Frank Zappa: The Mother of Us All

By Larry Kart

Down Beat, October 30 1969

A SAGE WHOM I invented once said: "The only event which might merit the term 'progress' would be an increase in the percentage of intelligent human beings." And he added: "Those who work toward this goal are known, variously, as fools, clowns, and prophets."

* * *

For purposes of economic gain and protective coloration, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have promoted themselves as a group of truly weird people. Well, the Mothers may have their eccentricities, but no more than other musicians I have met, and Zappa himself is a man of striking sobriety. Sometimes, he even made me feel frivolous.  

* * *

Zappa is standing onstage in front of 10,000 or so people, most of them under 21, at an open-air concert last summer. He says to the audience, "We've just had a request for Caravan with a drum solo" (the fruit of their routine on America Drinks & Goes Home). Laughter. Shouts of "yeah!" "Now we may play Caravan with a drum solo, or we might refuse to play Caravan with a drum solo. Which will it be? We think we'll let you decide." (All of this is delivered in a light, mocking tone of voice.) An applause-meter type test indicates that the crowd does not want Caravan with a drum solo. "All right, we'll play Wipeout" (the nadir of early-'60s schlock). Which they proceed to do, in three tempos at once. The mindless riff of Wipeout melts like plastic.

* * *

Consider this scenario. A bright young boy is attending a Southern California high school. It is 1955. We've just "won" the Korean War. The boy is prey to all the adolescent agonies – acne, young love, cars, dumb teachers, the rigid status system of the American high school, et. al. He doesn't particularly want to grow up and be a successful anything. There is a music called rock 'n' roll that expresses his condition. He likes the music, maybe loves it. Since he is musically talented he begins to play it.

But soon several things disturb him. First, he is musically curious, so he begins to explore other kinds of music – jazz perhaps, certainly the 20th century classical avant garde. After this, the musical limitations of rock 'n' roll seem obvious. Second, he sees that popular music, and rock in particular, serves its consumers in ways they would never recognize. It diverts their anxious energy into rhythmic response and lulls their sorrows with romantic fantasy. It helps to render them harmless, or at least controlable. And behind all this there is a chain of promoters, DJ.'s, record company executives, and on up who are making a living on the music. This makes the boy angry. He resents being used and manipulated. And his intelligence tells him that this is an insidious form of propaganda (definition: propaganda is not designed to change opinions, but to move men to action, or inaction). Perhaps he eventually resolves to do something about it.

On every Mothers' album aside from Ruben and the Jets this statement is printed on the sleeve: "The present-day composer refuses to die! Edgar Varèse, July 1921" (on Ruben and the Jets it reads: "The present-day Pachuco refuses to die! Ruben Sano, June 1955").

Varèse was born in Paris in 1885 and settled in New York in 1916. His distinction as a composer lies in his acceptance of the harsh sonic environment of the modern city as his musical material. Out of this "noise", with a scientist's precision, he created a musical order. Although Varèse's music can be violent, it is never programmatic or sentimental. He masters his environment on its own terms.

* * *

Zappa begins the second half of the concert by saying, "Ian Underwood will now play for you the Mozart Piano Sonata in B flat." Underwood begins to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata (K. 281, I think). He plays it very well.

* * * 

I asked Zappa about his runin at the London School of Economics, and he said, "I was invited to speak at the London School of Economics. So I went over there and asked, 'What do you want me to say?' So here's a bunch of youthful British leftists who take the same youthful leftist view that is popular the world over. It's like belonging to a car club. The whole leftist mentality – 'We want to burn the . . . world down and start all over and go back to nature.' Basing their principles on Marxist doctrine this and Mao Tse Tung that and all these clichs that they've read in their classes. And they think that's the basis for conducting a revolution that's going to liberate the common man. Meanwhile, they don't even know any common men. With their mod clothes, either that or their Che Guevara khakis. It's a ... game.

"I do not think they will acquire the power to do what they want to do, because I'm positive that most of them don't really believe what they're saying. I told them that what they were into was just the equivalent of this year's flower power. A couple of years before those same shmucks were wandering around with incense and bells in the park . . . because they heard that that was what was happening in San Francisco. The first thing they asked me was what was going on at Berkeley. I was thinking to myself, 'What, you guys want to copy that too?' . . . It's really depressing to sit in front of a large number of people and have them all be that stupid, all at once. And they're in college."

* * *

Zappa introduces the first piece on the concert as "a chamber piece for electric piano and drums". The title, I believe, was Moderato. A chamber piece is exactly what it is.

The drum part takes typical rock rhythms (wham-wham-awhamma-bam-bam) and stretches the space between beats. The result is a series of percussive timbres suspended over a void.

The music verges on the Hollywood-sinister (background for some awful, invisible monster) but the close interaction between the two players (at times each seems to be imitating the other's part) gives the piece an extravagant formal vigor.

* * *

Zappa, like most moralists, is pessimistic about people in the mass. Perhaps he even wants to punish them. The rest of the group seems considerably more optimistic, and occasionally there are good-natured clashes of will.

Zappa: All those mediocre groups reap a huge profit, because people really like what they do. The more mediocre your music is, the more accessible it is to a larger number of people in the United States. That's where the market is. You're not selling to a bunch of jazz aesthetes in Europe. You're selling to Americans, who really hate music and love entertainment, so the closer your product is to mindless entertainment material, escapist material, the better off you're going to be. People will dump a lot of money into a bunch of young pretty boys who are ready to make music of limited artistic merit so long as they can sell a lot of it.

Kart: What about your gestures of contempt towards your audience?

Zappa: I don't think the typical rock fan is smart enough to know he's been dumped on, so it doesn't make any difference. . . . Those kids wouldn't know music if it came up and bit 'em on the ass. Especially in terms of a live concert where the main element is visual. Kids go to see their favorite acts, not to hear them. . . . We work on the premise that nobody really hears what we do anyway, so it doesn't make any difference if we play a place that's got ugly acoustics. The best responses we get from an audience are when we do our worst material.

Don Preston: Oh, how can you say that?

Zappa: It's true, man. Louie, Louie brings down the house every time.

Preston: People were booing the last time you played that. One guy wanted Louie, Louie, so you said, "OK, we'll play Louie, Louie . . . Booo!"

Zappa: Maybe they were booing because we didn't play Midnight Hour instead.

Kart: Isn't it difficult to function as musicians when you feel that no one is listening?

Preston: I don't feel that way.

Zappa: I think most of the members of the group are very optimistic that everybody hears and adores what they do on stage. I can't take that point of view. I get really bummed out about it. Because I've talked to them (the audiences) and I know how dumb they are. It's pathetic.

Preston: But they do scream for more when we do a good show.

Zappa: They scream for more and more because they paid X amount of dollars to get in, and they want the maximum amount of entertainment for their money. It's got nothing whatever to do with what you play. Stick any group on there and let them play to the end of the show.

Kart: Do you have a solution to this situation?

Zappa: Yeah. I'm not going to tour anymore.

Then I asked some questions which amounted to, "Will rock survive?"

Zappa: Rock won't die. It will go through some changes, but it ain't going to die. They predicted it too many times in the past. Remember – "the limbo is coming in, rock and roll is dead". There've even been some concerted efforts to kill it ... but it will survive because there'll always be several very smart producers and record companies who are interested in giving people what they want instead of what they need.

* * *

During the concert the Mothers play several long numbers where everybody gets a chance to blow. Since several of the players have extensive jazz backgrounds (Preston, the Gardner brothers, and Underwood), their playing in this context clarifies the differences between jazz and rock improvisation.

An essential quality of the jazz solo is the sense it conveys of forward movement through time, which is the result, I think, of the jazz soloist's role in even the simplest contexts – establishing and revealing his identity. In the typical rock solo this kind of forward movement rarely occurs. Instead there is an amount of space to be decorated, with the emotional curve (excitement to ecstasy) a foregone conclusion. That's why many jazz listeners find rock solos boring, no matter how well played. They're like someone brought up on Beethoven who listens to a raga and says, "I dig the rhythm, but we're going around in circles. Where's the development?"

In many rock solos, guitar solos especially, there is a theatrical relation between the player and what he's playing, and the most "exciting" parts occur when it sounds as if what he's playing has got the upper hand. The drama is that he's conjured up a screaming musical monster, supposedly, and now the beast threatens to overcome him. The "excitement" comes from watching him master the "beast", surrender to it, or get even altogether and smash or burn the instrument. When someone like Jimi Hendrix presents this sexual fantasy, it can be Wagnerian.

The Mothers undercut this setup quite neatly. The soloists go through the outward motions of getting hot, but their precision of accent and the care they give to motivic development prevent any "loss of control" effect.

The reaction of the audience to this was curious. Zappa would stomp off a number that had "Watch Out! Explosion Ahead!" written all over it, and the people around me would murmur "yeah", and a blank look of anticipated ecstasy would settle on their faces. By the end of the piece no explosion had occurred, and they looked vaguely bewildered, although they applauded, of course.

* * *

The Mothers have made six albums, and Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money, and Uncle Meat are worthy of anyone's attention. Their first album, Freak Out, is interesting but unformed compared to the others; Mothermania is an anthology, and Ruben and the Jets, an extreme parody of '50s rock 'n' roll, doesn't mean much to me, since I never got to that music the first time around.

Listening to all the albums in one sitting reveals an interesting facet of Zappa's musical procedure – in the pieces with lyrics the often elaborate rhythmic and melodic patterns are tied directly to the words (one beat and one note to each syllable, with few large melodic intervals). This effect carries over into the instrumental pieces, where the tight rhythmic-melodic motifs expand and contract as if they had a life of their own. It's an airy, bracing music, and the play of intelligence in it is so prominent that one must respond in kind.

Zappa thinks that Uncle Meat is "the best album in terms of overall quality", but his favorite music is on Lumpy Gravy, the album where he directs a large orchestra. It's hard for me to tell why he thinks so, since what comes through is a collage of rock and classical parodies that are disconnected by any standards. Perhaps he has in mind the album Lumpy Gravy might have been, since both he and Bunk Gardner mentioned that the Los Angeles studio men on the date were unable to cope with some of the music and played without much spirit on what they did manage to record.

* * *

Frank Zappa might be described as a cultural guerrilla. He sees that the popular arts are propagandistic in the broad sense – even when they masquerade as rebellion they lull us into fantasy and homogenize our responses. So he infiltrates the machine and attempts to make the popular forms defeat their traditional ends – his music doesn't lull, it tries to make you think.

Obviously, he's balanced on a narrow edge. On the one hand, he's faced with an audience whose need for homogeneous response is so great that they can make his creations fit their desires. On the other, he must in some way reach a mass audience or his efforts are useless. And, of course, there's money, too. He's only human.

But, whatever the outcome, there is still the music, and if any of us are around in 20 years, I think we'll be listening to it.

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