From Straight to Bizarre: Zappa, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and LA’s Lunatic Fringe (2011) – By Cary Conley

Frank Vincent Zappa was born during the Christmas season, 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland. Moving with his parents several times, they eventually settled in northern Los Angeles county, California. As a youth, Frank was deeply influenced by both classical music as well as much more avant-garde music such as percussionist Varese, Igor Stravinsky, and even early doo-wop and R&B music. During his earliest years, Zappa tried to make it as a composer, even recording soundtracks for two films as well as writing songs for other acts.

In 1965, Zappa was invited to join an R&B band as a guitarist. Zappa soon assumed a leadership role and the band changed names to The Mothers. Eventually, the band evolved into Zappa’s own project, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. But even as the band released several critically acclaimed albums, Zappa became disenchanted with the record company that, he felt, meddled with his recordings. He was not happy with the lack of creative freedom he experienced while being signed to a major label, so he and manager Herb Cohen decided in 1967 to start their own record label. In fact, the duo created two record labels, one being Bizarre Records and the other dubbed Straight Records. The initial concept was to have genre-bending, avant-garde recordings by new groups released through Bizarre while more mainstream music would be released through the Straight label. Unfortunately, Bizarre was short-lived due poor distribution which resulted in some very strange releases on the Straight label.

From Straight to Bizarre tells the story of Zappa and Cohen’s partnership during the time period of 1967 through 1973 when the Straight label folded. Along the way, we get to hear not only the fascinating story of the development of these two record labels, but we are introduced to many of the artists whose albums are considered some of the most original and revered experimental music to come out of that time period. Along with Zappa’s own music, releases came from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, The GTO’s, Wild Man Fischer, and Alice Cooper’s original album. Regardless of whether you are a fan of this kind of music (many consider it not much more than noise), you will be caught up in the stories of these musicians and the tales of working on the fringes of the music industry.

Among the entertainers interviewed are members of Beefheart’s original Magic Band; members of the GTO’s, an attempt by Zappa to put together the first all-girl rock band, composed of groupies such as Pamela des Barres, who is also interviewed; and members of Alice Cooper. The stories these musicians tell of the trials and tribulations–but also the joy and excitement–of attempting to do something many didn’t understand and most only dreamed of, are absolutely riveting. Personally, I don’t care much for this genre of music, but I certainly can respect these artists who were attempting to break new ground. Each artist tells tales of the sheer excitement of becoming recording artists, of their frustrations in working with brilliant but often times frustrating people, the respect they each had for Zappa himself as he mentored each band, and the fond recollections they have four decades after the labels folded.

By the early seventies, Zappa and his band were hitting the big time and Zappa’s time was stretched to the breaking point between recording his own music and constant touring. While the Bizarre and Straight labels were wonderful ideas in theory, they never became as popular as Zappa had hoped. The labels disappeared almost as quickly as they had first appeared, becoming only a footnote in music history and leaving some of the most wildly original and entertaining music to be recorded during this period very difficult to find. While some groups (like Beefheart and Alice Cooper) went on to great success, others melted into obscurity. The GTO’s only made one recording before falling apart, and Wild Man Fischer was left to live a torturous life bouncing between friends and the Hollywood streets. Some of these recordings managed to sell only a few thousand copies and are now legendary but extremely difficult to find–and often out of a buyer’s price range if an album is discovered by chance.

The documentary has quite a long runtime of 161 minutes; however, I watched it in one sitting and was entertained enough to not even realize that nearly three hours had passed as the end credits began running. There are also plenty of extras, mostly snippets of interviews by various musicians that didn’t make the final cut of the film. The packaging is also very nice as well. The film is being distributed by Sexy Intellectual and can be bought at See of Sound. For more information or to purchase a copy of this fascinating documentary, go to http://www.seeofsound.com/p.php?s=SIDVD568.