Frank Zappa was kind of a control freak. But the way he tells it in a 1968 Rolling Stone interview, if he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have had much of a career. In the mid-sixties, he took over the merchandising and advertising of his albums. “We wouldn’t have sold any records if we had left it up to the company,” he says, “They figured we were odd-ball. One shot novelty a-go-go. But we weren’t. We had to show them ways they could make money on the product.”
It’s that entrepreneurial attitude and ability to take over that makes Zappa one of the most successful capitalists in experimental music. In 1967, he even founded his own ad agency, called Nifty Tough & Bitchin’, and made print and radio ads for Hagstrom Guitars, Panther Combo Organs, and Remington Razor Blades. (He also recorded a bizarre radio ad for Remington’s electric razor with Linda Ronstadt---see a fan-made video below).
That same year, animator and filmmaker Ed Seeman hired Zappa to score an ad for Luden's Cough Drops. You can see the predictably weird results up top. According to Seeman, Zappa “requested $2,000 plus a studio for a day with a wide variety of instruments plus a guy to do cough sounds.” The ad went on to win a Clio award for “Best Use of Sound.”
After the ad wrapped, Zappa tapped Seeman to shoot 14 hours of footage over two years for a film project Zappa intended to produce called Uncle Meat (not to be confused with the album of the same name). The film was never completed, and Zappa only released the footage on video in 1987 (it has yet to see a DVD release). See an excerpt above in which musician Don Preston as the title character demonstrates the subtle difference between “commercial” and “underground” with the placement of a sock. (See more of Seeman’s Zappa footage here).
The growth of the award-winning ad into a rare cult film—that doesn’t really exist in any final form—goes to show how Zappa’s musical talent for free association extended to all of his creative endeavors. Everything he touched took root and grew into several other branching projects, all of them fascinating to varying degrees. He joked that he was in it for the money, but the money he made in commercial ventures seemingly gave him the freedom to pursue any idea that popped into his head.
Seeman, who became a great Zappa admirer, went on to edit footage from Uncle Meat into a “40 minute impressionistic collage” set to Zappa’s “Who are The Brain Police” that Dangerous Minds describes as melding “Zappa’s cynical world view (perhaps prophetic) with a spookily psychedelic sound that creates a perfect paranoid whole" (see an excerpt above). Zappa didn’t do much more ad work after this commercially creative burst, outside of the promotion of his own records. That is, until two years before his death from cancer. In 1991, Zappa appeared in the ironic anti-ad for Portland General Electric in which he says he told the company “I refuse to sell your product.” Four years later, we saw the release of a posthumous Zappa best-of. Its title: Strictly Commercial.