The Oracle Has It All Psyched Out

By Frank Zappa

Life, June 28, 1968


The New Rock

Rock music is a necessary element of contemporary society. It is functional. It is healthy and valid artistically. It is also educational (how to ask a girl for a date, what love is like). It has all the answers to what your mother and father won't tell you. It is also a big business. This is a brief history of rock and its relationship to our society.

LO: PFF PFF. A nifty questionnaire to get you interested so you'll read the rest of the article:

Part One: The 50s

1. Who remembers beer? White port and lemon Juice? For 10 points, what was the name of the guy in your school who used to buy your juice for parties...

2 Who remembers making out and getting hot? For 10 points, how old were you when it happened...

3. Who remembers duck tails, peggers, leather Jackets, bunny shoes, brogans, tight sweaters, teardrops, full skirts with a million starchy petticoats, Sir Guy shirts and khakis? For 10 points, how much did you pay for your St. Christopher medallion...

4. Who remembers gang fights, tire chains, boys with razor blades in the toes of their wedgies, girls with razor blades in their hair, blood and sickening crunch? For 10 points, tell why the cops were afraid of your gang...

Part Two: The 60s

5. Who remembers speed? Smoke? Acid? Transcendental meditation? For 10 points, name your connection or guru...

6. Who remembers getting stoned and having an orgy? For 10 points, how old were you when you learned you were incapable of relating to others in a tender, personal way and finally discovered you were becoming asexual...

7. Who remembers electric hair, bell bottoms, plastic jackets, sandals, high boots, bulky knit sweaters, Guccis, miniskirts, De Vos shirts and velvet pants. For 10 points, look around the house, find your beads and bells, and recite Hare Krishna without laughing...

8. Who remembers demonstrations, truncheons, Mace, police dogs, the Pentagon, Century City, blood and sickening crunch? For 10 points, tell why you were afraid to cut your hair, infiltrate the establishment, and do it the easy way...

Our present state of sociosexual enlightenment is, to a certain extent, attributable to the evolution of rock and vice versa. Our story begins back in the good old days, it the recreation centers; no Levis or capris please. "School functions" and teen hops were real swell and keen and acceptable to Mom and Dada. They were also dull unless you liked to dance a fox-trot as the high school swing band fumbled through an evening of Combo Orks and reprocessed Glen Miller. The kids would be holding on to each other desperately and sweating. The chaperon would come along and say, "Seven inches apart please," and hold a sawed-off ruler between you and the girl.

Society was very repressed, sexually, and dancing was a desperate attempt to get a little physical contact with the opposite sex. Free love, groupies, The Plaster Casters of Chicago and such bizarre variants as the G.T.O.s of Laurel Canyon in L.A. didn't exist then. Preoccupation with sexual matters accounted for a disproportionate amount of daily conscious thought process and diverted a lot of energy from school work.

This, and the low quality of teaching in many kids to seek education in the streets. Youth gangs with marvelous names and frightening reputations cruised the streets at night, searching for ways to compensate for the lack of sexually approachable girls. Vandalism and assorted manglings became acceptable substitutes for teen sex. Young men would compete, like cowboy gunfighters, to be the "baddest cat". This dubious honor would generally entitle its bearer to boss the gang and, in some instances, preferential treatment from those few daring girls who would "go all the way".

Parents, unfortunately, have a tendency to misunderstand, misinterpret, and, worst of all, ridicule patterns of behavior which seem foreign to them. When they noticed a growing interest among teenagers in matters pertaining to the pleasure-giving functions of the body, they felt threatened. Mom and Dad were sexually uninformed and inhibited (a lot of things wrong with society today are directly attributable to the fact that the people who make the laws are sexually maladjusted) and they saw no reason why their kids should be raised differently. (Why should all these dirty teenagers have all the fun?) Sex is for making babies and it makes your body grow misshapen and ugly afterward and let's not talk about it, shall we?

The Big Note: Digression I

In the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra album Lumpy Gravy there is a section on side two where several unidentified characters discuss the origins of the universe. One of the characters explains the concept of the Big Note: everything in the universe is composed basically of vibrations – light is a vibration, sound is a vibration, atoms are composed of vibrations – and all these vibrations just might be harmonics of some incomprehensible fundamental cosmic tone.

How important is sound? I participated in a conversation recently with Herbie Cohen (our manager) about rumors of a government research project. The project, it seems, has been going on for several years. What does sound do to plants? According to Herbie, a field of corn increased its yield – the individual ears even got bigger – because the research team set up loudspeakers in the field and pumped in some music. According to Herbie, the next step is to find out what kind of music the vegetables like the best.

The ways in which sound affects the human organism are myriad and subtle. Why does the sound of Eric Clapton's guitar give one girl a sensation which she describes as "Bone Conduction"? Would she still experience Bone Conduction if Eric, using the same extremely loud thick tone, played nothing but Hawaiian music? Which is more important: the timbre (color-texture) of a sound, the succession of intervals which make up the melody, the harmonic support (chords) which tells your ear "what the melody means" (Is it major or minor or neutral or what), the volume at which the sound is heard, the volume at which the sound is produced, the distance from source to ear, the density of the sound, the number of sounds per second or fraction thereof ... and so on? Which of these would be the most important element in an audial experience which gave you a pleasurable sensation? An erotic sensation? Look at the kids in school, tapping their feet, beating with their fingers. People try, unconsciously, to get in tune with their environment. In a variety of ways, even the most "unconcerned" people make attempts to "tune up" with their God. Hal Zeiger (one of the first big promoters of rock entertainment during the 50s) says, "I knew that there was a big thing here that was basic, that was big, that had to get bigger. I realized that this music got through to the youngsters because the big beat matched the great rhythm of the human body. I understood that. I knew it and I knew there was nothing that anyone could do to know that out of them. And I further knew that they would carry this with them the rest of their lives."

Rock around the Clock

In my days of flaming youth I was extremely suspect of any rock music played by white people. The sincerity and emotional intensity of their performances, when they sang about boyfriends and girl friends and breaking up, etc., was nowhere when I compared it to my high school Negro R&B heroes like Johnny Otis, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Mae Thornton.

But then I remember going to see Blackboard Jungle. When the titles flashed up there on the screen Bill Haley and his Comets started blurching "One Two Three O'Clock, Four O'Clock Rock...." It was the loudest sound kids had ever heard at that time. I remember being inspired with awe. In cruddy little teen-age rooms across America, kids had been huddling around old radios and cheap record players listening to the "dirty music" of their life style. ("Go in your room if you wanna listen to that crap... and turn the volume all the way down.") But in the theatre, watching Blackboard Jungle, they couldn't tell you to turn it down. I didn't care if Bill Haley was white or sincere... he was playing the Teen-Age National Anthem and it was so LOUD I was jumping up and down. Blackboard Jungle, not even considering the story line (which had the old people winning in the end) represented a strange sort of "endorsement" of the teen-age cause: "They have made a movie about us, therefore, we exist..."

Responding like dogs, some of the kids began to go for the throat. Open rebellion. The early public dances and shows which featured rock were frowned upon by the respectable parents of the community. They did everything they could to shield their impressionable young ones from the ravages of this vulgar new craze. (Hal Zeiger: "they did everything they could to make sure their children were not moved erotically by Negroes.")

From the very beginning, the real reason Mr. & Mrs. Clean White America objected to this music was the fact that it was performed by black people. There was always the danger that one night – maybe in the middle of the summer, in a little pink party dress – Janey or Susy might be overwhelmed by the lewd, pulsating jungle rhythms and do something to make their parents ashamed. 

Parents, in trying to protect their offspring from whatever danger they imagined to be lurking within the secret compartments of this new musical vehicle (rock music) actually helped to shove them in front of it whereupon they were immediately run over. The attitude of parents helped to create a climate wherein the usage of rock music (as a pacifier or perhaps anesthetic experience) became very necessary. Parents offered nothing to their children that could match the appeal of rock. It was obvious to the kids that anyone who did not like (or attempt to understand) rock music, had a warped sense of values. To deny rock music was to deny sexuality. Any parent who tried to keep his child from listening to or participating in this musical ritual was, in the eyes of the child, trying to castrate him.

There was much resistance on the part of the music industry itself. (Hal Zeiger: "I remember a conversation with M-- D--, a very famous song-writer, who has written many of our all-time favorites, wherein he chided me for being involved with this kind of music and entertainment and I said to him, 'M--, you are just upset because it has been discovered and revealed that a song written by some young colored child in a slum area can capture the fancy of the American public more effectively than a song written by you, who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion.")

Every year you could hear people saying, "I know it's only a phase...it'll poop out pretty soon. The big bands will come back." Year after year, the death of rock was predicted ... a few times, as I recall, it was even officially announced: "Rock 'n' roll is dead, calypso is all the rage” ...

Oh, Those Great Rhythms: Digression II

The function of the drums in a rock music ensemble is to keep the beat. ("It has a good beat ... I give it 10 points, Dick.") On early R&B records, the drum part was usually executed with brushes. All the arrangements required, generally, was a dull thud on the second and fourth pulse of the bar. There were very few "breaks" or "fills." When the drum fill (a short percussion outburst, usually at a cadence or resting point of a musical phrase) became popular in rock arrangements, it most often took the form of groups of triplets (three-note rhythmic figures, squeezed into the space of two beats ... sounding like: ya-da-da ya-da-da ya-da-da ya-da-da- whomp). For a while, during the mid-50s, it seemed like every record produced had one or more fills of this nature in it. Eventually, with the improvements in studios and recording techniques, the drummers began to use sticks on the sessions and the cadence fills became more elaborate but, before and after the fill, the drummer's job was still to keep the beat ... that same old crappy beat ... the beat that made the kids hop around and scream and yell and buy records. A long process of rhythmic evolution has taken place since the early 50s. It is laughable now to think of that dull thud on the second and fourth as lewd and pulsating.

Green Visors

Hal Zeiger: "The problem at the time was basically this: trying to make the music acceptable, or, to try to get the right to expose it, and that took some doing. I knew the kids were listening to the radio stations ... it was just a matter of how to merchandise this to get their dollars, too! I told Bill Graham (founder of the Fillmore and former manager of the Jefferson Airplane), 'You've got to understand when these things are underground, that's one thing. But the minute it goes over ground, the minute, you see, it looks like money, everyone wants in'. "

So to make R&R acceptable, the big shots of the record industry hired a bunch of little men with cigars and green visors, to synthesize and imitate the work of the Negroes. The visor men cranked out phony white rock. Highly skilled couriers then delivered the goods to American Bandstand along with lots of presents (tokens of their esteem) to Dick Clark for all his marvelous assistance in the crusade to jam these products down the kids' throats ... Pat Boone was notable, too, for his humanistic activities (bleaching Little Richard and making him safe for teenage consumption).

One of my favorite Negro & groups during the 50s was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Their work was some of the most important sociosexual true-to-life commentary of that era, for instance: Stingy Little Thing (a song in protest about girls who wouldn't "put out"), Work with Me Annie, and Annie Had a Baby. Songs like these got played on the air every once in a while – the kids would hear Annie Had a Baby and say, "Hey, here's a song about a girl getting pregnant," and rush to tune it in – but an official of the station (with teen-age children of his own to protect) would "lay a pink memo on it," and the song would sort of "disappear." The visor men, meanwhile, were magically purifying all this stuff. Work with Me Annie ("Please don't cheat/Give me all my meat") through the wisdom of their craft became Dance with Me, Henry ("If you want romancin'/You better learn some dancin' "). 

Vaseline

White rock, overproduced and shiny, nearly slickened itself to death. (Remember Fats Domino with Strings?) The music industry was slumping a bit. Was this to be the end of rock? Were we doomed to a new era of country & western tunes smothered in Vaseline? Then, just in the nick of time, Beatlemania! New hope. There they were: cute, safe, white. The kids took to them immediately. Their music had real energy; it was sympathetic to their life style. It was music made for young people by other young people. No green visors. It seemed to radiate a secret message: "You can be free. You can get away with it. Look, we're doing it!"

I'm sure the kids never really believed all The Beatles wanted to do was hold your hand. And the girls were provided with "kissable closeups" (enlarged views of their idols' lips, teeth and gums) which they could kiss, touch, rub and/or hang on the bedroom wall. Girls forgot Elvis Presley. He was too greasy, too heavy business: sullen pouting and all that stuff. The Beatles were huggable & cute & mop & tops & happy & positive. Beatlemania was fun to be involved in.

The record companies were at a loss to compete with the British threat. Zeiger relates another droll incident: "I remember Mike Maitland who was then vice president and sales manager of Capitol Records. He was decrying the fact that they couldn't get any hit singles, and I said to him, 'Well, Mike, the reason is because you have the wrong people working for you.' 'Well, what do you want me to do? Get some of these fellows with the tight pants to produce these records?' I said, 'Exactly. Two button records can't be produced by guys with three button suits. It's all a matter of buttons.' Look at Mike Maitland now. He's president of Warner Brothers Records and look at the kind of thing they're putting out ... fellows with tight pants... or no pants ... are producing the records."

72 Tracks and Itchykoo Park: Digression III

It might be interesting at this point to discuss the evolution of recording-studio techniques. In the very oldenest of days, the recording engineer's main function was to stand behind the singer holding him by the shoulders, and either push him forward or pull him away from a large funnel-shaped object attached to a bent pin or something that used to function as a primitive microphone to gather sounds to be transcribed on a wax cylinder.

During the early stages of R&B, most recording was done on very large acetate discs. Then came tape. Monaural recordings gave way to stereo... then to three-track... then four-track. Four-track recording was the "standard of the industry" for a while until some of those tight pants, no pants producers Zeiger mentioned put pressure on companies and manufacturers to obtain eight-track machines which would allow more creative freedom to the young musicians who were playing this wonderful new money-making form of music. Today, eight-track recording is common and the adventurous new breed of "pop experimenters" are hustling to get 12-track machines, 16-track machines, 24-track machines (the Beatles, I hear, are setting up a nifty studio with 72 tracks).

Audience Education

There seems to be a trend in today's music toward eclecticism. The people who make this music are examining a wide range of possible musical and nonmusical elements to incorporate into their bags. Through rock music, the audience is being exposed to an assortment of advanced musical and electronic techniques that five years ago might have sent them screaming into the street. Amazing breakthroughs have been made in the field of "audience education."

These improvements have been made almost against the will of the mass media. Suppression for racial and sexual reasons doesn't go on as much but radio stations still do not program progressive rock in proportion to the market which exists for it. Specific songs which seem most threatening to the established order don't get on radio and TV. Example: Society's Child by Janis Ian about interracial dating. (Mass media does more to keep Americans stupid than even the whole U.S. school system, that vast industry which cranks out trained consumers and technician-pawns for the benefit of other vast industries.) It is something of a paradox that companies which manufacture and distribute this art form (strictly for profit) might one day be changed or controlled by young people who were motivated to action by the products these companies sell.

The level of involvement with today's music is quite amazing. One example: Groupies. These girls, who devote their lives to pop music, feel they owe something personal to it, so they make the ultimate gesture of worship, human sacrifice. They offer their bodies to the music or its nearest personal representative, the pop musician. These girls are everywhere. It is one of the most amazingly beautiful products of the sexual revolution.

The Jimi Hendrix Phenomenon

Hendrix is one of the most revolutionary figures in today's pop culture, musically and sociologically. His success is a curious paradox in view of the historical prejudices outlined earlier.

Hendrix is 24 years old. He dropped out of a Seattle high school in the 11th grade. He was raised strictly by his parents: "They taught me to have manners." He is reasonably sincere and humble: "We are lucky to be listened to." He is apparently very happy with his commercial success. Partly because it allows him to act out some of his childhood fantasies (in his clothing, for instance): "I always wanted to be a cowboy or a hadji baba or the Prisoner of Zenda ..."

His strongest appeal is to the white female audience ranging in age from about 13 to 30, with the highest concentration of victims between 19 and 22. "I just carry advantages with me in my back pocket when I go off at a gig." His charisma also extends to a white male audience, 15 to 25.

He is realistic about his market appeal: "The black people probably talk about us like dogs... until we play." "When I see some of them in the street, they say, 'I see you got those two white boys with you.'... I try to explain to them about all this new music. I play them some records. First I play Cream and when they say, 'Hey that's great, who is that playing the guitar?', I tell them it's Eric Clapton and he's an Englishman. Then I might play them some of what we do. Sometimes they still think we're crazy."

Hendrix's music is very interesting. The sound of his music is extremely symbolic: orgasmic grunts, tortured squeals, lascivious moans, electric disasters and innumerable other audial curiosities are delivered to the sense mechanisms of the audience at an extremely high decibel level. In a live performance environment, it is impossible to merely listen to what the Hendrix group does... it eats you alive (He is concerned about his live performance image: "I don't want everybody to solely think of us in a big flash of weaving and bobbing and groping and maiming and attacking and ...")

In spite of his maiming and groping, etc., the female audience thinks of Hendrix as being beautiful (maybe just a little scary), but mainly very sexy. The male audience thinks of him as a phenomenal guitarist and singer Boys will bring girls backstage for autographs. While signing their scraps of paper, shoulder blades, handbags and pants, Hendrix will frequently be asked: "Do you think of any particular girl while you're playing, or do you just think of sex itself?" Meanwhile, the boys will ask, "What kind of equipment do you use? Do you get high before you go on stage?"

The boys seem to enjoy the fact that their girl friends are turned on to Hendrix sexually; very few resent his appeal and show envy. They seem to give up and say: "He's got it, I ain't got it, I don't know if I'll ever get it... but if I do, I wanna be just like him, because he's really got it." They settle for vicarious participation and/or buy a Fender Stratocaster, an Arbiter Fuzz Face, a Vox Wah-Wah Pedal, and four Marshall amplifiers.

The Gas Co., The Electric Co. & The Music Co.: Digression IV

The loud sounds and bright lights of today are tremendous indoctrination tools. Is it possible to modify the human chemical structure with the right combination of frequencies? (Frequencies you can't hear are manifested as frequencies you can see in a light show.) Can prolonged exposure to mixed media produce mutations? If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot, what kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike? Do you cry if the violin is playing the melody molto vibrato?

Manifestations of response to music will vary according to the character of the music and the audience. Swooning to Kay Kyser is roughly equivalent to squealing for the Monkees or drooling over Jimi Hendrix. In each case the swoonee, squealee, or droolee is responding to the music in a manner which he feels is reasonably acceptable by current social standards in his peer group.

If you were drunk, and it was the middle of summer, Saturday night about 11:30, and you had your comfortable clothes on, and you were in a small beer joint dancing, and it's crowded (temperature about 82°), and the local Rock & Roll combo (Ruben And The Jets) is playing Green Onions (or something that sounds just like it ... all full of parallel fifths moving monotonously through a root progression I, IIb, IV, IIIb ... or something like that, over & over again), and the guitar player goes to take a solo and stomps his fuzztone into action and turns his amplifier all the way up so his guitar squeals and screams and sounds absolutely vicious, and he bends and mangles the strings & starts to really get it on, gyrating and going totally berserk and playing his ass off and everythin'... if you were drunk, and all this was going on, and you were out there dancing and sweating and really feeling the music (every muscle & fiber of your being, etc., etc.) and the music suddenly got louder and more vicious ... louder and viciouser than you could ever imagine (and you danced harder and got sweaty & feverish) and got your unsuspecting self worked up into a total frenzy, bordering on electric Buddha nirvana total acid freak cosmic integration (one with the universe), and you were drunk & hot & not really in control of your body or your senses (you are possessed by the music), and all of a sudden the music gets EVEN LOUDER ... and not only that: IT GETS FASTER & YOU CAN'T BREATHE (But you can't stop either; it's impossible to stop) and you know you can't black out because it feels too good ... I ask you now, if you were drunk and all this stuff is happening all over the place and somebody (with all the best intentions in the world) MADE YOU STOP so he could ask you this question: "Is a force this powerful to be overlooked by a society that needs all the friends it can get?" Would you listen?

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net