Fresh Goods: Captain Beefheart at the Forefront of Rock’s Transformation

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By 1967, rock and roll had transformed from a simple offshoot of country, big band, and blues into a diverse class of music that contained several genres within itself. While musicians like Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly were still important to rock, the genre they had helped invent now only vaguely resembled their work. Psychedelic rock drowned audiences in distorted guitar riffs and extended jam sessions. Protopunk artists stripped down their sound and played with elemental aggression. On the other side of the spectrum, bands began to adopt classical instruments and motifs in a bid for artistic legitimacy. To put it bluntly, the genre termed rock and roll in the late forties no longer existed.

               The field was rapidly changing, and audience tastes reflected that reality. Listeners wanted something new, and many listeners wanted something that was not only new, but innovative. On the other side of the velvet curtain, many musicians had grown in skill to the point that they were no longer satisfied with the more conventional sounds that defined the front half of the sixties. 

               This was the cultural landscape onto which Don Van Vilet, better known as Captain Beefheart, stepped when he and his Magic Band released their debut album, Safe as Milk, in 1967. In all likelihood, they could not have picked a better time.

The Good Captain Himself

               Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were a California-based music act whose sound evades easy description even today. Best understood as a mixture of delta blues and free jazz, with several other contemporary styles thrown in for good measure, this description still fails to do justice to Captain Beefheart’s sound. It’s a rough, jagged thing that threatens to shake itself to pieces at any moment, but never does. It’s a childish thing, but at the same time sophisticated and challenging.

Features of His Music

               Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band used a number of unusual techniques in their music. Most famously, in many of their songs, each instrument plays according to its own time and rhythm. Couple this with unusual time signatures, and the sound that results is very chaotic on the surface but has enough underlying structure that it never collapses into meaningless noise. When it came to lyrics, words were not chosen with meaning in mind, but rather for their cadence and other sonic characteristics.

For example, when Beefheart sings about meeting the titular “Autumn’s Child” at a “balloon-burst picnic”, it’s pointless to ask about the meaning behind it because there isn’t any. It’s just a sequence of words that all begin with plosives. The last one being a dental plosive because “burst” ends with the tongue resting on the bottom teeth and it helps keep the phrase snappy when the next word begins with the tongue in the same position.

Adding to this, Captain Beefheart would appropriate lyrics from various popular or folk songs because he felt that they fit with a particular melody or sound profile he was using. In all, Captain Beefheart seemed to approach music almost as a playground game. The kind of thing a group of kids would make up on the spot, gradually add elements to in whatever ways their fancies directed, and then abandon the moment they got bored. In reality, the process was a good deal more involved, structured, and sophisticated than what the end product would imply, but there’s no denying the whimsy present.       

Milk, Hold the Safe

               Like many debut albums, Safe as Milk didn’t completely establish Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s sound, but did serve as a blueprint for what would come later. The rough, improvisational melodies, the word salad lyrics, and almost confrontational presentation were all there. However, despite its obvious weirdness, Safe as Milk is much more accessible than later albums. Especially its direct successor Trout Mask Replica or more mature efforts such as Doc at the Radar Station. Many of the songs are conventionally pleasing to listen to, even if they still cleave more to blues and rock than pop, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jefferson Airplane album. Or, in the case of “I’m Glad”, a Four Tops album.      

               Safe as Milk is also lighter in tone than later albums. While later albums weren’t dark, in fact there’s a general playfulness that pervades Captain Beefheart’s work, the lyrics here tend to reflect more conventional themes such as romance. This is, of course, when the lyrics aren’t just nonsense. There’s also a lack of the eerie saxophone improvisations that often featured in later albums or the occasional creepy spoken word sections.

A notable exception, however, is the song “Autumn’s Child”, which is a slow, almost mournful track that heavily features a theremin. Most songs, though, are bright, energetic tracks very much in the spirit of the 60s counterculture. Innocent would be a good way of describing them. With jaunty riffs and sunny, albeit still deep and growly, vocals, these tracks would put a spring in anybody’s step. However, Safe as Milk does not make the all-too-frequent mistake of substituting blandness for happiness. While certainly not for everyone, there isn’t a single boring track on the whole album.

Influence

               While Safe as Milk didn’t release to thundering commercial success, it did have a knack for finding its way into some interesting hands. John Lennon, for example, enjoyed the album. Captain Beefheart was also personal friends with Frank Zappa going back to high school, and Safe as Milk probably helped convince him to produce Beefheart’s next album.

In general, Safe as Milk appealed more to serious music-heads and the artistically inclined. And, of course, musicians. Captain Beefheart is one of those artists that had few listeners, but a not insignificant amount of them decided to pick up instruments and start bands of their own. In fact, you could make a decent case for calling Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band the West Coast Velvet Underground. Even today, his influence can be found in a wide variety of different genres that have developed since the ‘60s, as well as individual acts like Tom Waits, the Pixies, and many others.

               In a more immediate sense, Safe as Milk helped cement Captain Beefheart’s status as a cult figure in the musical community. He would flirt with mainstream acceptance in the 1970s with albums such as Bluejeans & Moonbeams but would always return to the less accessible music that made him famous in the first place. That is, until 1982, when he retired from music to focus on painting.

               Safe as Milk still stands as a fascinating debut album. These days, most who listen to it are music nerds, which could be said of the better part of Captain Beefheart’ work, but it still has that unique punch that made it stand out in a time when rock music was beginning to mature.

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