Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Strictly Personal
Original 1968 US Stereo Pressing
Blue Thumb – BTS 1 (Discogs
)~ThePoodleBites rip at 96 kHz / 24 bit FLAC + full hi-res scans!~
This sophomore effort by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band is often
overshadowed by the legendary albums that preceded and followed it, and
its case has not been helped by the fact that it has never had a good CD
reissue -- nor a good reissue of any sort, in fact, given that even the
earliest reissues have vastly inferior sound quality. The sessions leading up to this album have gained notoriety among fans, and much of that material has been released several times, but Strictly Personal remains relatively unheard by many, including myself who for years argued that Mirror Man and its assorted outtakes provided an objectively better experience than the low sound quality on this LP. After hearing the original album, though, my head was completely inverted. I was quite wrong.
By far the band's most psychedelic outing, Strictly Personal was
recorded as the debut album for Bob Krasnow's Blue Thumb imprint, apparently a name coined by Don Van Vliet himself. Loaded with trippy effects while also
walking the boundaries of the avant-garde near-cacophony for
which Trout Mask Replica would become infamous, Strictly Personal is
an endearing forgotten treasure from the catalog of one of rock music's
most creative and timeless bands.
|Front cover artwork for Strictly Personal
|Slide master Jeff Cotton|
John French has written his recollections about this period in his phenomenal book Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic
By this time Ry Cooder had long departed, and was replaced by the highly talented Jeff Cotton (a.k.a. Antennae Jimmy Semens).
Under mounting peer pressure, members of the Magic Band began regularly taking acid, sometimes
even surprising each other with dosed cups of tea, as well as smoking large
quantities of marijuana, which had profound effects on the new compositions
that the band began putting together. Musical influences were coming from all types of sounds that were played around the
band's quarters, but tended to focus primarily on blues and jazz. Pop
and rock music also had their place, though Van Vliet was increasingly
hesitant to identify with anything deemed mainstream. On Strictly Personal
we can hear a type of songwriting emerge that is unmistakably
Beefheart, a unique and instantly-recognizable style that was mostly
missing from (or covered up on) the first LP.
The design concept for this album was inherited from an abandoned double-album project
following lengthy Buddah sessions for the group's follow-up to Safe As Milk. The original album was to be called It Comes To You In A
Plain Brown Wrapper, but it was never finished. Van Vliet had planned Plain Brown Wrapper to be a concept album in two parts: one half would be a collection of songs by '25th Century Quaker,' a Sgt. Pepper-style
identity change for the band's bluesier, open-ended material (e.g.,
"Mirror Man," "Tarotplane," ...), while 'Captain Beefheart & His
Magic Band' would perform on the second half with more 'composed' pieces
(e.g., "On Tomorrow," "Trust Us," ...). Photos were taken of the band sprouting apparel for both 'groups.' Listening to these sessions now, it's easy to understand why Kama Sutra was uncomfortable with the band's newer recordings: they were clearly not standard material. Long jams, complicated pieces with changing time signatures, meandering blues guitar, periods of pure noise, and Van Vliet's coarse Howlin' Wolf-esque vocal delivery -- the band was rapidly developing, this was quite obvious.
|The band as '25th Century Quaker' (photo: Guy Webster, late '67)
|The group as 'Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band' (Webster, late '67)
Due to a contractual technicality, producer Bob Krasnow was able to take the band out of their agreement with Kama Sutra and sign them to a brand new label (the second of their career), which was dubbed Blue Thumb. They were taken to Sunset Sound in Hollywood to re-record their songs for the new album. Having had more time and practice to get the tracks together than for the Plain Brown Wrapper sessions, the resulting recordings are much more polished and don't sound quite so much like demos as did the earlier stuff recorded for Buddah. The band had already booked a European tour following the recording sessions, so when the final tracks had been laid the group instantly took off, leaving Bob Krasnow alone to finish the album.
Correspondingly, Krasnow was faced with the task of turning these recordings into something that the public could consume. In the process, much of the noodles were dropped: for example, "Mirror Man" was cut from its 16-minute jam form (as heard on the earlier TTG Studios sessions) down to a compact five-and-a-half minutes. Krasnow also controversially added period 'psychedelic' effects, such as flanging and reverb, which has divided fans for years.
After its completion, Krasnow flew to London, England with an acetate of the album's final mix to play for the band. The group traveled to the Rolling Stones' business office to listen. Opinions within the group strongly varied that evening; Don and Alex were immediately livid about the added effects, while Jeff and John are told to have really liked the final mix. John French recounts in his book (buy it here):
"Since the one thing that bothered Van Vliet more than anything else was someone else who was linked to him or his art actually receiving credit for independent thinking, this led him into the frenzied reaction that followed. This included amusingly calling Bob's work 'psychedelic bromo seltzer' when describing the phasing used to create some of the effects. I tend to agree with Gary Marker that Krasnow's concept of the album is brilliant and timely for the [late sixties]. The editing makes the album more 'listenable' for the average short attention span. The effects were very contemporary, and the overall effect does little to detract from the actual music. It didn't bother me at all, in fact, I liked it at the time (making me Don's temporary enemy) and still enjoy it today for what it is. The fact is the album was 'psychedelic' in its own right."
|Gatefold image for the album, featuring the band in outfits from Western Costume Company
Strictly Personal was released in the US market on 23 September 1968, along with two other independently-produced Blue Thumb releases. Its debut in the UK followed shortly that December. It didn't take long for Kama Sutra to catch wind of what happened, namely their collection of demos becoming obsolete with the release of the rerecorded album, and a lawsuit of over $1.2 million ensued against the band, with another $950k against the new label. What happened to this lawsuit is unclear, but it was probably altogether dismissed on lack of legal grounds or settled out of court, given that the band was far from getting rich off their musical ventures.
|Article mentioning the album's release ("Personal") -- Cash Box, 21 Sep 1968 (source)
|Billboard article regarding Kama Sutra lawsuit, 15 Mar 1969
The album starts off with Van Vliet's "Ah Feel Like Ahcid," the album's theme-of-sorts and a drastic shift from anything that was on the band's first LP. The opening lines are an obvious reference to Son House's "Death Letter" from Father Of Folk Blues (1965, Columbia CS 9217). The modified lyrics, though, tell a quite different story from Mr. House:
Gotta letter out this mornin', how do ya reckon it read?
Red, blue, an' green, 'n' woo, all through my head
Licked a stamp, saw a movie, dropped a stamp
Ooh, mm, I ain't got no blues no more, ah-cid
Put me up thinkin' a postman's groovy
I ain't, ooh I ain't got t' blues no more, ah-cid, mm...
Van Vliet had caught wind of the idea for sending acid through the mail via postage stamps, the methodology being that the stamps could be dipped in water dosed with LSD in order to activate the adhesive on the back. They could then simply be removed and consumed by the receiver. This idea is also reflected on the album cover, with one stamp for each band member from various Spanish-speaking countries (except for John's, curiously from Bulgaria = БЪЛГАРИЯ), with a dosage of 5,000 mgs being noted in the recipient address (mgs. being milligrams, a typo that should have instead been micrograms, unless someone was planning on dosing a few elephants). That's a healthy thousand mics for each of the five band members' unique stamps. The humor in these lines is unmistakably Beefheart: the old bluesman has dropped acid, and now he's lost his blues. He's watching a RGB movie, and thinks the postman's groovy. Van Vliet loved to play with words, and his final touch here is to turn the common blues adage "I said" into the drug reference "ahcid." This is followed by Van Vliet blowing into his harmonica, realizing it's upside down, flipping it over, and then the jam begins.
Two slide guitars come in, both overdubbed by Alex St. Claire. At first listen they seem to fit together, but not quite; there's some off-kilter tension to this psychedelic blues. That was obtained, surprisingly, by playing in two different keys simultaneously, off by a relative fourth (one guitar is tuned to open D vs. the other in G). This Stravinskian approach is totally unheard-of for 1968 rock music, and is a clear pointer for the direction that the band is headed, especially on the complicated experiments that would form Trout Mask Replica.
|Group shot by Guy Webster: (L to R) John French, Alex St. Claire, Jeff Cotton, Don Van Vliet, Jerry Handley
The off-kilter blues fades with a heartbeat broken by the pulsating "Safe As Milk." The bass humps away octaves on the tonic, while the drums play a cyclical rhythm which together sounds like some sort of African tribal chant, surrounded by the dual guitars of Jeff and Alex and the sneer of the Captain. "Toaster cracklin'" sound effects are added (the sound of a cigarette wrapper being smashed) and the song ends in a flanged-out free-form section which is probably best compared to the middle of "Interstellar Overdrive." This fades into the next track, "Trust Us," where the heavy flanging is again present. The effect is, frankly, haunting. I love what John French wrote about this track: "this sounds like a bunch of hooded Satan worshipers candidly recorded after having eaten far too many green persimmons. If this doesn't sound religious, then I'm in an alternate universe."
After a short reprise of the "Ahcid" intro, side 1 finishes with the humorously re-titled "Mere Man." This trimmed-down version is perfectly-suited for the album, I think. Van Vliet's microphone and harmonica amp was put through a Leslie speaker, Krasnow's phasing is tastefully added, and the strange sound effects of an electric flour sifter were also included during the intro and outro.
By this point, anyone who expected Safe As Milk Part Deux may have already been hopelessly confused. Those who flipped to side 2, however, were instantly treated by one of the album's, and perhaps the band's, best two tracks, "On Tomorrow" and "Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin' Stones." The latter is a terrific 'homage'-of-sorts to the Beatles and the Stones, and Van Vliet's lyrics are perfect criticisms for the culture of the day. Listening to John's drumming, it's no surprise that John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef records provided some of his biggest influences; this is no simple metronome man, this guy is playing music. Backwards cymbals were added at his recommendation -- a very nice effect -- in addition to a crunchy sound attributed to a maraca with a transducer taped to its side. The song ends with a musical allusion that some non-Americans probably won't catch: it's the intro theme from The Three Stooges (here), a comedy trio that would've been immediately recognized by any teenager in those days.
|American Halloween-style candy corn|
The album ends with "Kandy Korn," which is in fact the very first Beefheart track that I ever heard. For those who don't know, candy corn is an American candy typically sold around the Halloween season, and is yellow, orange, and white -- somewhat resembling a kernel of corn. The name of this track comes from the way Beefheart thought of music, flowing like an infinite figure 8, but more "pointed" -- which John French pointed out as resembling a piece of candy corn. The lyrics are pure psychedelia, encouraging rebirth and reformation in this infinite psychle.
This version of the song, much shorter than the Mirror Man version, is more focused yet still totally tripped-out. John French writes that he laments his drums being put through a limiter, making them sound like "a giant tin-foil balloon," but I actually kinda like the effect. Jeff Cotton plays massively distorted power chords while Alex St. Claire hammers double-tracked melodic lines and the group harmonizes together at a massive climax that sounds like God is opening the heavens with a Biblical-level pillar of fire. The ending is orgasmic. Finally, the album concludes with a line you'd almost forgotten, or wished that you had:
"I ain't blue no more, ooh, it's like heaven I said, I said, mm-mm..."
|Don Van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, late '67 (photo: Webster)
|John "Drumbo" French, late '67 (photo: Webster)
The first pressings of Strictly Personal were on a black Blue Thumb label with a Hollywood address, mastered at DCT Recorders in Hollywood, CA, and had spaces ("bands") between each individual track on both sides of the LP. The album was quickly repressed after its initial release, probably at the beginning of 1969, using some vastly inferior source, perhaps actually being a poor-quality dub of a first pressing. These reissues have unbanded tracks and lack any DCT marking in the runouts. The sound of these unbanded reissues is of AM-radio-quality, and is best avoided.
There appears to have been only one digital remaster released for this album, appearing on a 1994 CD on the Liberty / EMI label. While apparently using some tape source, this CD was so heavily noise-reduced that its anemic sound led me to incorrectly believe for years that this was just a bad-sounding album. And, of course, buying a '70s reissue did not correct that assumption. It was only upon hearing a genuine first pressing that I realized how this album was supposed to sound. Correspondingly, this rip assassinates any other version of this album which is currently available, and will likely remain the definitive listening experience for many years to come.
For the Plain Brown Wrapper sessions, I would like to recommend two different CDs. The first is the original, unremastered Mirror Man CD, 1988 Castle Communications CLACD 235. The other is appropriately titled I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird (a line from "Safe As Milk"), released in 1992 on Sequel Records NEX CD 215. Both are UK releases, unfortunately, but these two discs have a much more "natural" sound than The Mirror Man Sessions or the bonus tracks on the 1999 CD reissue of Safe As Milk, which are more readily found in online searches these days.
|Van Vliet dressed with mask from The Man From Planet X (1951)|
and displaying his "simran horn" (shehnai) [photo: Webster]
- Don Van Vliet
: lead vocals, harmonica, electric flour sifter (tr. 4)
- Alex St. Claire
: guitar, slide guitar
- Jeff Cotton
: guitar, slide guitar
- Jerry Handley
: bass guitar
- John French
: drums, percussion
1) "Ah Feel Like Ahcid" -- 3:05
2) "Safe As Milk" -- 5:27
3) "Trust Us" -- 8:09
4) "Son Of Mirror Man - Mere Man" -- 5:24
5) "On Tomorrow" -- 3:27
6) "Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin' Stones" -- 3:18
7) "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" -- 5:04
8) "Kandy Korn" -- 5:09
Vinyl Condition: M-
Dynamic Range: DR 11
– Audio-Technica VMN40ML stylus on AT150MLx dual moving-magnet cartridge
– Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB direct drive professional turntable (internal stock preamp/ADC removed)
– Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra preamp with dedicated Zero Zone linear power supply
– Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 MkII (96kHz / 24bit)
– Adobe Audition CC 2020 (recording)
– iZotope RX 9 audio editor (manual declicking, EQ subtraction, additional adjustments)
– Audacity 2.3.3 (fades between tracks, split tracks)
– Foobar2000 v1.6.9 (tagging, dynamic range analysis)
Enjoy ... :)
|Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band backstage at the Rome Pop Festival, 4 May 1968|
(L to R) Jerry Handley, Jeff Cotton, Don Van Vliet, Alex Clair Snouffer, John French
|Blurb from the first issue of Creem magazine, March 1969 (edited to fit screen)|