Customer Review

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Black heaven, ah cid, 8 Dec 2011
This review is from: Strictly Personal (Audio CD)
In 1968 I was 14 and attitude-dancing. There was nothing quite like swanning around the school playground with a copy tucked under your arm of an album no-one had heard of - or at least anyone who didn't listen to John Peel of a Saturday afternoon.

And 'Strictly Personal' was the real deal; the second album by the most subterranean of all the underground artists of the time; the record sleeve you waved triumphantly at the bloke from the fifth form trying haplessly to pull the same stunt with 'In Search of the Lost Chord'. If you were into Beefheart, you were very much (if you'll forgive a cliched anachronism) 'in the loop'.

Hearing for the first time 'Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones' shook me rigid. I'd encountered nothing like those spidery backward guitars, that massive, blockbusting percussion, the phasing, the wierd sucking noises that seemed to waft in from a dental surgery in a madhouse, Don Van Vliet's voice roaring up from an abyss into which you ventured on pain of terminal psychotic damage.

But it was also invigorating, shot through with a searching, edgy and deeply satisfying spirit of electronic adventure which, warped enough to frighten horses, children and parents, was unavailable from the sugary confections of the pop charts or even from (otherwise fine) contemporary artists like Cream, Floyd, Family and Fairport. Two or three tracks from Peel and I was hooked, badly needing to investigate further this extraordinary, terrifying music.

On finding the sleeve in my local record shop, my initial shock was confirmed and compounded as soon as I saw the inner photo. Here they were, five extraterrestrials, monochrome emissaries from the outer circle of Hell, sorcerous manifestations of a very bad dream indeed. It was, and in a funny way remains, the most nightmarish image I have seen; the perfect visual crystallisation of the record's aural malificence.

Despite Van Vliet's oft-quoted unhappiness with Bob Krasnow's production (for a while the Cap'n was none too pleased with his old sparring partner Frank Zappa's desk duties for 'Trout Mask Replica', either) the album delivered on every count. The music might've shone "like diamonds in the mud" (CB) but what mud! As a trippy period-piece from the back-end of psychedelia, or an endlessly fascinating and inventive excursion into musical realms never visited by anyone before and only rarely since, to these ears SP remains a masterpiece.

Like Sun Ra - that other visionary/genius/loony with the Saturnian public image and the unusual taste in headgear - Van Vliet proved disappointingly human, as we discovered the following year when he visited Britain to promote 'Trout Mask Replica'. And what we all thought might fry our synapses if we closed the curtains and listened under the influence of anything stronger than a sherbet fountain turned out to be laced with humour, albeit of a singular and surreal hue.

Although the Captain has passed on, perhaps reincarnated as either a Pemon shaman or Steve Ellis from the Love Affair - the latter perhaps the more Beefheartian concept - various of his confreres are keeping alive the flame and making sublime music as The Magic Band. Far from the ghostly alchemists of the SP sleeve or the lysergic pantomime dames of TMR, they too are all-too-human, portly, affable and jolly, more friendly Father Christmases than baleful Baron Samedis.

When you're 14 and attitude-dancing, your only reference-points a bizarre sleeve photo and the most exhilarating music you've ever heard, it's easy to get swallowed whole by the daft hyperbole. Beefheart's persona would today be considered a carefully stage-managed 'brand'. But in 1968 it felt genuinely otherworldly, truly 'alternative'.

It still does.
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