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Frank Zappa Reconsidered: From Head Mother to Modern-Day Composer and Beyond

Decoding the prolific, provocative legacy of the late rock visionary

By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Music

First of two parts

Frank Zappa 1968 (©AP)

"The present-day composer refuses to die!" This defiant albeit perhaps tautological pronouncement from the musique-concrete master Edgard Varese was an epigram that composer, guitarist and provocateur Frank Zappa was fond of attaching to the notes of the earliest recorded releases of his music. Although as first-stripe rock stars go, his current position in the music is odd, because nobody really makes music that sounds like what Zappa did. It's not just because they don't have the ability. Yet his "conceptual continuity" can be detected even in figures such as Lady Gaga, whom Zappa would have ruthlessly satirized had he not died in 1993, but whom Zappa also could have created or managed.

Now Zappa's family members, who have been tending the catalog through their own label for several years, are overseeing a major-label reissue of 60 Zappa titles, beginning with the works he made with his band the Mothers of Invention in the '60s. An inveterate tinkerer who went at being a road dog and a studio mole with equal obsessiveness, Zappa aroused the ire of fans and former bandmates by remixing and adding new instrumentation to classic titles. The new reissues are case by case, according to Gail Zappa: Some feature Frank's own remakings of them; others, most notably "Absolutely Free," represent a return to the original tapes for the first time. Aside from the engineer-wonk interest, seeing the reissues come out in order provides an interesting narrative of Zappa's career. The sheer magnitude of fascinating music represented on these 12 albums, which span a period of only six years, is impressive, of course. But we also hear how Zappa's own attitude toward rock stardom, fans and the industry mutated his own approach; how a guy went from writing "The formal structure of [this song] is not revolutionary, but it is interesting" in the liner notes of his first album to soliciting panties from female fans to sew into a quilt, in a sense.

"Freak Out!" (1966): "Frank Zappa is the leader and musical director of THE MOTHERS of invention. His performances in person with the group are rare. His personality is so repellent that it's best he stay away & for the sake of the impressionable young minds who might not be prepared to cope with him. When he does show up he performs on the guitar. Sometimes he sings. Sometimes he talks to the audience. Sometimes there is trouble." Zappa's vocal presence is immediate on opening track/statement of purpose "Hungry Freaks, Daddy." But what sticks out on this, which is in a sense the most overtly dated-sounding Zappa/Mothers record, is how little there is of what people would come to call Zappa's "comedy" music. The first two "sided" of what was initially a double-vinyl release play things surprisingly straight, albeit elaborate, for the most part: Songs such as "I Ain't Got No Heart," "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder," "How Could I Be Such a Fool," and so on, show off Zappa's unironic love for what he would call "greasy love songs" and showcase wall-of-sound arrangements that don't evoke Phil Spector so much as more outré R&B acts of Zappa's formative years, such as Mickey & Sylvia and others. "Who Are the Brain Police?" mixes Orwell-inspired protests with contemporary classical noise ideas (leavened, or absurdized, as much else on the album, by the prominent use of kazoos). Songs such as "I'm Not Satisfied" and the bluesified reaction to the Watts riots, "Trouble Every Day," showcase an unvarnished, sincere Zappa who would rarely emerge from this point on. And "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" is an improvisation-encouraging punt from a musical genius willing to cede a measure of control to other human beings for the simple reason that he didn't have much of a choice. The "you kids don't get me" liner notes to the songs is the first overt manifestation of FZ's weirdly tortured seesaw relationship with his audience.

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"Absolutely Free" (1967): Where "Freak Out!" tried to communicate a Zappa/Mothers sensibility and statement about the times via a mixed bag of songs and experimental jams/compositions, with "Absolutely Free" Zappa began to explore the possibilities of the record with respect to something like unified narratives. Because of his background in classical music, Zappa knew that the not yet so- called "concept album" had a good deal of past precedent, and on "Absolutely Free" he arranged each LP side as an "underground oratorio." Side one is "Absolutely Free," half comedy songs  the most outstanding being the three-part, self- commentating ("This is like the Supremes: You see the way it builds up?" Zappa asks out loud during one crescendo) "The Duke of Prunes" and variants  half Coltrane-rocks-out guitar-soprano sax jam ("Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin") that represents Zappa's first substantive recorded guitar statement. Side two is the Mothers' "American Pageant" with send-ups of ur- fratboys, toy manufacturers and the epic, Stravinsky-quoting "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," a still disquieting evocation of municipal perversion. This new release is the first of the six to have undergone a complete new remaster, and it sounds spectacular. My only quibble is the inclusion of the non-LP outtakes "Big Leg Emma" and "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?" Neither song is in line with the record's efficient and ruthless conceptual continuity.

"Lumpy Gravy" (1967): As cult hero-dom either loomed or grew, Zappa saw one of what would be several shots at leading a real orchestra, or a genuine approximation thereof, and his first "solo album" proper says it's music from a ballet "that didn't quite make it" & or something & and is instead a post-modern collage of remarkable, yes, invention and imagination and also a ruthless and funny pastiche. Stirring melodic themes, atonal sparse modernism (both showing a LOT of Stravinsky influence), recorded dialogue of his auto repair-obsessed oddball cronies, and studio chatter, which has the effect of never making the music "seamless" and always underscoring the process by which it's made: This is what "Lumpy Gravy" is made of. As with the later "Uncle Meat," some listener frustration is built in: One rarely gets a theme, a variant and a resolution, but a lot of raw-seeming material thrown at you that you've got to make sense of. In the future, when Zappa would work with respectful and careful outfits like the Ensemble Modern, the jump-cutting tendencies would be in a different mode, but they'd never disappear entirely; they're in fact intrinsic to what he does as a composer.

"We're Only in It for the Money" (1968): This is the most awesome, and disturbing, and coherent, Mothers statement in the Zappa canon, and it's the FZ record that even generally Zappa-hating rock critics stand in a certain awe of. The fact that one is never entirely sure whether he means it when he pines for a "time when you can take your clothes off when you dance" makes the flower-power critique a very knotty one. Here the vaudeville stylings of "Absolutely Free" and the musique-concrete experimentations of "Freak Out!" combine with a maniacally fecund pop-song sense, and the various voicings of childhood antics and Orwellian scenarios articulate a worldview of incredible acuity and surprising vulnerability. A stone masterpiece.

More: Watch Frank Zappa videos 

"Cruising With Ruben & The Jets" (1968): Bizarre! This is possibly the weirdest record of the bunch, despite the fact that it's a bunch of relatively played-straight doo-wop songs, some of them recycled from "Freak Out!" Lots of neat tunes, for sure, and very catchy. The weird part comes with the production. It's replete with the kind of thing that was pretty standard on the actual doo-wop records Zappa was paying homage to, which, truth to tell, could get pretty peculiar themselves (one reason Zappa so enjoyed them). But effects like reverb and the sounding of certain overtones inherent in doo-wop harmonies are stretched all out of proportion throughout, giving the whole thing a nifty mutated feel. The more you dig in, the odder it becomes. The reissue is the remixed version with new instrumentation that Zappa concocted in the early digital era, and is not as weird as the original, which can be heard via the Zappas' own label, in a package called "Greasy Love Songs." [Editor's note: "... Ruben" stands out from this initial wave as being billed neither as a Zappa solo project nor as a Zappa/Mothers collaboration, instead projecting a new ensemble.]

"Uncle Meat" (1969): Because it's touted as "music from the soundtrack of the Mothers' movie of the same name we haven't gotten enough money to finish yet," some have been tempted to find a conceptual framework for this sprawling set of songs, variations, dialogues, live bits of tomfoolery and harsh jazz workouts. There really isn't any, but what is here is awesome: The dialogue has never been funnier/more cutting, the music is uniformly magnificent and the recording is mind-bogglingly advanced for its time. And the lyrics are amusing without being inordinately pervy or objectionable. As the liner notes explain, they tend more to the inside-joke side of things than the social commentary. The current reissue dubiously includes some weak material that was on the first CD version of the album, which is why they made programmable CD players.

Read Part 2

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at He lives in Brooklyn.

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Aug 19, 2012 2:26PM

have we forgotten, "Phi-Zappa-Crappa"?

Aug 19, 2012 2:17PM
I disagree, Frank wouldn't had have anything to do with Gaga. He would have mocked her like he did Madonna. Actually, he was already past that and not really into making commentary of certain pop culture as he was too busy working.  He certainly wouldn't have managed Gag Gag. He didn't manage anybody. This writer does not know Zappa.
Aug 19, 2012 1:40PM
"Lumpy Gravy" along with "We're Only In It....." come to my mind when someone mentions Frank's name. Those two help me appreciate the first two albums more which now make up a Zappa 'fab four'. Of course "Apostrophe" and "Overnite Sensation" were the 'hit' records along with 'Valley Girl' and so those will be mentioned first above anything else. For me, though, had he done nothing past "200 Motels" that would have been enough. He continued, and created a tremendous body of work that any student of music (not just rock or classical) should listen and heed.
Aug 19, 2012 12:28PM
My mind drifts back to my youth. Freak Out......Loved it, was a way of life. LOL
I had the pleasure and luck to see Zappa several times, with the most awesome being at the Armadillo in Austin Tx. Sat through first show listening from the beer garden, then was front center for second show. For ones not familiar with the Armadillo, It was THE place in Austin for live music and Beer Garden.  >:o): Hehehe (It was torn down to build a high rise business complex, which now stands almost completely empty)

  RIP Frank, Long live Zappa and His Music!!!!
Much Love,
Da Pup

Aug 19, 2012 12:02PM
Frank Zappa.. Original soul patch :)
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