Friday, August 12, 2011

Time to sing the praises of the early career of a man by the name of 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.


Pig State Recon said...

Next you'll be giving us a reassessment/career tribute to BUCKETHEAD

Dave said...

Ouch! I'll ignore that snarky remark...

Anonymous said...

a few years ago wire ran a thing about humour in music, and the disdain for frank zappa was overwhelming. i think it's interesting the way his work is universally disliked by "cool" people of all shades, stockhausen geeks, hc record collectors, square-rim bespectactled name it - zappa isn't cool!

i love his stuff - especially the mothers. i even understand why he would pick guys like terry bozio and steve vai to play in his band - it's the rock'n'roll equivalent of what miles davis did - pick the best young musicians you can find and you don't have to work so hard to get your ideas across. of course, all the bullshit instrumental cock rock and fusion lite his proteges moved on to is as much zappa's fault as a lot of what, say, john mclaughlin did could be miles davis' fault.

i think if the first couple of mothers records were recorded in dusseldorf, and let's face it, if he wasn't so obsessed by the toilet - translucently tanned record geeks would have a hell of a lot more time for the guy. how could you not.

who are the brain police?

Dave said...

Well put!

Andrew said...

I think that Zappa hate as a lot more to do with the idiotic fans his music attracts than with the music itself. There's enough of there for just about anyone to find something they can enjoy; it's the 'Zappa's a EGNIUS' zombies that ruin the fun.
The collab with Captain Beefheart is a pretty fine record as well. I have a smattering of Zappa and he can be good fun to listen to.

authorizedagent said...

If you find it cheap enough, get a copy of Freak Out on Vinyl. On the original record, the song "You Didn't Try to Call Me," ends with Ray Collins, I think (they are mighty fine vocals) saying/singing "Girl!" For some reason that one moment was edited off the CD. But it sounds great; gives the song a perfectly pure and pretty closure.
I live in Los Angeles, just about five miles from where El Monte Legion Stadium stood. One of the Zappa's grander qualities is that he, unlike 99% of the music biz, didn't go to Fairfax High School or grow up in hep Hollywood. There is probably no place as uncool, now, then, or anytime, as the suburbs and towns stretching east of L.A. - Downey, El Monte, Pomona, Ontario, Cucamonga. Part of Zappa's "having something to prove" attitude no doubt comes from this, as well as his unique desire to be a mexican, when every other white 60's rocker wanted to be black.
He is beloved by Los Angeles people in a way I don't think he is elsewhere. Like, in the 1980s Johnny Otis had a Monday night radio show on KPFK, a great show, which Zappa would sometimes show up for. His knowledge of R&B is extensive, and he obviously loved it.
One weird coincidence; earlier this evening I heard Henry Rollins' radio show, and the third song he played was a Zappa song from the late 70s. But the real weirdness was hearing Rollins explain the history of the recording sessions the song came from, how Zappa wanted the material released, how his plans were foiled by a change of label, etc etc. . . so there you go - the My War guy is a Zappa afficionado.
In the 1980s