Pop Music: Two Edges Of The Outer Limits

By Don Paulsen

Escapade, November, 1967

"There are kids writing music," says Frank Zappa, leader of The Mothers, "who think they've just made up the most fantastic things. They don't know that the best they can write today was already written in 1921. A piece like Ameriques by Edgar Varèse, written in 1921, would scare the average teenager to death."

Nevertheless, four young composers, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Zappa himself, are attempting to expand the outer limits of popular music. And the teenagers aren't running scared. Two recent albums, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles and "Absolutely Free" by the Mothers, both representing unique and advanced forms of modern music, are selling very well.

Ever since the Beatles demonstrated an amazing originality and maturity with their "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" albums, they've been burdened with the responsibility of discovering new and increasingly far-out directions for pop music. The pressure is evident in "Sgt. Pepper's" a curious mixture of the ordinary, the avant-garde – though sometimes contrived – and one genuine tour de force. Far too many songs lack the originality that gave previous Beatle music such enjoyable durability. The freshness and spontaneity have been replaced by a computerized assemblage of words and sounds. Orchestrations and special electronic effects are competent but rarely take the listener by surprise.

Although the Beatles have each song in the album beginning as soon as the previous one ends, they seem to be arranged in no significant sequence and they hardly ever venture beyond the standard three-minute limit in most numbers. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is a mundane exercise in psychedelic images. "Getting Better" and "Fixing A Hole" are flat monologues. Whereas "Eleanor Rigby" in the "Revolver" album was a mini-novel, succinctly capsulating the lonely life of its poignant heroine, "She's Leaving Home" is no more than a tear-jerking cliché about the girl who leaves the parents who never really loved her. George Harrison's "Within You Without You," despite the exotic Indian backing, is a monotonous recitation of elementary Far Eastern philosophy. If you listen carefully to the ending you can hear laughter. Are the other Beatles laughing at Harrison's pretentiousness?

A strong beat, reminiscent of many rhythm & blues records, and brash, unselfconscious lyrics make "Lovely Rita" one of the most successful pieces in the album. The very modern love song ends with a funky, sexy piano workout, accompanied by heavy breathing.

"A Day In The Life" was banned by the B.B.C. because they feared the line, ''I'd love to turn you on" would encourage drug taking. Although many of the haunting orchestral effects suggest psychedelic feelings, "A Day In The Life" is more significant for being a terrifying and ironic statement on many aspects of modern life. And the chilling use of staggering crescendos from a 41-piece orchestra is as scary as anything written by Varèse. "A Day In The Life" is the most advanced composition created for a large, readymade audience, most of whom are under 25 years old. The acclaim with which they have accepted it opens the door for even more adventurous musical excursions.

As the boundaries of popular music enlarge, the need is created for unconventional bands, capable of performing the new music before live audiences. Not many groups are able to take a 41-piece orchestra with them on personal appearance tours. The closest to live symphonic-rock currently available is The Mothers, seven versatile musicians who, between them, play guitar, bass, drums, tympani, gongs, chimes, vibes, electric piano, organ, electric clavichord, clarinet, piccolo, flute, soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, bassoon, oboe, and various instruments of their own invention.

"Absolutely Free," the Mothers second album, has as much variety of musical forms, vaudeville fun, songs running into each other and an album cover as original as "Sgt. Pepper." Frank Zappa, founder of the Mothers, lead guitarist and composer of their entire vast repertoire, wanted to print all the lyrics inside the double foldout album jacket, but someone at their record company objected to some of the words. The complete libretto to "Absolutely Free" is being sold on the album for $1, mailed, presumably, in a plain brown wrapper.

The album must be heard to be believed and appreciated. The music is incredibly dynamic, the lyrics satirical and shocking. Each side of the record is a non-stop, panoramic oratorio. Songs drift in and out of a loosely connective narration. A plea for greater understanding between people and vegetables, which may or may not have more profound implications, dominates side one. The other side satirizes various forms of American life, from dirty old politicians who make bad laws because their minds are full of horny thoughts, like balling their 13-year-old daughters covered in chocolate syrup, to high school football heroes who spray their hair.

"Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin" is seven minutes of wild guitar and saxophone explorations tied to earth only by a rock-solid drumbeat. Zappa builds shifting collages of many voices and instruments, a theme from Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring" appears unexpectedly, and subtle musical touches and sardonic ad-libs abound.

The Mothers are still not as well known as the Beatles, but they are America's most versatile and dynamic rock band and Zappa is one of the most talented composers working today. Their commercial appeal is still somewhat limited, because of their uncompromising satire, but the Mothers will influence many records in the top 40 in the very near future.

The innovations introduced by The Beatles and The Mothers should begin a new wave of experimentation that will make popular music even more creative and astonishing.

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