Sundazed LP 5460
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***½
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Don Van Vliet was born Don Glen Vliet in 1941 in Glendale, California, a city just outside of Los Angeles. He showed artistic talent at a young age, and had an opportunity to study art in Europe at age 13, but his father did not give his consent. He met Frank Zappa in high school in Lancaster, California, and the two bonded over their interest in blues and R&B. By 1964, Vliet was performing as Captain Beefheart in bands around southern California.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were firmly established by 1965, and were successful enough to be picked up by A&M Records. Two singles on the label went nowhere, and A&M dropped them. In late 1966, Buddah Records signed them, and the band began recording what would be released in June 1967 as Safe As Milk. Ry Cooder, then with the Rising Sons, which also featured Taj Mahal, played on and arranged two tracks.
Thus began one of the most unusual and challenging careers in rock music. Safe As Milk is not as full-out avant-garde as the records that would follow, Trout Mask Replica (1969) and Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), but it’s plenty strange and, at the same time, accessible. It was the first album to be produced by Richard Perry, who went on to produce big hits in the 1970s by Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, and many others.
Sundazed Records has released Safe As Milk in a mono edition pressed on white vinyl, and while the label first reissued the LP in 2012, the new pressing gave me as good an excuse as any to compare it to my early Buddha stereo pressing and the 1999 Buddha/BMG CD.
Although my stereo LP, pressed in 1973, presents Cooder’s slide guitar clearly in “Sure ’Nuff ’N Yes, I Do,” and captures the growl of Beefheart’s voice, it pans the vocals to the left and softens the bass. The mono pressing centers the vocals and everything else, of course, but also brings the bass out much more fully and sharpens its attack. The drums are also more solidly imaged, and John French’s hi-hat technique is easier to hear and appreciate. The CD moves Beefheart’s voice forward, but the instruments lack the precise placing and force of the mono pressing.
Beefheart’s voice gets lost in the right channel in the clamor of “Zig Zag Wanderer,” on both the earlier LP and CD, but the mono mix moves him forward a bit, which makes it easier to hear him. It also brings more unity and coherence to the tune, and more instrumental presence. “I’m Glad,” with its sweet soul background vocals and Beefheart’s deeply felt lead, could have been a hit, but it’s hard to imagine Beefheart’s career taking that path. The CD lets the bass come out more, and beefs up the other instruments as well. The mono version moves Beefheart’s vocal from the left channel to the center, and the background vocals are more logically placed behind him, and I could hear the horn arrangement better.
“Abba Zaba” is closer to the Beefheart we know, with jagged slide guitar and unusual rhythms. On the earlier LP the song was more spacious than on CD, but both played down the bass and buried other instruments, especially percussion. The mono pressing clarifies details of French’s drums and percussion and lets individual bass notes register more solidly. French’s bongos in “Where There’s Woman” resonate more openly in mono, with firmer impact.
Sundazed says its new pressing of Safe As Milk restores Richard Perry’s “rare original mono mix,” but I can’t tell from the label’s description if Perry actually provided the master. Forums online suggest that the record is actually a stereo master folded down to mono. I’ve heard quite a few of those faux monos, and they often sound unfocused and soft. This music on this pressing is clear, immediate, and stirring. Instruments sound more realistic and timbrally accurate than on my CD or early LP stereo copy. As David Fricke writes in the liner note to the Sundazed reissue, “In mono, Safe As Milk is a powerful, concentrated revelation.”
Beefheart continued to record until 1982, when he retired to the Mohave Desert to concentrate on painting. He died in 2010, just before his 70th birthday. He never sold a lot of records, but musicians as diverse as Tom Waits and John Lydon, especially in his work with Public Image, Ltd., show his influence. Many of his records were formidably difficult, but a little patience and time reveal careful structure and an unusual sense of beauty. Safe As Milk helps you ease into his vision, but one listen to “Electricity,” “Abba Zaba,” or “Autumn’s Child” and you’ll know you’re hearing a unique musical voice. That’s especially true in this pressing.
. . . Joseph Taylor