A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa: Part Two
The Early Albums
As I mentioned in Part One of this series, Frank Zappa was an American rock guitarist and composer mainly active from the mid-Sixties to the late-Eighties. And what made him so interesting and so polarizing was that he created a great quantity (and quality) of material. There was almost literally not a style of music that he could not, did not, or at least partially include in his writing, in often very humorous ways. He also recombined and reintroduced musical or lyric material from previous works, sometimes from many decades earlier (“The Torture Never Stops”, “Zoot Allures”, “(More) Trouble Every Day”, etc.) in fascinating new ways as part of his overall working concept entitled “Project/Object”, which he described as:
“… a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’ Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: a novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel. Or: Rembrandt got his ‘look’ by mixing just a little brown into every other color — he didn’t do ‘red’ unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look.
I am not obsessed by various words, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, and videos for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection’“.
So, to help guide you through Zappa’s voluminous archive, I have chosen to introduce you to a few of Zappa’s early LPs (1966 – 1970) as a structural guide to his later works. For an introduction to specific songs, click here.
Recorded March 8-16, 1966, and released on June 27 that same year, Freak Out! is the first LP through which anyone (in the general populace outside of southern California) discovered Zappa and his band the Mothers of Invention. And even though the album’s title implies the contents are exclusively avant-garde, psychedelic, or crazy sounding, the music itself is more often closer to mainstream than not, though it wanders into avant-garde sound art (inspired by the likes of pianist Cecil Taylor, for example, in “The Return of The Son Of Monster Magnet” (especially around 11m:10s). A nice example of both is the song “Who Are The Brain Police?” which contains both standard 60s rock sounds, influence from North Indian music, and musique concrète (a mix of sounds and music that seem to have no relationship to each other and their usual sources, used as a form of sound collage).
As such it is on tracks like this that we hear what would become the stereotypical Zappa modus operandi of later years (“Who Are The Brain Police?”), (“Help, I’m A Rock”, the ending of “It Can’t Happen Here”, etc.). These, in particular, set the tone for Zappa’s coming career, and provide an excellent context in which to study later works. This context is essentially the following:
- His work is laden with socio-political satire, especially over what he saw as the more vapid aspects of celebrity and sexual behavior of his time.
- He mixed disparate elements of various musical styles (often through tape editing, musique concrète, and/or in-studio improvisation) into one unique whole, which made him a bona fide musical genius.
- He was a virtuoso guitarist, though he was self-taught and his method unorthodox.
Though Zappa had previously released Freak Out! as a member of The Mothers of Invention (which I will shorten to TMOI for brevity’s sake), it is with the release of the album Absolutely Free that we see what we might call the “stereotypical” solo Zappa emerge: rock songs mixed with sound effects and various sound collages, improvised socio-political dialogues, etc. Thus, I am will be mixing Frank Zappa solo work and work by TMOI to give you a sense of the interrelationship between the two.
Recorded November 16-18, 1966, and released May 26, 1967, Absolutely Free was released at a time when artists such as Petula Clark were releasing sugary pop hits such as “Don’t Sleep In The Subway” and the Beatles the same with “All You Need Is Love”, and “Penny Lane”. Thus, Zappa’s musical collage of themes taken from classical composer Igor Stravinsky, free jazz, and doo-wop on the track “Amnesia Vivace” would have (and did) seem like an all out attack on the sensibilities of the average listener of the day, let alone those who appreciate each of these styles individually. Ironically, Zappa’s appropriation of such styles was done so masterfully, it was not apparent to many average listeners to begin with unless one had an education in classical music, jazz, and the popular music of the day! For example, the ballad “Duke Of Prunes” and “The Duke Regains His Chops”, minus the satirical lyrics, are well written and stylistically as “inside” as any other pop song of the day. Other songs such as “Invocation & And Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” demonstrate the band members ability to either solo with or support Zappa in his role as bandleader, so Absolutely Free is often the choice of band members and fans alike as an early favorite.
(Note: each side of the original LP was meant to be an interconnected type of “underground” oratorio, and arguably all Zappa works are part of the greater Project/Object “oratorio” Zappa created over his musical lifetime).
Recorded in February 1967, released August 1967, and later extended and reissued on May 3, 1968, this is Zappa’s first solo album, surprisingly, an album of orchestral, musique concrete, and surf music, which further added to Zappa’s mystique. As Lumpy Gravy and Absolutely Free ostensibly were released around the same time, it is easy to see how diverse a reaction would have been engendered. Those who would accuse Zappa of being a “freak” (part of the hippy culture around him) could not accuse him of mere musical shock value, those who would condemn rock music as not serious could not deny Zappa’s talent, and so on. It is also a point of contention for those critiquing Zappa that his songs and LPs almost invariably had comical titles, thus “hiding” how thoroughly serious he was about his music and the depth of his talent. The album We’re Only In It For The Money for example, includes a song simply titled “Hot Poop”. But to his fans this was and is one of the most entertaining and endearing aspects of his work, how musically seditious his work was; in my own case how liberating it was to be a young musician who was turned on to Zappa while my peers were not.
Also, though this is Zappa’s debut solo effort, due to contract issues he himself could not appear as a musician on it, thus he wrote, created, and conducted music exclusively. It is also on this recording do we hear the Zappa classic “Oh No!” later appearing on such LPs as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Make A Jazz Noise Here. “Oh No” is what can be called the stereotypical sound of his more “sweet” sounding melodies.
We’re Only In It For The Money
Recorded various dates between March – October, 1967, and released March 4, 1968, this Mothers of Invention LP was recorded right before Lumpy Gravy, and thus represents a kind of intermingling of Frank Zappa’s solo efforts and the return of the Mothers. It is also on this recording we hear a particularly fascinating use of mixed time signatures (“Flower Punk”), a creative technique Zappa would use in a very distinct way, apart from the manner in which the progressive rock bands such as RUSH, Genesis, YES, and others who would follow. Zappa would also use what are known as contra-metric rhythms: where the standard composer might put four notes Zappa would include five, where six may go Zappa would include seven. This, combined with time signatures such as 5/8 or 7/4 meant that Zappa could write extremely difficult music in all of the genres he had mastered, which were many. The live album Make A Jazz Noise Here (recorded in various locations in 1988, released in 1991) contains many examples of contra-metric rhythm as well as difficult horn section arrangements played almost to perfection, a major feat for any brass on woodwind player.
Recorded between September 1967-68 and released April 21, 1969, this particular LP is one of the longer ones available, each side running approximately an hour. It was also intended to be the soundtrack to a then unfinished science fiction movie about an insane genius who plans to take control of the world from his secret base in an old Van Nuys garage. Also notable about this particular album in general is its inclusion of the lead sheet music for two songs, the main theme (“Uncle Meat”) and the main theme to a series of variations known as “King Kong”. As Zappa’s music is notoriously difficult to transcribe without some sort of assistant technology, having these two examples available as an overall guide to Zappa (most notably his use of sixteenth note clusters and eighth note triplet groupings) is extremely invaluable to both fans and musicians alike, and an excellent insight into how Zappa created the “stop/start” quality of his percussion writing in particular (i.e. the aforementioned contra-metric and time signature techniques). The highlight of this particular recording though is the theme and extended soloing over the chords to “King Kong” (Parts 2 to 6), which are akin to the tonal explorations of such bands as Pink Floyd but with more free form elements occasionally surfacing. Similar soloing also occurs in the song “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution”, wherein Zappa plays his guitar over a vamping rhythms section and free form percussion.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh
A (mostly) live recording, captured between December1967 and August 1969, and released on August 10, 1970, this TMOI album, like its predecessor, contains contra-metric, humorously titled songs (“Prelude To The Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask”) and free form elements, but returns to the single disc format. For example, the title track is a figurative “wall” of sound with all members playing as many notes as they can, creating a surprisingly beautiful dissonant soundscape (if played at low volume). As such, the LP realizes what might seem like the eponymous ethos of Freak Out! though the previous LPs exist in between.
This ethos is result of the influence of certain people listed in the liner notes included on Freak Out!: free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, free jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy (who is both an influence on Zappa and included in a song title “The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ”), classical composers such as Stravinsky and Stockhausen, blues artists such as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Willie Dixon, Guitar Slim, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, and a wide variety of writers, painters and other influences: sitarist Ravi Shankar, painter Salvador Dali, cymbal maker Avedis Zildjian, writer James Joyce, etc.
But any hint of that ethos, like on any other Zappa recording, is balanced by its opposite, like for example a vocal version of “Oh No” (heard earlier on Lumpy Gravy), in which Zappa questions the basis of the Beatles “All You Need Is Love”.
Oh no, I don’t believe it
You say that you think you know the meaning of love
You say love is all we need
You say with your love you can change
All of the fools, all of the hate
I think you’re probably out to lunch
Oh no, I don’t believe it
You say that you think you know the meaning of love
Do you really think it can be told?
You say that you really know
I think you should check it again
How can you say what you believe
Will be the key to a world of love?