The history of music from A to Zappa

By David Toop

The Times, December 7, 1993

Frank Zappa is dead, but his influence lives. David Toop looks back more than 25 years to the first time he worshipped the feats of rock's greatest iconoclast.

Frank Zappa coined a useful phrase to describe the means by which the past is rewritten to suit the entertainment industry’s packaging strategies. “The Time-Warner view of history,” he called it, and no description is more apt in underlining the discrepancy between the 1960s as they are replayed – sitars, kaftans and love beads – and the complicated reality.

I believe it was early 1968 when Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention performed in London for the first time at the Albert Hall. I sat on one of those onstage seats, slightly behind the band and to the right-hand side, and so felt the detachment of an official observer or some sort of minor deity, sent to record and report back on the latest shenanigans on earth.

If you were time-transported back to this curious occasion you would almost certainly feel as unprepared as we did. There was no band like it. Sprawled across a stage cluttered with peculiar electronic keyboards, classical percussion, enough reeds and woodwinds for the Count Basie band and a few comfortingly familiar electric guitars, the musicians lacked that fresh-faced look of young boys who had recently discovered drugs and grown their hair long.

These were seasoned veterans, though veterans of which campaign and seasoned in what substance most of us were too inexperienced to guess. A few copies of Freak Out! and Absolutely Free had circulated in my school and so we knew that the songs would be sardonic, silly and sinister. We also expected the music to sound like teenage pop from the 1950s, but different.

Different fails to capture it, somehow. What Zappa was achieving in that period was a unique synthesis of experimental composing and free jazz with Los Angeles doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll. He loved all of these musics with a passion and could reproduce them with fiendish skill. But the doo-wop, one sensed, was his true love. He could turn the ice-cream-cone chords inside out, load self-pitying, lovestruck lyrics with venom, and satirise the vocals, the clothes, the very smell of naive teen-spirit. But by the time he had finished. songs such as “How Could I Be Such A Fool” still sounded as heart-breaking as anything ever recorded in a garage in east LA.

Doo-wop was not a popular or even familiar form or music in England during the late 1960s. For some reason, Zappa always found London a troublesome stopover. But, at this early stage, the experience of seeing Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, Don Preston and all the other Mothers negotiate their circus of the bizarre over-whelmed most objections. Besides, this was an audience primed with a message from god. Eric Clapton himself had sent advance warning from America that the Mothers of Invention were the hippest, most challenging item in the whole hippy programme.

Of course, music was boiling over with experiment in 1968, but not in the context of blithe acceptance suggested by South Bank Show-style documentaries. Experiment could still provoke incomprehension, hostility or even violence. One of Zappa's many contributions to the musical vocabulary of the past 25 years was a genius for framing his more arcane compositional ideas in song structures that were simultaneously ridiculous and ravishingly beautiful.

To play a lengthy free-jazz interlude on solo saxophone was inviting trouble, but this is what Euclid James Sherwood, better known as Motorhead, got away with. Perhaps this invited a later intervention from a member of the Albert Hall audience, who climbed up on stage with a trumpet.

Despite having come prepared with an instrument, the interloper seemed to be at a Joss, musically speaking. This awkward moment was transformed by Zappa into a triumph of absurdity over adversity. Later that year he included a recording of the incident on Uncle Meat, the double album soundtrack for a film which was never completed. “Ahh”, Zappa said, “I know the perfect thing to accompany this man’s trumpet. None other than the mighty and majestic Albert Hall pipe organ.

“You understand you won’t be able to hear the organ once we turn the amplifiers up,” he added as Don Preston scaled the back wall of the concert hall and clambered into the organ loft. For a rock band to have been given a key to the organ loft would have been unthinkable in those days. The version of “Louie Louie” which ensued, albeit cut off after a few bars on Uncle Meat, can be considered definitive.

Zappa learnt about noise by listening to Edgard Varèse and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, which explains his capacity to embrace the history of 20th-century music in an evening of amplified guitar music. Some of his most intractable problems arose when he tried to convince others that the worlds of so-called high and low art were intimately related and equally pleasurable.

One sour moment of the Albert Hall concert sticks in my mind. Three instrumentalists from a London orchestra were invited on stage to interpret some of Zappa’s more academic writing. Clearly convinced that the composer was a buffoon, he dressed and acted accordingly. Their determination to play the fool, rather than the music, encapsulated the almost impossible task Zappa had set himself. Composing music of extreme textural and referential density while posing for photographs wearing a dress or sitting on the lavatory was not the easiest route to bourgeois acceptance. But for Frank Zappa, the easy route was never an option.