Is This Phase One Of The Best Of Frank Zappa?

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By Dan Ouelette
From the Strictly Commercial CD booklet.

"I never had any intention of writing rock music," Frank Zappa told me during an interview eight months before he died. "I always wanted to compose more serious music and have it be performed in concert halls, but I knew no one would play it. So I figured that if anyone was ever going to hear anything I composed, I'd have to get a band together and play rock."

The rest is history. While Zappa did go on to compose dozens of contemporary classical pieces that he and a host of others performed during his lifetime (no doubt they'll continue to be played well into the next century and beyond), he also made a indelible mark on the rock world, beginning in the mid-'60s when he transformed a covers band gigging in small bars in southern California into The Mothers. This seminal band of musical renegades and freaks ditched "Louie Louie" and other jukebox favorites and opted instead to negotiate the twists and turns of FZ's experimental and distinctively weird rock tunes. To say the least, The Mothers, which made its auspicious recording debut in 1966 with Freak Out!, wasn't your typical group. Instead of lulling listeners into a pop music stupor, Zappa used poignant satire, goofy humor and hefty doses of snarling rock to provoke his audiences to think.

Throughout his life, Zappa's propensity to challenge, shock and even outrage people with his bold political views and idiosyncratic music often made him an easy target for critics bent on dismissing his dissenting vote against the social and musical status quo. That didn't stop him. He adventurously covered a universe of stylistic terrain, ranging from '50s doo-wop to 20th century classical music inspired by Varèse, Stravinsky and Bartok. He punched out hardy rock on his surly guitar and served up "jazz from hell" experiments on his computerized Synclavier DMS keyboard (his instrument of choice in the latter years of his life when he was studio-bound). With a lifelong flair for creating genre-jumping, post-modernist music, Zappa released nearly 60 albums, many of which folded together several different styles of music, cross-referencing such seemingly disparate domains as classical with reggae and melodic R&B with dissonant avant-garde. He fused it all into a sometimes brilliant, frequently madcap, always spin-on-a-dime concoction of distinct and inimitable "Zappaesque" music.

In 1995, when Rykodisc ambitiously reissued en masse the definitive FZ-approved masters of all his albums, the uninitiated were afforded the opportunity to explore the vast and diverse world of Zappa - composer, bandleader and virtuoso guitarist as well as humorist, satirist and outspoken social critic - whose massive body of work was widely overlooked and misunderstood in his lifetime. However, neophytes trying to find a threshold into the FZ zone are faced with a monumental, if not overwhelming task: where to start?

STRICTLY COMMERCIAL is a great place to begin. This collection of Zappa's radio hits, and tunes that would have been Top Ten if this were a perfect world, highlights his "mainstream" pop-rock career, and is a bona fide primer on Zappa's creative genius which was simultaneously at work and play in even his most accessible numbers. However, a word of warning: STRICTLY COMMERCIAL only scratches the surface of the contributions the composer-guitarist - who was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - made to contemporary music. This compilation represents only the beginning, the essential first step necessary for deeper exploration and even full immersion into the mind and music of FZ. Believe me, there are so very many more gems and veins of gold to discover.

STRICTLY COMMERCIAL covers Zappa's career from the budding days of The Mothers to his solo endeavors recorded throughout the '70s and '80s with a diverse and ever-changing crew of bandmates including keyboardist George Duke, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, '50s R&B ace Johnny "Guitar" Watson, drummers Aynsley Dunbar, Terry Bozzio, Chester Thompson and Chad Wackerman, and guitarists Lowell George, Adrian Belew and Steve Vai. The earliest of Zappa's pop-rock masterpieces included here is "Trouble Every Day", written during the Watts riots in 1965 and featured on The Mothers' debut double LP from 1966, Freak Out!, purportedly the album that inspired Paul McCartney to conceive Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Still painfully relevant thirty years after it was written, with its wailing harmonica, turmoiled bass and FZ's barbed guitar playing, is a gripping reality check on racial unrest, drive-by shootings and TV news info-tainment.

Another early Mothers tune, "Let's Make The Water Turn Black", shows the lighter side of Zappa's social commentary. The sweet little pop ditty (from the 1968 recording We're Only In It For The Money, whose artwork was a brilliant parody of Sgt. Pepper's and music was a hilarious lambast of both the burgeoning hippie scene and the establishment) opens a window on suburban adolescents "whizzing and pasting and pooting through the day."

In 1969, the year he officially disbanded The Mothers Of Invention (although the bandleader assembled new manifestations at various times in his career), Zappa released Hot Rats, primarily an instrumental album with a rich vein of jazz embedded throughout. It not only displayed FZ's prowess as both a composer and guitarist, but it also introduced one of his most enduring compositions, "Peaches En Regalia", a catchy instrumental with a buoyant melody and top-notch support by Ian Underwood on piano, organ, flute, clarinet and saxes.

Two tunes released in 1970 made the final cut for STRICTLY COMMERCIAL. The first, "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" (from Weasels Ripped My Flesh) is a good ol' fashioned rocking blast featuring FZ unleashing heavyweight guitar statements. The second, "Tell Me You Love Me" (from Chunga's Revenge) is a pop blitzkrieg with The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (aka Flo & Eddie, aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the defunct Turtles) howling away on vocals and Zappa detonating the number with guitar fire.

From FZ's biggest-selling US releases, Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe (') (1974), both of which went gold, come five numbers that won over legions of rock music lovers to his lyrical wit and musical adventurism. From the former, Zappa sings with a skulking leer on "I'm The Slime", and muses on the prospects of moving north to raise a crop of dental floss on "Montana" (included here in its single version).

The two tunes from Apostrophe (') - the follow-up to Over-Nite Sensation that further confirmed FZ's ability to be a successful rocker without compromising his artistic integrity - include "Cosmik Debris", the sardonic slash at the nirvana-grubbing, meditation-jiving gurus of the world, and "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow", the first Zappa tune to soar up the charts. The single version, which includes excerpts from the album track "Nanook Rubs It", is showcased here. Ironically, the origin of the radio track came not from Zappa, but from a Pittsburgh DJ who edited the album cuts together and aired the result on his music show. Word of its success reached Zappa while he was touring Europe. Upon his return home, he created his own edited version, released it as a single and "Yellow Snow" plowed onto the charts.

1975's One Size Fits All continued Zappa's mid-'70s commercial success. The album featured the rollicking "San Ber'dino", with Johnny "Guitar" Watson wailing away on "flambé vocals" and FZ rocking up a guitar whirlwind. The concert encore favorite "Muffin Man" comes from Bongo Fury, released later that same year, with Captain Beefheart helping out on vocals and once again the master guitarist delivering the goods on this (mostly) live recording. As for Zappa's take on the disco that dominated pop music for much of the mid-to-late '70s, he had lots to say in his songs. The hard-rocking "Disco Boy", from 1976's Zoot Allures, teems with such sarcastic lines as, "Leave his hair alone, but you can kiss his comb." Included here is the album track, which slightly differs from the single which bubbled under the Top 100. Then there's the upbeat, hilarious and danceable disco slam "Dancin' Fool", which not only charted high as a single but also garnered Zappa his first Grammy nomination, for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male. It appears on 1979's Sheik Yerbouti, FZ's biggest seller worldwide, thanks in no small part to the European hit "Bobby Brown Goes Down".

Also released in 1979 was Zappa's rock opera with a futuristic theme, presaging the rock lyric censorship issue of the '80s (and '90s...), Joe's Garage (originally released in 2 parts - Act I was followed a few months later by Acts II & III), from which comes the shorter single version of the title number included here. While 1981's Tinsel Town Rebellion spotlighted the catchy melody "Fine Girl" which features a stunning round-like choral section, the next big Zappa commercial success came in 1982 with his highest-charting US single ever, the comically satirical "Valley Girl" from Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. With daughter Moon delivering her unforgettable grody-to-the-max, barf-me-out, gag-me-with-a-spoon, totally awesome monologue and FZ and crew turning up the instrumental heat, the tune scored high marks with both the record-buying public and the National Academy for Recording Arts & Sciences which nominated it for a Grammy in the Best Rock Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal Category.

Rounding out the collection are "Be In My Video", Zappa's funny take on MTV (from 1984's Them Or Us) with great harmony vocals that hark back to Zappa's love of doo-wop, and "Sexual Harassment In The Workplace", an instrumental rocker (originally recorded at a San Diego concert in 1981 and released on FZ's second collection of guitar solos, the double-CD Grammy-nominated Guitar), which spotlights Zappa playing his Hendrix Strat.

Obviously there are many more tunes from Zappa's recording output that could have easily found their way onto STRICTLY COMMERCIAL. From several deserving tunes on the 1967 Mothers' rock-fueled politically-charged masterwork of underground oratorios, Absolutely Free (including "Plastic People", which became the potent rallying cry for freedom behind the Iron Curtain in the now-divided republic of Czechoslovakia) to hidden treasures from the 1988 tour, which can be found on several released including Broadway The Hard Way, there's a wealth of Zappa music that could fill many best-of collections. Despite its limitations, this compilation indeed serves as a valuable point of embarkation for a journey into the music and mind of a true creative genius who left us more than 30 years of iconoclastic and inimitable work for future generations to discover and enjoy.