What Did You Do In The Revolution, Dada?

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Karl Dallas asks the pertinent questions ...
Let It Rock, June 1975


Frank Zappa might have been rock's Lenny Bruce, instead of its David Frost. What went right? The story of how the man who was once our most subversive freak was defused without having to surrender even one of his fondest principles tells us a great deal about the limits of dissent in a modern consumer society.

Contrary to today's general belief, there used to be a message in Frank Zappa's music, even though it was put over in a somewhat dadaist fashion. It was only later on that he became some kind of rich nihilist.

Dadaism, one of the first and most interesting flights from reason which greeted Western civilisation's discovery that the eternal truths of Euclid and Newton had been overthrown, was announced to the Parisian public on January 23, 1920, by Tristan Tzara, who read aloud a newspaper article while an electric bell rang so loud that no one could hear what he said.

"This was very badly received by the public, who became exasperated, and shouted," reported Tzara later.

Zappa would have loved that response, not only because his own attitude to art is rooted in the Parisian scene of between the wars – hence his continual espousal of the French-born composer, Edgar Varèse who, though he has lived in the USA since the beginning of World War I, as a pupil of d'Indy and Roussel is still very much a Frenchman of that era – but also because he used assault on his audience as a means of clearing away the dead wood of accepted attitudes and forcing it to think.

For though Dadaism appeared to the Twenties as nonsense, to us the point is only too clear: if the medium is nonsense then that is the message. As Zappa himself told Lorraine Alterman in 1966: "We are systematically trying to do away with the creative roadblocks that our helpful American educational system has installed to make sure nothing creative leaks through to mass audiences. We're here to help them. Them being the non-thinking plastic robot targets of Madison Avenue nonsense, poverty programmes and all that red, white and blue rigmarole."

To Robert Shelton he said: "I am trying to use the weapons of a disorientated and unhappy society against itself. The Mothers of Invention are designed to come in the back door and kill you while you're sleeping ... Sure, we're satirists, and we are out to satirise everything. Most of the guys in the band feel that we're going to do something to help."

And, taking the attack right into the columns of the enemy establishment, he advised Newsweek two years later: "Half of America is under twenty-five, yet there is no real youth representation in government. It's not my job to organise them. The best I can get them to do is ask a few questions. If we reach a million, maybe five hundred will become active and get out and influence the opinions of others. But those five hundred could be dynamite. I'd be happy to have that."

As recently as 1971, he was telling his listeners in a scrawled note on the back of his Fillmore East album: "DON'T FORGET TO REGISTER YOUR VOTE. – F.Z."

The depths of his care for the young prisoners of what Weatherpeople and other frustrated radicals were beginning to call Amerika came screaming out of the grooves of what is possibly his most passionate and committed album, We're Only In It For The Money, so widely misunderstood and interpreted, because of its Sgt Pepper parody sleeve design, as merely a put-down of Beatledom and flower power that one is forced to wonder if people have any ears left: "All your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control. A plague upon your ignorance and the grey despair of your ugly life ... All your children are poor unfortunate victims of lies you believe. A plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve."

Not that this meant an unthinking acceptance of the "youth revolution" and all that it implied to ageing marketing men anxious to make a fast buck out of the generation gap. In his very first Mothers' album, the two-for-the-price-of-one Freak Out (for some unaccountable reason chopped down to a single album on its UK release, dropping some tracks and truncating others), he applied his favourite term of abuse, "plastic", not only to Mr. and Mrs. America, with their supermarket dreams, blue rinse's and Brooks Bros. suits, but to their children. While recognising that it might not, perhaps, be their fault, he nevertheless used the tactics of direct attack to shock them out of their smug self-assurance of their superiority over their parents, something Zappa apparently felt to be quite unproven. "You think we're talking 'bout someone else," he snarled.

It was this alienation from his audience – which is what it became – which reached traumatic proportions after his third album and led him, for a short while, to wind up the Mothers and concentrate upon what he called music music, meaning serious composition (Lumpy Gravy), at; one extreme, and recreations of mouldy oldies (Ruben And The Jets) at the other. He explained to Rolling Stone in 1969: "I like to play but I just got tired of beating my head against the wall. I got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons. I thought it time to give the people a chance to figure out what we've done already before we do any more."

He also said he planned to announce his future plans in Playboy magazine, saying: "Those are the people who need to listen to us most."

Let us backtrack for a moment and see the way his attempt to shock his audiences into a realisation of the superficiality of their avowed positions had developed into an alienation so complete that he preferred the readership of Playboy.

Quite apart from direct polemical confrontation, he used dadaist techniques of apparently nonsensical and irrelevant action on stage, both visually and aurally, to freak his audiences out and, hopefully, open their minds to the new concepts he was trying to put across. When he used the term to title his first album, "Freak Out!" was a fairly new addition to the language, and he explained it to Shelton as a "process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole."

As a piece of Sixties-style verbiage, that's pretty standard stuff, but if nothing else illustrates that Zappa was as able to spout pretentious hogwash as any other of his targets.

The methods by which he achieved this object were the product of a stage discipline that kept the band continually on their toes, turning all the resources available into an instrument played by the nimble fingers of one Francis Vincent Zappa.

His interest in the raw material of human digestion transcended the irrelevant inconsequentialities of dadaism and spilled over into the more significant juxtapositions of its successor surrealism, which as one contemporary critic commented, sometimes tended to sound like inventories of a grocer's shop:

"At midnight, with wet hands,

someone knocks at my door in the mist,
and I hear the voice of the celery, a deep voice,
a harsh voice of imprisoned wind,
complaining wounded of waters and roots,
sinking its bitter rays into my bed.
and its disorderly scissors beats upon my breasts
seeking tire mouth of my drowned heart."

(Apogee of Celery, by Pablo Neruda.)

Compare with, from the second album 'Call Any Vegetable':

"Call and they'll come to you covered with dew,

Vegetables dream of responding to you.
Standing there shining and profound by your side.
Holding your joint while the neighbours decide,

Why is a vegetable something to hide?"

Although the Neruda is high art (though its imagery is rooted in Chilean folk poetry) and the Zappa is low doggerel, both use a similar device of incongruity to jerk the mind out of well-worn grooves. Also, according to some notes Zappa wrote in International Times in 1967: "The best clue to this song might lie in the fact that people who are inactive in society, people who do not live up to their responsibilities are vegetables. I feel that these people, even if they are inactive, apathetic or unconcerned this point, can be motivated toward a more useful sort of existence. I believe that if you call any vegetable that it will respond to you."

While most hippies and freaks were proud of their superiority to the loyal citizens of the straight state, Zappa, for all his outrageousness, wanted to them to build bridges. And while for some the sexual revolution was a trip in its own right, for Zappa it had wider political implications: "'Brown Shoes Don't Make It' is a song about the people who run the government, the people who make the laws that keep you from living the kind of life you should lead. These unfortunate people manufacture inequitable laws and ordinances, perhaps unaware of the fact that the restrictions they place on the young people in society are a result of their own hidden sexual frustrations. Dirty old men have no business running your county."

Compared with the link between unrealised sexual fantasies and right wing politics (reminiscent of the writings of Reich), a later song like 'Dinah-Moe-Hum', on Over-Nite Sensation, is more reminiscent of the revelations in a "sexeducation" mag like Forum. Though, like Lenny Bruce, Zappa had depicted at an earlier stage the anxiety-making fraud of the orgasm-fixation which had been foisted on American lovers, this saga of the lady who's "got a forty-dollar bill say you can't make me cum" – and of course he wins the bet – is mere adolescent wanking.

The aggression that runs right through Zappa's lyrics manifests itself frequently in his coverage of sexual matters in a particularly repellant kind of male chauvinism. In his earlier lyrics this could be masked as political comment, but later, as his focus shifts from American womanhood to the groupies hanging round Laurel Canyon, it becomes obvious that while the men, even the straight men, are people with a potential for redemption, women are objects, the ugliest part of whose bodies are their minds.

Which brings us, I suppose, to We're Only In It For The Money, the last and most powerful of the three albums which seem to be dedicated to the premise that it is possible to do something about what is wrong with society. Some of the apocalyptic visions of songs like 'Concentration Moon' have proved to be excessively alarmist; though the concentration camps of California were undoubtedly being readied for hippy inmates, they were never used, and the American military-industrial complex found other ways of diverting the impetus towards social change. But it is frightening to realise that, in its prophecies of horrors to come, "Mom and Dad", with its tale of a rich young girl dying by the side of a hippy shot down by police, actually pre-dates the Kent State University massacre.

Basically, Zappa contrasts two worlds: on the one hand, the bow-tie daddies, lost in fond complacency that everything's under control, and on the other, the freaks, who might be able to do something about it if they weren't so hung up on fencing themselves into a ghetto of head shops and crash pads:

"Every town must have a place

where phony hippies meet,
Psychedelic dungeons popping up

on every street."

The alternative is a utopian vision of a time "when you can even take your clothes off when you dance." Though this song is sung in a satirical tone, it is clear that the linking of sexual liberation and political liberation is deliberate. The last words on the album, before the apocalyptic noise-level of 'The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny', are an impassioned appeal to people to listen to the words, for God's sake, before it's too late:

"Lemme take a minute and tell you my plan,

Lemme take a minute and tell who I am.
If it doesn't show,
Think you better know,

I'm another person."

It is a pity, in a way, that the brilliance of the artwork's parody of Sgt Pepper, which upset Paul McCartney so much that he successfully held up production for several months, has made people see the album as an attack on the Beatles. Of course, a song like 'Absolutely Free', with its fairly obvious parody of the soft-centred imagery of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds', does go to the heart of the reasons why their search for inner freedom was doomed to failure.

Like many things in Zappa's work, the title is a recurring theme. It was used for his second album and also for the Mothers' first stage show. An existential freedom, recognising man's inescapable role in society, is what Zappa is trying to lay on us. This is the only freedom that is absolute, and by giving the title to a soggy mish-mash of trippy images, he shows how illusory is the freedom found through hallucinogens. I sometimes wonder if, in naming his band after necessity, Zappa was aware of Engel's statement that freedom was the recognition of necessity.

According to the notes, parts of Money were censored. The words, "Don't come in me in me," from the coupling of Harry and Madge on side one are left on the record, but cut from the notes, while in the middle of the notes for 'Mother People' appear the ominous words, "the verse that really goes here has been censored out and recorded backwards in a special section at the end of side one." Since 1962, Zappa had struggled against the inertia of the record and film industries, who had countered his efforts by

(a) saying his work had no commercial potential,

(b) saying it was offensive, and

(c) treating him as a licensed buffoon.

On top of that, the band was starving. On Uncle Meat, a double album which offended his then British distributor so much that it was only heard here by the intervention of Transatlantic Records (who also distributed his recording of Lenny Bruce's brilliant Berkeley concert), there is a sequence of a discussion within the band of how they're getting pissed off with working so hard for so little reward.

It is significant that when he disbanded the Mothers in despair after We're Only In It For The Money, the album he did under his own name, Hot Rats, was the first to showcase his talents as a serious musician in what, later, was to be described as the jazz-rock bag. And it is ironic that it was from then on that his commercial success began to grow.

Musically, from the 'Satisfaction' fuzz bass riff that opens Freak Out! to the aleatory sequence at the end of We're Only In It For The Money, his first three albums had crammed more ideas in them than any other artist has produced in his whole lifetime, including the Beatles. Some of the doowop parodies on Freak Out, for instance, are musical gems, notably the three-four 'How Could I Be Such A Fool?' It's a wonder some Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdinck hasn't culled a Top Forty hit out of them because they stand up in their own right as songs, and arrangements, and not merely as parodies.

But it may be that, as he told Rolling Stone, he was going too fast for someone – his audience (always a convenient. anonymous scapegoat) or his record company (more likely). So, though Hot Rats, and a whole sequence of largely instrumental albums that were to follow it, illuminated an aspect of his virtuosity that had been concealed up till then, they were in another respect simpler than the first three. Certainly, for the most part, their textures were less elaborate. The techniques of the recording studio were not stretched so far.

The lyrics were never so pointed. What had started as dadaism and progressed to surrealism had become nihilism, in which the words had no real significance. A song might be about dental floss, or frozen dog urine. They were just sounds.

As he said on Uncle Meat, the words were "scientifically prepared from a random series of syllables, dreams, neuroses and private jokes ... loaded with secret candy-rock psychedelic profundities" but "basically this is an instrumental album." And it was the instrumentals – notably his own incredible modal guitar solo on 'Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution' and Ian Underwood's 'King Kong', which made the album worth buying.

Frank Zappa had made his own kind of ghetto. The only people shocked by his words were those who remembered when they were about something more profound than the mechanics of shitting and fucking.

He had started out to "epater le bourgeoisie". He ended up epatering the coterie (his own words). The playing was dazzling, of course: no way could he produce an album that was completely devoid of musical interest (though some hung together better than others). Ironically, having said he was going to give us time to digest what he'd done so far, he deluged us with a torrent of albums which, even if they didn't quite live up to the twelve a year he threatened at one time, astonished by the consistent excellence of his playing and that of his changing roster of associates. But while his earlier albums had distinct identities, one from the other, each making a specific point, the later productions seemed to blur into each other, to become almost hip muzak for the people who had risen, like him, from the sinks of urban hippiedom into the position of the new privileged.

"You're probably wondering why I'm here?" he had sung on his first album, and then, prophetically, answered his own question: "They only pay me here to play." Then it was a sort of special pleading. But it became a prophecy of things to come.