Sunday, January 3, 2021

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Safe As Milk (1967) [Stereo]

 Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Safe As Milk

Original 1967 USA stereo pressing
Buddah Records BDS 5001  (Discogs
~ThePoodleBites rip in 96kHz / 24bit FLAC + full high-res scans~

"MAY THE BABY JESUS SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR MIND"  ~original inner sleeve

It's a subjective statement, but I'll make it anyways: never before or since Safe As Milk has there ever been an experimental-blues-psych-rock LP with so much grit, so much bite, so much hair, that still kicks and grooves so hard. Undoubtedly most followers of this blog will be familiar with this masterpiece, a word I don't toss around so lightly. I was surprised to find, though, after communicating with several fans, that there are guys who have never heard the stereo mix of this album at all. For this record, stereo is the one I grew up on! 

There are at least two existing rips of this album from the mono pressing, which is often touted as the superior version of this LP; however, after several comparisons between original pressings, I am not so convinced that is the case. The mono version was mixed to sound good on old-school AM radio -- meaning good relative instrument balance, but also meaning added dynamic compression, and loss of definition on an already lo-fi-sounding recording. I will not be surprised if there are sounds that many listeners will be noticing for the first time here; the bongos in "Zig Zag Wanderer," the cowbell in "Call On Me," the vocal tremolo on those first bars in "Electricity," ... For me, this is indeed one of those albums where both mixes are necessary, with the crazy channel effects here being quite playful, and the wide soundstage adding to the peculiarity; in fact, I may even claim that the stereo mix is, for many tracks, more psychedelic than the mono! 

The original stereo Safe As Milk cover artwork, with fisheye photo of the band inside a wooden structure

As a precursor, I'll state that this overview of the events surrounding this album can be read in more detail (and also probably with a higher degree with accuracy) in John French's book, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band originally signed to A&M Records, where two terrific and unique R&B 45s appeared in 1966 (link). After these releases, though, the canonical story tells that demos of new songs, which would later appear on Safe As Milk, were presented to A&M but deemed too experimental (literally "too negative," according to Beefheart himself), whence the band was dropped. The more likely story is that since the A&M singles failed to chart nationally, though becoming local hits, the band was simply discarded. At any rate, they were subsequently picked up by producer Bob Krasnow of Kama Sutra Records for a debut album on a new subsidiary he called Buddah Records. For '60s heads, Safe As Milk would be the pinnacle of the new label, which came to preoccupy itself with bubblegum pop and, even later, soft-rock/vocal records; a total let-down from the raw avant-blues of early Beef. 

An early band performance, ca. 1967
L to R: Van Vliet, Cooder & Handley
Supposedly the only gig to feature Ry Cooder.
Band leader Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, by self-imposition) stole this opportunity to switch some personnel during the label move, with Doug Moon being fired by Bob Krasnow the day of the album photo shoot. It would become a trend for Magic Band members to leave, but usually out of their own discretion, due to the difficulty of working with the leader. In any case, notable is the addition of a bubbling young guitar superstar in Ry Cooder, freshly poached from Taj Mahal's blues band The Rising Sons. Van Vliet, a childhood friend of Frank Zappa, undoubtedly felt some pressure to assemble his version of The Mothers, who had released Freak Out! on Verve the previous summer, with Absolutely Free following that spring: so Van Vliet understandably worked to assemble the best musicians possible for his baby-project. At any rate, this incarnation of the band would be sadly short-lived, with Ry Cooder leaving after only one gig with the group. 

The picture that Safe As Milk paints of the Summer of Love is quite different than that depicted by the usual L.A. groups. Van Vliet's vocals, with obvious draws from the raw delta wails of Howlin' Wolf, portray surrealistic Daliesque scenes upon a tapestry of stop-and-go drums, staggering dual slide guitars of Ry Cooder and Alex St. Clair, and intricate bass lines, woven together in a dynamic, ever-changing landscape of blues, pop, and heavy fuzzed-out psych. The constantly-changing song structures are smoothly integrated and still give the façade of conventionality while simultaneously drawing upon obscure folk- and African-inspired rhythms, somehow keeping every song interesting from beginning to end. 

Photography by Guy Webster: (L to R) John French, Jerry Handley, Alex St. Clair, & Don Van Vliet, all cleaned-up with fresh haircuts

It is curious to me why Ry Cooder wasn't pictured on the LP cover, but little information seems to exist on the subject; he apparently was never very keen on being in the band, so it probably was by his own discretion. Tom Wilkes' cover design, which encases those photos, clearly portray the influence (worship?) of the Abba-Zaba candy bar, as of course does the track itself, whose title is featured prominently at the top of the rear design. Perhaps Don Van Vliet just liked the sound of the name, or maybe he was actually an avid consumer of the peanut-butter-filled taffy, which can still be found at some old-school candy shops -- but it honestly isn't anything to write home about, in my opinion. Nonetheless, the song would remain a staple of Beefheart's career, making a regular appearance at shows throughout the '70s. 

An Abba-Zaba candy bar

I wonder how this song was chosen to perpetuate, as it's a great tune, but probably not my favorite on the album. It is one of three songs credited solely to Van Vliet, though the cowriter Herb Bermann who appears on the other tracks is so reclusive that in the 1999 CD reissue it is claimed that he may have never existed at all (apparently he has now been found). Anyways, I'd think that the opening blues rocker "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do" is conventional enough to fit in any classic/blues rock playlist yet also unique enough to catch the ear of a discerning critic. The psychedelic spaces explored in "Zig Zag Wanderer" (a reference of course to the rolling papers) and "Autumn's Child," and the brutal fuzz of "Dropout Boogie," will likely appeal to '60s purists, while "Electricity" adds the tag of mind-boggling experimental-electronic-blues composition which still sounds fresh even today.

A theremin appears both in the aforementioned "Electricity" and "Autumn's Child," which close either album side. There aren't that many '60s albums (to my knowledge) that use the wavering electronic tones produced by that oscillator-driven spook machine. Curiously, this one was played by Sam Hoffman, supposedly a friend of the instrument's inventor, Leon Theremin. [To those who don't know, Mr. Theremin (who was ex-KGB) intended it to become a serious orchestral instrument, but it unfortunately seemed to only make the circuit in cheap 1950s monster flicks.]

Especially amazing is Van Vliet's performance on "I'm Glad," a ballad which if performed by anyone else would be unironically boring, but with the swooning Beefheart vocals, it's surprisingly entrancing; much like the lifelike street-cut voice of Lou Reed singing "Some Kinda Love" on the third VU record, it's an unexpected respite from the growl and grime which shows off the incredible pipes that the great Captain had.

Another favorite here is "Plastic Factory," with one of the absolute best blues guitar riffs I've ever heard. The Captain's blues harp accompaniment with added distortion & tremolo is such a perfect addition to that heavy chart, but what makes that song atypical and aligned in the style of Beefheart is the jump to 6/8 feel part-way through, which is done tactfully and smoothly, giving only a brief glance into the heavily complexified compositions that were yet to come...  

Rear album cover slick with the yellow-and-black checkerboard pattern

The recording of this album has a distressing history, as can be read elsewhere. The tl;dr of it is that the band switched from a state-of-the-art 8-track to a lesser 4-track studio mid-recording, primarily due to the inexperience of producer & engineer Richard Perry. This necessitated track bouncing which resulted in a lower fidelity (generational loss) along with roughly-tuned mixes as typical of late-1960s recordings. Apparently Perry's original mixes were deemed so substandard that Bob Krasnow had to take over and remix the album. 

Ad for the 1970 reissue in the
Buddah Group inner sleeve
After the original 1967 release, there have been several commercial reappearances of this album, however even the earliest 1970 reissue has audio issues (channel dropouts, weird splices at the beginning/end of tracks, some songs running at a slower speed, ...) that are not present on the original pressings, pointing to probable damage of the original master tapes due to poor storage conditions, even in that short period of time.

Several strange restoration attempts exist on CD, the best being from 1999 on Buddah, which also included some cool bonus tracks. In fact this was probably the best reissue ever, fixing many of the major issues noted above, but unfortunately simultaneously adding other problems. The disc appears to be sourced from a safety dub (worse high-end response, extra tape noise) and has been highly limited and compressed with pumped-up bass, which makes it barely comparable to the extremely dynamic sound of the original LP and even the early reissues. The recording also runs about 1.2% slower than the original pressing, which is enough to be annoying but not quite enough to be tonally audible. I don't know firsthand which is correct, but I'll stick to the speed of the originals (plural; the mono is also faster) over whatever was used on the 1999 thing.

The audio for this project has been manually restored from an original white-label promotional (stereo) copy of the album in near-perfect condition. It is much more challenging to polish a stereo restoration as compared to a mono one, since low-level vinyl noise cannot simply be ignored and folded away; it needs to be dealt with manually in each channel, piece by piece. I left intact the occasional noise (e.g. potentiometer scratch) which apparently exists on the master tape, and thus every CD and LP. There is also some inner groove distortion from the pressing, but it is not too bad. After lots of invested work and time, I am fairly confident that the final product here is a massive improvement over any reissue or existing transfer of this stereo variant, and you can confidently toss any other digital stereo version directly into the recycle bin. 


Since the original promo copies apparently did not include the bumper sticker or printed inner sleeve, I will include these scans plus the labels from a regular stereo stock copy as well. [I have not yet scanned them; check back later!] 

Performers:
- Don Van Vliet: lead vocals, harmonica, bass marimba
- Alex St. Clair Snouffer: guitar
Jerry Handley: bass guitar
- Ry Cooder: guitar; bass on 8 & 11
- John French: drums, percussion
 
- Russ Titelman(?): guitar on 10 & 12
- Milt Holland: log drum on 2 & 4; additional percussion on 8
- Taj Mahal: additional percussion on 7 (washboard?)
- Sam Hoffman: theremin on 6 & 12
- Richard Perry: "reference tone" on 7
- unknown session musician(s): organ on 11, piano(?) on 12

Join the official John "Drumbo" French fan group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/110161780727

Track listing:
1) "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes, I Do" (Don Van Vliet & Herb Bermann) -- 2:16
2) "Zig Zag Wanderer" (Van Vliet & Bermann) -- 2:38
3) "Call On Me" (Van Vliet) -- 2:37
4) "Dropout Boogie" (Van Vliet & Bermann) -- 2:31
5) "I'm Glad" (Van Vliet) -- 3:29
6) "Electricity" (Van Vliet & Bermann) -- 3:08
7) "Yellow Brick Road" (Van Vliet & Bermann) -- 2:25
8) "Abba Zaba" (Van Vliet) -- 2:43
9) "Plastic Factory" (Van Vliet, Bermann & Jerry Handler) -- 3:06
10) "Where There's Woman" (Van Vliet & Bermann) -- 2:09
11) "Grown So Ugly" (Robert Pete Williams) -- 2:27
12) "Autumn's Child" (Van Vliet & Bermann) -- 4:02

Vinyl condition: M- 
Dynamic range: DR12

Equipment Lineage:
– Audio-Technica VMN40ML stylus on AT150MLx dual moving-magnet cartridge
– Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB direct drive professional turntable (internal stock preamp/ADC removed)
– Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra preamp with dedicated Zero Zone linear power supply
– Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 MkII (96kHz / 24bit)
– Adobe Audition CC 2020 (recording)
– iZotope RX 7 audio editor (manual declicking, EQ subtraction, additional adjustments)
– Audacity 2.3.3 (fades between tracks, split tracks)
– Foobar2000 v1.5.1 (tagging, dynamic range analysis)


Thanks for taking the time to read my posts and check out my blog. I'd greatly appreciate it if you leave a small comment below. Notes from my readers are what inspire me to keep going. Thanks!
Google Drivehttps://drive.google.com/drive/folders/16TAjmsBPlQtB713sRltu6_-dq-0DdnGq?usp=sharing

Enjoy! :)
For a digital version of the mono mix, you may wander thusly... 



28 comments:

  1. TPB,
    I've kept my eyes peeled on your page on a daily basis since you mentioned a month or so back that you've been working on The Captain's "Safe As Milk" and I must say that I am so excited to hear the results of your efforts that even though it is 3 AM and I am reading your post while in bed (on my phone) I am getting out of bed to download immediately!!
    Am I excited ? . .. You betcha !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. :) I hope that you find it was worth the wait. Enjoy!

      Delete
  2. Sounds better than I could possible imagine ... holy moley !
    Any help for "Mirror Man" coming .... Ok, I'm sorry....I got greedy ...hahaha

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is the one you want:
      https://www.discogs.com/Captain-Beefheart-his-Magic-Band-Mirror-Man/release/1684539

      Delete
  3. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. I own the One Way (bought it when there was nothing else available) & the 1999 Buddah "Mirror Man Sessions"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Many thanks for this fantastic rip TPB!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Nice!

    re: Herb Bermann - he has indeed "been found," and has even written a book, THE MYSTERY MAN OF THE MAGIC BAND; I'd tell you more about it, but I only just found out about it myself! :) Interviews and more info at http://www.beefheart.com/herb-bermann/

    And re: the theremin - as far as I can determine, Leon Theremin was never a member of the KGB! There have indeed been a number of concert pieces written for his instrument; unsurprisingly, they are not performed regularly. Dr. Hoffman (who was a podiatrist!) was one of the best-known thereminists; in addition to performing on a lot of movie soundtracks (his first was Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND), he recorded three strangely wonderful albums with Les Baxter. SAFE AS MILK seems to have been his only "rock" session; he died the following December (not to imply any direct causality).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the link. The liner notes of the 1999 CD reissue clearly state that Herb Bermann was not entirely known to exist. His appearance is not trite; obviously the label was having difficulty locating him to send royalties (or, at least was capable of making a reasonable argument for such).

      Actually, Leon Theremin was indeed deeply involved with the KGB. There's a paywall, but you can read about it in this article by Bulat M. Galeyev in Leonardo Music Journal (LMJ): https://www.jstor.org/stable/1513304
      Anyways, here is a quote:
      "Being a pragmatic man, Lenin was attracted to Theremin's idea for using the remote triggering of sound signals to create alarm systems. This alarm-system version of the theremin concept was made top secret. Another invention of Theremin's that was unusual for the time-a large-screened television set-was also made top secret after it attracted the attention of the military and the Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennich Del (NKVD) in 1927 (known as the NKVD in the 1920s and 1930s, this agency later became the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti [KGB]). It was in this way that Theremin forged relationships with the Soviet secret service that were to drag on for many years. Theremin earned the right to devote himself to his favorite field-electronic art-but under the condition that he would be the obedient assistant of the Soviet government. ... Little information is available concerning the 20 years of Theremin's life subsequent to 1947. Unbelievable as it may seem, he returned voluntarily to the KGB after his release in 1947, continuing to work for them until 1966."

      Delete
  6. This record gets better every year doesn't it? Well played biting poodle, much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, it surely does seem so! "Plastic Factory" seems increasingly relevant these days...

      Delete
  7. My favorite album by "The Captain". Thank you for this. There was only one "Captain" , there will never be another. Any of his other albums you do will be MUCH appreciated. Thank you again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can say that again. And it's between this and TMR for me (I know, I know...)

      Delete
  8. I have about eight versions of this masterpiece and a stereo mint condition vinyl copy. Well bugger me, this promo copy you have ripped and mastered is by far the best sound quality to date, it sounds better than my vinyl and the reconstructed 2013 Sundazed mono version. I also like the stereo over the mono it just has better highs and a crisper sound. Your rips a superior sir, thanks for your work....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the very nice comment! The stereo is vastly underrated by collectors; I'm glad that you think so, too. The Frankenstein's monster Sundazed... [shudder]

      Delete
  9. Much appreciated. Looking forward to diving into this :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sweet! Gonna immerse myself into this one of these days. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cool, hope you dig it! I'm going to burn myself a CD with this plus your mono :)

      Delete
  11. Thank you! This certainly sounds nice. Well done. Ottoman79

    ReplyDelete
  12. Been looking for a high-quality rip of the stereo for ages, and yours delivers it in spades. Massive thanks for this, TPB.
    Walt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Walt, glad to hear it scratched the itch. Mine too -- I can't stop listening to it. One day I played the full album four times in a row...

      Delete
  13. Amazing record. I own different editons such as black vinyl and picture disc and as well cds. All sound different. Thank you for this gem and the work you have put in.

    ReplyDelete
  14. You have truly breathed new life into this album. This is going to forever be my go-to from now on. Thank you so much, man.

    The mono mix is a truly muddy mess. And to be honest, "Trout Mask Replica" was always my favorite Beefheart album, so I never gave this more than a few listens. You really breathed new life into this. Now I really dig it! :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Excellent sounding transfer! Thanks for posting.

    ReplyDelete