The Life & Times Of Frank Zappa And The Mothers

By Trevor Lewis

Woroni, August 2, 1973

The recent Australian Tour of Frank Zappa and his giggling accomplices has aroused widespread interest in the work of this rock world's greatest eccentric genius, even to the extent of his being featured by the ABC on Monday Conference. Honestly believing Zappa to be the most exciting musical thing currently happening on board Spaceship Earth, and having been sufficiently inspired by the experience of witnessing his performance in Sydney a couple of weeks ago, I decided, at the risk of seeming highly presumptuous, to set down a few thoughts on his music and its significance for the world.

Frank Zappa was born of Italian parents in Baltimore on December 21st, 1940, was dismissed as a failure by his high school, and attended college for one semester before dropping out. His musical career commenced at age 15 when he played drums for a group called the Ramblers. He started playing the guitar a few years later. For a time he held an 8-to-5 job in advertising, and was a member of a tiptoe-thru-the-tulips-type band, wearing white tuxedo coat, black pants and patent-leather shoes, hair slicked back, choreography, played 3 twist numbers a nite, and the rest of the stuff was "Oh-How-we Danced-the-Nigh ...". At this stage together with old high-school friend Don van Vliet (now avant-garde rock musician Captain Beefheart) he was working on a serious project: a rock operetta entitled "I was a Teenage Maltshop". Lack of money prevented it from being produced.

After a while in jail (for what reason I am unable to discover) Zappa emerged and formed the original Mothers of Invention, which comprised Zappa himself as lead guitarist; lead vocalist Ray Collins; two drummers Jim Black and Billy Mundi; pianist Don Preston, Roy Estrada on electric bass and Bunk Gardner on woodwinds. Ugly, hairy, outrageous in attire and behaviour, the Mothers erupted onto the contemporary music scene like a thunderous fart in the quiet corridors of the White House. On stage they were totally unpredictable, treating their audiences with a furious contempt which sometimes involved pelting those nearest the stage with rotten fruit. Someone must have been impressed with their act, as they were signed up with a record company and in 1966 recorded their first album, which was entitled FREAK OUT. Blunt and harsh in its satirical content innovatory in its musical content, it was followed in 1967 by ABSOLUTELY FREE.

ABSOLUTELY FREE was, at the time (and may still be) by far the most brilliant piece of rock music ever recorded. It is an integrated performance consisting of two "Underground Oratorios" respectively entitled "Absolutely Free" and "The MOI American Pageant'". "Absolutely Free" itself is a violently nonsensical outburst of musical hysteria, built around absurd dada imagery: plastic people, a duke of prunes, vegetables which, when you call, respond to you. It includes a 7-minute-long improvisational track, highlighting Zappa's guitar work, entitled "The Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin". Its companion is an insane journey through suburban America, a vivid musical collage characterised by rapid shifts through a bewildering variety of musical styles and moods, from beautiful orchestral passages to cabaret-style jazz, which culminates in "Brown Shoes. Don't Make It" – the breathless musical saga of the seduction of a 13-year-old girl – and concludes with "America Drinks & Goes Home" – an intricately assembled reconstruction of a '50s night club scene; complete with thumping piano, shuffle drums, and Zappa rendering an insane parody of a compere's patter: "..... it's about time to close now ..... hope you've had as much fun as we've had ..... hope we've played your requests .... the songs you like to hear ...."

Two more records in a similar vein, LUMPY GRAVY and WE'RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY, were subsequently released, and in 1968 CRUISIN' WITH REUBEN AND THE JETS; an album which, at first listening, appears to be straight 1950's style rock'n'roll, complete with banal love lyrics, but in which the form of the music is employed to make a parody of itself – The cliché is stated with such seriousness that it can only be non-serious.

In the same year, the Mothers of Invention launched an experiment in the combination of two contemporary art forms, rock music and the movie film. It was entitled UNCLE MEAT and unfortunately never completed due to lack of money, but a double album, containing most of the music which had been recorded for it, was released. Although somewhat fragmented, UNCLE MEAT contains some of the most exciting avant-garde instrumental material which Zappa has yet recorded. Extensive use was made of imaginative production techniques here; over-dubbing, compressed tapes and weird sound effects are an integral part of the actual compositions, not mere afterthoughts or additions. The music itself reflects a very wide variety of influences jazz, chamber music, and rock'n'roll which are combined to create some brilliantly weird compositions: "Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague", "Project X" and "The Uncle Meat Variations" especially.

After having produced two more primarily instrumental LP's, BURNT WEENY SANDWICH and WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH, Zappa disbanded the original Mothers in the fall of 1969. Since then he has been working with a constantly changing assortment of musicians. He has produced several heavily jazz-oriented instrumental albums. In HOT RATS he appears to be examining classical forms through the medium of rock music, and this theme has been carried through to form the basis of the recently-released GRAND WAZOO, which was recorded with a 20-piece band. His second movie, 200 MOTELS, has had considerable commercial success in the US. (Although it is currently banned in Australia). This animated film depicts the life on the road of a touring band. Although it is musically less distinguished than UNCLE MEAT, the film's overall conception is unique; the music and the celluloid are synchronized to create an effect which has been described as an "audio-visual barrage". With the band with which he record entirely live albums: LIVE AT THE FILLIMORE and JUST ANOTHER BAND FROM L.A. These consist of Zappa satire at its best, bluntest, smuttiest and most vaudeville; musically they are loud and solid, featuring the frenzied lead vocals of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. In "Billy the Mountain" from JUST ANOTHER BAND Zappa creates in the form of a musical narrative a lengthy comic tale concerning the vacation wanderings through America of Billy the Mountain and his wife Ethel the Tree.

The essence of Zappa's art has always been dynamic unpredictability; his work has always been consistently ahead of, and distinct from, the mainstream of progressive rock. Its uniqueness is the result of the fact that it is the expression of genuine avant-garde revolutionary consciousness. In many ways, Zappa's endeavour is analagous with that of the post-World War I Dada movement in painting and poetry. Beneath the sarcasm and ribaldry, his satire is a direct and hard-hitting critique of the social morality and institutions of middle-class America. It is able to transcend the misplaced idealism of the folk-rock style of musical protest, in it the protest is contained in the forms as well as the content of the work, musical imagery contained in ABSOLUTELY FREE, UNCLE MEAT, or "Billy the Mountain" is a confrontation: of the rational, categorized world by an opposite, irrational world of contrived absurdity. Zappa set out to demonstrate the possibilities which could be realised by deliberate creation of disorder and incongruity in music. This is achieved by the removal of musical elements from their familiar context, juxtaposition of violently opposed moods and styles. His music is a totally-involving experience. He has himself commented upon the difficulty experienced in getting musicians performing in a manner which is, by ordinary standards, ugly participating in a process of questioning of established aesthetic standards.

At the gut level of communication, Zappa works by inspiration of ambivalent reactions: by an angry and uninhibited assault upon the sensory system of the listener. In one sense, his is a profoundly anti-idealistic stance; he sets out to defile the empty ideal of "love" espoused by hip and straight culture alike. As he says:

"I think it's easier to make somebody mad than to make somebody love, and seeing how hate is the absolute negative of love, if you can evoke hatred and its really there, you could polarise it and you could really have love".

Historically, the sociological dimension of Zappa's music can be seen as the expression of the cynicism of the post-Chicago era in American politics, just as Dylan was a phenomenon of the hope of the Kennedy era. However, to categorize his art in such a fashion could be, simplistic; its essence is its ambiguity and its spirit of irrational opposition to the established reality, whatever form it may happen to take.