A scabrous disembowelling of the hippy dream
By John Bungey
THE RECEPTION BY REVIEWERS TO FRANK Zappa’s posthumous opus Civilization Phaze III — ranging from acclaim to bafflement — suggests that even from beyond the grave the wily old bird continues to confound the critics. In an attempt to confirm his place in musical history (and of course make a few bob) Rykodisc are re-releasing a mere 53 of his albums, culled from FZ-approved digital masters. These six opening shots span the Zappa universe: from the symphonic (the LSO plays Zappa) to the scatological (Overnite Sensation). Financially-challenged Frankophiles will know that some have been available in two-LPs-on-one CD sets, but Rykodisc are offering improved sound and artwork.
Of the six, the earliest, We’re Only In It For The Money, is the card-carrying classic. Zappa’s scabrous disembowelling of the hippy dream pitches caustic lyrics over contemporary folk-rock and pop styles. There are lots of familiar elements: deft musicianship, snatches of dialogue between tracks (here’s Eric Clapton pronouncing “God, it‘s God I see God”). And some unfamiliar ones: Zappa, master of the electric guitar, strums an acoustic; on Mom And Dad, Zappa momentarily lets the mask of irony slip to lament the failure of parents and children to communicate. Like Sgt Pepper, whose sleeve Money wickedly parodies, the album works brilliantly as a whole. Today it is a period piece, albeit an extraordinary one, thanks to the subject matter and the 1967 production, which sounds primitive compared to the studio sheen of later projects.
Lumpy Gravy following soon after offers a journey close to the centre of the Zappa mind. The album intercuts cheesy rock’n’roll, orchestral avant-gardisms and snatches of demented babble from assorted Mothers Of Invention and girlfriends. Tales of pigs and ponies, garage guitaring and the ghost of Edgar Varèse wander about the stereo field. Such elements were usually moulded into songs by Zappa, but here they are raw and strange with the listener left to make the connections. Many were unable to — and the album (a Zappa favourite) failed to graze the US Top 150. Given the master’s dislike of drink and drugs, it’s an irony that Lumpy Gravy’s terrible strangeness has probably been most enjoyed by generations of dope-addled students giggling in darkened bedrooms.
Five years later Zappa found a mass audience with Overnite Sensation, a rock album that demonstrates his vast production skills and ability to coax line playing from the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke and Ruth Underwood. What is less endearing is some of the material they are invited to play on. You don’t have to be particularly right-on to find Dinah Moe- Humm tiresome. Zappa’s tale of his efforts to coax a frigid by lady friend to orgasm may have been daringly risqué once but now it sounds like a waste of musical resources. Lots of great artists have enjoyed a little rudery: Mozart penned the odd obscene ode hut he didn’t pepper his great works with them.
Zappa’s follow-up, Apostrophe (’), went gold, though for fans waiting for Hot Rats Vol 2 this was a frustrating era. At least one eminent Zappologist has divined a vibrant subtext in Frank’s rambling Nanook narrative about Eskimos and pee-tainted snowballs. Others have just divined surreal nonsense. At any rate, Zappa’s monologue is then fleshed out with a brilliantly detailed jazz-rock accompaniment. After six tracks of intricate whimsy, the title piece bursts through, a blues rock tour de force underpinned by Jack Bruce’s slithering bass, showing that Zappa could effortlessly play the power trio card if he chose to.
Part of Zappa’s justification for giving the world Dinah Moe-Humm and Titties And Beer was that they financed such projects as the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of his ‘serious’ works. The conventional view is that Zappa’s orchestral recordings did not completely succeed until the Yellow Shark set. In the LSD sleevenotes Zappa complains long and hard about the alleged unprofessionalism of some of the British musicians. But there are fine moments: Bogus Pomp cleverly parodies film music clichés, and the wonderful Strictly Genteel would jolly up a Prom no end. There is a view among some musicians that if Zappa had stuck to orchestral writing he would have become one of the greats — but it’s hard not to argue that by pursuing the course he did, Zappa had a lot more impact on the world, musical and otherwise, than by becoming another Ligeti or Schnittke.
If Zappa thought the LSO under-rehearsed, there was no such danger with his rock bands. Does Humor Belong In Music? presents extraordinary well-drilled music from his 1984 tour (for his ’88 tour Zappa rehearsed his musicians 10 hours a day for four and a half months). In the opening minutes of Let’s Move To Cleveland the band swings through a series of metre changes that would be regarded as unplayable by the average rock outfit. The album’s 61 minutes offer maximum music, minimum lyrical guff and is the one to convert Zappa sceptics. After lots of jazzy dexterity, the set reaches an unexpected conclusion — a totally unironic reading of The Allman Brothers’ Whippin’ Post. The song develops into a rock-show guitar blow-out abetted by Frank’s son Dweezil. That Zappa, darling of the rock avant-garde, the disciple of Varèse, is also a fan of gruntin’ Gregg Allman comes as a surprise. It’s rather like John McLaughlin encoring with Smoke On The Water. But then, of course, Frank was always one to confuse the critics.
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