“Dropout Boogie” started life as Captain Beefheart’s debut album “Safe as Milk” in 1967.
After a couple of failed singles for A&M Records in 1966, the label dropped the band. They were picked up by music impresario Bob Krasnow and signed to an offshoot of the then-succesful Karma Sutra label, namely Buddah Records.
The album was released in the UK on Pye International, later reissued on Pye’s budget Marble Arch label. It was re-issued again in 1970 – strangely retitled “Dropout Boogie” – on a second budget label, Buddah’s ’99’ series… which, if I am right, signified that it sold for a mere 99 pence.
This may be the best 99 pence I ever spent on a piece of music. It started a lifelong appreciation of and fascination about Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Captain Beefheart is essentially singer/songwriter Don Van Vliet (born Don Vliet), whilst “The Magic Band” are whatever musicians he could co-opt to work with him. Not the easiest task as Van Vliet always had a notoriously dictatorial approach to music making. What made matters worse was that the Captain couldn’t write music and often forced others to translate his strange ideas – often via the medium of whistling the tunes or banging ‘guitar breaks’ out on the kitchen table.
Whilst putting together “Safe as Milk/Dropout Boogie”, Van Vliet temporarily agreed that this approach was not ideal and employed the not-inconsiderable resources of a 20 year-old virtuoso guitarist, Ry Cooder, to help him out. A working relationship which ended as soon as recording was over, Cooder deeming Beefheart’s acerbic attitude impossible to deal with.
The album itself represents a massive hint of what was to come (“Trout Mask Replica” etc) from the Captain. Experimentation is a word that is bandied about by many artists, but Beefheart always seemed to take it that one step further. He took the Delta blues and fused it with surreal lyrics, off-kilter time signatures and repetitive guitar work, overlaying the mixture with his own distinctive vocal growl.
The opener “Sure ‘Nuff Yes I Do” captivated me from the opening chords and is a great primer for anyone who knows nothing about Beefheart as exists. The disjointed drumwork, the sparkly slide guitar rhythms and Van Vliet’s messed up lyrics – including the classic “I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye” – all combine wonderfully.
Then we get “Zig Zag Wanderer“, as good a bit of 60’s psychedelic garage rock as you’re ever likely to hear, that tambourine as relentless as hell and the bass riff distorted almost beyond recognition.
“Call on Me” sounds like Beefheart channeling the Beatles and the Stones both at the same time, replicating the former’s guitar rhythms whilst doing his best Jagger impersonation over the top. He even finds time to sneak a Phil Spector riff in towards the end.
I have often described “Dropout Boogie” as a song that sounds as if it is being pushed down four flights of stairs, pausing briefly on every landing. It’s marvellous and malevolent all in one breath, with Vliet screaming epithets that I’ve never managed to understand from 1974 to now.
“I’m Glad“ is, quite simply, a lovely R&B ballad. It’s difficult to know if the Captain is trying to sing this ‘straight’ or if it’s meant as a parody of sixties ‘moon in june’ love songs, but I have always had a soft spot for it. I can’t help thinking that if someone with a voice such as Marvin Gaye’s or Curtis Mayfield’s had recorded “I’m Glad” it could have ended up as a massive hit. It’s certainly a “close your eyes and listen & sway” song for me.
I’ve lost count of the number of mix tapes and compilations I have added “Electricity” to. It is magnificently screwy in almost every way. It sounds like nothing else in recorded music. The drums are off beat, hi-hats to the fore, there’s a zither fading in and out (is it a zither or a theremin?) whilst the Captain – after a strung out “eeeee-lec—triiiiiciiiiteeeeeeee” to kick things off – shouts things like “midnight cowboy stained in black reads dark roads without a map” over the top. It ends with some electronic note stretching which could have given Brian Eno an idea for his entire career. If I had to be on a desert island with just five Beefheart songs for company this cut would most certainly be amongst them.
Whilst the studio version is tremendously worthy, this live version recorded on a Californian beach in 1969 is also worth a listen. (A rare chance to see the Captain in action too!)
A spoken word intro … “the following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level” leads into Side 2’s opener, “Yellow Brick Road”, a fairly straight (by Beefheart standards) skiffle-ish blues number, albeit one with the pre-requisite Van Vliet oblique lyrics.
“Abba Zaba” is named after a chocolate bar that Van Vliet loved as a kid and was the first choice for the title of the album. What exactly “two shadows at noon, babette baboon” has to do with a confectionary is anybody’s guess however.
“Plastic Factory” is a harmonic-led blues number. Beefheart’s great line “factory’s no place for me, boss man let me be” presumably representing some kind of cry for working freedom?
(I think it’s difficult to imagine Van Vliet working for ANYbody, although – as legend has it – he was once a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. The tale has it that he knocked on the door of science-fiction writer Aldous Huxley whom Van Vliet instantly recognised. He looked slowly down at the vacuum, then up at Huxley before stating “Sir, this sucks“)
“Where There’s Woman” is another descent into drug-fuelled psychedelia. I like to think that the Edgar Broughton Band started their entire musical career from hearing this short song, as their sound and ‘feel’ is so very reminiscent of it. (Trivia fact: E.B.B. actually covered “Dropout Boogie” on their 1970 debut)
“Grown So Ugly” is a marvellously disjointed affair that, again, screams “garage rock”. It’s the only song on the album which is not written by Van Vliet, instead penned by Louisiana blues musician Robert Pete Williams. (The Black Keys did a particularly Beefheart-esque rendition of the song on “Rubber Factory” in 2004)
“Autumn’s Child” closes the album. It’s another slice of psychedelic overload with Van Vliet’s lyrics going off on as many tangents as there are bum notes…
Autumn’s child, I met her at a balloon bust picnic
She caught me with the beauty queen
With jade-green eyes buttons and bows and fancy ties
The feet of dust under trees of rust
Make them sandals gambol under knees of trust
It’s a surreal and fitting end to, what is for me, a terrific album.
“Safe as Milk”/”Dropout Boogie” is rarely mentioned as Beefheart’s best album, but it’s my favourite by a mile. Maybe because it was the first of his I heard? Maybe because of what it represented as I got older?
I have always realised that Captain Beefheart’s music is not for everybody. His is a very difficult sound to get into. To many ears it is little more than a “noisy racket” and I can respect that point of view. Particularly because, unlike most music critics, I’m someone who fails to fawn over what is supposed to be his finest moment, namely “Trout Mask Replica“.
I can say that as a result of listening to Beefheart I nurtured a mild appreciation for traditional Blues, Delta Blues in particular. More influentially though, he also got me ‘into’ what is now generally referred to as “freak beat”, a kind of hybrid of psychedelic sounds, garage rock and sixties culture in general (highlighted by such terrific box sets as “Nuggets” or “Son of Nuggets”). My love for the classic ‘freakbeat’ sound has really gone into overdrive in recent years and it – along with classic 60’s pop – is the music I find myself predominantly listening to as I lurch towards my mid-50’s.
More than that though, it is the ‘legend’ of Captain Beefheart I admire. I love how he fits into ‘musical history’, being both a vanguard and a villain. The fact that Frank Zappa found him “weird and extreme” pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him. For all his success and acclaim, Van Vliet has remained something of a media ‘enigma’ too, offering up just the merest handful of interviews over the years. The last any of us know about him is that he now lives as a wheelchair-bound recluse – having enjoyed a second career as an acclaimed abstract painter – somewhere in the Northern Californian desert.
Whilst Beefheart influenced me with regards to listening to differing sounds, his influence in the world of music has been much greater. Bands as diverse as The Clash, The White Stripes, Placebo, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joan Osborne, Magazine, XTC and Franz Ferdinand all claim they owe part of their success to Van Vliet’s “noise”. Tom Waits took it one step further… he actually changed his entire sound as a result of listening to Captain Beefheart. He stopped his previous ‘crooner’ stylings and swapped them for a much weirder set of offerings, the “Swordfishtrombones” album onwards.
It could be said that more music fans are listening to Captain Beefheart without even realising it?!