1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 159

Safe as Milk, by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Suggested by Matt Smith

I work for a dairy company.

I plan the daily routes for around one hundred milk tankers, moving between farm collections and multiple dairy delivery points. One of my responsibilities is to arrange the disposal of milk that doesn’t’ meet our exacting hygiene and regulatory standards. When a milk tanker arrives at our dairies, it is tested for a variety of things that are obvious (such as visible contaminants or strong odours) or invisible (such as high water content or antibiotic residue from poorly cows). If any test is failed, it’s my job to home that milk elsewhere.

Sometimes we sell it to companies with less stringent guidelines, such as those in the pet food sector. But often it’s sent for destruction, to be eaten by bugs or fired into the furnaces of Mordor.

My company has the most exacting guidelines for substandard milk, and the most intense testing regime, in the entire industry. I am on the front line of ensuring that nothing compromises the product we provide, and our standards for excellence are exemplary.

When something is described as being Safe as Milk, I know exactly how safe it must be.

Safe as Milk is the debut album from Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Beefheart, apocryphally named after his uncle’s swollen penis, is one of the archetypical avant-garde musicians of the late Sixties and Seventies. Ostensibly a blues man, he was an absurdist to the core.

While I’m a fan of Beefheart’s erstwhile collaborator Frank Zappa, I know precious little about the Captain’s personal oeuvre. I’m expecting wild, wacky and whimsical fireworks.

At first, I’m hugely disappointed.

The album’s opener, Sure ‘Nuff ‘n’ Yes, I Do is pretty standard blues fare. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s hardly the top-hatted bizarro-world symphony I was expecting. Listening deeper, of course, and there’s more to it that it first appears, with Beefheart’s gruff and choppy vocals providing a shrill sense of alarm and disquiet in the building blues rhetoric.

Zig Zag Wanderer is another bouncy affair, with Beefheart on lyrical form once more. There’s a hit of the Stones here, and again in the following song Call On Me. Dropout Boogie, however, takes the album into more surreal territory, with a vocal performance that’s equal parts croaking frog and cloud of bees. It’s completely Zappa in parts, and broken up with plinky piano that serves to break the tension and confuse everyone involved.

This album isn’t normal.

Soon, we’re at my standout track, Electricity. What starts as a peculiar warbling affair turns results in an stumbling, shambling cowboy crescendo, overdubbed with a fizzing theremin and an incredible robotic vocal that conjures up a humming power station and Jeff Goldblum’s dad from Independence Day.

Through Yellow Brick Road, Abba Zaba, Where There’s Woman and beyond, Captain Beefheart offers up more and more bizarre yet entirely absorbing songs, lyrics and style choices. It’s wonderfully accessible and constantly surprising. Safe as Milk scores a fine 8/10. It passes all the tests I can think of, and I’d pour it on my metaphorical cornflakes with gusto.

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