Did Frank Forget How To Freak Out?
By Steve Hochman
When my brother-in-law recently asked me to make him a tape of the Mothers of Inventions' Freak Out! I wasn't exactly thrilled. A decade ago I had been a rabid Frank Zappa fan – my first offensive against my Streisand-loving college dorm neighbor was to play the brand-new Roxy and Elsewhere album at full blast. Now, however, I'd had enough of the big Mother's arrogant mewlings, pointless musical pomposity, and kindergarten "humor."
So when – after a couple weeks procrastination – I finally set to do the job, I was startled by the fresh, clever, witty, and pointed sounds that emanated from my speakers. Here, on this 1967 double LP – Zappa's first release – I rediscovered a thoroughly accomplished mix of sardonic social humor, bulls-eye skewerings of the "love generation", greasy East L.A. pop tunes, and Varèse/Stravinsky-influenced musical modernisms. In other words, Freak Out! contains virtually everything that Zappa would aspire to less successfully for the rest of his career (to the present, at least).
Much has been made (by Zappa, if no one else), as to how Freak Out! was the first "concept" album, predating Sgt. Pepper's by a good six months. (Paul McCartney even credits Freak Out! for lending some inspiration for Pepper.) I'm still not completely sure what the term "concept album" really is supposed to mean, except as a differentiation from albums that were merely packages assembled around a hit or two. Freak Out! is no Tommy-like rock opera, but it was clearly conceived and presented as a whole, and stands up that way still.
The first disc is a collection of "mere" songs, the longest clocking in at just over 3:30 – a display of pop economy that Zappa has yet to repeat. Of these songs, roughly half carry a message in their lyrics, while the rest accomplish their aims through the music. Whether sarcastically warning of "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," or seriously asking "Who Are the Brain Police?" Zappa seems downright incisive. In "meaningly" songs such as "How Could I Be Such a Fool?" and especially "Wowie Zowie" (a brilliant piece of grungy pop spoofery that I encountered recurringly as a mid-Seventies hit on KTYD FM in Santa Barbara), he cleverly and humorously reshapes familiar musical forms in his own image.
The second disc provides the heaviness, but no less enjoyably than the first. "Trouble Every Day" is as close to straight, unsnooty social criticism Zappa has ever come. Written during the '65 Watts riots, the song examines both the social reasons for the conflict and the media's handling of the situation. From our 20-years-later vantage point, Zappa seems uncharacteristically innocent with lines like, "I'm not black, but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I'm not white." The music, too, is a relatively straight blues shuffle, complete with a respectful rather than snide harmonica poke at Bob Dylan.
Zappa has made a lot of noise about wanting to create serious, "classical" music that will last. Many of his attempts have been quite good (much of the Pierre Boulez-conducted ensemble pieces and digital electronics of last year's Angel Records release, Perfect Stranger, for instance); others have been, well, a lot of noise. The first examples of these leanings are found in Freak Out!'s two remaining offerings.
"Help, I'm a Rock" sounds almost like a Sun Ra jazz/blues chant before breaking into a less structured indictment of middle America's belief that "It can't happen here." This is neither a recruiting call for civil defense nor a warning about hippies moving in next door, but an equation of the mindless following of the love generation with fascism. Side Four's "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" is twelve-minutes-plus of a Varèse-like "unfinished ballet," described in the liner notes as "what freaks sound like when you turn them loose in a recording studio at one o'clock in the morning on $500 worth of rented percussion equipment." Enough said.
Unfortunately for Zappa's ambitions, he has not seemed to learn that to make art last, it must be something that people can enjoy and respect. Taken in just this one-album dose, he seems intelligent and thought-provoking. Taken over his career, he is clearly an arrogant misanthrope. But at least, even if it was not his intent, he has given us some lastingly enjoyable, even entertaining, music.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net