Frank Zappa: Reissues

By Joseph Stannard

The Wire, October 2012

There are many reasons to avoid Frank Zappa. His cultural politics, expressed in a tone that was snide and hip, were ostensibly anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, but his apparent lack of empathy with anyone who wasn't Frank Zappa ultimately rendered them as inert and reactionary – see songs such as "He's So Gay" and "Jewish Princess". While the natural thing to do would be to concentrate purely on the music, Zappa's inexhaustible cynicism frequently drowns it out. It's tiresome to be told over and over how dumb everyone and everything else is. Eventually the relentless sarcasm blisters away until all that's left is a charred black lump of bitterness.

And yet Zappa's scathing disdain for the rest of humanity might just be the only thing that obstructs his claim to genius. While it stops me fully embracing his work, I can't deny my admiration. I first heard the debut Mothers Of Invention album Freak Out! (1966) around the same time as Togo Mogo, The Faust Tapes and Kontakte. Two of its songs in particular blew my mind: "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet" and "Help I'm A Rock". They felt like hidden trapdoors in rock's haunted house, and beyond the mustachioed sneer, it's possible to hear the crackle of electric possibilities. This continues through all of Zappa's work with the original Mothers and his solo albums of the same period. Lumpy Gravy (1967), Uncle Meat (1969) and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970) are particularly astonishing, wheeling through rock concrète, improv, contemporary composition and white noise with ludicrous aplomb and no small amount of childlike glee.

The cynicism isn't always unwelcome. Some of Zappa's cheapest, most sarcastic putdowns hit the target. "Who Needs The Peace Corps?" and "Absolutely Free" from the Beatles-baiting We're Only In It For The Money (1968) take a blunt hatchet to the phony social posturing that endures in rock music to this day. Elsewhere, Zappa misses by a mile. Chunga's Revenge (1970) is an illustration of the 60s counterculture's rebarbative attitude to women – a whole album dedicated to sex but which permanently teeters on the brink of misogyny. Similarly, Zappa's chronicle of the infamous 1969 incident in which a Led Zeppelin groupie was reportedly tied to a hotel bed before being molested with a freshly caught mudshark ("The Mud Shark", from the tiresome Fillmore East – June 1971) salivates over one of rock 'n' roll ugliest episodes. Liberalism is a joke, he seems to suggest, while misogyny is a laugh.

Sociopathic attitude aside, the joy Zappa took in the act of creation itself is incontravertible. His first recording following the dissolution of the first Mothers line up, Hot Rats (1969), is a tightly focused work with none of the baggage. The Captain Beefheart-fronted "Willie The Pimp" is gut-wrenchingly funky, while "Peaches En Regalia" is a genuine jazz rock hybrid, the kind of thing Soft Machine might have come up with had they not lost their melodic sensibility along with Robert Wyatt.  Soon after, though, came the second, inferior incarnation of The Mothers. Nothing from Chunga's Revenge to Just Another Band From LA (1972) scales the heights of Freak Out! or Lumpy Gravy. The dual vocals of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (aka Flo and Eddie) are emblematic of how irksome this era of Zappa's work could be. Their embarrassing faux soul stylings sound like the bleating of two wimpy no-marks who've fallen in with the coolest kid in school, and make the greasy tales of groupies even more unappetising. Zappa's music improved almost instantly once the pair had departed. But that's a whole 'nother story.