Shock Rock: Take Musical Satire One Step Further

By Robert Shelton

New York Times, December 25, 1966 [1]

NEW YORK - The most original new group to simmer out of the steaming rock 'n' roll underground in the last hour and one-half is an audacious crew from the West Coast called The Mothers of Invention.

The Mothers of Invention are primarily musical satirists. Beyond that, they are perhaps the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock 'n' roll with the serious music of Stravinsky and others. Both in their material and in their looks, they are also furthering some of the more outrageous elements of anti-convention, thus contributing to a new style that might be called ''shock-rock.''

Compared to The Mothers of Invention, such earlier bigbeat groups as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones emerge as Boy Scouts with electric guitars. The hairier-than-thou personnel of The Mothers includes at this writing ("everyone in the band has quit three times") performers on harmonica, tambourine, percussion and timpani, electric bassoon, soprano saxophone, tenor sax, flute, gongs, electric clavichord and "mouth." There is a lot of alternation of instruments among the band members. No one knows for sure who plays the drums.

THE FATHER (or Dada) of The Mothers of Invention is 26-year-old Frank Zappa, a spindly-framed, sharp-nosed gamester whose appearance suggests some of the more sinister aspects of Edgar Allan Poe, John Carradine and Rasputin. In truth, Zappa is no more sinister than a cultural revolutionary bent on overthrowing every rule in the music book.

On arriving in New York for performances through New Year's Eve [2],  Zappa took a moment off from worrying about when the plane carrying the band's 18 boxes of equipment would be found by the airline, loosened his pink-on-pink tie from his Carnaby Street collar and explained to a visitor just what he is up to:

"I am trying to use the weapons of a disoriented and unhappy society against itself. The Mothers of Invention are designed to come in the back door and kill you while you're sleeping." A smile crept through the undergrowth of mustache and goatee, and he continued:

"One of our main, short-range objectives is to do away with the top-40 broadcasting format because it is basically wrong, unethical and unmusical... Sure, we're satirists, and we are out to satirize everything. Most of the guys in the band feel that we're going to do something to help."

ZAPPA WAS NOT explicit about how he was going to lead his crusade against the pop and serious music establishments, other than to get his band's work more widely heard. Audiences here have been listening to variations on Zappa's themes with considerable delight. They have heard such Zappa originals as "Help, I'm a Rock" ("... Dedicated to Elvis Presley. Note the interesting formal structure and the stunning, four-part barbershop harmony toward the end. Note the obvious lack of commercial potential. Ho hum"). "Motown Waltz," [3] "Who Are the Brain Police?" "Wowie 'Zowie" ("... Carefully designed to suck the 12-year-old listener into our camp") and "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet."

Other works are entitled "The Mothers American Pageant," "The Duke of Prunes," "Plastic People" and "Son of Suzy Creamcheese."

If all of this sounds even a bit outlandish, Zappa has apparently hit his mark, for he thinks that "freaking out" is an important method of expression and effecting change. He defines "freaking out" as "a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole."

Not the least of the fascinations of hearing The Mothers at work are the incidental uses of classical or serious music in rock arrangements. Besides Stravinsky, Zappa has scored rock adaptations of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, Holst's "The Planets" and a touch or two of of Edgard Varèse. Zappa began serious composition at the age of 14.

THE BALTIMORE-born, West-Coast-reared musician has had a turn at nearly every form of music extant. He has written "serious" works for string quartet, chamber orchestra, scores for the films "World's Greatest Sinner" and "Run Home Slow."

"Rock is the only living music in America today. It's alive. I'm bringing music music (serious or classical concepts) to our rock arrangements. Stravinsky in rock is like a get acquainted offer, a loss-leader. It's a gradual progression to bring in my own 'serious' music."

Listening to The Mothers of Invention is an adventure, in which the auditor is warned to expect veering curves and sudden changes.

Zappa urges that every lover of pop music run out and buy the Vanguard recording of Varèse's futuristic "Ameriques." "It blows my mind. It's my favorite top-40 record."

1. This article was reprinted in several local newspapers, under different titles and sometimes modified. Current version is from Corpus Christi Caller-Times, December 31, 1966.
C. Ulrich: It was reprinted in Ten Years On The Road With Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention.

2. Actually several shows from December 23 to 31. Frank Zappa Gig List: 1965-1966

3. How Could I Be Such A Fool

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