The Frenzied Frontier of Pop Music

By Tom Nolan

Los Angeles Times WEST magazine, November 27, 1966

Freak out! Freak out!” The cry echoes around the cavernous walls of this really remarkable scene at the Shrine Auditorium. Through the dimness, illuminated by an occasional flashing strobe light, you can pick out an extraordinary variety of people shuffling around in the dark: true hippies who peer through dime-size colored glasses at the swirling colors and drawings projected on the walls above, the skinheads, all the Coast Guard-types in their square Madras sport shirts, down from Pomona to pick up some nice little teenyboppers.

There are the scrawny girls who are desperately trying to Be Hip in their starched white bellbottoms and who borrowed Mommy’s Chevy for the evening and are down here trying to Make the Scene. There are a few bewildered adults wandering around upstairs, staring down in wonder at the kids below, or going downstairs and threading their way through all the guys and gals lying on the floor.

This one fellow is really out of it, just standing right in front of this giant P.A. speaker, his ear right up to all that woofer and tweeter, catching the last shattering decibel produced by the rock band on stage, the Coloring Book. The cops and the newspaper reporters and photographers just laugh kind of nervously and shake their heads. And, of course, there is the focal point of all this Saturday-night excitement: The Freaks.

Most of The Freaks (that’s not being condescending – that’s what they call themselves) are waiting backstage for the appearance of Frank Zappa and his group, the Mothers of Invention, who are headlining this Saturday night Freak Out at the Shrine. But over in the shadows by the side of the stage is what appears to be a Freak Family: a mother dancing with her dark-maned little boy, who is about 4 or 5. The mother is fat, really huge, dressed in a loose, pink, gauzy-chiffon dress. She bounces around barefoot to the rock music’s electric panpipes, coiling a stole of the same material around and around the body of the little kid, who is dressed only in a brief pair of red swimming trunks. They remind you of those weirdos who frolic around on Sunday afternoons in Ferndell Park and play their wooden flutes, tra-la, and hide in the bushes when anybody comes near. There is something scarey, even grotesque, about the way the little kid twirls around his mother, making intricate arabesques with his hands.

Finally, Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention bound on stage and start tuning up. Frank is wearing flowered bellbottoms, a matching top and dirty sneakers. Behind the Mothers is a twelve-piece band, with saxophones, tympani, brass. Each of these union musicians is wearing his “working” black tux, which he bought to wear at gigs like the Starlite Room of the Roosevelt Hotel, and here he is working a job like this, playing for all these freaks! So these union cats just stare openmouthed and nudge each other as Frank starts singing the group’s theme song:

Watcha nee-diz
(Boom-chikka Boom-chikka)
Watcha nee-diz
(Boom-chikka Boom-chikka)

Now all The Freaks are onstage, dancing around to all the total mind-bending music: Suzy [Szou], the wife of sculptor Vito, wearing a brief costume covered by red gauzy ruffles and shouting an indistinguishable song about policemen into the microphone; and the biggest Freak, a wild-looking, mountain-goat of an old, red-bearded guy dressed in velour and purple tights and seemingly digging all the sight and sound.

But in spite of all the acrobatic enthusiasm generated by the types onstage, in spite of the strobe lights, the flashing colors and everything, this Freak Out is just not happening. There is a hard-core group of true Freak devotees clustered at the foot of the stage, but many – too many – of the three thousand or so people here are merely gapers, come not to participate but merely to watch the girls and The Freaks, to revel in The Sickness.

And up there on the stage, Frank Zappa – with his burst of black hair and moustache, this great pop-art figure framed in the neonfrosted glare of the spotlight, Frank Zappa wearing his flowered bellbottoms and his beat-up tennis shoes and, holding his electric guitar, seems somehow distant, apart from it all.

For, if the truth be known, the chief Mother of Invention is really kind of a quiet guy who lives in a hilltop home above Laurel Canyon, and will likely as not offer you a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich if you venture up there. He lives for the time being with more-or-less steady house guests, and the house is a nice, cozy Dada place: all over the walls are various bits of camp, trivia and esoterica – an autographed picture saying “To Frank, Good Luck! Your Pal, George Liberace”; several cordially-worded letters of rejection from music publishers, performers, and so on, to whom Frank had submitted songs; a poster for an old Mexican rock-and-roll dance which exhorts: “Boys Wear Ties – Girls Dress Nice”; an officer’s cap from the Los Angeles Police Department; a picture of Frank on Steve Allen’s old television show, clean-shaven, wearing a proper suit and tie, as straightlooking as anyone who ever came from Pacoima.

So Frank will sit for hours in the middle of all this and listen to tracks that he has arranged, and if it is a vocal record, perhaps he will listen to the singer too; but usually he takes the dub of the instrumental track and listens to it without the voice track, because he digs these “charts” he has written so much. “Ya hear that there?” he’ll exclaim in the middle of a rocking blues. “Ravel’s Bolero!”

So this is how one of the leaders of what may be the new direction in pop music spends much of his spare time, in his secluded hilltop home. It is really interesting that such a guy may actually affect the course of pop music, because for the most part it is the established new groups who are pulling pop music into the sophisticated present, groups like the Beatles, who are writing just about the best songs around, who use Indian sitar and tabla, sounds of a submarine, a brass band, counterpoint with a French horn, atonality, guitar solos taped and played backwards and electronic music; the Stones, whose latest Aftermath album includes a country-and-western tune, a mock-sinister Elizabethan ballad and an 11 1/2-minute improvised blues, with the instrumentation including Indian sitar, dulcimer (an obscure folk instrument from the American Appalachians) and harpsichord; the Beach Boys, whose Pet Sounds album topped the charts and was acclaimed both here and in England for its fantastic, lush arrangements, advanced harmonies and experiments in tempo; perhaps the finest American group, potentially the most revolutionary.

Groups like these usually start out with fairly nondescript material like Surfin’ U.S.A. or I Wanna Hold Your Hand, building up a power base which enables them to develop into more exciting music. Zappa, though, is an exception. With no hit single and very little air-play, his album Freak Out has sold enough copies to put the Mothers of Invention in the ranks of the underground best sellers which include the Fugs from New York (whose gamy, explicit songs like “Dirty Old Man” assure they will get absolutely no air play) and Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Now the Mothers and the Fugs and their confreres from San Francisco – the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Sopwith Camel, to name a few – all participate in varying degrees in creating what has been called “Shock-Rock,” a combination of far-out music with Theater of the Absurd. Zappa’s own album, Freak Out, is a two-record set with commentary by Frank which is really a put-down of the reader. The album carries photographs of his friends, and a list of influences ranging all the way from Loeb & Leopold and Sacco & Vanzetti to Lenny Bruce, Melvin Belli and Sabu.

The music on Freak Out is a conglomeration of electric-and-steel cacaphony: about 20 instruments (including French horns, woodwinds and what sounds like 12 million kettle drums) which play, among other things, a satire on old rock-and-roll, “a Motown waltz,” a song on the Watts riots, and what can only be a call by Frank and the avenging Mothers to some exploding megatonic 21st-century Judgment Day. The tunes include Hungry Freaks, Daddy, Who Are the Brain Police, Help, I’m a Rock and The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet, this last being a well-orchestrated eruption of French horns, tympani and electric guitars.

Zappa, though, isn’t afraid of going so far out he will lose his audience. “Hell, no. They’re ready for anything you can throw at ’em. Feedback, anything. It’s because they’ve been fed all this garbage for so long. The Beach Boys, Be True to Your School, and all that. They don’t wanna be true to their school, they want the truth!

Truth, as he sees it, is the new morality among teenagers, and it is interesting to see that while he thinks this is “the healthiest thing in the world,” Zappa is cool toward drugs. He claims he will have nothing to do with acid heads.

“That’s the beauty of a Freak Out,” he explains. “You get the same effect as from taking acid, but without any of the bad stuff. And it’s not like a happening, where they try to do something to you. It’s like the audience is all a part of the whole thing, you’re integrated into the whole fabric of sight and sound. You Freak Out.”

But even though Zappa absolutely and uncondtionally rejects any chemical means of inducing euphoria, spiritual visions or what-have-you, his music is intimately connected with his Life Style, and there are things about that way of life which can be more than vaguely upsetting. Like when Herb Cohen, the group’s manager, comes over to Frank’s house to tell him about this memorial service that Phil Spector, the ex-rock tycoon, is going to hold for his friend, the late Lenny Bruce; they want Frank and his group to perform.

And Frank is getting excited about this now, as he plays with the idea. He has this quiet, sardonic way of talking, except when he gets excited; then he is like a little kid with – and there it is in his hand! – a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. His eyes light up. Sure! I got it!

“Hey, man I’ll write a mass! A mass for Lenny Bruce. Yeah yeah, man! A Freak Out in a cemetery – man, that’s gotta be obscene!”

 Frank Zappa’s Freak Outs will never be as widely accepted as Dick Clark’s American Bandstand of the 50’s; and it is hard to say if the forces of Shock Rock can steer their music into the mainstream. Most of the hip crowd (what is left of it in Los Angeles, those who haven’t migrated up north) are convinced that rock will indeed follow the course of freakiness. But, as one of Frank’s friends says about Frank, “It’s so seldom that a true genius is recognized in his own time, ya know?”

But at least Frank’s contributing to the current development of pop music into an exciting 20th-century musical expression. For pop music has come a long way since the early days of rock. (Remember all those triplets pounding up in the piano’s treble reaches, the sound of Little Richard’s hoarse voice screeching, about 12,000 Negro quartets, and all those wonderful songs – Rock Around the Clock, Jingle Bell Rock, Tutti Frutti, Sh-Boom?) All that is in the past, and the Mothers of Invention are helping, in their surrealistic fashion, to create a New Music that functions less as dance music for a Saturday Night Hop, and more as a listening music for the Age of the Jet.

Not that everything that makes the charts is new and exciting, of course; one of the nation’s most recent Number 1’s was a monotonous little ditty that went “Ma ba – haby duz de Hanky-Panky,” and another classic tastelessly proclaimed: “They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa!” in a parody of mental illness.

But such “one-hit-wonders” have no sustaining power. [1] The established groups need to change and get better to stay on top, and it is mainly these groups – the Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys – who have created in the New Music a melting-pot of musical styles, effects and elements which can be drawn upon at will and in any combination. Trends, if they exist at all, last only for a week or two before they are sucked into the ever-widening mainstream.

Says Jim McGuinn of the Byrds (whose single of a few months ago, Eight Miles High, was a large step towards fusion of their own rock tapestry with John Coltrane-influenced electric jazz): “It’s all part of the huge, logarithmic explosion of the entire universe, or something like that. The Beatles have it now, it’s all there: jazz, ragtime, Oriental music, electronic music, even Kurt Weill.”

“Protest songs are dead,” McGuinn says, making a gesture with his fingers like water being sucked down a drain, “I don’t see that anything is to be gained by marching around with a sign or anything. I have sympathy for those people, of course. And so the hair (he touches his long blond hair) is kind of a badge, to show which side I’m on, it comes to that.”

Another group that is contributing mightily to the New Music, and which has changed its style tremendously over the years, are the Beach Boys. For if Frank Zappa’s forces are marshaling for their charge to the top, there is a second movement discernible in the shadows of pop music, and that movement is being championed by the leader of the Beach Boys, a pale, 23-year-old cherub named Brian Wilson, who sits in the dining room of his mother-in-law’s home on a pleasant side street in Hollywood (“A very real home,” as his publicist Derek Taylor says), surrounded by a color TV, a Magnavox cherry-wood hi-fi/stereo, and a plateful of tuna-fish sandwiches. He is dressed in a blue-and-white-striped T-shirt and white jeans – and what with all this suburban ideal stuff completing the environment, he doesn’t look at all like the seeming leader of a potentially-revolutionary movement in pop music.

But that’s exactly what he is, because if you ask him where he thinks the music is going, he will say one simple word.

“Spiritual,” says Brian Wilson. “I think pop music is going to be spiritual.”

Spiritual! Spiritual?

“White spirituals, I think that’s what we’re going to hear. Songs of faith. Anyhow, that’s the direction I want to go. I’m very religious. Not in the sense of churches, going to church; but like the essence of all religion. Yeah,” he says again, pleased with the phrase. “The essence of all religion.

“And another thing that interest me ... who was it, Karl Menninger, who said, ‘The child is father of the man’? That fascinates me! Anyway, that’s another song, Father of the Man.

What caused the turn of mind in this rich young man whose group earned their fortune as the balladeers of surfing and drag racing? Brian Wilson explains. “About a year ago I had what I consider a very religious experience. I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose. And I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can’t teach you, or tell you, what I learned from taking it. But I consider it a very religious experience.”

He’d never take it again, he says, because that would be pointless, wouldn’t it? And the people who take it all the time, acid heads he can’t go along with. Like all those people – Timothy Leary and all – they talk a lot, but they don’t really create, you know?

“I think the Beatles will get into this, I think they’ll pick up on it,” he says. (His brother Carl thinks the Beatles are an act of God.) “And we’ve always felt very close to them, like we were sort of connected in some way out of the ordinary. There’s a lot of things that are similar between us, like both our names begin with B-E-A. And both groups got started about the same time. And a lot of other things that are really surprising.”

It might surprise a lot of people to think of the Beatles as religious, especially after John’Lennon’s supposedly anti-religious statement which caused so much furor. A sign of the extent of this madness came just before the Beatles’ visit to Los Angeles, when the aforementioned publicist Derek Taylor sat sipping a beer in a Sunset Strip psyche-delicatessen and mused about the fate of the Beatles in America. “I’m seriously worried about someone with a rifle,” he was saying. “After all, there’s no Kennedy anymore; but you can always shoot John Lennon.”

Cooler heads prevailed, though, and after the furor died down you could interpret Lennon’s quote as just a mild rebuke of organized religion. Their song Eleanor Rigby is a similar criticism. And since the Beatles are writing songs along that line, and since George Harrison is going to India to study Indian music (which is intimately connected with Indian philosophy and religion), and since Eric Burdon of the Animals is planning to record with the Clara Ward Gospel Singers, and since the Rolling Stones have recorded what their producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, privately refers to as “a twelve minute Christmas symphony” – well, perhaps Brian Wilson is right. Perhaps the New Music, this listening music of today, will become the gloria for a New Religiosity.

“Our new single, Good Vibrations, is gonna be a monster,” Brian continues (a really big seller). “It’s a song about a guy who picks up, you know, good vibrations from a girl. Of course, it’s still sticking pretty close to that same boy-girl thing, you know, but with a difference. And it’s a start,” he says, gazing past you, “it’s definite}y a start.”

And seeing Brian Wilson supervising a recording session, you can’t doubt his sincerity or the fantastic extent of his dedication. He has retired from personal appearances with the group to devote his time to creating their material. He spent hours and hours in the studio producing their last album, and now he’s cutting another album, Dumb Angel, that promises to be just as exciting and precedent-breaking as Pet Sounds. All the work is done by Brian personally – no one, for instance, knows how much the Beatles’ development has to do with their producer, George Martin, or the Stones’ with Andrew Loog Oldham; but Brian is right there in the studio running down the parts with the studio musicians, clapping out the time for them, giving impromptu instructions to veteran guitarist Barney Kessel (“Try for more of a chink-chink-a-chink feel there”), making sure no irrelevant notes creep in (“Why is the harpsichord playing that? What’s that? I didn’t write that”), telling the engineer to give it a little more treble, putting all his body into listening to a playback, or frankly admitting that he doesn’t know what he wants but it just isn’t right and would you please play it again, guys?

He has this great self-taught approach to music, which Barney Kessel calls “kind of a Stone-Age-Man approach,” so that every now and then he will do something that makes these veteran guys snicker behind his back, like saying to the engineer: “That trumpet over there should be a little louder; the one with the – what is that, a mute?” Or someone will point out to him that the four bars which he thought was a traditional vamp is actually from Twelfth Street Rag, which is copyright material. “That’s all right,” he’ll say, “I’ll pay for it. You know I don’t steal.”

Perhaps the most impressive sign of his devotion to the music comes when it is 4:30 and he has yet to approve a final take; in three minutes all those studio musicians will go on overtime, which is $22.30 for each man, times 16, or a cost of about $350 to go into the next half hour. But Brian Wilson ignores all those people, the musicians, the engineer, everybody watching him, became it just isn’t right. So he gets a chair, and kind of apologetically (“Look, I’m gonna do something which isn’t very cool – ”) he stands on the chair and puts his head next to the speaker and cups his ears to listen to the last take being played back. Became he has all these obligations, to himself, to the public, to what’s inside his head, and it’s gotta be right, you know? It’s gotta be right.

The engineer looks at Brian’s wife, Marilyn (who, along with her sister, sang the chorus on Frank Zappa’s favorite Beach Boys’ record) [2] and says, “He should be satisfied with this one, don’t you think?”

And she says, “No, when he gets home he won’t be satisfied. He’s never satisfied.” She shakes her head.

And as you watch Brian Wilson up on the chair, with his head up next to the speaker, you wonder if all that effort from this beardless, chubby prophet will cause a revolution of sorts. And if it does, will the revolution of Brian Wilson have to compete with the revolution of Frank Zappa? Will Los Angeles become the starting place and chief battleground of a confrontation between two Life Styles? Will the forces of (if we must) Good and Evil meet on the darkling plain? And what would be the eventual result of such a momentous contest? Or will anyone really care? Will the revolutions never come about?

As Jim McGuinn of the Byrds would say: “We trust it will all work out.”

1. Charles Ulrich: "Napoleon XIV ("They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!", which didn't actually reach #1 on the Billboard chart) certainly qualifies as a one-hit wonder. But Tommy James & The Shondells ("Hanky Panky") went on to have thirteen more hits in the top 40, including another #1 ("Crimson & Clover") and five more in the top 10 ("I Think We're Alone Now", "Mirage", "Mony Mony", "Sweet Cherry Wine", "Crystal Blue Persuasion")."

2. Charles Ulrich: "The Honeys performed cheerleader yells on the "Be True To Your School" single, but not the album version."

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