Towards the end of the 1960s, Frank Zappa, together with his manager Herb Cohen, set up Bizarre Records – later renamed Straight Records – as a result of frustration with his band The Mothers of Invention’s current label (something that would be repeated throughout his career), and as well as using the label as an outlet for his own work, decided to sign various other acts as well.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about rock stars setting up vanity labels that they grow bored with after a few years – The Beatles, Elton John and Led Zeppelin all did the same – but Zappa’s labels were interesting because of the sheer amount of left-field, oddball and innovative stuff released. Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, the first three Alice Cooper albums, live (and uncensored) recordings of Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley and decidedly weird acts like Wild Man Fischer and groupie girl band the GTOs – the latter two acts releasing records that are more social document than rock ‘n’ roll. Alongside these acts were slightly more mainstream acts, usually (but not always) signed by Cohen, like Tim Buckley (who’s classic Starsailor was a Straight release) and a capella gospel group The Persuasions.
It’s this strange but essential output that makes the labels worthy of a documentary film, and thank goodness that documentary has turned out to be this exhaustive study. While a TV documentary would no doubt try to cram this story into the space of an hour, here, it’s given 161 minutes (plus about twelve minutes of extras) to go into thorough detail about the background to the label, the recording of the acts involved and it’s eventual demise as Zappa lost interest and moved on to his solo work.
It’s a fascinating tale, and one that is refreshingly told by people other than the usual suspects – rather than Alice Cooper trotting out the same stories we’ve seen in interview after interview, here it’s band members Neal Smith and Dennis Dunaway giving their perspective, and likewise we get interviews with Magic Band members discussing the Captain Beefheart albums. Alongside them are the likes of Pamela Des Barres and the somewhat scary-looking Miss Mercy from the GTOs, Jeff Simmons (who composed the soundtrack to biker movie The Naked Angels, another Straight release, as well was interesting solo work) and outside observers such as Kim Fowley and Barry Miles. There are also a fistful of rare performance clips from most of the acts.
This is certainly no whitewash of Zappa – while his genius, influence and inspired work setting up the labels are acknowledged, it also becomes clear that he was easily distracted and / or offended, leaving several acts in the lurch mid-recording. From Essra Mohawk to Alice Cooper to several others, Zappa would start off producing their work and then walk out before completion, resulting in albums that are far from what they should have been. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Straight / Bizarre barely lasted five years, or that subsequent Zappa-run labels would be strictly for his own output. Similarly, Captain Beefheart doesn’t come out of this smelling of roses, with his control of his band reaching cult-like status.
With much of the non-Zappa label output now in limbo, unavailable legally despite wider public interest now than at any time since the original recordings, this is a timely, entertaining and essential look at some of the strangest – and greatest – records of the late Sixties and early Seventies.