Frank Zappa, or, to be more specific, him and his band The Mothers Of Invention. The word "Zappa" obviously causes several - perhaps many - of you out there to wince at the mere mention of his name. Isn't he the egomaniac, toilet-humour smart-arse who spent the bulk of his public life acting like a pompous, above-it-all twit whilst simultaneously releasing disc upon disc of unlistenable yet "musicianly" nonsense no one in their right mind (which doesn't include suburbanite pot smokers prone to titty jokes and frequenting music-instrument stores) would go within spitting distance of? By all means, yes. But I have a great fondness for his early works, and I've said it many times before: had he croaked in the early '70s, as opposed to two decades later - at which point his musical crimes were well in abundance - his legacy would be unbeatable. But stick around he did...
I bought his - no, their: The Mothers Of Invention's - debut album, 1966's Freak Out! - back in 1995. I purchased it at the right time of my life, and it hit me deep. Perhaps more strangely, I can thank this guy for getting me into the early recordings of Zappa. Stranger things have happened. Freak Out! was released as a double LP - one of the very first of its kind (possibly the first?) - and is a near-perfect blend of 1960s garage rock combined with greater ambitions. Zappa's R & B/rock & roll roots are demonstrated throughout the first half of its duration w/ a series of concise tunes which mock the stupidity and hypocrisies of the era w/out sounding like the smug, disdainful old bore he'd mutate into within a decade. Zappa cut his teeth as a youth on the LA R & B scene, worshipping the likes of Johnny Otis (his facial hair was a lifelong tribute to Otis's impeccible follicles), Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, the great Chuck Higgins, etc., and the rock & roll portions of Freak Out! don't stray too far from this worship. The Mothers sounded like a psychedelic '60s Sunset Strip update of the classic Otis sound of 15 years prior - xylophone and all - but w/ a fuzzed-out Seedsy vibe that places it clearly outside of a straight homage. To state the bleeding obvious, Freak Out! isn't that far removed from its contemporaries, whom would be the likes of the Byrds, Seeds, Love and pretty much every white guy on the west coast at the time who wanted to be Mick Jagger. There's a bunch of really great, sarcastic short/sharp/sweet rockers here, such as "Hungry Freaks, Daddy", "Motherly Love" and "You Didn't Try To Call Me", as well as the scorching 6+ minute "Trouble Every Day", one of the few "political" songs Zappa wrote which didn't seem to be coated in smarm and sarcasm.
For the second disc (not that I've ever heard the thing on vinyl anyway: I've got the Rykodisc CD), things get weirder and the songs get longer. Along w/ the aforementioned, there's also "Help, I'm A Rock", "It Can't Happen Here" and "Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet", all of which lay the groundwork for Zappa's reputation as, err, "weird". But rock they do, and the use of electronics and aspirations (pretensions?) towards musique concret were ahead of their time and way ahead in the world of pop music. But they're also "good", and not merely excercises in sheer zaniness. That would happen later in his career. Zappa and the Mothers cut a few other killer discs such as the follow-up, Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, Uncle Meat, the odds & sods comp', Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and a whole slew of semi-legit product you'll find floating around. I'll even vouch for Zappa's Hot Rats solo disc, which is a great combo of LA freak-rock aesthetics and boogie-blues, but once the original Mothers split, his replacements were seen as his backing band and little else. Sure, there was still personality within his backing groups which could be unique to the individual players (sometimes that wasn't a good thing: I don't need to hear Steve Vai in any context), but Zappa's monstrous ego took hold, and for me the concept of The Mothers Of Invention - a musical circus troupe of identifiable ugly, hairy old freaks who stood in great contrast to the image of record company-groomed pop stars (a template for great rock & roll, if ever there was) was lost. Ex-Mothers such as Jimmy Carl Black and Don Preston played around on and off over the years, but that's a different story.
Friends of mine are aghast of my fandom for Zappa, just as they can be w/ my rabid enthusiasm for the music and long and industrious career of John Zorn. For some, they're one and the same. The latter was, is and forever shall be greatly influenced by the former, and for music puritans, their dabblings, humour and perceived pomposity is an anathema to their musical thinking, an encapsulation of the suburban bong-smoking aesthetic which probably riled them back in high school and persists to this day. I understand, but we're talking music here. In essence, the critics are correct: the strangeness was a put-on; his music was joyless, sexless and perpetually adolescent, like a marathon show-off from the most annoying asshole in the classroom. I guess that all begs the question once more: how could I like this shit? Because there's fun to be had in his catalogue, if only for a few brief years of his recorded life, and since when the hell was being an annoying asshole such a bad thing? Anyone w/ a penchant for his musical offspring - whether it's Faust, Pere Ubu or Bongwater - should head straight for the original source at least once in their life.