Zappa in concert — unfulfilled potential

By Bill Gardner

The Chronicle, October 20, 1975

Frank Zappa is a very innovative composer and musician. Unfortunately, very little innovation was evident on Friday night in his concert in Cameron Indoor Stadium. [1]

Since their first album, Freak Out, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have been social satirists and despite numerous personal changes through the years they have kept their cutting edge sharp.

The Mothers are a fairly amorphous group with personalities like Ian Underwood, Flo and Eddie, and Captain Beefheart floating in and out. Zappa has always been the mainstay and leader of the group. The rest of the Mothers are usually very talented musicians who are told what to do by Zappa and do it very well.

Some prime examples of Zappa's lampooning at the concert were "Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me," a parody on the pick-up bar scene and one on "downers" and other heavy drugs complete with band member Napolean Murphy Brock foaming at the mouth.

Brock, who contributes his talents on vocals, saxophones, dance steps, and obscene gestures, was a focal point throughout the concert. His boundless energy held the audiences attention when the music did not.

Terry Bozzio was adequate on drums but his solos were somewhat contrived, unnecssary, and bordered on cliche. Andre Lewis showed flashes of brilliance on keyboards but he simply did not have the presence or talent of George Duke, who recently replaced.

One of the Original Mothers who makes intermittent appearances in Zappa's band is Roy Estrada. Estrada perfectly filled his role as Brock's victim, high harmony vocalist, bass players, and resident stoic. Zappa's authoritatian vocals were true to form as was his guitar work which alternated between frenzied and laid back.

Zappa's excessive guitar playing was a major fault in the concert. This problem can be partially explained in that he had a skelton crew of Mothers to work with. Usually, Zappa can be seen throughout most of his concerts with his back to the audience as he conducts the band with intricate hand gestures – each having its own special meaning to each member. Such activity was not seen on Friday because there were so few members to conduct and secondly, most, if not all of the music was of such a simple that it did not warrent such precise conducting.

When I refer to Zappa's music as "simple" it should be noted that I am speaking in relative terms; ie "simple" in comparison to the rest of Zappa's music. Zappa himself demands such strict criteria in judging his music. When he first started recording he was incredibly bitter towards the popular musicians/ composers.

He felt they were selling out to the record companies by conforming to company specifications for writing and performing songs solely on the basis of mass-audience appeal or commercial potential. Zappa prides himself in having "no commercial potential," as he was once described by an important executive at Colmbia records. He also felt that the artists were cheating themselves by not continually striving for creativity and innovativeness in their music as Zappa felt he was.

Zappa satirized the whole popular recording industry as well as those who listened to the music the latter because they did not realize how uncreative it was, or worse, because they did not care. His favorite mode of attack on the listening audience is the grossness and perversity of his musical drama.

Along with this satire Zappa wrote, produced, and played some extremely creative music. He admired Edgard Varèse, an early twentieth century composer and tried to extend and explore the innovations he brought to the field. These trends included the shifting and juxtaposing of tones in disharmony, syncopation, the use of melodic instruments as rhythm instruments (and vice versa), the exploitation of percussion and the human voice (which gave rise to a sound which could no longer be symbolized in musical notation the disregardence of pitch, and greater involvement with the texture and timbre of the music.

Many of the above tenets are similar to those of jazz and Zappa incorporated them into the genre he knew best, mid-sixties rock. As time went on he shifted towards a stronger jazz orientation which granted him more musical freedom. At times Zappa's music could be fairly recognizable as jazz or rock or a combination of the two. In other moments the influence of Varèse would overwhelm all causing it to be so unstructured it bordered on non-music and often it simply was non-music But by exploring about this fine line he was able to produce some particularly innovative, albeit very weird, compositions.

Zappa took Varèse's interest in electrical instruments instruments a bit further into the realm of electronic sound modification. For example, Zappa would alter the frequency of the sounds from clarinets to make them sound like trumpets or like no instrument ever heard of before.

Zappa sustained this musical and technical innovation until a few years ago. With albums like Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe, and Roxy and Elsewhere, his music took a backseat to his lyrics. His lyrics began to satirize sacred or cherished social institutions instead of directin g attacking his listening audience. But the institutions which he parodied tended to be those which had become socially acceptable to satirize, e.g., television in "I'm the Slime," which was performed at the concert.

The result was that his music was far less innovative and of a more popular nature since his satire no longer attacked potential buyers. Both of these changes seemed to aim the albums for commercial success, something which Zappa originally abhored. Could Zappa be selling out? The answer can be found in his latest albums, One Size Fits All; released over the summer, and Bongo Fury, which was released last week.

In these albums Zappa's biting satire has returned, taking aim at new sacred cows such as the bicentenial celebration, or a typically boring southern California romance which he paradies in "San Bern'dino."

His music, while no longer in the mainstream, is still not as creative as it once was. The unusual percussion and vocals are still employed to a limited extent but the other innovations are no longer present. Zappa seems to have settled into a fairly standard jazzrock formula using his guitar as the major instrument and paying less attention to the music quality and creativity of the rest of the group.

Previously, Zappa had used his guitar merely to highlight portions of songs or to satirize other musicians' playing styles. Now it is so consistently present this can no longer be the case. Zappa is of course an excellent guitarist, but rock and jazz musicians, have been playing electric guitar since the early fifties and there simply is not much more that can be done with the instrument.

Zappa has not varied from this new style since the recording of his last two albums as was evident in Friday's performance. Too much time was devoted to Zappa's uninspiring, albeit difficult guitar riffs, causing even Estrada to shake his head. It is interesting to note that Zappa and the  Mothers featured either early songs which tended to emphasize Zappa's guitar or material from his later albums. The most creative work from his middle albums was ignored.

There are may possible reasons for Zappa's current musical status. One may be that he is running out of ideas. Also, other musicians have caught up with many of his musical innovations. For example, in 1967 Zappa was using a forty-track mixer for recording while the standard at the time was a four-track. Today many artists are using mixers with as many or more tracks.

Perhaps Zappa is presently looking for a new musical direction. Hopefully the latter is the case. It would be a shame to lose ope of the most creative musical artists of recent times and gain in his plaoe merely a good jazz-rock composer/ musician.

1. Another review of this concert held in Duke University, October 17, 1975, is "Zappa: weirdly great", Technician, October 20, 1975.

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