of abnormality are just creeping into the garden of, umm, normality. Everyone knows a 20-year-old Ry Cooder was on board for this one contributing guitar and arrangements but all the Magic Band are worthy of mentions, especially John French on drums and Jerry Handley on bass, handling various interesting rhythmic oddities well throughout.
Safe as Milk? Yes and just as good for you.
*otherwise unspecified bad things would happen.
**similarly I thought ‘Jane says’ and ‘Rock & Roll’ were Jane’s Addiction songs for years.