In 1968, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were under contract to Verve Records, but the controversial artist was unhappy. The record company was editing his albums without his permission, butchering his art with their commercial cowardice, and he wasn’t about to stand for it. Getting together with music manager Herb Cohen he sought to remedy the problem by starting a record label of his own, a record company that would give him as well as other artists out of the mainstream, the kind of creative freedom that would they needed to pursue their visions. First they created the Bizarre Label, and that was followed very quickly by the Straight Label. From Straight to Bizarre: Zappa, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and L A’s Lunatic Fringe is a comprehensive history of the labels and the bands that recorded for it.
Taking the conventional documentary approach to a very unconventional subject, the film fills more than two and half hours with archival footage, still shots, and a gaggle of talking heads—mostly Zappa biographers and aging rockers. It uses snatches of videos along with examples of the music, but not as much video and certainly not as much music as you’d like. I would doubt there is one whole song from beginning to end in the whole film. Whether this is by choice or necessitated by copyright problems, I can’t say. The DVD notes do acknowledge in all caps: “This program is not sanctioned by any of the performers or companies on which it focuses.”
A denizen of the weird counter culture that had been developing in the sixties in and around L A, Zappa was attracted to the strange characters that like him saw themselves and the lives they lived as a radical critique of middle class bourgeois values. They were freaks; they were insane. They were looking to scandalize by outlandish behavior. And some of them were artists, and it was from this “lunatic fringe,” Zappa looked to recruit the talent for his new record company.
The first of his recruits Wildman Fischer was in fact insane, having been institutionalized in his teens. Known for prowling the LA boulevards offering to sing songs for a dime, Fischer was little more than joke. In 1969, Zappa produced a double Fischer album which is sometimes praised as a valuable sociological document, if not for its music. There are those who feel that Zappa was exploiting Fischer, but most all of the film’s commentators seem to feel that Zappa was trying to make a sincere statement with the album.
The documentary goes on to look at the creation of the GTO, the all girl band made of a selection of groupies and other assorted hangers on and Zappa’s early relations with Dr. Beefheart and his eventual signing. Most of the commentary suggests that it was probably Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica that was the most significant album produced by the label. Alice Cooper was to become a more popular band, but their greatest success came after their association with Straight. Finally the film spends some time on Zappa’s work with the acapella gospel singers, The Persuasion.
There is some discussion of artists like Tim Buckley brought to the label by Cohen, but the emphasis of the documentary is on Zappa and his promotion of the weird and far out, giving musicians the freedom to follow their creative instincts where the traditional record companies were unwilling to let them go. While ultimately Zappa’s “discoveries” produced little of lasting value artistically, what he did produce gives a valuable insight into the LA counterculture of the ’60s. It is unfortunate that so much of what he produced is not readily available. Perhaps the great value of this film is the access it gives to some of that work. It would have had an even greater value, if it was able to squeeze in even a bit more of the music.
The DVD includes an interview with Jerry Lawson of The Persuasions and a section on the struggles of the Magic Band during their work on the Beefheart album. Both seem to be footage shot for the main film, but omitted from the final edit. There is also a section of short biographies of the commentators.