Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at his WEBSITE
The story of the twin record labels, Straight and Bizarre, is one of the most intriguing chapters in the Frank Zappa saga.
It all began in 1968 when
Zappa, frustrated with not having creative control of his product
while recording for MGM/Verve, decided to create his own label.
Hooking up with manager Herb Cohen, Zappa not only wanted to be able
to have final authority over the music of his Mothers of Invention
but also provide a venue for off-beat artists he liked and wanted to
champion. As a result, as made clear in the generous 161 Minutes of
this exhaustive history, Bizarre and Straight records documented a
slice of alternative California iconoclasm that was as varied as it
was, well, bizarre.
The output of Zappa’s brain-child wasn’t always musical. For example, 1969 releases included albums from comics Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley. Zappa invested considerable energy in a two-album set featuring Wild Man Fisher for whom Zappa edited together a string of songs, street conversations, and taped dialogues in the studio. In the end, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer was described as “social anthropology” more so than artistic performance. Likewise, a quintet of groupies dubbed the GTOs (Girls Together Only, Girls Together Outrageously, any O they liked) created an album that was part music and part taped conversations which the members now call “performance art,” a term not yet coined in 1969.
As revealed in extensive
interviews with many of the musicians involved, two bands weren’t
Zappa creations but rather artists seeking a means to market their
work. While Captain Beefheart himself--Don Van Vliet—wasn’t
interviewed for this disc, veterans of his “Magic Band” were, and
they share the extraordinary circumstances of rehearsing for and
producing the innovative, primal albums Trout Mask Replica and Lick
My Decals, Baby. Without question, the most successful alumni of
Straight Records was Alice Cooper. For this documentary, founding
players Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith discuss how they introduced
themselves to Zappa by setting up in his house at 9:00 in the morning
while Zappa was still in bed. As a result, the rough-edged Pretties
For You and its follow-up, Easy Action, were released before the band
went their own way to become major players on the rock scene without
the mentoring of Zappa.
In a chronological flow, the documentary blends the stories of these acts, and a handful of other hopefuls, demonstrating that Zappa often began projects with intense interest before one circumstance or another removed him from the production booth. By the final years of the labels, partner Herb Cohen was at the helm, signing musical adventurers like Tim Buckley and Jerry Yester. Still, Zappa brought on one more act, one quite different from his array of non-commercial properties—the a cappella singing group The Persuasions. Then, by 1973, Zappa and Cohen closed down the shop, started another, but the original vision had disapated into myth and legend.
What distinguishes this history is the detailed, often intellectual analysis of the story by the participants and observers like Ben Watson, Barry Miles, Mark Paytress, Billy James and Ritchie
Unterberger. While Zappa
is shown as the master mind for his projects, we see him only in
archival footage and little attention is paid to his own releases—and
there’s no need to do so. This disc is a tribute to forgotten faces
and voices whose work, as with Wild Man Fisher, is hard to come by.
Therefore, along with the historical footage, it’s good to hear
samples of the music few heard then and fewer have heard in recent
years. This DVD is worthy of any rock collection if your taste
includes the avant garde, the experimental, the simply freaky.
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