Safe As Milk and Mirror Man’s Buddha reissues by Graham Johnston

My review for Buddha’s two classic Beefheart albums repackaged, re-mastered and ready to take off into the wind.

It was with some excitement that I first heard about these re-releases, perfectly timed to coincide with what appears to be a significant increase in interest in the magic music of the Magic Band from both music consumers and the industry itself. Just as we are all about to Grow Fins and feast upon a host of previously unreleased music from Revenant, here are two Magic Band classics which, although hardly wilting anyway, have benefited from having a serious breath of fresh air breathed into them.

Buddha’s Safe As Milk and The Mirror Man Sessions boast a brand new mastering of two magnificent albums, an unreleased tune, eleven hard-to-find outtakes, several unseen photographs, new and informative sleeve-notes, the re-emergence of original packaging which hasn’t been seen for some time, and the correction of some old mistakes.

The sound on Safe As Milk is so much brighter, crisper and clearer than any versions that I have ever heard before. Those scratchy guitars in Zig Zag Wanderer and Jerry Handley’s crunchy bass riffs in Dropout Boogie are now scratchier and crunchier than ever. John French’s driving tappity tap drumming on Electricity really shines through, pumping along like never before. The introduction to Abba Zaba is mildly, though significantly, transformed – on previous CD issues of Safe As Milk Abba Zaba began with a muffled faded in drum pattern, now you can hear the brief introduction in its punchy entirety as both God and Donald Vliet originally intended.

Autumn’s Child particularly lends itself to the new mastering. You may remember the bit in The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart where Ry Cooder goes all dreamy and gooey thinking about this song. I guarantee that you will find yourself in a similar state on your first hundred-or-so listens to this new version. Beautiful.

Safe As Milk has always been one of my favourite Magic Band albums; it was the first one I ever heard, and is the only album in my entire record collection that will receive repeated listens almost every time it finds its way into my stereo. I’m probably much more familiar with it than with any other album, but I don’t think I’ve ever listened closely to the tunes before, picking out and following the individual instruments. With this new CD I’ve heard guitar twangs and drum patterns that I had never noticed. I’ve been back to my older version of the album to check, and, more often than not, the same parts are still there to be heard (though you have to listen a lot more closely). The difference is that Buddha’s new mastering is a triumph that really separates the sounds and draws you in to explore. The stereo separation appears to have been enhanced most pleasingly, and would probably be an even bigger joy to listen to on headphones – sadly I don’t have any.

When Autumn’s Child closes, I’m used to hearing a minute or so of silence until I get up and start the album playing again, but not any more. Instead Safe As Milk Take Five crashes in, followed by six more outtakes of songs which later appeared on Strictly Personal.

This is my one small reservation about the release – do these essential tunes really belong on Safe As Milk? Would all the outtakes not have been more at home on a double CD with Mirror Man, possibly entitled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, as was the title of the album that these sessions were originally meant to form. John Platt, the co-producer and sleeve note writer for both these Buddha reissues, answered my questions about this:

“When BMG first asked me to work on the reissues, I made two suggestions – either they should release all the relevant tracks as a deluxe double package or keep Safe As Milk the way it was (there are no outtakes, alternate versions or mono mixes in the vault!) and release all the October/November ’67 tracks as a double album entitled The Complete Mirror Man Sessions. Unfortunately their budget prevented the latter and since they wanted to reissue ‘original’ albums they wouldn’t go for the former. I could sort of understand wanting to reissue original albums, although I did point out that the 1971 Mirror Man was really a bogus record. Anyway, they at least agreed to put out virtually all of the ‘left over’ Mirror Man cuts on Safe As Milk, which is a lot better than not using them at all. My problem was what to put on the new Mirror Man CD and what to ‘relegate’ (if that’s the right word) to the end of the Safe As Milk CD. I suspect that some fans will object to my choices, but there you are. Despite my reservations about having to mix up the sessions, I think that for a major a label to treat a (sad to say) cult figure like this is quite remarkable.”

The Plain Brown Wrapper tunes have been split over the two discs, with The Mirror Man Sessions featuring the ‘finished’ outtakes with vocals, while the Safe As Milk CD contains the ‘unfinished’ or instrumental tunes and alternate takes, along with Korn Ring Finger. While a double CD package featuring the Plain Brown Wrapper sessions all together would have been nice, and more as originally envisioned by Don, Platt’s efforts at compromise between budget restrictions and historical correctness are certainly not to be sniffed at.

The outtakes included at the end of the two albums are essential listening for anyone with an interest in the Magic Band. All bar one, Korn Ring Finger, were previously available on Sequel’s I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain’t Weird CD, but with this being unavailable for some time, we now have a much needed complete collection of some of the most remarkable tunes recorded in the Magic Band’s history. We see their unique music, combined with Van Vliet’s vision, approaching its full realisation, which undoubtedly came with the albums Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. These outtakes help complete the story.

Sound quality appears fairly similar to the high standards found on the Sequel release; very clear and fresh with absolutely no production frills whatsoever. Also, Korn Ring Finger gets its first ever official release. This is probably the most whimsical of the Magic Band’s tunes, and hangs in the air very pleasingly for seven and a half minutes before closing this new version of Safe As Milk.

Mirror Man kicks off as always with Tarotplane, still complete with the distortion on the harmonica in the opening bars, though things probably wouldn’t be quite right without it. The general quality of sound is excellent, exceptional in fact, sounding very similar to the other Plain Brown Wrapper tunes featured on these two CDs (not surprisingly as they were all recorded at more or less the same time) which is a big big improvement on any previous releases of Mirror Man that I have heard. I haven’t been able to listen to this and any other versions back to back to compare any specific differences in the mastering as my two copies of Mirror Man both mysteriously disappeared at some point in the last few years, however I can confirm without any hesitation that the album has never sounded this great. The clarity of sound bears almost no similarity to what we are used to. When all the instruments retreat at the end of 25th Century Quaker, the sonic detail is exceptional, and Don’s chugging harmonica in Mirror Man stands out beautifully. This truly is the definitive mastering of a previously very badly treated, almost sabotaged album. Throw all the other versions into the sea and ‘be reformed, be reborn’.

The other noticeable difference is that the tunes have been re-ordered, for ‘aesthetic reasons’ according to John Platt, with 25th Century Quaker now residing after Tarotplane instead of being at the end of the album, a sequence which runs very smoothly, possibly more so than on the original. The triumphant and joyous klang of Kandy Korn is an ideal close, however things aren’t over yet as we still have five more of the Plain Brown Wrapper outtakes before everything is over.

John Platt’s sleeve-notes are an excellent read, containing a thorough and fascinating overview of the history of both Safe As Milk and Mirror Man. The booklet for each release has been beautifully put together, not only with John’s notes, but also with many of the images from the original releases, and several previously unseen photographs. Sadly there is no bumper sticker with Safe As Milk, but that probably would be expecting a little too much! John Platt commented:

“They let me write reasonably extensive booklet notes, both of which, I think, are much better (or at least more accurate) than the notes I did for I May Be Hungry and they took a lot of trouble with the design. I tracked down Guy Webster, who took the Safe As Milk and Strictly Personal cover photos and he supplied us with some fabulous outtakes. Unfortunately BMG’s budget restrictions meant we were unable to use more (hence the use of my slightly anachronistic photo of Don in the fur coat). We also incorporated much of the original Safe As Milk inner bag, albeit spread out through the booklet – if we’d used the whole thing reduced to the relevant size, one booklet page per side of the original, it would have been a tiny mess! And yes, I too think the remastering job is pretty damn fine.”

So, hearty congratulations from the Radar Station to all involved with these stunning releases which have not been out of my CD player since I got them, and appear to have universally thrilled the Beefheart fans who have already heard them. This review could easily have been reduced to just two words: ‘at last,’ but I thought you might want to know a little more.

– Graham Johnston June 1999

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