Brand-Name Zappa

Is Rykodisc trying to (finally) get Frank Zappa's cruddy music on the radio?

The late Frank Zappa was both paradoxical and perverse: As a musician, he was influenced primarily by the late-19th-century ideas of composers such as Stravinsky and Varese, yet most casual listeners will probably remember him as a quintessential '60s- and '70s-style rock 'n' roll guitar strangler. He was an instinctual intellectual who publicly protested that he never read books, then went right on and discussed them anyway, with considerable insight.

Of all Zappa's contradictions, the most ironic in many ways was his obsession with Top 40 radio. It wasn't enough for him to obliterate musical boundaries, redefine harmony, expose the revolting shallowness at the root of popular culture. What he really wanted was a Big Hit Record on the Charts!

And, of course, the more he wanted one, the more invective he slung at the music business, in general, and the commercial charts, in particular.

In 1979, Zappa, then 38, admitted to an interviewer that the media image of him was "very confused and contradictory, because of the stuff that's been written about me in the papers. But I think that if anybody was ever to manifest an exact replica of the kind of person I really am and stick it in the newspapers, I don't think people would bother with it.

"Because what's exciting about a guy who gets up in the morning and sits at a piano and writes little ballpoint notes on a piece of paper, and then goes to bed? ... It's better to have people thinking that I'm out there being totally crazy--because that's exciting."

During the five-year period (1970 through 1975) in which I knew Zappa well, I would not have classified him as a dweeb. Although his life revolved around the two poles of touring and staying home in Los Angeles to rehearse and record, the truth was that if he was awake, he was being creative. When I toured with him in late 1971, I was constantly struck by the originality of his approach, whether he was dealing with band politics or wiling away the inevitable dead time on the road with diabolical creativity.

So where had this dichotomy begun?
From the release of Freak Out! in 1966, Zappa had assiduously cultivated a bizarre image, using negative psychology to sell the public on his music, which had been rejected by pop-music taste makers as too off the wall for a mass market. The problem was, by the time he hit his 30s, the psychedelic era had passed, his music was as uncompromising as ever and he still hadn't had that Top 10 hit.

Plus, he was getting good and tired of being asked by every grinning idiot he met in an airport waiting area if that story about him eating shit onstage was really true.

It was time for this mother to reinvent himself--and, in a stroke of genius, he went from Bizarre to Straight. In interviews like the one cited above, he flogged the image of himself as just a regular guy with a wife and kids and a mortgage, a guy with a day job--even if he worked during the wee, small hours, and his assembly line (he called his home studio the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) tended to produce consumables with titles such as "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee."

But the package redesign worked. By 1974, Frank Zappa's Apostrophe (') album was No. 10 on the charts. To celebrate, he organized a triumphal parade in front of the offices of Warner/Reprise Records, which distributed his DiscReet label.

Kicked off by honorary parade marshal Ed Barbar, a notorious Southern California used-car salesman in a wheezy old Cadillac convertible, the procession transformed the quiet, tree-lined Burbank street into a scene redolent of Hieronymous Bosch. Band members and assorted colorful hangers-on straggled along chaotically, while Zappa himself rode, grinning and waving, at the head of the parade, his 7-year-old daughter, Moon Unit, beside him. The funniest sight, however, was the Warner execs hanging out their office windows, scratching their Sassoon-coiffured heads and asking one another, "What the fuck is going on down there?"

Nobody had a clue, even though there were self-congratulatory banners on most of the cars in the procession.

In a sense, Rykodisc's current Zappa repackaging, Strictly Commercial, is an example of a record company trying to get Frank Zappa's cruddy music on the radio by pretending he was more of a player in the mainstream than he actually was.

When it came to the Top 40, Frank Zappa was not a serious contender. What better reason, then, to release Frank Zappa's Greatest Hits, or, as the liner notes observe, "Tunes that would have been Top 10 if this were a perfect world"? True, the liner notes also point out that "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" (1974), "Dancin' Fool" (1979) and, of course, the ubiquitous "Valley Girl" (1982) all made respectable dents in the charts. Zappa was even occasionally nominated for a Grammy--although the only one he actually nailed down was for Jazz From Hell, a 1986 album that he maintained the Grammy judges had never listened to.

My own first impression of Frank Zappa, from 1970, was of a high-minded individual being driven insane by the utter banality of popular culture. I had a meeting with him to discuss a demo of some of my songs; he came storming into his office fulminating about "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" on the Beatles' new Abbey Road album.

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