All About Motherhood
By Brian J. Murphy
“Jazz isn’t dead,” Frank Zappa says, “it just smells funny.” Truer words were never spoken by a perennial winner of Downbeat popularity polls and one of the few remaining progressives left in jazz or rock.
Frank Zappa has become a sort of American underground institution. He first tumbled onto and into the consciousness of the masses in the mid-1960s as one of the original Mothers of Invention. The Mothers had a freakiness which the pop music listeners of the time didn’t quite know how to handle. One magazine, attempting to categorize all the major rock bands, dumped the Mothers, along with the Fugs, into the category of “Crotch Rock.”
I strongly suspect that Zappa & Co. didn’t really much care about the bewilderment they were causing. Zappa simply continued writing songs which, it was said, were in questionable taste about vegetables and other like matters.
Since that time Zappa has put together a large, hard-to-categorize body of work. His material includes straight jazz, atonal symphonic concoctions, rock-and-roll, and almost straight comedy. In none of these categories has his growth been phenomenal, with the exception of his lead guitar work, but the diversity of his material is mind-boggling.
His earliest album, not in the intended-to-shock class, was “Absolutely Free” (Verve V6-5013X). Six years after its release, it is still worth listening to. Zappa was creating some very funny, albeit ugly, rock-and-roll in those days. One suspects that he must have derived great amusement from the slightly Bohemian appearance of the top-40 rock bands of the time which, basically, were about as unconventional as cement sidewalks. In that context, Zappa represented a real insult to society.
The Mothers of “Absolutely Free” look scroungy by current standards: they smirk out from the liner. In one photograph, Zappa is lifting his shirt to reveal a hairy belly button. There is a serious, almost hostile expression on his face. On the opposite side of the fold-away liner, in big forty-point type is the legend, “KILL UGLY RADIO.” A quote from Edgard Varèse is significant: “The present-day composer refuses to die!” It probably confused rock critics, who were to use the reference incorrectly time and again when trying to explain Zappa’s music.
As you may have guessed by now, the “Absolutely Free” record cover is simply a clever ruse to fill out ten inches of copy while managing to avoid saying anything about Zappa’s music.
Zappa simply isn’t the sophisticated arranger or the incredibly deft lead guitarist in “Absolutely Free” that we have come to expect from his later stuff, but there are many classics of the Zappa annals to be found therein. The Duke of Prunes, Call Any Vegetable, and Brown Shoes Don’t Make It are still virtually required listening for anyone who is hip.
Zappa gets away from pure comedy and into something more attractive, if less easily defined, in his 1967 opus, “We’re Only In It for the Money” (Verve V/V6 5045X). The cover is a very clever parody of the famous “Sgt. Pepper” cover of the Beatles. Discretion must have seemed the better part of valor, because the cover folds in on itself leaving on the outside an untitled portrait of the Mothers in drag wearing what appears to be the contents of some very elderly lady’s trunk.
Zappa reveals in this collection the real extent of his musical talents. The first side is a murderously satiric examination of the conflict that took place at the time between two equally insensitive and bigoted elements of a middle-class society-hippies and straights. In the song, What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (“Some say your nose/Some say your toes/But I think it’s your mind”), delivered in a sweet Five Satins style, Zappa demonstrates the extent to which his clarity does not go. Primarily aimed at the sickness that lies just beneath the surface of straight society, the album also exposes the hypocrisies of the hippy culture.
Zappa’s next milestone was an album called “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” (Bizarre/Reprise RS 6370). The first half of his collection could charitably be called “throwaway material,” with a look back at some of the musical styles of the past.
On Side 2 is Zappa for Everyman, a twenty-one-minute suite in rock and jazz called Little House I Used to Live In. Here new instrumental voices are introduced: the violin of Sugar Cane Harris, Ian Underwood’s Moog, and related keyboard solos. It’s hard to classify this number. Its use of new instruments, combined with Zappa’s tonal textures and the pacings of dynamic and tempo changes, make it one of the best-balanced selections to be recorded in the last ten years.
A year later found the original Mothers of Invention very much a thing of the past. Zappa had dissolved the band for reasons only he understood. But Zappa’s influence on the people who performed and listened to rock music began to demonstrate itself. Zappa was discovering talent and showcasing it, although at times some of the albums seemed more like freak side shows. Among the artists Zappa has brought to the public’s attention are Girls Together Outrageously (G.T.O.’s for short), a motley crew of Los Angeles frowsies; Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, the group that gave you Dachau Blues and other teen hits; Wild Man Fisher, who peddles his songs on streetcorners for a dime a throw, and whose performance persona is that of a borderline psychotic; and the one and only Alice Cooper, who by now needs no introduction.
While the move toward “jazz-rock” – represented by the donations of Chicago and of Blood, Sweat & Tears – was receiving great publicity in the press at the time, Zappa was quietly exposing the shallowness of the jazz borrowings in rock by fusing a very real combination of jazz, rock, and atonalism. His music also embraced a very real concept of progressive rock, a type of music that flourished for two or three years in the late Sixties but which became, around 1970, simply another sort of “formula” or series of formulas designed for maximum impact at the cash register. Freak shows aside, Zappa at this time became a very important experimenter in the three major music forms – jazz, pop, and “serious” or concert-hall music.
In 1971 the result of this experimental effort was heard on record – the soundtrack of 200 Motels (United Artists UAS 9956). There is too much on this two-disc set to describe all of it adequately. A whole new style of rock-and-roll begins to emerge. We find a Zappa who is not totally immune to the influence of such performers as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. In fact, Zappa goes them one better with some of the gutsiest powerhouse rock of the time. Zappa here proves a first-rate lead guitarist and a first-rate rock arranger.
After 200 Motels Zappa and the Mothers went on to produce a variety of albums, including one recorded live at the Fillmore East (“Fillmore East,” Bizzare/Reprise MS 2042) and one recorded live at UCLA called “The Mothers – Just Another Band from L.A.” (Bizzare/Reprise MS 2075). Both albums have a lot to offer in rock-and-roll, but mainly it is the comedy that makes these the most listened-to albums of the last few years, though they were never played by radio stations.
Two years have passed and Zappa now concentrates on the instrumental aspect of his work. He has obviously taken the praise from jazz circles seriously; “The Grand Wazoo” (Bizzare/Reprise MS 2093) is a valentine to the jazz community, which has given Frank Zappa the kind of recognition he has long deserved. It’s a swinging collection of longer pieces, beautifully balanced and textured, with lots of big brass, standout solos, dynamite synthesizer, and keyboard passages. Zappa, on lead guitar, propels the music along in total freedom.
Zappa today is not the outrager of public morals and tastes that he was a few years ago. Of course, in this Devil in Miss Jones era it is hard to shock anyone. Be that as it may, Zappa’s humor is not as forceful as before. In “Apostrophe,“ (DiscReet DS2175) there is some faint wit. The high point of the album isn’t the mini-opera on Side 1 – it’s doubtful that after his monumentally funny Billy the Mountain on “Just Another Band from L.A.” that be could top it in just two years – but the delicious jam session on Side 2 with jack Bruce and Jim Gordon. The album, as a whole, doesn’t quite get off the ground, but the parts that do are lovely.
Zappa’s latest collection is called “Roxy & Elsewhere” (DiscReet 2DS 2202). Unfortunately, the album’s comedy segments have as little bite as those in “Apostrophe.” There is simply nothing in this album that compels the listener to follow the thread of the satire. Zappa’s almost arrogantly perfect and rapid guitar solos, however, are enjoyable, and Napoleon Murphy Brock provides some good saxophone work and some of the bright spots in the comedy. George Duke is also in fine form on this album which was recorded live and slightly overdubbed in California.
One of the odd things about this album is that Zappa is beginning to speak in non-outrageous terms to the audience, relating little homespun tales. Zappa also has reduced his comedy to simple absurdism and audience participation shticks, which seems out of character for him.
As for the music, this is one of the best albums Zappa has ever made. The new ensemble may not be very funny, but the members perform well together. Don Preston is back, playing his miniature synthesizer. His work here is just as nice as on his previous outings, but it’s a sign of the times that the synthesizer doesn’t stand out as dramatically within an arrangement as it once did.
Zappa’s lead breaks are, as ever, a sheer joy to listen to. It’s amazing how many people still have the idea that Zappa is merely a crotch-rocker engaged in symbolic games too complicated to comprehend. Zappa is first, last, and always a consummate musician. All the chaos of the Zappa vision is under the most rigid fail-safe control; yet, for all this precision, the musicians are never stiff; they always swing with the arrangement.
Zappa also has an understanding of the use and abuse of the guitar in general arrangements that perhaps only Peter Townshend of the Who can duplicate. Zappa can handle powerhouse rock arrangements with taste. His arrangements are massive but not pretentious.
Zappa, as a musician and performer, stands today at the latest of many crossroads in his life. He is, it seems to me, better suited for the role of the prophet who chuckles to himself because his nonsense is prophecy and his prohecies are nonsense.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net