Strictly Commercial, by Frank Zappa
Reviewed by Rob Wagner
When Sir Isaac Newton, in a rare moment of modesty, said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”, he was indicating that progress can be made in great leaps but is easier for others go further afterwards. Many of history’s biggest innovators are well-rated for what they bring to the table but when viewed through the lens of what comes afterwards they can come up a bit, well, short. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Ramones, Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath. All responsible for many of the bands I love to listen to. Each has a few good songs and a load of unlistenable garbage. Just joking – Bob Dylan is all garbage.
Going into this I’m worried that Frank Zappa will fit this mould for me. I’ve heard his name among the influences of lots of bands I’ve enjoyed over the years and sampled whatever random song YouTube threw at me a couple of times. They didn’t yet grab me, but now that I am a captive audience with the bona-fide Greatest Hits in my digital hands, perhaps this will be the time? Just as Alan Partridge’s favourite Beatles album is “the Best of the Beatles”, Craig’s choice is a summary of 25 years of Zappa’s musical career, released shortly after his death in the early 90’s (Zappa’s, not Craig’s). Zappa began life as a guitarist who listened to a range of music himself – from R&B to modern “classical” music – and he brought these sounds together in his rock music. His first album, Freak Out!, is, according to Wikipedia, the second ever rock double album, and he would go on to frame his music with avant-garde compositions and an approach which went beyond individual scenes. In theory, then, something for everyone.
Peaches en Regalia leads the album straight out of the psychedelic 60’s before Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow takes a slightly up-tempo turn and the stage is set that this album will feature “Jazzy stuff” with “trying to be weird”. Dancin’ Fool is a disco parody which mentions a severe injury Zappa sustained during a gig at the hands of the jealous boyfriend of a fan which left him with one leg shorter than the other. San Ber’dino finally grabs some of my attention as a funky number with some hooks I’ve not forgotten before the next song starts. Cosmik Debris slows things down again with porn stylings but by the half way point nothing has really left me impressed – I’ve heard weirder, funk really doesn’t move me (I’m no dancer), plus it’s not catchy so there’s nothing for me to really latch on to.
Disco Boy and I’m The Slime finally kick in with something interesting to the modern ear, but with quite outdated production values (pan pipes, anyone?). You wonder how Zappa would hold up nowadays with the blackface on the front cover to Joe’s Garage’s original printing – he doesn’t seem the sort to simply apologise and move on. Several songs drag by before Valley Girl threatens to be re-listenable, with an annoying person talking all over the top of some decent music. Similarly, Muffin Man has a good grungy groove (I actually remember it a week later) and a neat guitar solo but some “comedy” lyrics ruin it for me – though this is definitely my standout track.
Coming away from it all, I don’t know if there’s a joke I haven’t understood or if you just had to be there at the time. To me it sounds like a bunch of B-sides of artists that I do enjoy listening to – Mike Patton, in particular. Like the ruins of Old New York in Futurama, maybe this was a former giant who has been built on so much that without the nostalgia as a reference it just stinks. I promised Craig I’d rate it 4/10 before I even listened to it and I think I’ll stick with that rating, to be kind to a man running a project which is giving me so much enjoyment.