Captain Beefheart Album Survey, Pt. 1: Beginnings


As promised in my review of the Knitting Factory's tribute to Captain Beefheart, I'm going to take a walk through the many high points of the Beefheart discography. Altogether, this will add up to a Beefheart Top Ten, but since it'll be more in-depth than I usually go in such pieces, we're serializing it. First up, a look at his 1967-68 output, encompassing his first three LPs.

Safe As Milk (Kama Sutra/Buddah)

There's earlier material eventually collected as an EP titled The Legendary A&M Sessions, which includes a legendary "Diddy Wha Diddy," but it's safe to start the Beefheart story with Safe As Milk, reportedly a favorite album of John Lennon's.

Even by the freaky standards of 1967, it was pretty far out, though more than most Beefheart records it's clearly of its time. The whole album is a lot of fun. "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do" is a rewrite of the Delta blues standard "Walkin' Blues," with Beefheart's young-stud lyrics a hoot and then twenty-year-old Ry Cooder's slide guitar licks hot. "Zig Zag Wanderer" and "Call on Me" are similar to the garage-rock-mutating-to-psychedelia sound of many California bands of the time (listen to Nuggets for confirmation). "Dropout Boogie" alternates fuzz guitar with toy piano for a weirder take on blues-rock. 

"I'm Glad" is a straightforward doo-wop number, actually quite sweet and irony-free, but slightly warped by Beefheart's non-stylistic vocal sound. The key track is "Electricity," not just because of the theremin but because the trademark jagged rhythms Beefheart wanted, and got from John "Drumbo" French, are in full bloom. The Captain's vocal is fairly unhinged as well, flipping among a variety of timbres. "Yellow Brick Road" has less to do with The Wizard of Oz than with Beefheart's search for young love, in a child-like context. "Abba Zaba" finds Drumbo laying down another skewed groove under some chiming guitar licks and lyrics that are half nonsense. "Plastic Factory" returns to blues-rock territory, with Beefheart showing off his Chicago-style distortion-driven harmonica playing. "Where There's Woman," with bongos, echo on the snare drum, and meshed asymmetrical riffs, suggests psych-rockers reducing the complexity of later Beefheart to a simpler level. "Grown So Ugly" is more successful in that regard, though apparently the bass line confused Jerry Handley enough that Cooder (who had become the bandleader) had to switch instruments and handle it himself. The original program wraps up with "Autumn's Child," with more theremin and a stronger Beefheartian flavor thanks to its sectionalized deployment of riffs (some overdone wide panning of the drums is occasionally annoying). The most recent edition (on BMG's revival of the Buddah label, now with the more standard Buddha spelling) includes seven outtakes from a later session, including early versions of songs that showed up on subsequent albums (including "Safe as Milk") -- much more intense, interesting, and worthwhile stuff than the average batch of bonus tracks.

Mirror Man (Kama Sutra/Buddah)

The back cover says "These performances were recorded one night in Los Angeles in 1965." Not. In the eccentric American outsider tradition of backdating work to make it seem more groundbreaking than it was (Sun Ra, among others, also indulged in this), somebody was trying to make four long (19:07, 8:06, 9:48, and 15:46) psychedelic blues jams recorded in 1967 seem like they were more special via faked chronological priority. Whatever, they're still pretty cool, with Beefheart's Howlin' Wolf growl and gritty harmonica -- plus some musette wailing -- beating most of the competition. 

Strictly Personal (Blue Thumb)

More blues; even some of the same songs as on Mirror Man. "Ah Feel Like Ahcid" may have a psychedelic title, but it's country blues that opens with Beefheart accompanied only by a foot-stomp beat before guitarists Alex St. Claire and Jeff Cotton join on the second verse; one plays a rhythm part straight from the Delta while the other lays on freer slide licks. The electric band kicks in on the next track, "Safe as Milk"; here the prototypical Beefheart style -- there were no other bands playing like this at the time -- is becoming stronger and more assured. When this 1968 album didn't sell, Beefheart blamed producer Bob Krasnow for psychy effects, and certainly "Safe as Milk" would be a stronger track if it ended a minute earlier, before a section of aimless noodling. But realistically, this stuff wasn't going to storm the charts no matter how it was produced. The phasing on "Trust Us" can't disguise as hippie freakout (which was Krasnow's aim) the weirdness of the music's construction: Beefheart had apparently finally been able to drill his band enough to get them to play his music the way he imagined it, and the interlocking skewed riffs and Drumbo's angular beats point towards the following album's style, though there are still slack sections. It ends, weirdly, back in the country with acoustic rhythm guitar and slide embellishment under Beefheart's seemingly improvised lyrics. On "Son of Mirror Man -- Mere Man," the jam of the previous year is tightened up (slightly!) and given a prime Drumbo beat but also phasing and panning. "On Tomorrow" doesn't quite take off, its elements never quite jelling, but it doesn't ramble. "Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones" features amusing wordplay. "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" is blues from a different dimension, a prime bit of Beefheart. "Kandy Korn" is shorter and a little more focused than a year earlier. A flawed album, but with some must-hear tracks.

Up next: Beefheart's Journey into the Heart of Weirdness.