FRANK ZAPPA – Strictly Commercial: The Best Of Frank Zappa (1995 Rykodisc)
There are many versions of Strictly Commercial available in different territories, but the North American Rykodisc edition is familiar to most. The beauty of Strictly Commercial is that it can appeal to anybody. For those who are not ready to stomach a full Zappa album proper, Strictly Commercial compresses some of his most appetising music into a tight 77 minute listening experience.
With a flourish, “Peaches En Regalia” opens the disc as it did 1969’s Hot Rats. “Peaches” is one of Frank’s most accessible compositions, with clear melodic themes. This instrumental courts jazz rock fusion while projecting images like a cue from a movie soundtrack. The horn section is both goofy and dignified at once, and the percussion is out of this world.
Great googly moogly! Speaking of goofy, it’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (a single edit) which never fails to put a smile on the face. The twisted storytelling is as clever as it is ridiculous. Jabs of brilliant lead guitar act like aural illustrations. Brilliant guitar on this one, as is the single-ending xylophone solo. Into “Dancin’ Fool”, Zappa then lampoons a guy who can’t help but hit the disco even though he stinks at dancing. Social suicide indeed! Classic, memorable Zappa with a beat you can dance to. “San Ber’dino” is more rock than blues but certainly has ingredients from both. This is an easy entry point.
All the songs flow into the next, and “Dirty Love” has a slow rock groove and a blasting wah-wah solo. This is a suitable lead-in to “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama”, one of Frank’s catchiest numbers. A classic rock composition, it must be pointed out how perfect Jimmy Carl Black’s beats are. They are hooks unto themselves.
“Cosmik Debris” has more blazing guitar, and a healthy dose of scepticism for the mystical. “So, take your meditations and your preparations, and ram it up your snout,” sings Frank with a sly smile. Then back to 1966 and Frank’s debut album Freak Out! with “Trouble Every Day”, the socially conscious track that is still relevant today. With a beat-blues bent, Frank croons “Hey you know something people? I’m not black but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white.” Frank Zappa — triggering people since 1966!
Disco people fall victim to the Zappa wit once again with “Disco Boy”. “Leave his hair alone, but you can kiss his comb.” It certainly recalls scenes from Saturday Night Fever. “Fine Girl” is about a girl who isn’t so fine, but it has irresistible elements of soul mixed in with a little bit of everything. Then the purely instrumental “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” lets us just enjoy Frank soloing for three and a half minutes. Here he becomes the expert bluesman, with adventurous twists and turns that only a Zappa could muster.
“Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is essentially comic opera, a silly number with munchkin voices that never fails to raise a smile. It’s over quickly enough so we can get back to more electric guitar nirvana. “I’m the Slime” is funky horn-laden fun.
If Zappa’s music has been too performance oriented for your tastes with not enough hooks per minute, then “Joe’s Garage” will do the trick for you. As one of Frank’s most immediate songs, it draws from 1950s doo-wop. A track that fits in any music collection. It gets heavy on “Tell Me You Love Me”, perhaps the closest song Frank has to metal. So of course that had to be followed by the story of a dental floss tycoon with “Montana” (single version). Brilliant xylophone is only overshadowed by Zappa himself.
Spoken word tracks can have a limited lifespan to the listener, and for many people that’s “Valley Girl”. Moon Unit Zappa’s performance as the titular character is brilliant but quickly worn thin. It could probably stand to lose its last minute or so. Focus on the playing (especially that wicked bass by Scott Thunes). Doo-wop returns on the lovable “Be In My Video”; sax solos galore!
Finally, Frank answers that age-old question: cupcakes, or muffins? Certainly one of Frank’s most charming songs, “Muffin Man” ends the disc. Yes, there is a clear preference and plenty of wicked guitar playing too. Captain Beefheart on “vocals and soprano sax and madness”! Goodnight Austin Texas, wherever you are!
Strictly Commercial might not be the album that convinces you of Frank Zappa’s mastery of guitar, or of composition. But it is carefully designed to lure you in and whet the appetite for more. From here you can explore many more of Frank’s in-depth albums, or just enjoy this brilliant run through his most fun and easily enjoyed.