Frank Zappa: Outrage And Invention
Frank Zappa is the only West Coast musician who emerged in the 1960s without giving free promotion to the California Tourist Board.
He alone came across with a music and a style that did not plug that California sunshine – everyone else from the West Coast used that sunny-groove appeal, whether they were involved in the pre-Beatles surfing and drag-racing scene, like Jan And Dean, or in the later acid/freak scene (like Country Joe & The Fish) or both, like the Beach Boys.
Zappa alone took no notice whatever and made music that could have come from New York or Chicago. In other respects though, he was not unlike Brian Wilson: he was a loner, a man with a strong and heady vision of what sounds should be going down; he was into record producing early, and bought himself a studio to operate from; and he was the creative and organisational force behind one of the outstanding bands of our time.
Zappa was born in 1940, lived in one of those suburban towns he has been razing to the ground in his work these last ten years – Edgewood, Maryland – till he was ten and then moved to California and a jumble of cities: Monterey, Pomona, San Diego, Lancaster. It was in Lancaster that Zappa paid his high school dues.
He taught himself to play drums when he was twelve, joined a school band, got the musical bug, and listened to the old r'n'b material of people like Howlin' Wolf.
I don't think it's pressing things too far in fact, to say that Zappa's sure touch with mid-record monologues comes more from hearing Howlin' Wolf do it brilliantly on 'Going Down South' than from hearing Nino & The Ebb-Tides do it so-bad-it-sounds-good.
It was when Frank Zappa was just in his teens that he came across the music of Edgar Varèse, the man whose beautifully iconoclastic quote decorates many a Zappa album: "The present-day composer refuses to die."
Varese did die, but Zappa has given at least some of his music a bigger audience than it might otherwise have grabbed, having drawn repeatedly on Varese works like 'Ionisation'.
Zappa also listened to Stravinsky, and started writing music – without hearing it performed – long before he left high-school at 18. That done, he attended some college courses in harmony and in 1959 finally stopped living with his parents and moved to Los Angeles. Emphatically Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco.
Zappa got his first thing recorded in 1960 – the soundtrack he wrote for a film called The World's Greatest Sinner. Characteristically, it involved 52 musicians, and he didn't get any money for it.
It didn't launch Mr Z a single inch toward stardom and he took a job in an advertising agency – further experience much-utilised since.
In 1963 things changed; another film-score Zappa had done, for Run Home Slow, gave him enough money to buy a studio in Cucamonga: a 5-track with a mix down to mono, that he could hire out to anyone who happended to want a studio in Cucamonga, Ca. Not many did, but there was Zappa, at 22, with his own studio and some gigs when he needed them with a group called The Muthers.
The rest of Zappa's pre-Freak Out! career runs roughly like this: he and Ray Collins wrote a moderately successful song called 'Memories Of El Monte'; they also fooled about (or were deadly serious – who knows) with songs like 'Hey Nelda' c/w 'Surf Along', written for Ned & Nelda, and 'The Big Surfer', which Zappa wrote for Brian Lord.
Zappa also co-wrote 'Break-time', cut by The Masters; did the arrangement and backing track on Bobby Jameson's 'Gotta Find My Roogalator', the guitar solo on 'Every Time I See You' by the Heartbreakers, and both guitar and drums on the Hollywood Persuaders' 'Grunion Run'.
In late 1964 Zappa eliminated the last "normal" person in the band, and the Mothers emerged as Zappa, Elliot Ingber (later in the Fraternity Of Man and later still in Captain Beefheart's Magic Band 1970-72), Roy Estrada (later in Little Feat and the Beefheart band), Jimmy Carl Black (who later formed Geronimo Black with Mother Bunk Gardner) and Ray Collins, who later vanished. Zappa's attempts to augment this line-up in 1965 resulted in all these young hopefuls passing through the band: Dr. John, Henry Vestine (of Canned Heat), Jim Guercio (producer for Chicago), Van Dyke Parks, Jim Fielder (of Buffalo Springfield and Blood, Sweat & Tears), Alice Stuart and Kim Fowley. Some of this motley crew appeared, but were later expunged from, an unpleasant film called Mondo Hollywood; they were also turned down by Columbia Records, with Clive Davis' immortal words "No Commercial Potential!"
The Mothers, as they spelt it by this time, were signed eventually to Verve/MGM, and a double-album, Freak Out!, was recorded early in 1966 and issued that summer. That's when the music went out of the window. What had impact for the public and for the media was the hairiness, the freakiness, the ugliness, the vulgarity of the band. They looked and sounded gruesome.
If you lived round the block from Zappa and his cohorts, you knew they were a logical product of a particular in-crowd of artists, musicians and hang-abouts, and that they were building on what The Fugs had started, mixed it with a little Lenny Bruce. But if, like most people, you didn't live down Zappa's street, he did seem very strange. Maybe he was, but the strangest thing – just how serious a student of music he was – did not get noticed.
My earliest memory of Zappa comes from this period, and it's one I relish: the sound of 'It Can't Happen Here' (from Freak Out!) being played on Juke Box Jury – seeing all those fat-cat faces, Al Martino fans all of them, people who thought that Freddie Cannon was the last word in vulgar toughness – ah, those were real palpitations of unhappiness, real pain, probably felt for the first time in years, dislodging their patronising smugness in an instant.
You can't keep it up forever, of course. There is no permanence to middle-class morality. Shock them with something one year and they'll be feigning indifference (and making money out of it) the next. Hairy people like Frank Zappa can only come up with a certain amount of outrageousness; after a while it seems mere obviousness – and after that it sounds dated.
All the same, the first few Zappa albums were outrageous enough in their time; Melody Maker, September 9th, 1967, had letters like these in response to a photo of Mr Z wearing, yes folks, a dress, which had been run on the front cover a fortnight before: "What a pathetic state the pop scene has got to when you have to look like him to sell records ..." – "I have never in my whole life seen such a horrid, vile and disgusting picture ..." – "Shame on the MM ... I am disgusted ... Frank Zappa is revolting. Any connection his group have with music is purely coincidental ... These groups are degrading pop to the level of animals."
They were wrong, of course, about the music; and as Zappa's outrageousness grew old-fashioned, it was his musical vision which not merely kept him going as a money-making rock artist, but which made him great. Without the music, he would hardly have lasted as long as he has, nor earned as much respect as he has done from his fellow musicians. What needs insistence is that the music was there all along – it was never just an afterthought, or a late developer. It has developed, but it was there from the start.
Right from the first album, there was a crowd of ideas zooming out at you, and the parodies of other pop styles had an uncanny accuracy. Even the cover of the third LP, We're Only In It For The Money was a masterpiece of transformed imitation – and hit home hard enough that Paul McCartney delayed its release.
This early period of Zappamusic also showed Frank's immense skill as an editor. He edits like other people create. It is astonishing, even now, how little padding – how little self-indulgence – shows through those first few albums, considering how much in the nature of such work self-indulgent unfunniness might seem to be. Not until the Zappa audience was large enough to give him almost unlimited playtime in film, the medium Zappa has always worked with but never really mastered, did he slip up and drown in that self-indulgence. 200 Motels produced some excellent music, but as a film it was stiflingly dull. In that it was uncharacteristic of Zappa, who has managed almost uninterruptedly to give us music that is serious, often extremely complex and sophisticated, but far from dull.
Part of the explanation for all these aspects of Zappa's work lies in the fact that he never was a hippy, however much he may have been a freak. He never got fooled into soppy pseudo-mysticism; never seduced himself into thinking he was God or Godlike; never thought that spaced-out grooviness automatically produced good music. What did make Zappa's music good was a mixture of his vision and hard work; even on stage, years ago, you could hardly avoid noticing that out of the midst of all them hairy abominable snowmen radiated a discipline and a tightness and an exactitude that belied their appearances and made most rock bands seem like poor jam-session get-togethers.
And Zappa plays tricks with time: with time in the sense of 4/4 or 6/8 or 5/4, and with time in the sense of wasn't-that-bit-used-three-albums-ago; with time in the sense of being able, like Van Morrison, to produce a lengthy incantatory solo that by its very nature perpetuates itself to a point where you want it to go on forever – which is the same as saying that it steps outside of time altogether.
Just as with Van Morrison's (say) 'Listen To The Lion', so too even such an early Zappa track as 'Invocation & Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin' (on Absolutely Free) the listener reaches a point at which it seems reductive and senseless to say "Ah, this track lasts 5 minutes 34 seconds," or whatever.
Further, Zappa masters time in the additional sense that he manipulates the past through montages of nostalgia – and if this seems less remarkable now than it used to, that is because in the end the recording industry latched on to possibilities that Zappa was exploring long ago, so that now we have both Instant Oldies and a whole wave of films about the pop of the past, designed to make people buy false memories and superimpose them on top of their less interesting but genuine recollections of youth.
Now, after That'll Be The Day and American Grafitti and the rest, we can all look back fondly on juke-box cafes we never actually set foot inside, trusty old winklepickers that our parents never allowed us to buy, records from the '50s by groups we never even heard of till 1972.
Frank Zappa, unlike the recording industry, kept it all under control, and gave us, long before the Revival Boom, an inspired montage of Chevrolet dates, drive-in movies and hamburger palaces, spliced into parallel evocations of American middle-class Moms and Dads, phoney hippies and politicians.
It was Zappa's splicing, his creative editing, of all this material and all these tricks of time – it was the final admixture of all these elements that made his music special and gave it a distinctive greatness beyond that of even so polished a purely musical band as the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Miles – another hardworking freak, ex of Indica Bookshop and more recently working in New York with Ginsberg and Burroughs – summed up this whole time/nostalgia relationship in Zappa's work thus: "Frank is working with a set of themes ... sneaking up on them from new angles, surprising them with strange orchestrations and weird time-signatures, ... they can withstand mid-fifties rock treatments or a poly-rhythmic breakdown and still come through! Zappa is the master of image overload. Thus Frank's themes become conglomerations of Burger-cruisin' in your father's car, hub-cap stealing, panty-raids and the memories of what you were doing when you first heard Frank's version ...
"By attacking these teenage themes with a complete arsenal of modern musical forms and techniques an ever-changing relationship is created between them and their many musical forms. It is this relationship which makes Zappa's music special."
It is also this system which gives Frank Zappa's work its own built-in critical boundaries. One album acts as a rehearsal for another, one track as an echo of one that went before; one marriage of time-signature and melody as counterbalance to a different match due to be made in the future. In this way, all of Zappa's music acts in effect as a cross-check on the rest. Zappa thereby gets to be one of those extra-special artists whose work gets judged in its own light instead of in the light of whatever else is around it. A dangerous business, and potentially narcissistic – yet Zappa, thus far at least, has cultivated it, capitalised on it, and hasn't blown it.
Not that he hasn't produced bad work. As social commentary, perhaps all of it is fairly suspect – he has always half-loved what he has lacerated, so that much of his anti-suburban material is blunted if you compare it not with other rock writing but with, say, Lenny Bruce.
And what can we say of Zappa's "critique" of the American woman? "You paint your head/Your mind is dead/You don't even know what I just said/That's you/American womanhood ... " OK, as surface observation that was fine: but without any follow-through, without any understanding of what produced that brand of femininity, there is no real analysis – no real statement.
And Zappa never wanted to follow it through; perhaps because, after a while, the only women he regularly met were groupies, and they, like the Bow Tie Daddies, were regarded with a mixture of contempt and affection by Zappa, so that his studies of them could never be truly sharp nor truly rounded. He couldn't afford not to take a limited view.
As music, too, Frank Zappa has not always been infallible. But who has? Let's not start niggling away at his work with some sort of cement-scraper. What remains impressive is how much of that work is undemolishably solid, right from the euphoric live version of 'Happy Together', which sounds so deceptively unrehearsed on the Mothers Live/Fillmore June 1971 album, to the virtuoso performances on Hot Rats, and from the delights of the surf-music moments on We're Only In It For the Money to the complex orchestral swamps of the underrated Waka/Jawaka album of a couple of years back.
What also becomes clear, if you look down through the great sweep of all those records, is how fine a sponsor of other people's talent Frank Zappa has been. Mothers of Invention have come and gone; very few have been undistinguished. They have included Billy Mundi, Arthur Tripp III (who became Ed Marimba in Beefheart's Band), Lowell George (later a founder-member of the fine Little Feat), and Aynsley Dunbar – a particularly adventurous choice, considering that he came from the deeply English blues roots of the Mayall band and Jeff Beck.
Most interesting in this respect is the impressive number of musicians from the jazz field that Zappa has utilised and/or popularised. Bringing Edgard Varèse to some kind of popular fame was by no means Frank Zappa's only exercise in promoting people off the central lines of popular music. In August 1967 a woodwinds-player and pianist joined the Mothers from the ranks of jazz groups complete with a master's degree in music – Ian Underwood. He remained, contributing heavily to Hot Rats, and was eventually joined in the band by his wife Ruth; only very recently have they split to do their own thing.
Zappa likewise brought in, via Hot Rats, the jazz pianist George Duke, Don Sugarcane Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty. And the point that needs emphasising is that not only did Zappa introduce these people to a wider audience – as well as giving recording opportunity and/or outlet, via his labels, to acts as varied as Alice Cooper and Lord Buckley – but throughout the varying line-ups, he kept the Mothers to a staggering consistency of concept and performance.
It needed a loner of remarkable vision and self-awareness to achieve such collaborative success; that success promises to give us many more years yet of rich, thoughtful and adventurous music. And no doubt that music will continue to contribute to Frank Zappa's overall themes and schemes, building up more pieces and new dimensions within the vast interlocking jigsaw of his output.
That output is jazz and rock without being jazz-rock; it is classical and pop without being anything to do with the Slade-Plus-The-London-Symphony-Orchestra school of music.
It is, simply, the deeply eclectic fusion of many musics by one of the handful of true giants we've had since rock began. Frank Zappa is indisputably one of the greats, and with him we can end this series on an auspicious high.