Frank Zappa versus the teenage archetypal America theme (part 6)
FRANK ZAPPA IS LIKE THE ALCHEMISTS; they would repeat the same experiment month in, month out, sometimes for many years, till the materials they were working with became so unstable they developed new properties and, one day, jelled into the Philosopher's Stone.
Frank is working with a set of themes, the sane old ones he always uses, still working on them, sneaking up on them from new angles, surprising them with strange orchestration, slashing them to pieces – the mad razor – man on the editing block, lulling them into a false security with mid-fifties rock productions, eating away at them with the strongest acids – leaving them to their naked bleached bones.
They have become archetypal units of their own, a few notes and we all recognise them, in his attempt to come to terms with these audio-symbols of the teenage character, both of his own youth and the micro, teenibopper and groupie youth of today, he has overloaded these recurrent themes so that they become as strong as metal. It doesn't matter what you do to it musically because its strength is on other levels. You can't really destroy it because the strength it possesses is given to it by YOU. Thus Frank's themes become conglomerations of Burger cruising in your father's car, white walls, hubcap stealing, high-school proms and dates ... never has the creative progress of a musical artist been so accurately shown.
In these attempts to come to terms with his own background, life, past, and present environment, his music of necessity spans a wide time zone and many musical forms – going from fifties rock through 'Mingus Presents Mingus', William Walton's 'Fantasia', the music of Coltrane, Ayler and Russell, the compositions of Stravinsky and Varèse – all these are fused into an almost plastic musical form which uses the technique of 'exposure' as its vehicle. By attacking these teenage themes with a complete arsenal of modern musical forms and techniques, an ever-changing relationship is created between them and the musical form which is the foundation of the meaning in Zappa's music.
His attention to detail is fantastic, minor guitar backing tracks move in and out of echo and pan in a completely controlled sequence of moods. The sound levels are always as clear and distinct as cars sticking to their lanes on the Hollywood Freeway. His editing technique is probably the most accurate and developed in the music business and by never using electronic sounds, preferring to use extant tapes of his group and environment, he collages not only the immediate (rhythm) time within the span of the record but also the time span starting with the mid-fifties.
Zappa's 6th Album: UNCLE MEAT Reprise 2024 (2Vols.)
This album opens with a recurrent Zappa theme, here called 'Uncle Meat', firmly established with a strong orchestral treatment but followed by Suzy Creamcheese's speech 'Hello Teenage America'. The chord base of the original theme is extended into a long Zappa guitar solo 'Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution', which reflects Zappa's love for Varèse and Stravinsky, but which eventually escapes the time signatures and continues as free form.
'Dog Breath, In the Year Of The Plague' (another old theme from previous albums) opens in the 'Ruben & The Jets' alter-ego style, though with more polish and clarity than the 'Ruben' album. However it changes rapidly from Jekyll to Hyde and closes with a serial thematic breakdown. It is followed by the most characteristic film music, albeit Mothers film music, with a very strong note sequence which re-occurs again later. This theme is familiar and might be from an early George Russell album – its not from the Mothers. After the 'Louie Louie' recorded live on the organ at the Royal Albert Hall, side one ends with variations on a theme – 'The Dog Breath Variations' played mostly on xylophone and electric piano. This theme has a poignant, catchy quality that makes a good tearjerker in the movies. That is to say it acts as a wide based cathartic catalyst and opens a vast memory front in the head – I love it!
'Sleeping In A Jar' (same old tune folks) a neat little number of the theme of 'Mom and Dad are sleeping – sleeping in a jar ... (the jar is under the bed)'. The voice of Suzy Creamcheese follows with some wonderful little vignettes about contemporary life in Laurel Canyon, funnier than previous albums. Then comes the 'Uncle Meat Variations' which uses remarkable choral techniques and at times sounds like a 1930s Hollywood movie soundtrack set in Japan. The downbeat fragmentation of the theme features Frank playing a fine flat rock and roll guitar – not a trace of blues anywhere though possibly a slight Duane Eddy influence.
One of my favourite tracks 'Electric Aunt Jemima' opens with the Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers theme 'Rundy Rundy Run – di do wan wan' taken from 'Teenage Love' turning into a 1955 number on the lines of 'Earth Angel' by the Penguins 1955 or 'Confidential' by Sonny Knight 1956. 'Prelude For King Kong' has a driving beat but the overall sound is like Ornette Coleman's early free-form album 'The Shape of Jazz to Come'. After a quick version of 'God Bless America' a brief resume of the movie theme leads to an incredible Ian Underwood alto sax solo, sounds remarkably like Albert Ayler's 'Bells', then transmogrifying into John Coltrane's 'Africa Brass', thus extending the Mother's range even further.
'Mr. Green Genes' is another song from the vegetable kingdom previously explored on 'Duke of Prunes' – a slow rocker (!). 'We Can Shoot You' a Walton-like composition in the plink-plonk style precedes 'The Air', a mid-fifties dreamy number with a perfect touch of brass giving the number just the authenticity required. It is better than any of the 'Ruben and The Jets' tracks having a cleaner sound, and is ideal to dance slow jive to.
'Project X' another percussion orientated piece representing the Mother's drift towards Schoenberg and the Serialists (thematic variation and development rather than electronics – the mad time traveller), the rock and roll material being essentially re-creation rather than parody as on 'Cruising For Burgers' which also has the usual element of social criticism; 'I must Be Free/My Fake ID/Freeeeeeeeeees Me'.
Side four is devoted to the 'King Kong' theme already preluded on side two. In some ways the theme is not strong enough to merit such extensive improvisation, dissection and development. Eventually it breaks down and is destroyed. Probably this was Zappa's aim but he cheats because it is the 'Uncle Meat' theme itself which he should have attacked. As it is, 'Uncle Meat' escaped by the skin of its teeth – like Flash Gordon at your local teenage movie theatre. We shall have to wait for the 7th episode of the continuing adventures of Frank Zappa versus the Teenage America Archetypal Theme to see if Frank wins or not.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net