Thinking about what to write my first piece on I came up with a number of permutations and possibilites. Something easy and concise, something I’ve explored to the fullness of my capabilities, something which isn’t going to expose my weaknesses as a writer. But then I thought “no, now is definitely the time for symbolism, fuck the consequences”
So here it is: My critique of an audacious, sprawling and overreaching debut album, one which isn’t quite the best the artist has to offer but which definitely sets out the stall and hints at most of the avenues later pursued. See the parallel I’m drawing here?
By now, you might have gathered that this wasn’t exactly the most obvious choice. Though saying that, the choice of a Frank Zappa album for my first post wouldn’t be completely out of the blue. I certainly consider him one of my favourite artists (whilst being familiar with only a fraction of his musical output), and various of his other albums definitely occupy high spots in any “BEST ALBUMZ EVAH!” lists I may partake in. But up until very recently, this debut didn’t do very much for me at all. Admittedly, listening to it after a while apart it just clicked, but before that I had a definite aversion to it.
I suppose I’d better explain this.. Freak Out! is the first album by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention (here under the moniker of The Mothers of Invention, though Frank Zappa is singled out as the “leader and musical director” in the sleeve notes). Its a sprawling double LP (apparently one of the first) containing numerous diversions into cheesy doo-wop, garage rockers and avant garde sound collages. What’s not to like, you might ask?
Well, the cheesy doo-wop was probably the thing which most put me off at first. Not that I have anything against doo-wop as a genre, but it seems to be lacking in one of Zappa’s most appealing features at this time: humour. One thing I love about Zappa is his mastery of almost all forms of music, and his incredible ability to twist these structures and sounds into something which both satirised the music in question and their various conventions as well as paying reverential homage to it. Now, this sort of tactic is definitely present in Freak Out!, but particularly in the pop numbers the emphasis seems to be too much on reverence over dissection. These songs see the band playing “the straight man” too often, and just making replica versions of the songs they are satirising with no real distance from them. And when they do make their mocking a bit more overt.. Well, I just don’t find the gags particularly funny.
One could definitely say this is them being subtle, or that they wanted to get the label interested in them as a prelude to more freaky stuff, and as an early Zappa apologist I might be inclined to do so. But whatever your opinions on these points one thing cannot be argued with: As examples of pop music these songs tick a hell of a lot of boxes. In terms of songcraft they are perfectly formed, sliding in between the standard verse-chorus-bridge structure with precision and true skill: The Mothers really knew their way around pop music, and certainly knew how to reproduce the best pop songs to perfection., and as well as this they were able to place abstract or intellectualised sections into these otherwise commercial sounding songs, with off key melodies and bizarre neo-classical sections mixed in seamlessly with the rest of the pop. Basically, as musical songs they are exemplary. The only area where they fall down (and it’s a big drop) is in the lyrics: self obsessed teenage romance worries about your girl not calling you, your girl going off with some other high school hunk, nobody caring if you live or die. And boy, are they cheesy!
But of course, that’s the entire point. The Mothers’ intention was to send up these tired clichés, the sort of things featured in the commercial music which surrounded them at the time. My main concern is that large portions of the album would be nearly indiscernible from the music they were mocking.
But as well as these pop songs there are a large number of songs which would sound very out of place on the hit parade, often mixed in amongst the more straightforward pieces. Take for example Who Are The Brain Police?, a superb example of Zappa’s ear for bizarre musical melodies and harmonies (as well as a much more overt attack on the sections of society he satirises throughout). It has sections which sound like drugged out pop, sections which sound like a perverted barbershop quartet, and a middle divergence which could be inadequately described as “spiralling classical noise”. And all of it is mixed together seamlessly with Zappa’s exemplary production techniques. Amusingly, the next song is an OTT doo-wop number, just to greater emphasise the musical juxtaposition of the contrasting styles.
But Who Are The Brain Police? is basically commercialist compared to the pieces which populate the second part of the double LP. If the Mothers were sprinkling abstraction on for the first half, they were pretty much shovelling it on for the rest.
Trouble Every Day, which opens side 3, is easily the most “normal” song of this segment, adopting an enjoyable bluesy groove. But the song has a very explicit political stance, anti-establishment and anti-media, and speaking of social injustice, poverty, race and casual, unavoidable violence (and all without getting too po-faced). It’s a big step on from the more cloaked attacks on ‘plastic’ society in the previous half, as well as being superbly paced and structured and intelligently written. One of the best songs on the album in my opinion.
But from there, things do get progressively more freaky. In essence, a lot of the following music does draw on the mutant harmonies and 60s textures of what had come before it, but its pushed much further away from any sort of pop structure. They aren’t formless as such but are certainly a lot more subtle and unusual as songs, drawing much more on free jazz and modern classical than contemporary pop. The culmination of this is The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet, a side long bizarrathon with nary a melody in sight. Now personally, this song in particular doesn’t do a great deal for me. I certainly don’t mind listening to it, but do find it a little bit dry and uninspiring. And yes, a little dull. But taken within the context of the album its really quite a brave move. I can imagine casual listeners drawn in by the pop of the opening run of songs being.. well, freaked out by it all. And as a band on their first album, they were taking a big chance in alienating all of their listeners.
But that’s one of the things about Zappa and The Mothers that I love most: I honestly believe they could have been the most popular band in the world, being masterful musicians and knowing music inside out. But instead they chose to dance around the fringes of pop music, occasionally throwing out teasing visions of commercialism before tempering it with uncommercial abstraction almost within the same breath. They just wanted to fuck with us. And whilst this album isn’t the pinnacle of their achievements (in my opinion, “respectable” critics like Rolling Stone say its Zappa’s outright best) it does indeed give an impression of where they would later take their music, all while containing embryonic versions of a lot of their trademark techniques. And for that it definitely deserves exploration.
So.. was that sprawling and overreaching enough for you?