California Dreaming: Electricity

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were quickly getting a reputation as one of the best bands in LA. But this didn’t satisfy Don Van Vliet, who didn’t want his band to be recognised — he wanted to be recognised himself as the genius he was sure he was.

After the band got out of their contract with A&M, which had only led to one minor local hit, Van Vliet began a process of reconfiguring the band into one he could control utterly. His first step was to get in a new drummer. P.G. Blakeley, the Magic Band’s most recent drummer, had quit to join local blues band Blues In A Bottle, and while Alex Snouffer, who had played drums on Diddy Wah Diddy, was back on drums for rehearsals, Vliet needed him on guitar, and so recruited John French, who had been Blues In A Bottle’s drummer until Blakeley joined.

Practically the first thing Vliet did was to tell French that the other band members weren’t to be trusted, that they were all flakes, and that he (Vliet) was the only one in the band who knew what he was doing. French was a great natural musician, one of the best drummers working in LA, but was several years younger than the rest of the band and idolised Vliet, and so naturally believed him. Now Vliet could work on consolidating his power base.

The next step was to get rid of Doug Moon. Moon was an excellent guitarist, but he wasn’t facile — he had to learn every part, and didn’t adapt well to changes. In this he was like Vliet himself, who also didn’t cope well with changes to the arrangements. Moon was still in the band when recording began for their first album, Safe as Milk, with a set of demos recorded for their new label, Buddah [sic], but Vliet started changing the arrangements in the studio, causing rows between Moon and himself. Soon the band were looking for a new guitarist, and handily Vliet knew just the man.

The producer of those demos was Gary “Magic” Marker, a friend of Vliet’s who’d occasionally sat in with the band when Jerry Handley couldn’t make gigs, and who would play with them again on occasion in the future. However, Marker wasn’t chosen primarily for his production ability, but for his connections — he’d been the bass player in the Rising Sons, who had recently split up, and Vliet knew that through him he could get in touch with the Rising Sons’ guitarist, Ry Cooder, who was again younger than the rest of the band, and who was also an astonishing guitar prodigy.

Soon Cooder was installed as both the band’s lead guitarist and de facto musical director, tightening up Vliet’s musical ideas and helping guide arrangements in the studio as the band recorded their first album.

And this role was needed. Vliet himself, while arguably the greatest visionary in rock or pop music at the time, was undisciplined and had no idea how to translate his musical ideas into forms that his bandmates could understand, and the producers chosen for the album, Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry, were also not really up to the task. Krasnow had a lot of production experience on paper, but was really an executive who relied on engineers to do most of the work for him, while Perry was utterly inexperienced and producing his first album.

Richard Perry has since gone on to become a hugely respected record producer, but the work he produced since Safe as Milk was with artists like Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Leo Sayer and the Manhattan Transfer, so perhaps unsurprisingly the band members didn’t feel he was totally sympathetic to their music, and tensions increased further when the band discovered that they would be recording in RCA studios, which only had four-track equipment, ostensibly because eight tracks confused Perry (though it’s likely that that was a record company excuse and the real reason was the cost).

Recording at RCA did have an unexpected benefit, however — the band became friendly with the Monkees, who were recording at the same studio (and using the same engineer, Hank Cicalo), especially Michael Nesmith, who would lend the band equipment for live performances on occasion.

And rather surprisingly, Safe As Milk comes out sounding rather like the Monkees’ contemporaneous album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, with the same mix of avant-garde experimentation, country-blues influences (from Nesmith in the Monkees’ case, and from Cooder in the case of the Magic Band) and pop sensibilities (here probably from Perry, but it’s also true to say that Vliet was at this stage willing to try to find a compromise between his artistic vision and commercial realities, in a way that wasn’t always the case later). Both bands even recorded parodies of the RCA tape instruction “the following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level” for their albums, although the Monkees’ version wasn’t released at the time.

While Van Vliet was trying to become the dominant force in the band, Safe as Milk is still very much a group effort, and nowhere is that seen more than in the album’s most unusual song, Electricity.

While it’s an utterly original — and utterly Beefheart — track, Electricity is clearly a song composed of bits of other people’s ideas. The lyrics, about telepathy and psychic powers, are the work of poet Herb Bermann, who Vliet was “learning to write” from, and who wrote most of the lyrics for the album, while the idea for the screeching theremin that is the track’s most distinctive sound (played by Dr Samuel Hoffman, who had popularised the instrument with his playing on the soundtracks of Spellbound, It Came From Outer Space, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and others) came from the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, which had a similar lyrical theme.

When Vliet brought the song to the rest of the band, it was a raga-esque drone in G, but Doug Moon suggested adding I-III-IV-I changes during the bridge (starting on the line “Bearded cowboy stains in black”), while Alex Snouffer came up with the instrumental intro (probably inspired by a then-unreleased recording by Vliet’s friend Frank Zappa of the Appalachian folk song Wedding Dress Song, which has an identical instrumental part).

All these things were pulled together by Cooder’s arrangement skills, Perry’s pop sensibility, and Hank Cicalo’s understanding of the studio into something taut and terrifying. So many people contributed that other than his vocal, Vliet’s contributions seem nonexistent in the finished thing, like the stone in a stone soup. But at the same time, the track is utterly him, and never more so than at the moment at 2:42 when he makes the mic distort with the power of his voice (despite what many reference books suggest, he didn’t actually break the mic).

Ry Cooder would soon leave, after Van Vliet had an anxiety attack on stage during a gig that was meant to warm the band up for the Monterey festival, which they didn’t play as a result. Session musician Gerry McGee, who had played guitar on many of the Monkees’ hits and on Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles, joined the band for a while, but never fit in well, telling Vliet that he “didn’t want to play no Frank Zappa music”. One by one, all the band except French left, and were replaced by former members of Blues In A Bottle.

And something else had changed. At the time French joined, the band were commonly referred to as “Beefheart”. By the time the rest of the band had been replaced, “Beefheart” now referred to the lead singer.

Captain Beefheart had truly arrived.

Herb Bermann & Don Van Vliet

Line-up: Don Van Vliet (vocals, harmonica), Ry Cooder (guitar), Alex St. Clair Snouffer (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass), John French (drums), Samuel Hoffman (theremin)

Original release: Safe As Milk, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Buddah BDM 1001

Currently available on: Safe As Milk: Mono Edition, Sundazed CD

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