Frank Zappa 1940–
American songwriter, composer, musician, filmmaker, record and film producer, and director.
Zappa is a unique figure in contemporary music. Both offensive and appealing, his work merges such seemingly opposite elements as classical music, avant-garde jazz, 1950s doo-wop, and underground rock with bitterly satirical, outlandish lyrics into what is an unarguably original style. Through his band, the Mothers of Invention, he has utilized a purposeful bizarreness to point up the absurdity of contemporary society. The intensity and intellectual complexity of Zappa's work is undercut by ribald, tongue-in-cheek humor, which has helped to make him especially popular with young people.
Zappa began his career by composing orchestral works and chamber music. Until he was twenty-one he listened exclusively to classical pieces and the works of such twentieth century composers as Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse, his biggest influence. It was not until Zappa discovered rhythm and blues that he began developing his songwriting. In 1964 he formed the first in a series of Mothers, and in 1967 they released Freak Out, a double album which both represented and defined the developing counterculture. His other early albums were also iconoclastic: We're Only in It for the Money parodied the Beatles's celebrated Sgt. Pepper; and he released Ruben and the Jets as a classical exercise in doo-wop during the height of psychedelia.
Zappa and the Mothers were the first to effectively blend rock with theater, making dadaist statements on drugs, war, the business world, and, especially, sex. In their concerts they encouraged involvement between band and audience. Zappa used a free-form format, which often included grotesque elements, to shock his audience into understanding the depth of their emotions. In 1969 he disbanded the group due to a combination of expense and public apathy.
After the breakup of the Mothers, Zappa concentrated on record production and film work. Uncle Meat, his first film, was never released, although it did yield a soundtrack album. He also began releasing solo albums such as the instrumental Lumpy Gravy and Hot Rats, which are often considered his best work. In 1970 Zappa formed a new Mothers to play the score for his film 200 Motels, a saga of life on the road. The film received a mixed critical reception, but was awarded cult status by many young people. Zappa also performed with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an effort to combine rock and symphony material.
Recently Zappa has been criticized for his lack of fresh ideas, especially on Joe's Garage, a fantasy about the rise and fall of a rock band, and for his overuse of perversity and sophomoric silliness, as in his film Baby Snakes. For many of his critics, Zappa's notorious image has transcended his musical efforts; some, however, have called him a genius who is ahead of his time. Young people have always been Zappa's most faithful advocates, and have recognized the imagination he has consistently brought to his work. "My dreams," he has said, "are limited only by the size of my bank account."
No other group of hippy musicians displays the same amount of freedom, variety, invention, and lunatic good spirits as the West Coast group that calls itself The Mothers of Invention. Utilizing a variety of electronic sounds and an agglomeration of strange forms of percussion, they produce musical backgrounds for a vocal message that ranges from the eloquently poetic, to earthy good humor, to embarrassingly unfunny bathroom jokes, to simple high-spirited inantiy….
But thoughtful listening reveals that there is a substantial amount of careful work and genuine sensitivity behind this coarse facade. Music that sounds like little more than a rude joke on first hearing, reveals unexpected inner subtlety and charm after a number of repetitions….
[There] is much of the same feeling of irreverent, zany funmaking about the Mothers that there was about the [Spike] Jones band, and if you don't want to search for the superior craftsmanship and creativity of this new group, you can still enjoy this music on its surface level for its wacky sounds and earthy lyrics….
[The MOI American Pageant on Absolutely Free] deals with drinking, middle-class status symbols, the high-school dance, sex, and the country club dance. It adds up to a pretty cogent picture of the hippy's view of American society, and if it's a distorted view, it's still a pithy and clever commentary that makes some pretty...
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The "underground oratorios" Absolutely Free and The M.O.I. American Pageant by the Mothers of Invention are among the major achievements of experimental pop groups. The Mothers draw on a large number of sources for their music. They are competent rock musicians, as the building Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin demonstrates. However, it is their humor, their satirical gift, that makes the Mothers' two oratorios notable. America Drinks and Goes Home, a selection from The M.O.I. American Pageant, for example, is a marvelous parody of closing time at a less than classy night club ("Oh, Bill Bailey? Oh, we'll get to that tomorrow night. Yeah. Caravan with the drum solo? Right. Yeah, we'll do that.").
The nice thing about the Mothers' humor on the two oratorios is that it is open and democratic rather than aimed at any specific inside group. (p. 39)
Harvey Pekar, "From Rock to ???" in down beat (copyright 1968; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 35, No. 9, May 2, 1968, pp. 39-40.∗
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Robert A. Rosenstone
The most successful song depicting the situation of the Negro was "Trouble Coming Everyday," written by Frank Zappa during the Watts uprising in 1965. Though the song does not go so far as to approve of rioting, it paints a brutal picture of exploitation by merchants, bad schooling, miserable housing, and police brutality—all of which affect ghetto-dwellers. Its most significant lines are Zappa's cry, "You know something people, I ain't black, but there's a whole lots of times I wish I could say I'm not white." No song writer showed more empathy with the black struggle for liberation than that. (p. 135)
The image [of inauthenticity, of plasticity,] recurs most frequently in the works of the Mothers of Invention. In one song ["Uncle Bernie's Farm"], they depict the country as being run by a plastic Congress and President. Then, in "Plastic People," they start with complaints about a girl-friend who uses "plastic goo" on her face, go on to a picture of teen-agers on the Sunset Strip—who are probably their fans—as being "plastic," too, and finally turn on their listeners and say "Go home and check yourself / You think we're talking about someone else." Such a vision is frightening, for if the audience is plastic, perhaps the Mothers, themselves, are made of the same phony material. And if the whole world is plastic, who can be sure of his own authenticity? (p. 138)
Robert A. Rosenstone, "'The...
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[Ruben & The Jets is] an album of The Mothers as mad historians, caricaturing a caricature and making it work. They exult the sexual symbolism of early rock by calling the shots. "Cheap Thrills in the back of my car" wouldn't have gotten by the censors in the old days, but it sounds disconcertingly familiar now. The Mothers camp it up with reconstructed oldies spoofing the elusiveness and the immediacy that brought teeny-boppers out in droves to the Murray the K. rock 'n' roll tours and the American Bandstand.
The Mothers of Invention reign as the prime purveyors of irreverent insight into American culture, and this time around, they are entrenching themselves. And as severe a reflection of the absurdity of itself as it is, Ruben & The Jets is a collection of good tunes…. It tells it like it always was, much to everyone's embarrassment, except theirs, and makes it fun to listen to at the same time. It's patently obscene without containing one dirty word. Now you've got to admit, that's class.
Ellen Sander, "Nostalgia: Oldies but Goodies and a Last Ditch Attempt," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 13, March 29, 1969, p. 51.
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David G. Walley
We all live inside a plastic balloon which Frank Zappa is trying to pop….
Zappa is no freaked-out psychedelic acidhead—his band is composed of consummate musicians, and their music is vital, alive, and important. Everything the Mothers do, right down to the multi-tracked belches, has infinite purpose. Zappa is a media master…. (p. 29)
The Mothers of Invention, for all their put-on obnoxiousness (studied, I might add) and healthy disrespect for the Establishment, are very much vital as artists in this culture. Some of their music is in the 50's folk medium (a capella pimple-rock)—what better way to describe a culture than by using the culture's music to do it? (pp. 29-30)
The Mothers minutely dissect those hidden years when we were all so pure. Mothers music makes you think. It is savage in its satire….
Zappa makes you squirm, and rightly so—no one is perfect. Zappa forces you to examine what you hear and know—he keeps at you with insidious questions interspersed in his music like, "Are you listening?" or "What's so funny, shithead?" or "Wow, are you ever lame!" As a result, the audience fights back in shocked self-defense. (p. 30)
But Zappa and his Mothers challenge the whole structure of the intellectual establishment; he's fighting against the narrow-minded musicologist cum cultural historian who insists that modern music and social...
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[Hot Rats] brings together a set of mostly little-known talents that whale the tar out of every other informal "jam" album released in rock and roll for the past two years. If Hot Rats is any indication of where Zappa is headed on his own, we are in for some fiendish rides indeed.
In the past both Zappa's high-flown "serious music" and his greasy Fifties routines grew heavy-handed, but this album suggests he may be off on a new and much more individual direction, inspired by Captain Beefheart, who is featured prominently on Hot Rats…. Beefheart is one of the true originals of our day, and his raffish dadaism is an excellent tonic for a Zappa too often pre-occupied with polemics—his influence shows clearly in much of this record, whether he's actually performing or not.
The new Zappa has dumped both his Frankensteinian classicism and his pachuko-rock. He's into the new jazz heavily, same as Beefheart, and applying all his technical savvy until the music sounds a far and purposely ragged cry from the self-indulgence of the current crop of young white John Coltranes. (p. 46)
If you're eager for a first taste of Beefheart or interested in the new approaches to instrumental style and improvisational technique being developed these days, this is as good a place to start as any…. (p. 48)
Lester Bangs, "Records: 'Hot Rats'," in Rolling...
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Not much to choose between [Burnt Weenie Sandwich] and Uncle Meat: both are strange, fragmented, wonderful albums. The opening and closing tunes are pretty much throwaways, though perhaps they serve as frames, a way of saying, "This, oddly enough, is where all our freaky music begins." WPLJ and Valarie are black '50s rock epitomized—not very good, but fun. (p. 22)
It may well be that in the year 2000 (we should live so long), the Mothers' music will be considered the highest level of music attained during the present period. This album, despite a few fleetingly dull or repetitive passages, makes a good case for that view. (p. 23)
Alan Heineman, "Record Reviews: 'Burnt Weenie Sandwich'," in down beat (copyright 1970; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 37, No. 12, June 25, 1970, pp. 22-3.
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[Weasels Ripped My Flesh is another] nifty collection of music inspired by Frank Zappa's pre-occupation with Edgar Varese, death, bopping and jacking off.
Once I thought that Zappa and his group might be the saviors of pop music. Now after all the music that they've produced since their Suzie Creemcheese period I'm not sure that I don't still feel much the same. This random collection of editing room snippets recorded at Mothers concerts over the last few years finds the group peerless in the field of amalgamating satire, musical adventuresomeness, and flash….
It's all here: more assaults on the calibrated sexuality of early rock, and jousts at the pomposity which musical avant-guardism has traditionally engendered. Held together with Zappa's Spike Jones-ish bag of tricks and the Mothers' usual impressive control over electronic technology….
At the very least this must be one of the most impressive collections of out-takes ever.
Bill Reed, "Records: 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 67, October 1, 1970, p. 42.
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Frank Zappa is a genius. Right. Frank Zappa probably knows more about music than you and I and 3/4 of the other professional musicians in this country put together. Right. Frank Zappa has made an incredible contribution towards broadening the scope of the average American kid's listening habits. Absolutely. Frank Zappa has certain possibly dangerous Machiavellian, manipulative tendencies. Yeah, probably so, but so what? Frank Zappa is a snob who underestimates his audience. Hmmm. Think so, huh?…
The public may not be quite as ignorant or as debased in its tastes as Zappa possibly thinks, and I suspect a lot of them are going to be even more let down by Chunga's Revenge than they were by the last two albums. It doesn't have the long boring solos, but the grab-bag Weasels feeling remains.
After giving all credit where credit is due, we have to start asking some other questions. When Zappa dissolved the Mothers, he explained that they were going to "wait for the audience to catch up" with them. Whatever that meant at the time, it takes on increasing irony as the passing months bring new Zappa and old Mothers. Uncle Meat was a good album, but not nearly as involving as the three that preceded it.
Most of the albums released since then have been insubstantial, even allowing for the fact that something like Burnt Weenie Sandwich is something...
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It may seem a quaint notion now, but there actually was a time when Frank Zappa was considered one of the prime geniuses of rock. Somehow it just didn't seem to matter all that much that those of his compositions which bore any relationship to rock 'n' roll form at all were either sarcastic exercises in calculated banality or self-indulgent parodies of Fifties group harmonies, and at the time we were still largely convinced that his perennial air of snot-mustached condescension was good for us….
[Those] early albums did contain some striking music and lyrics and were exceptionally well put-together, solid collages of satiric vitriol and Mad magazine scatology zappin' straight atacha with aim that was close enough to make the whole thing titillating….
[The] succession of albums beginning with Burnt Weenie Sandwich has been marked with a steady downward curve in quality, and with Fillmore East we have finally reached a real nadir of sorts. The sometime ribaldry of the early albums has finally been allowed to bloom like a Clearasil jackoff fantasy, resulting in two sides mostly filled with a lot of inanity about groupies and exotic fuck-props…. Most of this album was said much more convincingly and five times as concisely in "Motherly Love" way back in the censored Sixties. On the other hand, if your idea of a real daring rock 'n' roll lyric is "My dick is a dagger," then you just might find...
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Anyone who enjoys being the target of a put-on will revel in Frank Zappa's 200 Motels. It's an act of undisguised aggression against the audience—rather like a mugging in a movie theater. Zappa makes movies the way he and his group, the Mothers of Invention, make music—wildly, brazenly, eclectically….
If it can really be said to be "about" anything, 200 Motels is about the effect it has on the audience, which is not always pleasant and is occasionally exasperating and even disconcerting. It helps that the movie is sometimes exceedingly funny. (p. 55)
The craziness climaxes, fittingly enough, with full cast and chorus raising their voices in an irreverent anthem: "Lord, have mercy on the fate of this movie / And God bless the mind of the man in the street." Mothers fans will be ecstatic, but the man in the street will need more than prayer to pull him through 200 Motels. (p. 56)
Jay Cocks, "Reservations Required," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1971), Vol. 98, No. 22, November 29, 1971, pp. 55-6.
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200 Motels is a very funny, original and entertaining film. It is Frank Zappa's film just as the Mothers are his group, and it is permeated with his personal vision. It is a film of many levels, but his own description, "a surrealistic documentary," is apt.
It deals with life on the road as experienced by a touring rock group, specifically The Mothers, and such real things as sex, food and drink, relationship of performer to audience, getting high, intra-group chemistry, groupies, interviews, etc., but these are not treated in a "realistic" manner….
200 Motels is an "experimental" and offbeat film of a type rarely touched by major studios….
Actual performances by the Mothers (and the Philharmonic) are interspersed with the dramatic sequences, and there is a lot of music in the film, most of it very good….
Throughout, the treatment of sex is direct and funny, striking just the right tone….
I enjoyed [200 Motels] thoroughly, with only minor reservations: it goes on a bit too long, some things don't work, and there is almost too much to take in during some of the scenes. But the latter of course, can be remedied by seeing it again, and is typical of first movies by gifted filmmakers.
Zappa most certainly is that. He has long been interested in making films, but is not, he says, a movie buff. Thus, his methods and vision...
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The Mothers new album, Just Another Band From L.A. seems to capture the spontenaity of the early albums, like Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For the Money, better than any other recent one….
Much has been made (by Zappa) of the Mothers being labelled a "comedy" group. Well if he thinks that's ironic, or he doesn't like it, tough shit, because this record is one of the funniest he has ever done. Zappa still pokes fun at the country he lives in, the West Coast culture, even (especially) the people who come to listen to him…. The humor is very adolescent (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan only encourage this) but I like sophomoric humor when it comes off….
The first side of the album is taken up with a theatre piece, "Billy the Mountain," which is one of Zappa's most coherent allegories to date. I say coherent because the story line at least is clear….
Side two is an equally tight set consisting of four pieces. First a new version of "Call Any Vegetable."… Next, "Eddie, Are You Kidding," which seems to be about the owner of a clothing store. Since his imagery on the record is strictly L.A. I plead ignorance, but I imagine it to be the equivalent of certain ads in New York. ("Money talks, nobody walks.")… "Magdalena" is an immature sexual foray which recalls the last album. It is a male chauvinist piece of garbage and it is America and I loved every minute of...
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In his inexorable odyssey toward gesamtkunstwerk (the Wagnerian "total" artwork), Just Another Band is the most perfect example of the synthesis of theater and music in the art of Frank Zappa.
Billy the Mountain alone is exemplary…. Up front, the narrative is bizarre—and at least not about genital size, the Mothers' too often prevalent theme. But above all, the music is the energy of the piece, reinforcing and contributing to the comedy throughout.
On the other side, the reverse is somewhat evident, with the music more to the fore…. Magdalena for once integrates their bawdy burlesquing (this time about incest) with the music, without their lasciviousness eclipsing it.
In all, Just Another Band again proves the Mothers among the best ensembles and Zappa among the best composers in popular music.
Mike Bourne, "Record Reviews: 'Just Another Band from LA'," in down beat (copyright 1972; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 39, No. 15, September 14, 1972, p. 22.
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Freak Out was a conceptual masterpiece…. [It] served as a living testament to L.A. freakdom, a truly honest work…. It captured the essence of the American Experience with songs like "Who Are the Brain Police."… (p. 60)
Freak Out also had some outrageous parodies of Fifties rhythm and blues tunes with "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder."… The songs on the first record dealt for the most part with common reality. The pieces of extended music on the second record were unheard of during that impoverished period of rock and roll imagination.
Side Three of Freak Out contained two memorable compositions: "Trouble Coming Every Day," a song about the Watts riots … and "Help I'm a Rock," a stomp for L.A. freakdom. (pp. 60-1)
[Absolutely Free] was filled with images of Americana all reversed. It contained many of Zappa's classics…. (p. 75)
Zappa's themes key in to the later albums also. Absolutely Free was more musically complex than Freak Out…. Some of the songs were clearly a direct comment on what Zappa had been experiencing at the time—the rampant social stupidity of the Sunset Strip riots, for instance. (p. 76)
Absolutely Free featured [a] magnificent two-part production number on Side Two: "America Drinks," and "America Drinks and Goes Home." First time through the number is scatjazz, a densely...
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[Zappa's] formula is wearing thin—or perhaps this Brucean music of disgust suffers in the current buyers' market for outrage. Only one song [on Over-Nite Sensation], "Montana," approaches parody, and that of an indefinite genre…. One of Zappa's most persistent themes and/or subjects, silly hippies, though it provides the best cut ("Camarillo Brillo") seems, well, dated.
Except that this is close to a good record, one would be tempted to compare Zappa to Henry Miller, with whom the former shares a vision of sex as rancid, dumb and funny: Like Miller getting older, he is less shocking, tapeworming himself, and overwriting.
Even if the lyrics are jokes, this is machismo rock in the Miller style. The composite love-object wears a "rancid poncho," has bug-ridden hair, "bovine perspiration on her upper lip area" and "cheap aroma." (p. 82)
["Camarillo Brillo"] is by far [the album's] highlight. If not Zappa at the top of his form, he is at least within it, rhyming "poncho" with "We did it till we were unconcho / And it was useless anymore." (p. 83)
Arthur Schmidt, "Records: 'Over-Nite Sensation'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 150, December 20, 1973, pp. 82-3.
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Zappa [is] an extremely creative and highly proficient composer and performer of truly serious contemporary music, whose musical and artistic perception clearly transcends the narrowly defined limits of pop and whose breadth of musical experience outstrips the boundaries of all forms of American music, not simply pop.
By "serious," I mean a learned and studied writer of music; one who has studied the traditional techniques of theory, harmony, counterpoint, and composition; one who is aware of the history of Western Music especially and who can both appreciate and appraise contemporary music and its materials; one who has both a personal vision and aesthetic and who has the training to be, in Charles Ives' terms, "communicative," "melodious" and "expressive;" one whose work is what is done, not what has to be done; one who insists on the primacy of the creative imagination and is completely open to it both in himself/herself and in others; and, above all, one who passionately loves music.
By "serious music" is meant that music of the Academy, studied in and approved by the Academy. (pp. 36-7)
The point of this essay is to suggest that Frank Zappa is indeed a very serious musician whose music and musical ideas, of themselves, are very much a part of serious contemporary music, and that he may, in fact, have already provided, through his musical ideas, several possible solutions to the crises facing the...
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Roxy & Elsewhere is about as close to a traditional musical form as the Mothers are ever likely to come. There's bound to be lots of strangeness—long, spoken raps (preambles), Zappa's own weird form of humor, post-acid fairy tale lyrics and a lot of just plain wasted vinyl—on any double album from the Mothers. But in between there is actually lots of solid and inventive jazz-rock.
Alan Niester, "Records: 'Roxy & Elsewhere'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 177, January 2, 1975, p. 68.
Zappa for the life of him can't seem to get the turkey shit out of his head. And the latest live double album Roxy & Elsewhere … strongly indicates that the mother of invention is not about to clean house. Take the orchestral suite consisting of Village of the Sun, Echidna's Arf (of You) and Don't You Ever Wash That Thing? The trite lyrics of Village are so obviously geared to sell the purely instrumental sections of the composition to his audience of juvenile enfants terribles that the sales pitch needlessly commercializes and discredits the music itself. As do the lyrics of Penguin in Bondage, Son of Orange County, and Pygmy Twylyte. On the other hand, Cheepnis is a truly hilarious oratorio about TV science-fiction...
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Frank Zappa, the Franz Liszt, Jonathan Swift, and Spike Jones of the pop avant-garde, is the standard bearer of whatever is left of that theatrical school of rock music which is at once commedia dell'arte zaniness, social critique, and high-class musicianship on a low-brow trip. Zappa has perfected a kind of rock-and-roll tone poem, with a surrealistic text scraped off the soft underbelly of American life—a dippy blues riff, some elaborate jazzy musical developments, and a rousing return to cap it off. (pp. 85, 87)
A good deal of [Roxy & Elsewhere] is taken up with funny business…. The meat of the album lies in the half-dozen tunes and a couple of good-sized instrumentals that travel the usual Zappa route from low-down to lunatic. A great deal is sometimes made out of Zappa's affinity for jazz, but I think the jazz influence on Zappa's music is fairly peripheral: his real source of inspiration is Hollywood-America, music and all. The best material here … is California-America bottom-side-up….
Everything is as tight, as mean, as lunatic, as precise as ever, and every bit of craziness is carefully in place. (p. 87)
Eric Salzman, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'Roxy & Elsewhere'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1975 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 34, No. 3, March, 1975, pp. 85, 87.
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JOHN SWENSON and BART TESTA
Freak Out and its follow-ups, Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For the Money, became legend primarily for the visual images superimposed on the music; Zappa's ironic critique of society…. Zappa seems to have no limit of contempt for aspects of Ugly Americana, including his audience (and, perhaps even himself).
But what may have seemed hostile in '68 (say, for example, the parody of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the inside cover of We're Only In It …) turns out to make good sense in retrospect. In fact, Zappa was a very earnest humanist: "Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre education system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts…." The definition of a freak as someone attempting a creative relationship with his/her environment stated on Freak Out, seems to boil down to a cynic's evaluation of California's hippy dream in "Who Needs the Peace Corps" and "Flower Punk" (on We're Only …). But Zappa still has great sympathy for the kids, and in very sincere fashion places the blame on the society of their parents….
His vision of growing-up-in-California reached its discursive peak with We're Only … and paved the way for Zappa's first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which instrumentalized "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," perhaps his most...
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[Frank Zappa] ran out of topical relevance even quicker than most of his musical contemporaries, largely forfeited lyrical cogency early on, and has for several years been recycling adolescent grossout yuks interspersed with random verbiage…. Zappa's lyrics only begin to work [on One Size Fits All] when they redelve into the Southern California greaser suburb murk-Montclair mentality …, and even then whatever possible effectiveness they might have is usually obscured by his … melodic quirks which tend to keep the vocalist gibbering like a Pachuco on whites humping the glory hole of a pinball machine. (pp. 65-6)
[Frank] loots enough styles to make music that sounds complicated, throws in a melange of words big … and little …, and markets the whole stew in equally jumbled packages, so that if you compound the already dim with dope the result may be perceived as some bastard's dada or at least far out. There are those who will eat yellow snow. (p. 66)
Lester Bangs, "Records: 'One Size Fits All'," in Creem (© copyright 1975 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 4, September, 1975, pp. 65-6.
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With regard to poo-poo, snot, vomit, depersonalized sex, booze, zoot suits and the banality of mainstream rock, Frank Zappa, one of rock's original angry young men, remains vehement. And Zoot Allures is his latest blow against the Empire. You do remember the Empire?
In other words, there are few moments of musical interest on this album, and nearly all are marred by a lyric text that is alternately mindless and condescending, always unfunny.
Robert Duncan, "Records: 'Zoot Allures'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 229, December 30, 1976, p. 70.
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Zappa in New York sounds as much like formula work as anything this character has ever foisted upon his public….
At its most pedestrian, this album offers "Titties and Beer," yet another Zappa attempt to secure the affections of the sophomores in the audience by reviving the crudest elements of vaudeville. The song centers on a locker-room dialogue between Zappa and the Devil …, who has eaten Frank's girl and beer. Sound familiar? It should—the routine aims for the same sleazy places Flo and Eddie (to cite the obvious example) explored years ago…. Being predictable is bad enough; "Titties and Beer" is that and mild, a far greater sin.
"The Illinois Enema Bandit" is a considerable improvement, owing in large part to a successful integration of yuks and riffs. There are a number of structural twists to the piece…. Still, the song was inevitable; eventually Zappa had to write a song about enemas, there only being a finite number of ways to be gross and disgusting.
Instrumental passages, while hardly groundbreaking, present the brightest moments on Zappa in New York….
In the end, however, I get the unsettling sensation of having been there before. Zappa in New York is this year's model of an old show: Buy your ticket and you're guaranteed lots of sex jokes frothed by 20 minutes of guitar. The problem with old shows, particularly popular old shows,...
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Studio Tan is one of the most satisfying Zappa releases of the decade. It's a well-balanced sampler of Zappa's unissued '70s work, including two major instrumental compositions, a hilarious parody of Southern California beach music, and a fully orchestrated, characteristically strange operatic piece.
The narrative line of Greggery Peccary, the side-long "opera," follows the misadventures of the title character, a suave, hip young "pig of destiny" engaged in the heinous practice of "trend-mongering." The story leads us into some social commentary that seems rather heavy-handed and dated by now, but a lot of it is genuinely funny, especially if the listener happens to be a sucker for cartoon voices.
Underneath the narrative, however, there's some pretty amazing music, much of which deserves comparison with the work of the major 20th century composers….
Studio Tan … [is] both emotionally satisfying and a lot of fun.
Tim Schneckloth, "Record Reviews: 'Studio Tan'," in down beat (copyright 1979; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 46, No. 1, January 11, 1979, p. 24.
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[Sheik Yerbouti] reaffirms (at least for the faithful) Zappa's chops as a bandleader and rock & roll wit who doesn't have to be socially relevant to get a laugh. The opening salvo, "I Have Been in You," is a marvelously snide sendup of Peter Frampton's wimpiest hour ("I'm in You") that does for putzy love songs what "Dancin' Fool" does later for uncoordinated nerds with fatal John Travolta complexes. Indulgent scatological exercises like "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" and "Bobby Brown" (in which the artist unleashes a few zingers at record companies) continue to raise the question of Frank Zappa's lyrical gift and just what's left of it. But even when Zappa and crew come on like the avant-garde answer to Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, they do so with such self-parodying panache ("I'm So Cute," "Jewish Princess") that you're just as likely to laugh with them as at them.
David Fricke, "Records: 'Sheik Yerbouti'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 290, May 3, 1979, p. 72.
(The entire section is 173 words.)
Introducing his own label [with Sheik Yerbouti] gives Frank Zappa the opportunity to deposit several giant do-do's on your carpet and then, in an equally infantile way, wait for you to tell him what a good boy he is. He giggles and pants and shouts through such things as the swinish Wild Love, the repellent S & M, pansexual excesses of Broken Hearts Are for Assholes, and the childish exhibitionism of I Have Been in You with all the gleeful abandon of one of Rodney Laing's patients smearing his feces on the wall to prove his essential "health." The all-time low point (one must hope) is plumbed here in Jewish Princess, a belligerent, incredibly gross piece of hate-filled crap that belongs in a shrink's office and not on a recording. The delusional aspect of all this is that Zappa apparently considers himself something of a social and sexual satirist along the lines of a musical George Grosz and deserving of some kind of Award for Candor. In actuality he's more like the clumsy illustrator of one of those little porn comic books that are devoured by experience-starved kids who still think that scatology and sexuality are the same thing. An abusive, sickening album. (Sheik Yerbouti, if anyone cares, is Zaplish for the 1976 disco hit Shake Your Booty by K.C. and the Sunshine Band.) (p. 104)
Peter Reilly, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'Sheik Yerbouti'" (reprinted by permission of...
(The entire section is 246 words.)
Frank Zappa's attitude runs so thick you could smear it on sidewalks. For a decade, his name has conjured a rude blend of cynicism, scatology, and conceit, and until seven years ago he was entitled to all three. Zappa's scabrous all-Americanism, as promulgated on the first half-dozen Mothers of Invention albums, was enough to nurture the Tubes, the Residents, and others; his shifty-meter tunes, tape tricks, and rock-jazz arrangements would be revered and revived by Tin Huey, Hatfield and the North, the Residents, and many others. Yet his best work (the Mothers' Freak Out! and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and Zappa's solo Hot Rats) went unbought….
His response was so cynical it stunned even ardent Zappaphiles: He went for the moron audience. In what seemed at the time to be a natural (and temporary) de-evolutionary splice from the narratives-with-incidental-music on Just Another Band from L.A., Zappa introduced his simplified style on Mothers-Fillmore East. Over blues-derived vamps—very au courant in the heyday of Z.Z. Top, Grand Funk Railroad, and similar early-'70s hitmakers—Zappa and his henchpeople would chant or declaim sagas of sleazy sex….
The hell with art—Zappa dubbed his product "comedy music."…
And he'd found his formula: heavy metal riffs and crude innuendo. Listening to Zappa's prolific post-Sensation output gives me the queasy feeling...
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[What] we have [on Joe's Garage Act One] is just another set of songs on the sort of subject that seems to have occupied [Zappa's] forebrain for the past decade now, as the titles indicate: "Catholic Girls", "Crew Slut", "Wet T-Shirt Nite", etc., etc. The narrative structure seems to have been imposed on them after their composition, so it's hardly surprising that it fits rather loosely. Worse, very little of it grabs the short hairs at the back of the neck like "Concentration Moon", putting the Seventies to rest as definitely as "Money" did the illusions of the Sixties.
Musically, of course, it is as impeccable as ever, though the emphasis seems to be upon overall surface polish rather than those sudden flashes of individual, aberrant brilliance which distinguished even the dullest Zappa album in the past.
Only one song, "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?", sticks in the mind with any insistency….
Karl Dallas, "Frank Zappa: 'Joe's Garage Act One'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), September 29, 1979, p. 38.
(The entire section is 171 words.)
Though the title song [on Joe's Garage, Act 1] is a delightful history of every garage band that ever came out of rock & roll, the album is marred by a fault that has dogged Zappa's career since its beginning: sheer overindulgence. The narrative, otherwise perceptive and satiric, is weighed down with an overtext supplied by a computer voice dubbed The Central Scrutinizer, an icon which represents the establishment.
In both the album notes and the spoken narration, Zappa uses the Scrutinizer to say that higher authority is trying to a) do away with music; b) enslave the population through use of music. Forget the paradox; despite the pun (the Scrutinizer is screwing us, see?) these tract-like ravings don't in any way illuminate the high-schoolish (he admits it) plot.
Besides, with music co-opted by huge conglomerated labels, and with punk groups graduating to the money-making ranks of New Wave pop stardom, it's hard to tell the establishment from the rebels. Zappa's scorecard no longer fits the game.
He's lost none of his musicianship, and there's always that to admire.
Shel Kagan, "Longplayers: Zappa Still Makes Bizarre Music," in Circus Magazine (copyright © 1979 by Circus Enterprises Corporation), No. 44, October 30, 1979, p. 51.
(The entire section is 197 words.)
Although it is certainly not being hyped as such in this day and age, Joe's Garage is nothing less than a rock opera. It has distinct scenes, a large cast of characters and, best of all, a storyline that is actually easy to follow….
Zappa narrates his satire in the guise of the Central Scrutinizer…. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, but—lest anyone miss the point—Zappa spells it out in his liner notes: "If the plot seems preposterous, just be glad you don't live in one of the countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted, or, as it is in Iran, totally illegal."
The overall concept is, in the main, well executed, but there are some flaws. The Scrutinizer's monologues become extremely boring after two or three plays…. Finally, the man has once again succumbed to today's loose moral climate … and injected the story with plenty of gratuitous sexual situations and dialogue. Granted, it's Zappa's perogative and a certain segment of his audience expects it from him, but I can't help recalling his earlier albums, which were witty and sarcastic without resorting to cheap sensationalism.
Still, the title song lyrics are some of his finest ever, and most of the music is strong and exciting.
Cole Springer, "Records: 'Joe's Garage Act I'," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1979 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 6,...
(The entire section is 229 words.)
Baby Snakes isn't the longest rock-star self-indulgence ever put on the screen ([Bob Dylan's] Renaldo and Clara still holds that title) nor is it the most pretentious (ditto). It's an ego trip, all right, but on a picayune, low-rent scale; its intermittent stabs at higher meaning come mostly in the form of gnomic inside jokes, meant for the exclusive consumption of Zappa's ever-shrinking cadre of hard-core devotees. It may be the first rock-star movie ever designed from the outset as a cult item….
Clearly, the movie is a labor of love—but for what? You'd expect a cranky pedagogue like Zappa to at least pretend to some sort of big thematic statement, and he does; but the substance of Baby Snakes is as thin as dental floss. The movie's advertising line, "a movie about people who do stuff that is not normal," is as far as it goes. Zappa now seems to think that's enough. It's a desperate eccentricity. He gives us the tiresome backstage antics of his band—stone mugging, home-movie clownishness, some peculiarly vicious by play with an inflatable porno mannequin, all dragged out to interminable length—and the vacuous prattling of his fans as if they're the blazing torches of a new consciousness. He's still trying to act as if he symbolizes a whole culture, but the culture isn't there anymore; in this movie, it's more like the Lost Patrol. At the same time, by turning himself into warm, lovable Uncle Frank, telling...
(The entire section is 556 words.)
Unlike 200 Motels, Zappa's first film, Baby Snakes doesn't pretend to have a plot, and it is edited percussively, for maximum disorientation.
For die-hard Zappa fans, there are a few illuminating sequences. It's fascinating to watch Zappa conducting at close range; his band translates his hand motions into sound with telepathic precision. But those scenes are separated by tedious stretches of Zappa's cold-eyed, unfunny "comedy," which seems to be aimed primarily at socially retarded twelve-year-old boys. His staples are dirty-word jokes, outdated rock satires and disturbing antigay slurs….
The concert footage is competently shot, but [Bruce] Bickford's animation is the movie's visual salvation….
Unfortunately, Baby Snakes is all too analogous to Zappa's current music. For each glimpse of technical skill, each intriguing idea, you have to slog through endless, repetitious vamps. There's just enough interesting material here for a coming-attractions teaser.
Jon Pareles, "Frank Zappa's 'Baby Snakes'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1980; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 311, February 21, 1980, p. 14.
(The entire section is 163 words.)
Frank Zappa's satirical rock opera, Joe's Garage [Act I and Acts II and III] is ambitious and mad, brilliant, peculiar and incoherent…. As a music maker and recording artist, Zappa has always cultivated two warring images—the serious composer with a social satirist's sense of irony versus the smutty crowd pleaser with a puerile sense of humor….
Joe's Garage ties the dual extremes of Frank Zappa's sensibility closer together than ever. An attack on authoritarianism in which fascist governments, self-help pseudoreligions and the music industry are inextricably linked, the opera simultaneously tells the tale of a boy and girl….
As a stage musical, Joe's Garage is unproducible. As a satire, it's terribly obvious and conceptually fuzzy…. And as an aural experience, this work is too often unlistenable. After three clever and catchy cuts on side one—the title tune, "Catholic Girls" and "Crew Slut"—the music goes downhill, and the third album is almost complete drivel. In short, the whole thing's a mess.
But Joe's Garage is also the brave and revealing (albeit depressing) meditation of a man who wonders why he's squandered his life and talent on the scuzzy business of rock & roll….
If the surface of this opera is cluttered with cheap gags and musical mishmash, its soul is located in profound existential sorrow. The guitar solos that...
(The entire section is 266 words.)
Abandoning his middle period flirtations with jazz improvisation and contemporary orchestration, [on Joe's Garage (Act I and Acts II & III)] Zappa has reverted to the conceptual doo-wop format he last employed on the Mothers' Kafkaesque exercise in cosmic paranoia We're Only In It For The Money. Joe's Garage is similarly premised on the imminent prohibition of music … as it traces the journey of protagonist/guitarist Joe through the travails of the robot age…. [The] greater portion of this extravaganza is of no more substance than hamburger helper…. [Frank's] purulent invective oftener-than-not degenerates into the most putrid scatological doggerel, lacking, however, the power to shock that his comparatively tame satire originally had. Between occasional thrusts of barbed humor and even rarer bursts of creative music, Zappa bogs down in a bilious quagmire of obscenity, misogyny and self-pity, raging with equal incomprehension over the demise of psychedelia and the recent emergence of the new wave. From enfant terrible he has become the old pooperoo, a cynical guru whose teenybopper minions are unlikely to be daunted by his latest cautionary fable on the pitfalls of a musical career. (p. 48)
[His] current magnum opus is a vulgar bore. Perhaps a stage mounting might distract audiences from the humdrum music, but the recording alone is not sufficient to sustain the attention of any non-PCP user over the age...
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A decade ago his satirical, nihilistic humour and scatological obsessions hurt. But Zappa's themes have worn thin, and his targets grown easy. It's rather like watching a '60s underground mag turn yellow and date. This lessens the impact of the music [on "Wembley Arena"], however brilliant: it comes over as pastiche (mere imitation) rather than parody (imitation with something to say).
Zappa has always avoided the laughable spiritual commitments which musicians of this calibre often take on. But he pays a price for his flippancy. As the musical expertise grows and the wit declines, the effect becomes strangely syrupy and operatic. Frank, ever scornful of rock 'n roll values, has merely ended up as very superior showbiz.
Paul Tickell, "Caught in the Act," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 28, 1980, p. 18.
(The entire section is 133 words.)