For those of us with somewhat mainstream rock tastes, Frank Zappa can be a fascinating, yet utterly confusing artist. He was so prolific, and his albums were so varied, both in musical style and quality, that his body of work is at best a stylistic labyrinth you can spend decades getting lost in, and at worst, an utterly terrifying maze of creative cul-de-sacs from which your fragile mind may never recover. There are not many musicians that could happily leap between rock n’ roll, doo-wop, jazz, orchestral music and musique concrete, but Zappa was among them, so the appropriate care needs to be taken when attempting to find an introduction to his unique career. Happily for the uninitiated rock fan that just wants an overview of Zappa’s more approachable works, Strictly Commercial is readily available, and as the title of this compilation suggests, it contains his most commercial material. Or at least commercial by Frank Zappa standards.
For all his reputation as a japester and musical clown, Frank Zappa took his music very, very seriously indeed. As a result of this, despite Strictly Commercial containing some of Zappa’s most straightforward music, it is still astonishing stuff, particularly his guitar playing, which remains some of the most curiously unheralded within rock circles. Hendrix may have had the flash pyrotechnics, but listening to Zappa’s output, he could arguably play circles around rock’s most celebrated guitar hero, making Hendrix’s stage antics appear to be little more than hollow showboating. Of course lyric wise, Zappa and his cohorts were always ready and willing to play the joker, hence Strictly Commercial is full of songs like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”, “Dancin’ Fool”, the legendary “Valley Girl” and “Be In My Video”, which walk a fine lyrical line between social commentary and gonzo stupidity. While some of the lyrical content hasn’t aged well, any rock act who has tried to negotiate through the murky shallows and dark under currents of the music industry will doubtless find “Joe’s Garage” to be an oddly familiar tale.
One of Strictly Commercial’s strengths is its sequencing, which ditches chronology for satisfying entertainment value. There’s even the odd beautifully executed segue from one song to the next, which only adds to the coherency of the compilation. If it lacks something, it is amusing verbal skits like “Going for the Money”, and most crucially “I Could be a Star Now”, which although could be viewed as silly throwaway skits, actually give an insight into Zappa’s attitude towards his place in the rock and roll firmament.
Ultimately Strictly Commercial is probably all the Frank Zappa that the fair-weather fan with mainstream tastes will ever need, simply because it was designed to fill that gap in the market, and whoever green-lit and curated this compilation together probably understood that, as it closes with the bonkers “Muffin Man”, which once again reminds us that when it came to guitar workouts, Hendrix may have been the crowd-pleaser, but Zappa was rock’s greatest guitar player. Rock and roll was never so subversive.