Great Rock Solos Of Our Time
Frank Zappa: "Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution"

By Fred Frith

New Musical Express, November 16, 1974


ANOTHER PLAYER apart from Jeff Beck, who’s at his best in written or ‘set’ situations is Frank Zappa. While fellow-Americans like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Fish, Big Brother and Co., were getting into looser and looser forms and long, spaced jamming, Zappa began to exercise more complete control, sense of purpose, and sophisticated musical resource both in and out of the studio than anyone in rock had done before.

No matter how crude, brash or product-orientated his use of such attributes was, this early period still makes him one of the greater figures the medium has so far produced.

Very few people have matched his ability to bring together disparate elements, musical and non-musical, and, using every possibility that advanced recording techniques have to offer, forge them into a consistent and provocative whole.

Zappa’s career falls in two parts – his time with the original Mothers of Invention and its various expansions and contractions, and, everything that’s happened since that group’s demise.

Musically the two periods couldn’t be more different. The main” characteristic of Zappa's early work from “Freak Out” to “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” is the way the material is totally arranged and organised. Not only individual pieces are ‘composed,’ but the whole structure of each album is directed, aimed, worked through.

This is usually on a much more advanced level than most people’s banal efforts at ‘concept’ albums; and although “Sergeant Pepper” is generally hailed as the first rock record to successfully link numbers into a single creative entity, “Absolutely Free” had  already achieved this, in its own particular terms, some time before.

“Hot Rats,” on the other hand, follows a straighter path. The main development here is that for the first time the rhythm section is given its head – piano, bass and drums are not tied to fixed ideas, but play loosely along with the arrangements.

 There are also top line guitar solos and funky rhythms; and the album is divided into fairly conventionally organised and distinct numbers. The playing, while no longer so individual, is more superficially impressive. I can remember musicians that I knew, me too come to that, raving about aspects of technique displayed by our counterparts on the record.

The fact remains, though, that a lot of its impressiveness lay in its being comparable to other rock music for the first time. What Zappa had been doing before had been so radical and so much in advance of everything else that it was often not given the acclaim it merited on purely musical grounds.

This was no doubt due firstly to the fact that he disguised his musical, iconoclasm with the frequent and satirical use of the most plastic of pop styles, and secondly, to his being concerned at the time with a specific, incisive and socially-directed sense of bizarrity and outrage, which made it impossible to consider the music in isolation.

 “Hot Rats” is safe, enjoyable on a simple level and comparatively normal – like most other rock music, in fact, except better played; the Cream effect, part two.

 This and the fact of there being no awkward message to negotiate made it his most popular and influential album, since when he’s been chiefly involved with ramifications of the few ideas it expresses.

It was on “Hot Rats,” where he is featured extensively as a soloist for the first time, that Zappa gained more than slight recognition as a player ‘as distinct from a composer.’ However, the basis of his style has remained unaltered throughout most of his career, and has a lot in common with the way he writes. 

For example, one of the characteristics of a Zappa tune is its mathematical divisions of the beat – notes tied over, triplets juxtaposed with semiquavers, phrases repeated as a cross-rhythm etc.

 “Uncle Meat Variations” is one of the most highly-developed instances.

 This kind of rhythmic clarity is also noticeable in his solos. The picking is fast and accurate, the stresses and divisions clean; most of all his playing depends on symmetry. Zappa uses lines like balanced sentences, posing a question and then answering it, or building on an idea by playing it slightly differently several times in a row. 

It’s a strangely formal style, full of patterns and elaborations, based on the blues but interspersed with scales, simple reiterated tunes and his favourite 9th and 11th chords. Although not warm or ‘felt’ in the blues sense, it can be hypnotic in its absolute precision. 

The classic Zappa guitar sound is the exaggeratedly electric wah-wah that he’s employed almost exclusively for the last few years. My favourite solo in this style is still the ‘live’ “Get A Little” on “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” But in earlier days, although playing a less exposed role, his playing had far more range. He used many different sounds and styles, and had a unique way of combining parody with more modern thinking.

It’s' worth listening to all the early albums after “Freak Out” for little touches in the backing on numbers like “Status Back Baby,” “Duke Of Prunes”, “You didn’t Try To Call Me” and “Cruising For Burgers.”

As far as solos are concerned, two instrumental tracks stands out: “Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin” on “Absolutely Free” and “Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution” on “Uncle' Meat.” In fact they meant so much solos as sound pictures in which the separate elements create something new.

“Invocation” consists of a 4/4 bass drone in E with rigid rhythmic accompaniment, over which guitar and sax blow simultaneously.

The seminal use of repetition in modern music has had many outlets in rock. The mantric idea – ‘repeat something often enough and it becomes interesting’ – almost has the status of a cliché, and there’s the Terry Riley ‘infinite and tiny variations’ movement, or the obsessive full volume barrage of the Velvet Underground / German school. Zappa shows himself here to be one of the first to use one note, one rhythm to underpin other musical events; “King Kong” is another, later example.

On “Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution” the technique is seen at a very removed stage. The track consists of three main strands. First there is a slow 4/4 bass and drums pulse, loosely played; all but obscuring this is a large variety of random percussion noise; and sunk in between the two is the most beautiful, expressive guitar-playing.

 The slow pulse is gradually augmented with chords and becomes clearer, and other instruments emerge briefly and disappear again; the total effect is accumulative and textural. While none of the strands appear at first to be relevant to each other, they come to assume a completely fresh identity.

The guitar line in particular is given meaning by the context in which it appears; and while containing all of the familiar traits that I mentioned, makes a stronger impression than any of Zappa’s more histrionic efforts.


Note. In October to December 1974 ten issues of New Musical Express included 4-page pullout titled "The Guitar Book", 40 pages in total. It featured a series of articles by Fred Frith (of the legendary band Henry Cow) – "Great Rock Solos Of Our Time".