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Safe as Milk is the debut album by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, originally released in 1967. It is a heavily blues-influenced work, but also hints at many of the featuresвЂ”such as surreal lyrics and odd time signaturesвЂ”that would later become trademarks of Beefheart's music.
The album is also notable for the involvement of a 20-year-old Ry Cooder, who plays guitar and wrote some of the arrangements.
Before recording Safe as Milk, the band had previously released a couple of singles through A&M Records, and it was to this company that the group first proposed their debut album in 1966. They presented the label with a set of heavily R&B-influenced demos, which the label apparently felt were too unconventional, and A&M decided to drop the band. (Van Vliet would later claim the label dropped them after hearing the song "Electricity" and declaring it "too negative." This is very likely untrue, since the song had not been demoed at the time.) The band instead turned to Bob Krasnow, who was then working for Kama Sutra Records; he recruited them to record for the company's new subsidiary label, Buddah.
Meanwhile, Van Vliet had been secretly planning changes to the Magic Band's line-upвЂ”a practice that would become common throughout the period of the group's existence. The group that recorded the two A&M singles had consisted of Doug Moon and Richard Hepner on guitars, Jerry Handley on bass, and Alex St. Clair on drums. But Hepner had already left, and Van Vliet was keen to replace Moon with a young Ry Cooder, who was then playing with his band the Rising Sons. These and other changes eventually resulted in a Magic Band consisting of Handley on bass, St. Clair on guitar, and John French on drums, with Cooder providing additional guitar parts.
The album is heavily influenced by the Delta blues, and this is apparent from the opening bars of the first track, "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do", which is based on the "Rollin' and Tumblin'" tune made famous by Muddy Waters. The lyrics, meanwhile, "Well I was born in the desert..." quote the song "New Minglewood Blues" by the Noah Lewis Jug Band. Elsewhere, the album features a version of Robert Pete Williams' "Grown So Ugly", arranged here by Cooder.
Another of the more distinctive songs on the album is "Abba Zaba", one of three compositions credited solely to Van Vliet. An Allmusic review of the track states, in reference to its music, "Although not directly blues influenced вЂњAbba ZabaвЂ� contains peripheral elements of the wiry delta sound that informed much of the album," noting that Cooder's influence is heard here in the "chiming, intricate guitar lines" and "up front and biting bass work." The track is named after the Abba-Zaba candy bar, which was supposedly a favorite of a young Van Vliet. (The band had at one point planned to name the album after the confectionary, and the black and yellow checkerboard pattern on the album's back sleeve is a relic of this ideaвЂ”black and yellow being the colors of the candy bar's wrapper.)
The record did not achieve popular success on its release, failing to chart in either the United States, where none of Beefheart's albums would ever enter the top 100, or in the United Kingdom, where the band would enjoy modest success with later works such as Trout Mask Replica (1969). Scaruffi notes, "Although in this period the group produced great freak-music, almost no one noticed. Well received only by the few radicals in his circle, Beefheart felt like a solitary cactus in a desert full of quick sand."
The album made a greater impact in Europe than in the U.S. The Beatles were among those who took note вЂ” John Lennon placed two of the album's promotional bumper stickers on a cabinet in the sunroom where he spent most of his time at his home.