#1 Freak Out (1966, Verve Records)

To be technical this first official release is by the Mothers of Invention, not Frank Zappa. Frank is credited with writing and arranging all the songs, however. It has to be said that Frank came out of the gate pretty strong, this is a very good album. Perhaps part of the reason is that it is on a “major” label. I put major in quotes because although Verve was huge in jazz, they weren’t exactly Capitol or Columbia when it came to the rock and pop markets.

Album Cover, Freak Out!

Another reason for the high quality is sure the presence of Tom Wilson producing the record. Wilson is a storied producer, perhaps most famous for producing Bob Dylan’s early electric albums, but frankly that is to damn with faint praise. His resume is long and varied.

Freak Out is a double album, perhaps the first in rock history, although the record is not exactly a rock album. Apparently Wilson signed the group thinking they were a blues/rock band, which to some extent they were, playing mostly cover songs in their live performances. But more and more Zappa was writing material for the band and Freak Out is all original material.

The album is basically a commentary on the state of American society in the early sixties with the tension between the white bread suburbanism of the 50s and the newly emerging hippy, artistic urban culture. Frank labels the latter “freaks.”

The album kicks off with “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” which basically warns suburbanites that the freaks are coming. It is a strong musical performance and quite a catchy tune. Next the band slides into what sounds like a standard pop song, “I Ain’t Got No Heart,” but a closer listen tells you that it isn’t even a break up song, saying that maybe relationships aren’t worth it at all, the first shot over the bow of what is now the “Maybe I won’t get married movement.” Just the first time on record that Frank was light years ahead of his time.

Next is a total piece of weirdness, “Who are the Brain Police,” which bizarrely was released as a single. It bears little or no resemblance to pop, rock or jazz music. Also strangely catchy in it’s way.

The rest of the first (in the vinyl version) side consists of songs that have a standard pop/rock format but are parodies of the form. In the lyrics across the songs Zappa skewers the get dressed up, go out, try to impress a date lifestyle. The songs are all well done, sometimes laugh out loud funny, but also sometimes as lightweight as what they are parody of. It also includes Zappa’s first tribute to one of the overarching themes of his music — rock n roll groupies. Apparently, like cigarettes, Zappa could not get enough groupies. At least “Motherly Love” has very clever lyrics and a straight pop tune that actually makes it sound more fun than creepy. Unfortunately that would change in Frank’s later work.

The second side opens with more pop/rock parodies/commentaries. “Anyway the Wind Blows” is particularly well done, very tuneful. It’s doo wop inflected style tells how, if this relationship doesn’t work out, it’s OK, something else will come along.

The tone starts to change with the last two songs on the third side, “I’m not Satisfied” and especially “You’re Probably Wondering Why We Are Here.” The latter song covers another overarching theme of Frank’s music. The lyrics speak directly to an audience who came (presumably to the nightclubs and bars that he was playing at) to hear some pop songs that were easy to dance to and instead got art music and social commentary. It was obviously something frank struggled with his entire career, and the lyrics here put it quite plainly.

Side three opens with one of the most brilliant songs Zappa has written. It sounds like it could have been written yesterday. It is a blues/rock number “Trouble Everyday.” It was “inspired” by the Los Angeles riots (of the sixties, obviously, not the reprise in the 80s.) In what would become a signature Zappa move, there is plenty of criticism for both sides.

Understanding of the rioters is expressed through lyrics such as

And if a million more agree
There ain’t no Great Society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
And the law refuses to see
If all that you can ever be
Is just a lousy janitor
Unless your uncle owns a store

You know that five in every four
Just won’t amount to nothin’ more
Gonna watch the rats go across the floor
And make up songs about being poor

But he also rightly criticizes the rioters for destroying their own neighbors, who probably had nothing to do with the oppression they. The song also blasts the ratings driven TV coverage and bad policing that add to the problems. What amounts to the only chorus in the song, “There’s no way to delay that trouble comin’ everyday,” still rings true.

Another piece of lovely weirdness follows, “Help I’m a Rock.” It starts out sounding like a parody/cover of a Middle Eastern style of music and slow the chant of the spoken word phrase, “Help I’m a rock!” begins to bubble up. Totally avante garde but also totally catchy. The piece ends with an unaccompanied Frank talking in a sing song voice, “It can’t happen here.” To most people in the sixties this would have meant “There’s no way OUR country could become Nazi.” But Frank turns that on it’s head and means that the people think their town can’t go over to the arty/hippy freaks. But wouldn’t it be great if it did, Frank implies.

The album ends with “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableaux).” Put your headphones on to listen to this one. It is a deeply layered work combining a great multiplayer rhythm track with all kinds of vocalizations and sounds. Apparently after laying down the drums, the record label balked at the amount of studio time Frank wanted to put into the layering of the piece (hence the “unfinished” bit) but it still a great listen and you can hear the beginnings of later electronic music hiding in there.

This is an album that still holds up today and totally relevant to our current cultural and political trends.

10 out of 5 stars.

My Silly Project

All over the Internet are people who spew their opinions and pretend that they are actual facts. And many of the same people review or “react” to pop culture is that is almost as old as I am.

So, what am I planning on doing here? Listening to every Frank Zappa album that has been released and giving my thoughts on it. At least I won’t be pretending that my opinions are actual fact. But the cultural references will legitimately be vintage.

So, let me be Frank about this. I first came across Zappa when I was in high school, thanks to Dr. Demento. The first album I ever owned by Frank was “Sheik Yerbouti,” which I thought was hilarious at the time.

There is no way I can claim to be unbiased about Frank’s music or that I am “reacting” to his albums. But I can begin to tell you my biases.

I do fall into the camp that considers Zappa a musical genius. In my opinion that is undeniable, especially given his lack of education and training in music theory. That being said, he certainly was not perfect and his recorded output is quite variable in quality.

One issue I have with his music now is that my tastes have shifted. Musically, he was very influenced by the likes of Edgar Varese and Free Jazz. I find myself not being very fond of dissonant music in my old age and there are times I find it downright irritating. So, I have my rough moments with Frank’s music.

And then there is his lyrics. They range from brilliantly ahead of their time to downright purile. Yes, there was a trend in the 1970s that using any “colorful” language was automatically hilarious. Years of watching sanitized TV will do that to you. But Frank went beyond that. His lyrics are not just sexual, but also misogynistic and homophobic. Sometimes so misogynistic and homophobic it is hard to listen to.

It has never been clear to me whether Frank thought that he was merely pandering to his audience (which is bad enough.) It has always seemed as if there was a thread of, “If I have to sing about titties and beer to get you to listen to my more serious music, I’ll do that.” Or at least it seemed that way to me. But let’s face it, that attitude sucks. Miles Davis didn’t need to sing about groupies to gain an audience. It also seems to me that Frank just couldn’t help himself. He LIKED singing about groupies and titties and beer. So that part of the legacy remains and as Frank himself said (paraphrasing) he was who he am, a cow don’t make ham.

I hope you will join me through my fun little journey. There are actually many of Frank’s albums I have never listened to from beginning to end, so I am mostly looking forward to this!