In and out the meatgrinder

By Paul Barclay

The Manitoban, April 6, 1981

Yes I can. No you can't. Yes I can. No you can't.

This is the reaction I received upon informing the production staff that I intended to write an article about Frank Zappa. Yes, Frank Zappa. Seen 31 of his albums and you've seen them all (I think). Frank Zappa the forty-year-old guitarist who in the fifties attended the Kurse Für Zeitgenossische Musik (where the likes of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Zimmermann, Ligeti, and Berio were teaching or studying) and was prompted to write by Edgar Varèse? Frank Zappa of the band that nobody comes to stay in but comes so they can leave and say that they've been there. Frank Zappa who for a considerable amount of genius still sometimes ends up the asshole he makes himself out to be.

Yes I can.

It was about the time that rock'n'roll was getting a reputation for being evil. The Rolling Stones were here and this was probably the most evil anyone had encountered yet. I was about 5 at the time and it certainly seemed so to me. But there was, of course, more to come. The Jefferson Airplane, The Velvet Underground, The Fugs, The MC5. And, of course, Lulu.

Probably the most anarchic of these groups was The Mothers of Invention. They smelt as bad as they looked. Frank Zappa was the head disgusting individual of the bunch, a former ad man who could play a guitar, understood composition, and certainly didn't go about letting people know that this was the case. Loose in the studio the Mothers bent, played, and chewed anything they could get their hands on, with the unique musical effect of a bunch of mothers bending, playing, and chewing anything they could get their hands on.

This was the old anti-bourgeois thing again. Dada, Sartre, Freak-out. The progression had to be. And what's more it worked. Very effective, that banging around. New, anti-pop, ugly, boring, and sometimes ingenious. Then, after the second album Absolutely Free, Zappa turned around Plastic People, Brown Shoes Don't Make It, Call Any Vegetable, and put all the irreverence that was directed at the kids' parents back on the kids. We're Only In It For The Money, with its outstandingly ugly Sgt. Pepper parody on the cover, lost a good deal of the band's audience.

The amazing thing since this time has been the survival of Frank Zappa. His work represents the most articulate, self-conscious, and ambitious use to which pop has been put. His best work takes the form of a series of pop montages, assemblages of anything and everything put through the meat grinder of an ad man's brain. Zappa takes all the music out there, and some of the non-music as well, changes the timing and the scales and plays it back through the Mothers – preferably all of it at the same time.

He works often 16 hours a day, drives his musicians hard, mixes the time signatures, splices film, is a brilliant arranger and is craftsmanlike in handling tone and rhythm. At one time he will conduct a big band, and at another turn around and write about a dental floss farm in Montana. It doesn't take long to realize something strange is going on.

What most people know of Zappa now-a-days, however, are the funny, relatively clean-sounding material of records such as Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe. The recent Joe's Garage, which is getting to look a bit much like Joe's Sports Complex, is in the same vein. Zappa's most original work, however, came in the period of '68-'73, when a series of albums established as convincing an example of new-art sensibility in a pop consumer world as there has been. This is the real attraction of Frank Zappa, that he could play tor Star Kommand and appear in the right place without being a part of Them. Or he could play (or at least could have played) in the Arthur Street and seem in place there as well. All the postures really lead to this one thing: that you can put all the crap together and be sincere and intelligent, as long as you can exist outside it. You mean everything but believe in nothing.

This article then is retrospect. These are four of the Mothers' albums that have remained for me the most definitive of Zappa's career.


Lumpy Gravy [1968] – The first and possibly the best of these albums, it features Zappa conducting an orchestra, various beautiful two-bit bands, and presumably a pair of editing scissors. The first features a timeless tune in the strings, synonymous with all the trash that pop is good for; strung through country riffs, atonal concert music, and a lot of see-through comic book humour. The same tune appears on Weasels Ripped My Flesh as Oh No! ("I don't believe it / You think that you've found the meaning of love / I thing you'd better check it again"), a lyric so ridiculous that the beautiful tune actually seems more sincere than ever.

My favourite touch, and one which probably nobody meant at all, is the last bit of talk on the album. "Because round things are [this is the stereotyped flower-child talking] – bo-ring." And of course he's right. The two round things I can think of are the world and the record itself. Both round, both boring, and for the same reasons both things that Zappa cares about.


Burnt Weeny Sandwich [1969] – The Mothers are much more refined on this album. The ugly food that provides the titles to these albums also indicates the important similarity. These pieces are mostly fragments of the illogical whole – the Big Message – which turns out to be no message at all. A fifties farce tune, which sounds surprisingly genuine anyways, sits down next to a twelve tone circus. A good album that shows how distant Zappa has been from rock'n'roll and yet how sensitive he has been to pop culture.


Weasels Ripped My Flesh [1970] – Collects and mixes together various aspects of the Mothers' works up until 1969. Includes a few outstanding pieces which move free jazz and modern concert music together (Didja Get Any Onya, Eric Dolphy 's Memorial Barbecue), a piece in which the National Film Board is suddenly projected into Cats In Space, totally stupid but well done and good to listen to, and the title piece which brings back the old primitive art thing with a bit of gusto to say the least.


Uncle Meat [1973] [1] – Features music from the film of the same name which "we don't have enough money to make yet." As far as I know they never did, but as it stands it's the three or four best albums to come of this most horrible decade.

The fourth side is made up of various King Kong variations, good as far as the improvisation thing goes, but not the strength of Zappa's music. The three sides to keep are full of short and brilliant pieces more full of precise and ugly items than anything else I've heard. Several pieces (Project X, Uncle Meat (Main Theme And Variations), and We Can Shoot You, for instance) are right out of a slightly twisted concert music world. A CITI-FM announcer once played one by mistake and apologized for "three and a half minutes of, as far as I can tell, noise." Well, sorry he didn't tell you about yellow snow, guys, but that shows how far you may be telling. Anyone who can make Saturday morning cartoons and serious band arrangements run into each other without you noticing (Dog Breath In the Year of the Plague) or run smooth guitar lines and clockwork rhythm changes nut of a fun but pointless tune (Cruising for Burgers) has something going for him. Zappa's skill is always there somewhere but you're not supposed to notice what it's been doing.


I guess, in retrospect, that Zappa appeals to me despite his failures. All the miles of everything else you have to wade through to get to the inches of what you want to hear. The times when he really is a despicable, snotty man. But when the magic is on, when the myth of the trumpet that drowns out the Albert Hall pipe organ and the eccentric genius who produces Captain Beefheart one minute and then helps out the Persuasions the next comes alive, he becomes as timeless as he is expendable.

The secret of Frank Zappa is the care that goes into his rag-bag of music and trivia. To most he's a funny man and to others the instigator of some enormous and incomprehensible rip-off. At the end of the long list of credits on the back cover of Apostrophe, one line sums him up. "Arranged, Produced, and Struggled With. Frank Zappa."

1. Correct release year for Uncle Meat is 1969.

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