Ugly, vulgar, insulting – Zappa scores!

By Simon Frith

Let It Rock, November 1973

Over-nite Sensation
Discreet K41000

Faust IV
Virgin V 2004

There used to be a man on American TV whose only skill was being rude, he had huge ratings and a queue of famous names waiting to be insulted. His live shows in Vegas were even better, a laugh a minute, till one day he picked on a Mexican and got his skull smashed. Hmmmmmm. I was reminded of Frank Zappa, grand master of insult rock.

The two targets of Zappa's venom have always been the commercial culture of the late American Plasticine age, and the fads and fancies of the consequent hippie counter-culture. And having started his career with two brilliant wallops, left (Absolutely Free) and right (We're Only In It For The Money), Zappa's problem has been to cope with the ironies of the successful insult – the commercialisation of a contempt for commercialisation, the hip cult of a contempt for hip cults. Over the years the Mothers have veered from a cosy cultural superiority (Zappa Plays With Zubin Mehta) to the more recent bitterness (Zappa as the Mr. Meanie of Rock). They've lost bite and purpose and on the last album it was obvious that only Frank's super ego was keeping the show on the road.

What's been odd throughout is that Zappa's ambiguous relationship with rock has been unnecessary and basically false. Insult comics are parasitic on other people's work, Zappa is a brilliant guitarist and the best arranger in rock. His one album that was totally devoted to rock without sneers, Hot Rats, was a masterpiece – probably the best progressive rock album ever, certainly the most influential. And, even odder, to balance his distaste for mass culture, Zappa has a genuine love and affection for the vulgar, for what the people themselves make of the pap they're fed. Reuben And The Jets is still the best tribute to the late fifties punk and somewhere in Zappa's heart there's a corner beating in sympathy with the masses, even when they're hippies.

And if you're wondering why the hell it's taking me so long to get to Over-nite Sensation it's 'cos I think it's a fine album and the Mothers best for ages. Zappa's out of his blue period and once more there's the right balance between the various facets of his talent. Still the insults – to mass culture ("I am the slime oozin' out from your TV set") and to the latest hip fashion ("Is that a real poncho ... I mean is that a Mexican poncho or a Sears poncho? Hmmmm ... no foolin'.") Still the ugliness ("Well my dandruff is loose / And my breath is chartreuse") but now combined with an infectious vulgarity ("She stroll on over, say look here bum / I got a forty dollar bill say you can't make me cum.") and a tribute to Dental Floss. Still the basic Zappa musical forms – recitative, rapid up-and-down melodies, off-key harmonies, brass echoes – but sounding fresh again, beautifully arranged, with Zappa at his short, sharp best, some wonderfully anarchic rambling by George Duke's piano, Jean-Luc Ponty's violin and Ian Underwood's reeds, a faultless drum/bass partnership between Tom Fowler and Ralph Humphrey. I suppose really dedicated Zappa fans will dismiss Over-nite Sensation as too simple, too accessible, a pop record. These are exactly the qualities I like and which have always, in the end, prevented the Mother from becoming a self-indulgent bore.

They're also the qualities that most Mothers imitators (self-indulgent bores) lack. As in kraut-rock, Zappa's influence on German rock is not surprising; German musicians share his prejudices and skills – arrogance, a contempt for audience and business alike, a cult of ugliness, crude humour, a concern for complex arrangements and production. Without Zappa's musical skills or pop feel (no part of the German tradition) Mothers-style music can get pretty dire. The only exception as far as I'm concerned are Faust, and even the first side of their new new album is dull and uninspired. But side two is a delight, involving and fun. Whereas Zappa draws you in to his music with a humour of his lyrics and pop quotes, Faust do it with the humour and their sounds, the witty variations of pace and mood. Faust at their best, like Zappa at his best, use their skills and complex visions to create music that is enjoyable – no insults, no rudeness, no bludgeons. Or, in the master's words: the opposite of easy listening is not uneasy listening.