FRANK ZAPPA. AGAIN (2011): Just one more time . . .

 |   |  7 min read

Frank Zappa: Ship Ahoy (from Shut Up 'N Play Your Guitar)
FRANK ZAPPA. AGAIN (2011): Just one more time . . .

The irritation, pleasure and difficulty with Frank Zappa was that he was always part of rock culture - but not exactly a rock musician. Well, not when it suits him.

“Being a rock star is nothing to aspire to," he once said. “Rock stars have to be cute and I`m a realistic guy. I shave this face every day. I know the deficit I’ve got."

But as the always-quotable Zappa (“the stuff I do has a low mindless-fun quotient”) also noted, he didn’t write a rock song until he was 20. Up until then all he’d ever written was chamber music and orchestral pieces.

"I couldn’t get them performed and the only way to hear them was to hire people ... and that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. Hiring people to play. Some hobby, huh?"

That "hobby" stretched over 40 years and Zappa (“I don't care about being middle-aged, I care about music”) was still irritating and confounding into his late Fifties. That's some achievement in itself, but eventually you have to come back to his enormous, sometimes extraordinary, often indifferent body of work.

money1Over 40 albums by Zappa (“I like tobacco") are readily available and they date back to his first three seminal albums Freak Out, Absolutely Free and his cruelly incisive parody of Sgt Pepper's and hippies, the sprawling but astute and pointed We’re Only In it For The Money.

Few records in rock culture stand up to serious scrutiny after more than four decades and Freak Out perhaps sounds more tame today than it was at the time. It’s still very odd, however.

Like all his early albums, Freak Out is a sound and style collage which swerves from the paranoia-persecution of Who Are The Brain Police? (picked up by Cheap Trick two decades later for Dream Police) to Go Cry, a sleazy doo-wop number which anticipated Zappa’s '68 album Reuben and the Jets, a loving recreation of Fifties wop-pop.

With hindsight it is clear just how much an album of its period Freak Out! was, although when lined up against its contemporaries like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and the Stones’ Aftermath, it sounds bizarre.

Zappa's rock vision, such as it was, seemed moulded by the late Fifties and his attempts at creating a Sixties pop-rock sound could swerve uncannily close to American pop bands like the Turtles. It was little surprise, therefore, when ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (who styled themselves Flo and Eddie) joined Zappa in '71 around the time of his 200 Motels film and album. (Lousy film, good soundtrack was the unanimous verdict).

The movie pointed up the problem which plagued Zappa and infuriated those who liked some stuff but were bored witless by most of his output. The film, like so many of his records, was unfocused. Weirdness is fine but Zappa (“I never set out to be weird, other people called me that”) was too often weird with little purpose.

Frank_Zappa_freakThe albums of early work which stand up the best today are therefore those breakthroughs in the Sixties – Freak Out!, his orchestral album Lumpy Gravy, We're Only In It For the Money and Uncle Meat – where he denied any musical or social parameters: blistering guitar solos, spoken word, cut-ups and dialogue, orchestral passages, satire, low-brow humour, high flying ideas . . . . They were all there, sometimes on the same album.

Within three years, Zappa had outlined in broad and sometimes crude strokes, his musical agenda. After that there was refinement, expansion, retrenchment . . .

frankzHe announced himself as someone apart from the rock culture in which he found himself. Parodying the Sgt Peppers artwork and conceptual style, We’re Only In It mercilessly satirised hippie culture (“Mmm, my hairs getting good in the back”) yet also contains some of Zappa's most affecting songs, like Mom and Dad, which addressed “The Generation Gap,” an issue of some importance to white middle-class, Time magazine-reading parents worried about this peace, pot and love beads explosion in San Francisco.

Zappa (“I'm interested in finding out what can be done with different forms of musical expression -- without any interference”) despised hippies, held agencies of control in contempt and always liked nothing better than to work.

A libertarian with long hair and a belief in the family unit.

Zappa ("I am a devout capitalist and always have been”) was the drug-free freak who looked like a hippie yet fervently spoke against the "tune-in. turn-on and drop-out" ethic.

That made you as useless as The Establishment, he argued, and on the cover of Freak Out -- the first double album in rock culture -- he wrote "forget about the senior prom and go to the library and educate yourself, if you've got the guts.”

Zappa ("If I want to wear a dress, that’s my business") was always hard to figure but basically he stood for an intellectual, rational and reactionary change of consciousness.

Suspect everybody, work at your work and beat ‘em at their own game -- weirdly, if possible.

The big drawback with Zappa (“daylight is an ugly time of day”) has always been he made too many indifferent albums littered with tedious and juvenile underwear and toilet jokes then claimed socio-political significance for them.

shutHe may have whinged that he wasn't taken seriously enough -- but that’s hardly the listeners' fault.

Albums like the Shut Up 'N Play Your Guitar (an exquisite, fluid triple album/double CD of live and studio guitar work) confirmed he was a master on the instrument, just as the ’84 Boulez Conducts Zappa showed that he was the serious composer he always claimed to be – even though Pierre Boulez only conducted three of the pieces and the other four were by Zappa himself. But context was everything.

But there were too few examples (and too many albums) like those in a career which produced more than 60 albums in his lifetime (another 20 or so since his death in December '93). And were not counting the numerous bootlegs.

However, rock culture would be the poorer without Freak Out, Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money, Hot Rats and others.

But in his lifetime Zappa (“I’m biologically disposed to Bulgarian folk music") was neither as funny nor as significant as he -- and his devotees – thought. He's irrelevant, said Bob Geldof when I spoke to him in the early Nineties, just a man who has cynically exploited himself.

Not that such criticisms have ever worried Zappa, of course. As far back as Freak Out he noted how “everybody worries so much about not getting airplay . . . my, my."

He said he didn’t need anyone to pat him on the head when he did good. In fact, he said he couldn’t care less what A people thought. Or words to that effect.

Since his death there have been the inevitable re-evaluations because his output meant you had barely dealt with one album than another – often very different – artifact arrived.

_AllCDCovers__frank_zappa_the_yellow_shark_2003_retail_cd_frontWith time to consider that massive catalogue other albums stand out: the live Roxy and Elsewhere of '74; the sprawling and demanding Joe's Garage rock/mock opera; selective pickings through his series You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, and his final album The Yellow Shark which confirmed his place as a contemporary composer who free-wheeled through blues and classical, fusion and low humour.

Frank Zappa has been gone close to 20 years now but people still listen to his work, essay and analyse it – and through the agency of his wife, it just keeps coming.

Like him or not, it looks like we're stuck with him.

Welcome to the Terrordome.

There is much more on Frank Zappa at Elsewhere starting here.


Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Absolute Elsewhere articles index



Almost 20 years ago on her self-titled album, Lucinda Williams sang Am I Too Blue, a penetratingly drained song about loneliness and self-doubt. If it hadn’t been for some flashes of jangling... > Read more

THE VODAFONE NEW ZEALAND MUSIC AWARDS 2017: But before we open the envelopes . . .

THE VODAFONE NEW ZEALAND MUSIC AWARDS 2017: But before we open the envelopes . . .

There were a few interesting things to observe about the recent APRA Silver Scrolls held in Dunedin. First they were in Dunedin and it seems a good thing to spread the ceremony around . . .... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

THE BARGAIN BUY: The Very Best of 10cc

THE BARGAIN BUY: The Very Best of 10cc

In critics' circles 10cc were revered for their exceptional album The Original Soundtrack in '75 (which featured the whispery sonic masterpiece I'm Not in Love) and then reviled for the faux-reggae... > Read more



In the Time Before Covid, Nadia Reid launched her exceptional Out of My Province album at a small event in the elegant Pah Homestead in Auckland. She performed a brief but very pointed... > Read more