When In Doubt Say 'Arf'

By John Swenson and Bart Testa

Crawdaddy, September 1975

Mothers of Invention

Discreet (DS 2216)

For the last ten years, people have been trying to figure out whether Frank Zappa is a genius or an asshole. He is generally acknowledged as one of the most eccentric, if not the best, of America’s popular music composers. Three years before the Moody Blues’ much heralded combination at rock with orchestra, Days Of Future Past, Zappa had put together a much more challenging synthesis of classical avant-garde postures with a socio-musicological history of rock, an album called Freak Out by his brainchild Mothers of Invention. This was also the first album to feature integrated horn charts in a rock context, thus making it a primer for the more obvious synthesis later attempted by Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago.

But Freak Out and its follow-ups, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For the Money, became legend primarily for the visual images superimposed on the music; Zappa’s ironic critique of society. Many were at first amused when Mr. Z deflated objects of un-hip scorn but later turned off when they began to catch Frank’s fire directly; Zappa seems to have no limit of contempt for aspects of Ugly Americana, including his audience (and, perhaps even himself).

But what may have seemed hostile in ’68 (say, for example, the parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the inside cover of We’re Only In It. . .)) turns out to make good sense in retrospect. In fact, Zappa was a very earnest humanist: “Drop out at school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. . . The definition of a freak as someone attempting a creative relationship with his/her environment stated on Freak Out,/em> seems to boil down to a cynic’s evaluation of California’s hippy dream in “Who Needs the Peace Corps” and “Flower Punk” (on We’re Only. . .). But Zappa still has great sympathy for the kids, and in very sincere fashion places the blame on the society of their parents: “ALL YOUR CHILDREN ARE POOR UNFORTUNATE VICTIMS OF SYSTEMS BEYOND THEIR CONTROL / A PLAGUE UPON YOUR IGNORANCE AND THE GRAY DESPAIR OF YOUR UGLY LIFE.”

Somewhere along the way, Zappa’s very fine observations about this state-of-mind we live in – metaphorically exemplified by ’60s Southern California – became misinterpreted as the crank utterances of some cynical pornographer. His vision at growing- up-in-California reached its discursive peak with We’re Only. . . and paved the way for Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which instrumentalized “Take Your Clothes Olf When You Dance,” perhaps his most ironically humanistic song: “There will come a time when everybody who is lonely will be free/To sing and dance and level There will come a time when every evil that we know will be an evil/That we can rise above.” Lumpy Gravy was Zappa’s first instrumental album (the weird conversations which punctuate it are secondary elements which don’t distract attention from the main interest at hand, the playing). It introduced a musical theme as its organizational idea, one which has bounced around in several subsequent albums and, with lyrics, became “Orange County Lumber Truck,” a song about Richard Nixon (“I just can’t believe you’re such a fool . . .”).

So Lumpy Gravy began a new phase to Zappa’s career: his bands were less concerned from this point with assaulting the audience than playing Zappa’s intricately scored arrangements for oddly shaped rock orchestras. With Uncle Meat, Frank really began to put the emphasis on his abilities as a guitarist and bandleader. At the same time his lyrics became more abstract and impressionistic, dealing obliquely with cameo images of themes originally suggested on the first three Mothers albums.

Lumpy Gravy, Ruben & the Jets, We’re Only In It . . ., Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh were all recorded by roughly the same band between ’67 and ’69. The albums were largely tape-splice studio assemblages, since the band had problems performing such sophisticated material. When that group of Mothers broke up, Zappa set out to present himself primarily as a featured guitar soloist, with Hot Rats. That album was very successful but its follow-up, Chunga’s Revenge, wasn’t. Chunga’s addition of drummer Aynsley Dunbar, keyboardist George Duke and vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan marked the introduction of a new strategy to Zappa’s band, but judging from what that group produced (200 Motels and the two live albums. Fillmore East and Just Another Band From LA), the concept never coalesced. This was the best musical unit Zappa had put together, but a problem developed with lyrics: there really wasn’t an appropriate verbal adjunct to the music Frank was writing, so he used Flo and Eddie to give the audience what they had come to expect from the Mothers: creamed porn.

After that band broke up, Zappa tried two side projects in ’71 and ’72, Waka / Jawaka and Grand Wazoo. Since ’73, another group of Mothers has perfected Zappa’s modern style: Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy & Elsewhere and now One Size Fits All feature his most accomplished and, ironically, most commercial, band playing beautifully-written and arranged material with cleverly ornamental lyrics. One Size Fits All’s opening track, for example, “Inca Roads,” is a sci-fi cameo propelled by George Duke’s amazing synthesizer playing. Zappa explains that the melody was written in 1972: “I wrote an instrumental melody which I liked and covered a range of more than two octaves, and it was just a challenge to myself to attempt to write lyrics to it.”

“Inca Roads” features a spliced-in guitar solo recorded live in Finland, but the rest of the record’s guitaring happened in the studio. “Can’t Afford No Shoes,” a depression anthem, provides a nostalgic bit of social comment but serves primarily as a vehicle for some fierce soloing from Frank, as does “Po-Jama People,” which builds from a barely discernible “Summertime” quote to a full-blown guitar tour de force. In fact, “Florentine Pogen,” “San Ber’dino” and “Andy” are also guitar-dominated tracks, balanced by Duke’s keyboards and Ruth Underwood’s vibes and marimba blowing.

The album’s curiously straightforward cover art is taken from “Sofa,” which tags both sides in an instrumental and vocal version. Zappa explains that the song ”was part of a larger piece which was a follow-up to ‘Billy the Mountain.’ It’s supposed to be a song that God is singing to a sofa. It’s from a piece that we performed largely in German during the 1971 tour when Mark and Howard were in the group. It’s never been recorded so I thought I would do it.”

One Size Fits All feels like Zappa has finally reached a peak. The band is as tight and virtuosic as any he’s led; his guitar playing has evolved to a point where it can really dominate in a relatively conventional rock sense; and even the vocals, which seem to extend the strategy of the last few records, flesh out after repeated listenings as an integral part of the music. This may be the greatest breakthrough, for Zappa’s problems with lyrics have been a central dilemma since We’re Only In It. . . and, once resolved, could well enable him to come directly to terms with his own plaguey image.

Not that they make direct prosaic sense – the master of non-discursive images doesn’t want to reveal too many secrets at once. Canines are one of his favorite references over the last few albums, and the poodle of Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe and Roxy, “arts” up a storm on this record. Curious to find some thematic super-structure, perhaps relating back to “Dog Breath” or even the biographical note on Ruben & the Jets regarding Ruben’s pets, we confronted Zappa on the subject:

What about the use of ”arf”?
What about the use of arf?
It’s been showing up lately.

It has nothing to do with the Black and White scotch billboards.
Does it have anything to do with the poodles?
Not necessarily, no.
Is there a relationship through ”Ruben had three dogs” to . . .
There’s a relationship between the three dogs to the poodles but not to the arf./p>

So much for scholarship.