Brand-Name Zappa

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

"Bang, bang, Maxwell's silver hammer came down upon her head!" he said with a sneer, his lip curling under his heavy, black mustache. "That's just plain shit!"

It took a number of minutes before he cooled down enough to shake hands and commence business. It wasn't clear what exactly he found so detestable in Paul McCartney's sprightly little ditty about a young medical student and his murder weapon of choice; Zappa's annoyance that such an audio aberration could exist in the universe was, however, manifest.

The selections on Strictly Commercial reflect this annoyance. They resemble an audio journal kept, with mounting fury, over a 25-year period. Zappa's disgust with American fads and fetishes runs the gamut from disco ("Dancin' Fool" and "Disco Boy") to redneck culture ("San Ber'dino" and "Montana") to mass media ("I'm the Slime") to MTV ("Be In My Video").

The best-known cut, "Valley Girl," with its much-parodied monologue by Zappa's then-teenage daughter Moon Unit, ostensibly provided listeners a window on the shopping-mall world of suburban San Bernardino Valley kids. It also gave the Zappa family a tidy income from licensing and spinoffs, including a quickie film release and a "Valley Girl" doll.

Throughout, Zappa seems to be saying over and over, "This shit sucks"--and, in the same breath, "So why shouldn't I suck, too?" Fair enough. But it hardly makes for great listening, especially in light of the other, truly great music Zappa composed and recorded--music that a newcomer to the Zappa Universe would never encounter if his or her only exposure was through this compilation.

The liner notes on Strictly Commercial suggest that it is "a great place to begin," implying that these selections represent "the essential first step necessary for deeper exploration and even full immersion into the mind and music of FZ." Actually, listeners who are entirely unfamiliar with Zappa probably are not advised to start by listening to these particular cuts.

Despite Zappa's frequent statements that his entire musical output was part of a much larger "project/object," the only real connection among the widely divergent musical styles of his work was his involvement in it. Depending on the nature of the music he was writing, that involvement could be highly cerebral, as in much of his orchestral work, or right at crotch level, as evidenced by selections such as "Dirty Love" on the present release.

Few listeners are likely to be fascinated by both extremes; and Strictly Commercial falls, with the exception of the instrumental "Peaches en Regalia," which kicks off the program, squarely in the orifices-and-secretions camp. After being subjected to the 18 selections that follow, a novice listener might not be blamed for dismissing Zappa as an overhyped, overheated infantilist--brilliant, perhaps, in his musicianship, but conceptually garish and one-dimensional.

A better introduction to the subject would have included equal numbers of instrumentals and vocals. If Zappa the lyricist, especially later in his career, disappeared all too often into a cloud of smutty in-jokes, Zappa the orchestrator was easily one of the most innovative figures in American music.

Practically anything he recorded with his Grand Wazoo electric chamber orchestra in 1972 would make the uninitiated prick up its ears, even today. Any number of the instrumentals he recorded in 1973 and 1974, when he led a jazzy outfit featuring keyboardist George Duke, electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and percussionist Ruth Underwood, would stack up equally well. Finally, closing this hypothetical anthology with the Ensemble Modern's snappy reading of the insanely exciting "G Spot Tornado" would be quite fitting. It was the last cut on 1993's The Yellow Shark CD, and thus the last word of the living composer. (His ambitious Civilization Phaze III release was posthumous.)

Frank Zappa, born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, to immigrant Sicilian-Italian parents, was doomed to live his life in the wrong era. He belonged in fin de siecle Paris, or New York at the time of the Armory Show, or in Isherwood's Berlin--any time or place when ideas were paramount. In Zappa, I always sensed a high-horsepower intellect holding itself back, lest he appear pretentious. This certainly had something to do with the '50s, probably the least intellectual decade in American history, during which he spent a miserable adolescence alternately playing orchestra percussion and conducting experiments with homemade explosives.

Zappa's basic instincts would have made him a scientist or a "serious" composer; instead, somewhere along the way, he discovered the popular-music idiom and wound up scuffling for a living in bars and lounges. Nearly all of his compositions that employ lyrics reflect the unconscious, but powerful, frustration of an artist who hates his medium but goes on working in it in a very craftsmanlike manner just the same.

The '60s had a few intellectual moments, but, in 1963, when Zappa began making the rounds of record companies in Hollywood, surf music was the keynote. It's interesting to observe, though, that all of Zappa's early mentors--managers Herb Cohen and Mark Cheka, and many of his close friends--emerged from the coffee-house scene that evolved around Los Angeles City College inthe late '50s and early '60s.

In his semiautobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa chronicles his meeting with painter Cheka in 1964 in semi-ironic terms, describing Cheka's pop-art paintings and admitting that they baffled him conceptually. "But what the fuck do I know from art?"

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