Frank Zappa: Spanner in the works

By Ben Watson

Socialist Review, January 1994

'Zappa showed that critical culture is not the preserve of highbrow forms'

It's always a depressing time when artists die, especially when they've been marginalised and ignored to the extent of Frank Zappa. Once someone is dead they can be safely praised, they are no longer a threat.

Writing in the Guardian Adam Sweeting declared that in his lifetime Zappa 'railed against America's corporate complacency and political lurch to the right and deplored racism and homophobia', while the Times claimed that the songs 'He's So Gay' and 'Jewish Princess' 'had their respective pressure groups apoplectic with rage'. Some people emphasise his run-ins with the evangelical right and the fundamentalists over censorship (which he bitterly opposed), while others stress his belief in private enterprise.

Like many artists, Zappa's politics were contradictory. Because he refused to hide behind pious conformism, and because he had the gift of the gab, his views were more exposed than most. Never more so than in 1981, when he launched an 'onslaught' on Reagan and the Republicans whilst simultaneously advocating typical Reaganite policies like lower taxes and union busting.

Unlike the Live Aid stars (but like Ice T), Zappa spoke out against the Gulf War – it was gratifying to hear Radio One's Nicky Campbell choke with astonishment as he spoke about the right's 'management' of the US news that meant that anti-war protests weren't covered. His 'musical' about AIDS, Thing-Fish, was an explosive assault on the patronising racism of Broadway. Yet, like many well off Californians, he opposed bussing to integrate the schools.

So why should socialists bother with Zappa? Because he was a great composer – and a fantastic spanner in the works of an increasingly homogenised and incorporated music industry. He got his first break in 1966 when Verve/MGM financed a double album – the first in rock music, narrowly beating the Velvet Underground – by his group, the Mothers Of Invention. It was a clever package, presenting the Mothers as the ugliest, most discordant group in the world. It proudly reported a quote from a rejection letter by 'a very important man at Columbia Records': 'no commercial potential'.

The Mothers Of Invention were a superb political band, challenging flower power idealism with an acuteness that still cuts today. Not since Bertolt Brecht's collaborations with Kurt Weill had popular forms been injected with such splenetic indignation. However, examination of the lyrics of 'Trouble Every Day' – a song about the Watts riots of 1965 – shows Zappa fearful rather than celebratory. Zappa uses the liberal strategy of calling for reforms in order to prevent mass insurrection. On the other hand, the mere mention of the riots in a pop song was a breakthrough.

A Marxist understanding of art should be more than a balance sheet of political positions on various preordained topics. In 1979 Zappa's song 'Bobby Brown' – an outrageously indecent account of the supposed psychological and sexual effects of women's liberation on the American male – was a top ten hit in Norway. A couple of years later it hit again in Germany. Why? It had become a cult record in gay discos. Analysis of the lyrics could show that Zappa's sexual politics are mainly paranoid fantasy (and dubious fantasy at that), but gays took to the song because it mentioned aspects of S&M culture – it could be used by an oppressed minority.

The political balance sheet goes right through the roof with Thing-Fish, an indescribable three album 'musical' about AIDS, which manages to offend practically every belief of 'political correctness'.

It's the kind of record to give respectable politicians of every hue a hernia – but I would argue it's not racist, more a communication from the rhythm and blues underground that Zappa has inhabited since the 1950s. The enthusiastic participation of 1950s R&B (and 1970s funk) legend Johnny 'Guitar' Watson – playing a character called 'Brown Moses' – shows how in touch Zappa is with this scene. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson has just been in the recording studio with gangsta rappers like Ice Cube and Easy E.

The whole debate about rap and respectability and sexism could be illuminated by considering Zappa too. I would argue that if socialists merely parrot the 'politically correct' critiques of liberal politicians, they'll ignore some of the most vital anti-establishment art around.

A more consciously socialist artist like Eugene Chadbourne (the Woody Guthrie of freely improvised protest punk metal) has evidently been inspired by Zappa. Radical artists everywhere – from 'antijazz' guitarist Billy Jenkins to the SWP's own 'new complexity' composer Richard Barrett through to Matt Groening with The Simpsons – have benefited from Zappa's example.

There is always a danger in satire that by tearing away our illusions the satirist can seem merely to reinforce the powers that be. Such songs as 'The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing' perfectly illustrate the problem. However, to simply concentrate on the words would be to ignore the energy and joy of Zappa's music. He showed that 'resistant' or 'critical' culture is not the preserve of highbrow forms like theatre and novels.

Radical ideas can go seriously awry in the reactionary climate of the United States. Zappa's commitment to capitalism – which led him into a brief liaison with the former president of Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel in 1989 – sits oddly with the rest of his surrealist principles (rabid opposition to mysticism, the church and the military). On the other hand, if Zappa hadn't built a cottage industry around his music it's unlikely that he could have created his monstrous 57 album discography. As with Duke Ellington, a certain business mindedness is a requirement for producing a substantial body of music under a capitalist system.

In working with stadium scale rock, Zappa managed to make enough money to finance abstract music which most radical composers – either poverty stricken, or constrained by the demands of respectable funding bodies – can only dream of. At a time when 'postmodernism' in classical music is generally an excuse for composers to look backwards, reinforcing the idea of classical music as a holiday from modernity, he pioneered new rhythms and an utterly distinctive attitude towards harmony.

Not only a consistent irritant to moralists (in whatever guise), Frank Zappa is a hero for anyone who thinks that the class system, along with its cultural divide, needs dismantling.