The Mothers Of Invention

By Paul Zukas

Dude, May, 1968

Frank Zappa's indescribable group plays to a "vast minority"


Mother Frank is hairy and has expressive hands. Mother Ray is hairy and has an expressive forehead. Mothers Jim, Don, and Bunk have expressive legs. Mother Roy cries a lot. They are all hairy. Mother Frank assures us, "THEY ARE ALL MUSICIANS." He's right.

      All-powerful means having strength in all things. The Mothers are all-musicians. During a concert Jim Black will be on drums, then pick up a trumpet, hammer at the timpani, and end up on an alto sax. He is musically in control at all times, as are all the Mothers. Ray Collins would probably remind us that Beethoven had bad manners too.

      Frank Zappa's back confronts the audience during the next to last piece as he performs as composer-conductor-performer. The music ends, the applause begins, and Zappa finally faces the focused gaze of the audience. His hand is bent into a gesture of "Motherly love." The audience willingly receives the gift and Zappa is obviously inspired by the masochistic laughter he is producing. He spits at the crowd.

      "Now, boys and girls, we'll have some more of our bullshit and I'm gonna tell ya exactly how we're gonna lay it on ya." Frank outlines his attack plan, sounding like a professor of Music I, Basic Theory. Then he places the microphone securely in his armpit and, looking at the ceiling, drops his hand. What follows is deSade and Masoch read simultaneously. The volume and the words begin stamping on the threshold of pain. On and on and on for hours and days and weeks and ... "goodnight" says Zappa, the music stops, the Mothers leave, and you're out in the street. The vise on your mind is still there. You've been controlled.

      "Are you a mutation? What can you do to help us? People's minds: how many do you control? Why not more? How do you control your subjects? Do they know? Do other people know?" Request membership in the United Mutations, a sort of Mothers' Fan Club, and you'll be answering questions like these. They require not so much an answer as an understanding. If you know what the questions mean, you're a mutant, a member of Zappa's vast minority, "the people on the fringe of everything ... the ones who don't care if they're in or out ... don't care if they're HIP, HEP or ZORCH."

      They can be seen in the audience at any Mothers' concert. They range in age from 13 to forty and beyond. Their hair is short, long and places in between. There is little for them to say. Everybody knows where they are and why. The common bond these people share in addition to the Mothers' concerts are their two (soon to be three) albums: Freak Out! and Absolutely Free-ee-e-e!

      The 14 songs on Freakout! are full or partial put-ons, put-downs and hassles of vintage pop, rock 'n' roll and contemporary folk-acid-hard-love-hock rock, the last sung partly straight and partly skewed. Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder is a parody of the 1956 greasy teenage love ballad, complete with a spoken introduction describing Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, backed by a high school prom band. In the main body of the song, Boy Tells Girl Where to Go, replete with cymbal triplets, the oooeeoooeeoo ... chorus, BaDaDa-Dow bass and choirboy harmonies. This is followed by a spoken epilogue in which the Boy Wishes He Hadn't. The song drips with scornful mock-nostalgia for the era when stuff like Go Cry was the only thing on the radio.

      Frank Zappa was 16 in 1956. Motherly Love is Zappa's festive put-on of love-rock. The Mothers warn their audience to "forget about the brotherly and otherly love." The Mothers have more serious ideas. The music is circa 1965, with the instrumental denseness and repetition of the Stones' Get Off of My Cloud.

"Nature's been good to this here band/
don't ever think we're shy/
no need to feel lonely/
no need to feel sad/
if we ever get a hold on you/
what you need is Motherly Love."

      The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet, a twelve-minute-seventeen-second cut, has the sound of December, 1967, though it was produced twenty months earlier. It begins with a dialogue between Frank and Suzy Creamcheese (in this case Uncle Meat), in what sounds like Grand Canyon. The Mothers then take off into a piece of tribal love-rock with bird calls, lasting eighteen minutes and entitled Ritual Dance of the Child-Killers.

      "The "dance" is followed immediately by four minutes of aleatory sound ending with a 3¾ inches-per-second set of variations on the word "creamcheese," played at 7½ ips. Zappa calls it "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 . . Hotcha!"

      The primary difference between Freakout! and Absolutely Free -eee-e! is that the later album more closely resembles the Mothers' concert format, while the earlier retains for the most part the commercial three-minute cut-limit. Absolutely Free-eee-e! is both formally and sonically continuous through both sides, even ending with the reprise of one of the songs, like the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

      Side One, called Absolutely Free, is "about MUFFINS, PUMPKINS, WAX PAPER, CALEDONIA, MAHOGANIES, ELBOWS, AND GREEN THINGS IN GENERAL." The Mothers have the same view of 20th century Romanticism that the Dada group had of the 19th century variety. This anarchistic and satirical trait is shown by Mother Ray Dada in The Duke of Prunes:

"A moonbeam through the prune/
in June/
reveals your chest/
I see your lovely beans/
and in that magic Go-Kart/
I bite your neck/
the cheese I have for you/
my dear/
is real/
and very new!

      Side Two, The M.O.I. American Pageant, concerns the life and fortunes of a non-Mutant, City Hall Fred, who is followed from High School (Status Back Baby) through numerous adventures to the incestuous climax of Brown Shoes Don't Make It, involving Fred and his daughter Suzy. The whole thing is marvelous and musical, from the quotes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg's Sprechstimme to City Hall Fred's amazed discovery that Suzy is "only thirteen and she knows how to nasty ..."

      Most rock groups consist of albums and concert appearances and not much more. The Mothers stay with you when you walk outside the door. Wait for a bus and watch City Hall Fred go by. Go to a Monkees concert and see Suzy Creamcheese sitting in aisle. Watch a high school football game and see all the "out" kids trying like crazy to get their Status Back, Baby.

      The Mothers' subject matter initially seems weird and takes some getting used to, but appreciative listening reveals that when the lyrics and/or music is bad, it was meant that way (Help, I'm a Rock, Part 1, following the Watts Riot Song, is where this happens on Freakout!) Even moments such as these are rare. Most of the group's songs are on a high level of technical mastery in composition and performance which few groups achieve. When one wants to do better than the Mothers, he has to go to the Beatles, Dylan, and Donovan. Many American groups have better lyrical ideas, but most of them would become positively uptight if they attempted the musical tightropes the Mothers cross so easily.

      Son of Suzy Creamcheese on Absolutely Free is a good example of the rhythms the Mothers like to work with. It starts with four bars of 4/4, then has one bar 8/8, one bar 9/8, and then 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, and 8/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, and finally back to 4/4. A year was taken learning how to play this one-minute-thirty-three-seconds section. Frank Zappa is a self-taught musician who liked to sit around and listen to records. Debussy flunked harmony.

      The lyrics can be good and sometimes are even memorable, one of the outstanding qualities of the triumvirate mentioned before. Who Are the Brain Police, which Frank calls a religious song, and Trouble Coming Every Day are probably the closest Zappa will ever come to a straight and serious lyric, although Brain Police definitely retains the element of Motherly parody:  

"What will you do if we let you go home/
and the plastic's all melted and so is the chrome?/
Who are the Brain Police?"

      So who the hell are the Brain Police and who cares? The records are awful and monotonous? The Mothers live are the greasiest and most overblown group ever to dare to sell a ticket? You could care less about reprimering your right front fender? Then Mother Frank would have no more advice than to urge you to continue your plastic existence and better luck next time around. The VAST MINORITY is still out there and they know exactly who the Brain Police are and why the Mothers' concerts are so short. As Zappa states in the foreword to Absolutely Free libretto "If you are reading this and understand it (even if you have short hair and watch TV 18 hours a day), it is time you realized WHO and WHAT YOU ARE. It is time you realize what the words of our song mean." Turn off your mind and listen.  

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)