The Zappa Reviews, #1 – Freak Out!

In early 1966, the story goes, a man from Verve Records by the name of Tom Wilson walked into a club in Los Angeles, California, to hear a band called The Mothers. He was pestered into going there by the group’s manager Herb Cohen. Wilson showed up at the place, not particularly interested, and walked in to hear the band in the middle of a fairly typical boogie number, a requisite of the bar band repertoire of the time, designed to put feet on the dancefloor, cash in tills, and drinks in hands, if it worked the owner of the club might let them play again no matter how bad they were. After that came Trouble Every Day, a song about the Watts Riots presented in a kind of walking-beat blues resplendent with harmonica and so forth. Soon enough a deal was worked out to make a record on the understanding that it would be a Paul Butterfield kind of affair, but when they got to the studio, the first song they recorded was Who Are the Brain Police?, full of churning guttural guitar fuzz, arrhythmic percussion, people making weird noises, and lyrics reflecting a detached and paranoid view of society. Wilson got on the phone to his boss, and said, “uh… you remember those guys I found in L.A., like another Blues Project? Well…”

Soon enough people were slipping shiny black vinyl discs out of covers featuring odd looking gentlemen and speech bubbles commanding them to “Freak Out!”; were putting needles down on wide grooved smooth edges and hearing that reliable crackle, which unlike for us was not a staccato ushering in of warm nostalgia for a time they never knew, but business as usual. Not business as usual, it turns out, is having someone, to a very catchy beat, shit all over your existence as an American citizen in the 1960s; telling you about people you never realised existed, who were doing things you never thought possible, who were rejecting the “great Midwestern hardware store philosophy,” the “supermarket dream,” and turning their backs to it as it had them.

It is here we encounter The Mothers (of Invention, as necessitated by certain informed Verve execs who believed “mothers” was — in the parlance of the time — short for “motherfuckers”) as infiltrators, first of the record business and then of the unsuspecting well-to-do 1960s teenager’s bedroom, the occupant of which was now hearing for the first time about a kind of counter-culture that was fated to cause a rupture in modern American life, and perhaps identifying with the lyrical content that dealt with feelings of alienation and abandonment; of anger at authority figures; of resentment towards the picket-fence values of the 1950s that lingered in the air; of fear at the impending doom of the draft that was going to take them, break them, and ship them off to some country they never heard of, where people they didn’t know were fighting a war they didn’t understand. But The Mothers, as former member Jimmy Carl Black would later recall, were not a protest band, they eschewed the values of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, anti-war band Country Joe and the Fish, and others, instead opting, as would be Zappa’s signature form of satire for the rest of his career, for the documenting of facts as they saw them and incorporating them into songs which made no prescription for how to fix the ills of society — they weren’t pretentious enough for that — instead saying “here’s a situation, does it sound a lot like your own life?”

Zappa later said in interviews that he believed in revolution through infiltration, and it seems that The Mothers and Freak Out! were a real example of this idea in action, infiltrating ears, operating on the inside via suggestion and satire. To no avail: the album peaked at #130 on the Billboard charts; critics, such as Pete Johnson, wrote scathing reviews: “not content to record just two sides of musical gibberish, the MOI devote four full sides to their type of ‘artistry.’ If anyone owns this album, perhaps he can tell me what in hell is going on.” Most people did not understand what they were hearing, neither lyrically nor musically, but somewhere out there, a core of sympathetic ears formed in the United States and across the ocean in Europe, where Zappa would become both a favourite of the progressive left and a symbol of freedom in the face of the Soviet Union, in which his records were illegal and had to be smuggled across national borders to be played at secret gatherings in basements under the cover of darkness.

Who Are the Brain Police? forms an interesting thematic triptych with the song that precedes it, I Ain’t Got No Heart, and a much later song, Help, I’m a Rock. Zappa was an admirer of the painter Hieronymus Bosch, who completed several triptychs including The Garden of Earthly Delights, and this link, while absolutely frivolous padding of a most egregious nature, might go some way to explaining the many examples throughout Zappa’s career of things occurring in threes. The “rock opera” trilogy of 200 Motels, Joe’s Garage (itself a triple LP), and Thing-Fish (also a triple LP); the triple LP Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar; the career spanning Lumpy Gravy trilogy: Lumpy Gravy, We’re Only In It for the Money, and Civilization Phaze III (originally titled Lumpy Gravy Phase III); others besides. This sidetrack aside, the end of I Ain’t Got No Heart features a sudden excerpt from Who Are the Brain Police?, the same excerpt is heard later in Help, I’m a Rock. The first occurrence of this excerpt serves two purposes: establishes a thematic link with the other two songs; introduces the next song in a brash, confident manner, leaving the audience thinking “what the hell was that?” And when the song ends they get to find out just what the hell that was. It’s a set-up and a punchline, and perhaps for the first time avant-garde music and dadaist structural humour found their way on to a pop record, introduced sneakily but suddenly, infiltrating the ears of pop music consumers.

Lyrically speaking, these three songs may appear to have nothing to do with each other at first glance, but I think they address most directly the core issues explored throughout the album, and do so in a kind of narrative, a prime example of an overarching concept being applied to a pop album. They show a progression from isolation to paranoia, finally to a desire to escape. First of all, the narrator has rejected love. He has, perhaps following on from situations similar to those described in the many love songs scattered throughout the record, shut himself off from the possibility of relationships, describing himself sitting and laughing at “fools in love”, of not believing in love. From there we take the logical step of entering a socially detached state, in which one is free to avoid direct contact and merely observe. The narrator begins to see people as constructs of plastic and chromium, synthetic, shiny, but questions what happens when that veneer falls away, perhaps under the pressure of an emotionally heated moment, a stress it cannot tolerate. He conjures a grotesque image of melting plastic, foreshadowing in some way the direction horror movies were to take over the next twenty years, and is recalled in scenes from such splatter classics as 1982’s The Thing, 1986’s The Fly, and 1988’s The Blob, all ultraviolent remakes of the kind of B-movies Zappa himself adored. The narrator goes on to ask the titular question: who are the brain police? Or: who enforces the wearing of these synthetic shells? In Help, I’m a Rock, the narrator finally comes to see himself as an emotionless, well… rock. He yearns for more, an escape from the hole he has dug for himself, and decides to become a policeman. It’s a crucial satirical moment in the album’s thematic progression: a man with sociopathic traits makes his way into law enforcement. In the final stage of this progression he decides he’d rather be the mayor, leading conceptually into Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, the story of City Hall Fred, a pederast politician, which would be created in the following year for The Mothers’ second album Absolutely Free.

On the original LP version of Freak Out!, Help, I’m a Rock is “a suite in three movements,” consisting of Okay to Tap Dance / In memoriam, Edgard Varèse / It Can’t Happen Here. In the later CD releases it was split into two tracks: the suite’s namesake and the final movement. Musically It Can’t Happen Here, with its absurdist mock doo-wop a capella (Zappa actually calls it a barbershop quartet in the gatefold’s liner notes), seems like it comes out from under the surface of the album to wash away everything that has come before it. “All those love songs? Bullshit!” it says, with swagger and irreverent flair. Swiping not so much at the lyrical content, but the musical, a direct assault on the pop stylings of the first two sides. It leads into the final side, a single track titled Return of the Son of Monster Magnet — here come the B-movies again.

Monster Magnet captures the atmosphere of a loud, abrasive, isolating house party. A relentless series of 4/4 beats ranging from surf rock to a fast boogie underlines a series of harsh noises, clusters of incoherent shouting, laughs, cries, science fiction movie synthesisers, people talking in nonsense languages, and naturally a few obscured snatches of Louie Louie. It is the album’s central thesis stripped down to its bare bones, condensed, raw. Here you are, this is what you look like, this is what you sound like, this is your life, are you happy here? Or, as a voice out of nowhere suddenly blurts out: did you pick up on that?

Trouble Every Day bookends the first forty minutes of the album, returning to the direct social commentary of Hungry Freaks, Daddy and, strategically placed as the first track of side 3, makes for an interesting framing device which calls attention to both the duration of a single LP and the fact that this is a double LP. It was written during the Watts Riots, and comments specifically on how the media abuses such events for ratings, as well as racial tension and class struggle. In his youth, Zappa formed a band called The Blackouts, the first racially integrated group in his area. They experienced a lot of trouble with locals, threats of violence, and even a brawl with the white middle class sons of business owners who essentially ran the community. As the song recalls: “all that you can ever be is a lousy janitor unless your uncle owns a store.” Zappa was eventually arrested for “vagrancy” while walking down a street on the day the Blackouts were scheduled to perform, and the band eventually broke up under the pressure. Zappa’s future line-ups were almost always racially integrated. The Mothers’ earliest incarnations featured no African Americans, many later versions would, but two of five members were Hispanic and Native American, Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black (née Inkanish) respectively. In the middle of the song, Zappa proclaims: “You know something, people? I’m not black, but there’s a whole lot of times I wish I could say I’m not white,” but the song avoids taking the easy way out, also commenting that “he wants to go and do you in because the colour of your skin just don’t appeal to him no matter if it’s black or white because he’s out for blood tonight.” As usual, anyone Zappa thought was deserving of criticism would receive his attention, and he saw beyond the politics of the time to make the crucial point that fragile human beings reduced to animalistic behaviour by the pressure of harsh situations are the same no matter their ancestry or skin colour.

You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here seems at first to be a simply mockery of bar and club audiences. “I only get paid to play,” sings Ray Collins, yet throughout the song he passes judgements on various members of the audience, imagining their lives outside of the bar, coming to the conclusion that they are dreary and empty, feeling no sympathy toward their requests for “Caravan with a drum sola,” or for their reckless driving habits and promiscuity. But the song is satirical, in effect questioning what business a band has in attempting to judge or police others, an interesting thought in a time when protest bands and politically oriented independent music scenes were essentially doing just that. It could even be seen to mock The Mothers’ own efforts in observing and commenting on various social, political, and sexual phenomena of modern America: “you’re probably wondering why I’m here, and so am I” sings Collins, hinting ever so slightly “but I’m also wondering why you’re listening to me.”

Freak Out! features an inventive mix of rock ‘n’ roll, blues rock, pop, doo-wop, avant-garde music, and sound collage. In addition to the band proper Zappa employed “The Mothers’ Auxiliary” (mocking the aforementioned Verve exec’s original suggestion of name change), consisting of brass and string players, timpani and other percussion, the last of which is used extensively from the outset. Even here Zappa’s instrumentation is exploratory, a glimpse of things to come on later records such as his first solo album Lumpy Gravy, and The Mothers’ large looming and eclectic masterpiece Uncle Meat. Hungry Freaks, Daddy, the caustic, fast-paced opener, adds to typical fuzz box inflected rock group instrumentation the vibraphone, an unusual but essentially non-confrontational pairing, but throughout the album these additions of classical, jazz, and electronic instruments and sounds are augmented in increasingly elaborate ways, not to mention the triumphantly deranged kazoo on You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here. Zappa was a big fan of doo-wop and group harmony, both of which are lampooned throughout the album on tracks such as Wowie Zowie. On this album, as in others, he played with the configuration and style of vocal elements, ranging from Ray Collins’ melodically confident lead to off-key sprechstimme, comic overuse of doot-doots and yeeeee-uhhhs, the Valli-esque ending to Wowie Zowie, and of course the vicious and near-chaotic dodecacophony of It Can’t Happen Here.

I’m Not Satisfied has perhaps the richest orchestration on the album, a full complement of piano, percussion, brass, and strings plays strident back-up to three-part vocal harmonies and a snare heavy beat, reminiscent of songs such as Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman in its strutting rhythm. It is the earliest indication of the musical direction both The Mothers and Zappa’s solo work would take over the next few years, its future-echoes of Lumpy Gravy‘s Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra, while being very much in a pop vein, are heard in some signature Zappa figures, especially in the finale. Similar can be heard in You Didn’t Try To Call Me, another rich orchestration (if the richest ain’t I’m Not Satisfied, it’s this), which occasionally and very briefly dips into the Stravinskian, so well integrated into the composition that you have to listen out for it specifically.

Freak Out! is a remarkable debut, seeming to come out of nowhere, mixing the familiar and the new in equal measure to bizarre effect and with undeniable skill, as showcased by the many brilliant arrangements for large numbers of instruments which, in the manner of Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, the masterful but hated 1969 debut of a one-time Mother whom Zappa nicknamed “Pinocchio” back in 1965, showcases an intimate understanding of pop music alongside staunchly free and idiosyncratic personal touches. However, while shocking and disorienting to audiences at the time, Freak Out! was only a glimpse of The Mothers at full strength, what little documentation of early performances exists shows far more experimentation, deconstruction of pop formulae, and vitriol than is possible to capture in the studio — for this reason Zappa would later derive basic tracks for his albums from live performances, augmenting them with overdubs to create unique hybrids of live and studio material. Ultimately it is good but not quite great, but greatness was something The Mothers and Zappa would strive for and reach the following year with Absolutely Free and Lumpy Gravy respectively.


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