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.

"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?"

He added that, in his youthful innocence, he believed that his struggling band needed a manager with an "artistic background" to put across its aesthetic perspective. "Ow! Was I going to regret this one!" he says wryly in retrospect.

Despite the best efforts of Ryko since Zappa's death in 1993, the radio waves remain virtually Zappa-free. Ironically, the place where the Zappa legacy seems to be shaping up is in the world of "serious" music: More and more, his orchestral compositions are appearing on the programs of symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. (Ryko does not own the rights to Zappa's recorded orchestral repertory, which might, at least, partially explain the choices on Strictly Commercial.)

Perhaps this is as it should be. Maybe Frank Zappa--eternally aware of marketing strategies--felt he had to put titles like "G Spot Tornado" on his symphonic compositions so potential listeners wouldn't confuse him with the Old Guys Who Wrote Boring Orchestra Stuff.

He may have tried his damnedest not to look like some sort of highhanded academic in a jacket with tweed elbow patches, but by some ironic justice, after all the grimaces and rude gestures he cultivated so arduously in his lifetime have finally dissipated, what people may remember most about Frank Zappa is the caliber of his ideas. In his universe of reverse psychology, that seems entirely appropriate.

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