Zap It To 'em' Frank

By Mat Snow

New Musical Express, January 22, 1983


Barbican Centre, London.

ONE OF tonight's joys was discovering how much my free seat would have cost me had I actually paid for it. At three quid a buttock I'd have felt a teensy bit foolish at the end of the evening.

But Frank received raptuous applause from a full house, not all of them in the first bloom of youth. Oddly enough, many of those on their feet at the end could be seen gently nodding off during the actual performance. At least they lasted the course, which is more than could be said for the befurred old lady two rows ahead, who evidently had no idea beforehand of what she was in for. She tiptoed out after ten minutes, visibly shaking with culture shock.

A wise move perhaps, because Zappa's orchestral works are masterpieces of inconsequentiality. No amount of scholarly reference to such impressive-sounding figures as Edgar Varèse can obscure this truth.

Zappa is an absurdist and a satirist. He is a musical equivalent to the Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, who deflates high-minded expectations of art by wittily subverting its forms. It's entertaining but narrow in its cope, feeding off artistic conventions rather than attempting new insights and expressions.

All five pieces tonight consist of rudely repetitive parodies of various musical styles – torrid film-scores, serialist composers such as Schoenberg and Webern, drunken boogie-woogie, and so on and so forth. The LSO performed with admirable enthusiasm, despite assisting at their own funeral. For Zappa, tease that he is, made them do some rather undignified things. They are required to scrunch up cellophane, stamp their feet, grunt in unison, and arse about generally.

Most of this foolery is reserved for 'Bogus Pomp', the last and most coherent piece of the evening. We were in fits by the end and gave a standing ovation.

Looking like all the Marx brothers rolled into one, Zappa merged from the wings where we knew he'd been skulking all long. With an unconvincing show of reluctance, he was persuaded by popular demand to replace Kent Nagano on the podium and give us an encore. Obviously in excelcis, Zappa conducted a humorous marchtime lament with all the swaggering punctilio of a military bandmaster.

My, how we laughed – but the biggest joke was on us.