Saturday, June 6, 2009

Z - Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention - "Freak Out!"

Honestly, I didn’t feel much when Frank Zappa died. Certainly nothing like when any of my other 60’s rock idols passed away. It’s a bit difficult to get sentimental about Zappa. I can’t think of a more standoffish, obnoxious, arrogant, haughty “rock star” than Frank. His curmudgeonly qualities that I initially found very likeable turned negative fairly quickly, and there were aspects of his music that I held in as much contempt as he seemed to hold for his own audience. When he died in 1993, I was pretty much over him, despite being a rabid fan only a couple years earlier. Actually, the most poignant tribute to him (or at least the first time after his death that I reflected on the great music he brought into my life) was on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Village of the Giants” (which was a fabulous film in its own right: Tommy Kirk & Ron Howard with Beau Bridges as the VILLAIN? Awesome.) The running skit in between commercial breaks was that dopey evil scientist sidekick “TV’s Frank” was being fired, so Mike & the robots sang a tribute to him called “The Greatest Frank of All”. They replayed the song at the end, and as the credits faded, a picture of Zappa faded in: “Frank Zappa: 1940-1993”. I didn’t expect it, and it touched me.

Plus I’ll give this to Zappa: he always followed his own muse, however nonsensical or vulgar that muse ended up being, and for almost his entire musical career, ended up being able to make a very successful living doing exactly what he wanted to do. Very few musicians can make that claim, especially during a career of over 20 years. That said, he released a LOT of music, and a LOT of it sucked. I mean, I’m sure it was great to him (for after all, HE was his audience: if he thought these intricate yet bloodless fusion pieces were good, or if he thought rock operas involving robot penetration were funny, he released them. if others didn’t appreciate them, it’s because they weren’t smart enough or were too humorless to “get it”. whatever.) At one point I had more than 30 Zappa records, yet only listened to a few, frankly (heh) because the others did nothing for me. Sure I thought “Bobby Brown Goes Down” was funny when I was in high school – I also thought farting in a room full of people was hilarious. (hmmm, come to think of it, that description could easily describe some of Zappa’s 70’s output). His 3 record “opera” “Thing-Fish” still holds the distinction in my mind of being the most offensive, most senseless record ever released (worse than anything by GG Allin, even). Grimy, yucky, & unfunny. (It isn’t the most UNLISTENABLE record though: that award goes to Crispin Glover’s “The Big Problem Does Not Equal the Solution, The Solution Equals Let It Be.”)

Zappa also tended to marginalize much of his early work; understandable, as his heart seemed to lie in the more complicated classically jazzy pieces that he released frequently throughout the 70’s & 80’s. He seemed to regard the original releases of the Mothers of Invention as trial runs, or, at best, incomplete experiments left uncompleted to his satisfaction by inadequate musicians, subpar recording methods, or lack of funds. This train of thought is unfortunate, as there are very few “rock” acts that had the astonishing quality consistency Zappa had between 1966-1970. With this first loose assemblage, he released 9 recordings (2 of them double records, 2 of them as a “solo”); every one of them excellent, and 3 of them flat out masterpieces. He never matched this success rate in his career again; in fact, within a couple years of the breakup of the original Mothers, he was releasing awful crap like “Fillmore East” and “Just Another Band from LA”, plus filming the monumentally stupid film “200 Motels”. Totally disheartening to go from the musical greatness of “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” to the overblown unfunny “Penis Dimension” (trust me, despite the song titles, there’s a BIG difference).

But for now, I’ll focus on Zappa & the Mothers’ first release “Freak Out”. Originally released as a 2LP set, I’m going to review each record separately. The first LP is very song oriented and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. The songs range from what can be termed anti-love songs (“I Ain’t Got No Heart”, “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder”, “Anyway the Wind Blows”) and 60’s proto punk (“Hungry Freaks, Daddy”, “Who Are the Brain Police”, “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”). There’s a fantastically sarcastic commercial for the unbelievably unattractive band’s appeal to the ladies (“Motherly Love”), and even a ridiculously catchy pop tune (“Wowie Zowie” – LOVE the xylophone riff). The lyrics are snide and hysterical, especially on the “love” songs (“no matter who I take home / I keep on calling your name”). The music and performances are the simplest most straightforward of his career, and that is not a bad thing. Though Zappa’s control runs through all of his releases (only one vision here, folks), this band has more individual personality than any other group of musicians he played with, especially Ray Collins on co-lead vocals. Combining Ray’s strong straightforward pop style with Zappa’s satirical bass voice was very inspired and makes for some seriously enjoyable listening. Zappa’s other clear love was doo-wop; even when singing the most preposterous lyrics ("you fooled around with lots of other guys / that's why I had to get my khakis pressed"), his affection for the style comes through during his entire career. I completely LOVE this first record, and listen to it, sing along to it, and laugh with it fairly regularly.

The second record is a bit more difficult, as it consists of 3 longer pieces, 2 of them very avant garde – precursors to one of the routes he would take in later life. He came into this album very well rounded musically and was determined to be known as a serious composer. The first piece, “Trouble Every Day”, is a blues-rock song which could be a snider slower version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; it focuses on the clashes between the establishment & the “freaks”, and spares neither – Zappa was always an equal opportunity offender. It can be taken as a protest or anti-protest song, depending on how you look at it. Great stuff. Next is “Help I’m a Rock” (any song whose title mocks Paul Simon gets a thumbs up in my book), and it’s a bit more problematic. It's divided into several sections consisting of moaning, groaning & yelling (sometimes in Spanish) over a sinister riff, an acapella section featuring the Mothers chanting “it can’t happen here” that devolves into nonsense, a drunken jazzy jam, & ending with the first appearance of Zappa heroine Suzy Creamcheese. Very progressive for something recorded in 1966, but not something you want to listen to much. The record concludes with the 12 minute freak out “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”; lots of sped up & backwards vocals & studio manipulations. Definitely hallmarks of the Zappa sound, and at least slightly more concise than later releases, but these ears prefer melody, thankyouverymuch.

VERDICT: it’s absolutely amazing how fully formed Zappa was on his first album; this album would be the high point of almost anyone else’s career, but Zappa got even better. For a few years, anyway.
VIDEO: no footage here, just the song “Hungry Freaks Daddy” – I couldn’t find any footage on youtube of the original Mothers that was any good.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sincerely happy to have found your assesments and especially on Frank's muscial output! I feel most fortunate to have been introduced to his music early on in '66, not too long after the release of Freak Out! And I got hooked! Followed all the recorded music and completely blown away with several of his live conceet performances in Chicago. Then I began getting "unhooked" as of about the Spring of 1971. Then for about sven years I was fairly far removed from his music and I now am convinced that I did not miss anything! Thank You!
    Chef Jem
    San Diego