Sandwiched between Safe As Milk and the epochal Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart’s second album, Strictly Personal, often gets overlooked – partly thanks to its notoriously contentious production. After the recordings were rejected by Buddah, the label that had released Safe As Milk, Bob Krasnow, the man who’d brought Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band to the label, rescued Strictly Personal for his own Blue Thumb imprint. He also had some production notes of his own.
Ironically, given the album’s eventual title, Beefheart claimed that the overdubs that have defined the record were done without his consent while he was touring in Europe. Perhaps he was equivocating. It’s hard to see how an artist as exacting as Don Van Vliet would ever allow a record out without getting the final say so – particularly after making his mark so confidently with Safe As Milk. Whatever the truth of the claims, however, Strictly Personal does, at times, suffer from period production techniques – notably phasing and indelicate sound effects – that distract from the songs. Which is a shame because, underneath all that, Beefheart can be heard edging towards the revelatory material that constituted Trout Mask Replica.
“The past is the mask of love a way a way/The low is the task above today there is no other way,” Beefheart intones at the beginning of ‘Trust Us’: the sort of meditation that he would fine-tune for his next outing. At eight minutes long, the song rides a rickety riff that recalls some of the field recording stylings that make up Trout Mask, before diverting into a doom-laden exhortation to “Let the dying die let the lying lie”, and then winding up in a sparse blues coda. Elsewhere, the free-form song structure and abstract lyrical ruminations of ‘On Tomorrow’ (“Baby spring song yellow wings red skies showing on lively ivy growing on tomorrow”) could have come from a Trout Mask outtake.
While he doesn’t quite come up with anything as thunderous as Safe As Milk’s ‘Electricity’, there are still plenty of the good Captain’s oddities on display. As Milk’s opener, ‘Sure ’Nuff ’N Yes I Do’, appropriated ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’’, so Strictly Personal kicks off with a mutation of ‘Death Letter Blues’: “Got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?/Red, blue and green – whooooo – all though my head,” he sings, before declaring, “I ain’t got the blues no more, I said.”
Which is patently a lie, as Strictly Personal is arguably Beefheart’s most straightforwardly blues outing (relatively speaking): one that led to Rolling Stone’s somewhat patronising acknowledgement that “he has… the capability of making the ultimate white blues album”. Not that Beefheart was interested in doing such a thing. Listen past Krasnow’s contributions and you can hear Beefheart bending and shaping that most malleable of genres to fit his new purposes.
In fact, the “numerous lapses in taste” that Rolling Stone accused the album of having could just as easily have been Beefheart’s diversions from reviewer Barret Hansen’s preferences, and not Krasnow’s production. Despite its reputation as a misfire, Strictly Personal is a key document in Beefheart’s development, littered with signposts towards Beefheart’s next move.