The Zappa Reviews #2 – Absolutely Free

Already in 1967 Zappa’s interest in self-promotion and in pursuing a career outside The Mothers was clear. Although pre-Mothers activities such as his appearance on the Steve Allen Show and a concert of his early orchestra and chamber works at Mt. St. Mary’s College in 1963 showed his willingness to put himself out into the public sphere as a solo presence, this was the first unequivocal statement of self to reach an international audience. Not only was his face the focal image of Absolutely Free‘s cover art, but a solo project, Lumpy Gravy, which would prove to be the basis for his magnum opus Civilization Phaze III, would come out soon after this second Mothers album, leading up to his solo commercial breakthrough with Hot Rats in 1969, though delays caused by legal disputes between the piece’s commissioner Capitol and Zappa’s contract-holder Verve meant that Lumpy Gravy‘s original cut was recalled, and during the interim between releases the album changed significantly. The musical developments on Absolutely Free were also characteristically Zappa, moving away from the straight-pop majority of Freak Out! to dense atonal orchestrations, non-sequitur musical inserts, the concept of each side being a thematically unified suite unto itself, and the pervasive influence of modern classical music.

Absolutely Free opens no less fast-paced, but much more disjointedly than its predecessor, with a mocking portrait of the President of the United States, who comes out as if onto a podium with an implied drunken swagger, singing in doot-doot form the tune to Louie Louie, whereupon it is announced that “he’s been sick.” The President at the time was Lyndon B. Johnson, who was known neither as a drunkard nor one for frivolity, but, much like Brown Shoes Don’t Make It‘s City Hall Fred, we can see this President as an invented character and caricature, a powerful man with nothing going on upstairs. Possibly an early example of Zappa’s news watching strategy of “subtracting the spin,” this President’s spin is hiding total banality, represented here by a pop song which Zappa would use as a comic insert in many songs and compositions throughout his career. The song goes on to return to themes and imagery from Who Are the Brain Police?, and, being titled as it is Plastic People, this should come as no surprise. Readers will recall that I presented Brown Shoes Don’t Make It as the logical conclusion of the triptych in Freak Out!, but here, having followed an alternative path, the narrator has regained a belief in love, albeit a cautious one, stating “I’m sure that love will never be a product of plasticity.” This ties into The Mothers’ constant mockery of normal teenage and early adult life, suggesting that like so many fads this deep existential conundrum was nothing more than a passing phase. But there is a positive message after all, as the narrator has gained wisdom from his experiences.

Plastic People sets the musical tone for the rest of the album, featuring frequent breaks in the action, snatches of atonal music, and raucous group vocalisations. Zappa was interested in having as much vocal variety as possible, no fewer than four of the now eight-piece band are credited with vocals, each one with a different register and timbre, making up a warped version of a 1950’s harmony group or Mothers contemporaries The Beach Boys. Elliott Ingber, the second guitarist on Freak Out!, had left the band and been replaced by Jim Fielder who played both guitar and piano, and would himself soon leave the band to become a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears. The regular quintet was further augmented with a second drummer, a woodwind player, and a keyboardist — Billy Mundi, Bunk Gardner, and Don Preston respectively. These performers added a new level of technical proficiency to the group, and Zappa, a learned music theorist, was keen to step up his role as band leader and have the original members improve to match. Throughout the late ’60s Jimmy Carl Black believed The Mothers to be “the best band in the world,” they certainly were at the forefront of ability, innovation, and experimentation of their time, traits which would only become more apparent in later releases such as Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

The Duke of Prunes is a bizarrely comic three-part short suite in which prunes and beans may or may not be allusions to sex organs and other body parts. It is in large part a parody of popular love songs which hint at sex but are purposely obscure and noncommittal regarding what it is and what it consists of, in some ways predicting the hypersexuality of Led Zeppelin, who stretched the veil to the point of ludicrousness with such imagery as the squeezing of a lemon as a metaphor for a handjob, or the eating of custard pie as code for cunnilingus. Breaking the form Zappa suddenly throws in a short movement consisting entirely of quotes from The Firebird, Petrushka, and Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), works by one of Zappa’s most beloved composers. These melodies of Stravinsky’s early “Russian period” (c. 1907-1920, succeeded by his Neoclassical period, a term which he despised) weave in and out of each other to create a polytonal polymetric texture in which modern music is subsumed into a postmodern collage, also postmodern in its ironic inclusion into one of the album’s most bizarrely satirical pieces. The suite ends with a fast recapitulation of the main theme, leading into a final overblown crescendo, of which Zappa says “this is the exciting part, this part is like The Supremes, see the way it builds up?” In addition to everything else several wheezing laughs can be heard in this final part from the singers, indicating that the band had come back more confident in their abilities and were really having fun with the record, which is a big part of what makes it so infectious and enjoyable. Despite Freak Out!‘s obvious freedom compared to the norm of its time, it was somewhat stilted by first-time nerves, the trepidation that comes with a maiden voyage into the studio, but not so much here: been there, done that, now let’s make a record where we sing “oh cheesy fat!” at the end of a song.

If The Duke of Prunes was lyrically bizarre, we may need a new adjective for the text of Call Any Vegetable, which concerns using a telephone to converse with vegetables, to be proud of them, boogie with them and so forth. Symbolism and allegory or dada nonsense? might seem like a worthwhile question, but I’m not so sure that it is. That way lies madness, for we could say that a “vegetable” is a “penis,” but how fucking stupid is that? and is that the point? is there a point? Well, yeah, the point is that’s fucking fun, fucker. I mean, let’s be honest, songs like this were practically designed to have anyone trying to seriously analyse them come out looking like an idiot, and by golly I’m going for it. If “vegetable” is “penis”, then what was the “cheese” that Ray had for your “prunes” in the previous song, hmmm? Is it possible that “vegetable” and “cheese” are code for “circumcised” and “intact”? No, and that is exactly why this sort of thing is stupid, not to mention the overuse of quotation marks necessitated by such analytical ventures is really too much for me to bear. Like Duke, Vegetable‘s midsection contains quotes from 20th century concert music, this time it’s Holst’s Jupiter from The Planets, leading into extended guitar, keyboard, and saxophone solos all going at once. This Ritual Dance is basically proto-Hot Rats, not as extended, but heading that way, though it is far more raucous and loose than most anything on that record. The suite ends with an exaltation of the vegetable, and once again I’m not sure that there’s any point in trying to understand or analyse this, it’s just there. And finally a snippet from Stravinsky’s Marche royale from L’histoire du soldat closes out side one, meaning nothing, glorious nothing.

The amount of Stravinsky on this record is surprising. Zappa often inserted segments of other composers’ works into his own, either as joke or homage, along with advertising jingles and popular songs, but here it’s almost as if he decided to make the album a part time promotional vehicle for one of his favourite composers. There is some kind of historical focus in the choice of excerpted works: Le sacre du printemps, The Firebird, Petrushka, and L’histoire du soldat were all written between 1910 and 1918, Holst’s Planets were written around the same time. What this signifies for the album is at the very least obscure, but it is more than likely a coincidence arrived at through “ear worms” Zappa had in his head at the time of creating the album. However, the excerpts were not inserted without care, in fact they either fit right into the tracks that house them or are used to striking effect, as in Amnesia Vivace and Status Back Baby, but it is fair to say that these are in some ways in-jokes for the initiated. Most people even today don’t know much of Stravinsky outside of the Disney enfamed Le sacre du printemps, and even then may not be aware of what it is outside of its appearance in Fantasia, much like Richard Strauss’s Sonnenaufgang from Also sprach Zarathustra being more famous for the images Stanley Kubrick paired it with in 2001: A Space Odyssey than for the fact of its being a great work of German late romanticism. It is actually this most famous and popular work of Stravinsky that is used the least here, appearing only in a distortedly upbeat and hard-to-spot version at the start of Amnesia Vivace.

The President seems to return for the beginning of America Drinks with more of his characteristic doot-doots, this time to an arrhythmic swing beat which sets up the main rhythmic idea in the song, seemingly taking on the role of compère, announcing the start of the new side while being totally incapable of communicating anything intelligent. Here the love song is played lyrically straight, but is musically beyond anything attempted on the record so far. Ray Collins croons to a cliché sentimental melody, but is totally out of time with the simplistic hi-hat swing beat that carpets the track while some gruff voiced man says things with no apparent relation to the song. If I haven’t made it clear enough already, this is the album where Zappa’s affinity for Dada — which he referred to as AAAFNRAA: anything anytime anyplace for no reason at all — makes itself readily apparent. A sustained tone cluster sounds from a piano like a burst of free jazz from some New York quartet recording in the next room, the track seems to ignore this and carry on as normal before turning without warning into some alternate universe version of Julius Fučík’s Entrance of the Gladiators laced with Carl Stalling-like little cartoon melodies, meanwhile Roy Estrada seems to become a parody of the typical bass player role of repetitive and banal lines, bopping along to I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) by The Four Tops. Hilarious and catastrophic, The Mothers were here displaying just the qualities that made their live performances so wild and entertaining.

Thematically, the album is in many ways a send-up of The Mothers’ debut, though it would be a mistake to say that it is analogous. It is not constructed in the same manner as Freak Out!, which essentially operated as a concept album and had a kind of thesis and thematic unity, the focus here instead being on musical unity more than anything, and it is indeed worth noting that each side is an “Underground Oratorio” unto itself, about which I’ll talk more in just a moment. In what soon became the signature Zappa style there are no breaks between tracks, a single side is c. 20 minutes of music with seamless segues, not exactly confirming but reinforcing the apparent sincerity of his espoused belief that all his music was one long piece. This style also extended into Zappa’s concerts, which in the most extreme example, a concert known among fans as “The Big One” (Palladium, New York, 1978/10/31), consisted of almost four hours of contiguous music. Back to the topic at hand, Absolutely Free practically lampoons its predecessor’s use of plastic imagery, particularly in Uncle Bernie’s Farm, and even its love songs, here transmogrified into surrealist parody with unusual structures, sudden outbursts of Stravinsky and Holst, and generally heightened silliness, have transcended into a state of sublime ridiculousness.

The album is split into two twenty-minute “Oratorios” in an imaginative use of the LP format. The first is named for the album itself and contains three apparently unrelated songs, at least if we discount the whole vegetable penis thing, and there’s no way I’m going to actually present that as serious music criticism, if indeed these reviews can be called such. The second is called The M.O.I. American Pageant and is more or less, as the name suggests, a kind of whistle stop tour through contemporary American life as seen from a different perspective. It has some themes in common with Freak Out!, and much like the final two sides it essentially pulls back a curtain to show what is underneath, but it is in the structure that we find what makes it so different.

The deranged circus finale of America Drinks crashes into Status Back Baby, a song about high school, or more precisely the popularity contests and politics inherent in high school life. As is their custom, The Mothers do not attack the subject but rather make a display of their observations, and while the song is undoubtedly satirical there almost seems to be an undertone of pity in the words, sung by a narrator who doesn’t have much in the way of school pride, but is caught in the cycle of joining clubs, volunteering for extra-curricular activities, playing for the school football team, all for the sake of being popular among his peers. Zappa didn’t think school was a particularly efficient means of education, advocating self-education and taking advantage of libraries and so forth, and here the lyrics make no reference to classes or grades or anything like that. He sees the world of high school as a kind of societal simulacrum in which being liked is tantamount to success, more important than learning. My own school experiences, and, I dare say, those of many people in the western world, concur with this analysis.

In what must be Zappa’s only Christmas themed song, Uncle Bernie’s Farm plays out like an advertisement for a giant children’s playset in which America is realised in miniature, made out of plastic, naturally, from the cars to the citizens to Congress itself. It’s strange how prescient the song appears, the ridiculous imagery is so close to how modern money hungry preachers and parents characterise video games and blame them on child delinquency, that the mock outrage practically mirrors their response to the Grand Theft Auto series. On another level, the idea of the megalomaniac child playing God with a plasticised synecdoche of America feeds into the finale of Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, in which a politician proclaims his godhood from an office in a city hall. The possibility of City Hall Fred having been exposed to such a toy is minimal, given that there is no overarching narrative to speak of, but the idea in itself is compelling because it speaks of an inborn desire for power and control, a common path for corrupt politicians, which the systems of education and career mentioned in Brown Shoes will foster and nurture.

Son of Suzy Creamcheese is among friends of mine a bad song, totally failing to live up to the promise of Creamcheese related tracks that had come before it. A criticism to which I respond “that’s exactly the point.” As I have said, Absolutely Free is like Freak Out! but with the humour and mockery turned up to eleven, transcending the confines of the works that preceded it to reach a zenith of ridiculousness, and this doesn’t just extend to its themes but also to direct references. Previously Suzy Creamcheese was the harbinger of Return of the Son of Monster Magnet, a portrait of a mind-numbing house party in all its grotesque glory, and that is why this flimsy pop song with lines like “really dig her, she’s so freaky” works as well as it does. Superficially it is a total subversion of expectation, but because of its lyrical vapidity and simplistic musical nature it is also totally in line with the themes of Freak Out!‘s finale, just transposed to different elements. Its intentional throwaway complexion is further expounded upon by its short duration, it comes and goes in an instant, and, placed as it is between Uncle Bernie’s Farm and Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, two much more substantial tracks, is representative of the minutiae of everyday life that The M.O.I. American Pageant so openly explores.

If It Can’t Happen Here pulled back the curtain on Freak Out!, Brown Shoes performs the same role for Absolutely Free, but in a highly complex format which some have likened to a condensed musical. It begins by talking about school, ostracism, careers, intellectual lives consisting of TV, diets of ready meals. Subject matter is explored on a bed of safe, 4/4, pentatonic music, and this is why the piece is absolutely brilliant from the outset. By beginning in such a docile manner, at least by Mothers standards, when it starts slipping into the fantasy world of City Hall Fred, it is such a stunning and unexpected turn that the listener is left wondering just what is going on. On first listening the many shifts in tone and musical style, the dense atonal passages, the pacing, the lyrical content, all combine to create a heady and overwhelming atmosphere, a shifting and perverse landscape made nightmarish by the interplay of disturbing themes and their humorous variety show style treatment, and while it lasts over seven minutes the experience comes and goes like a bullet through the ears. You simply have to hear it again. This second listen reveals the structure and the brilliance of what many have called Zappa’s first masterpiece, and this is by no means a hyperbolic assessment. Brown Shoes not only introduces us to the intact framework of Zappa’s postmodernist style, but is illustrative of his mastery of composition in a whole spectrum of contemporary musical genres, mixed to great effect with his own brand of humour. This time, or maybe the third time, we understand that City Hall Fred was right there in the opening section, it does not end in an inexplicable shift of narrative and tone but rather is the social foundation upon which the character is built, the thing that has driven him to his place in the world, that has twisted him into his present form. If we assume a somewhat elegiac viewpoint, it is his youth lost to school, work, and television that fuels his fantasies of sex with under-age girls. Like the stereotypical image of a middle-aged man buying a Porsche and trying to pick up young women with paternal abandonment issues, City Hall Fred longs to regain that which he has lost. Caught in a quagmire of past could haves and should haves, unable to move on with his life, he recedes into perverse dreamstates as a means of coping. In the middle of the story there comes a point after which we cannot be sure if this debauched cabaret reverie has spilled over into reality or not. We hear about Fred’s wife asking him to accompany her to an orchid show, but he apparently declines in order to spend time in bed with a thirteen year old girl. Following the infamous If she were my daughter I’d… sequence, Fred appears to tell the girl to leave, as his wife is calling. Whether or not this is really happening is a big part of the listener’s conundrum when attempting to analyse the song. Like a great surrealist film it seems to split off into fantastic narrative fragments, potential states of being, never really explaining if they are or merely might be, if they have happened or if we’re still just looking “in the back of the city hall mind.” It’s a great moment in the narrative that ultimately leaves us grasping for answers. The finale can be seen to indicate many possible outcomes, but the main two are that the fantasy has become reality, or that reality has filtered into the fantasy.

Resisting the urge to top the climax, the final number is a return to the beginning, forming a cyclic structure which makes The M.O.I. American Pageant the greater of the album’s two sides, an engaging musical and lyrical panorama that can easily withstand the scrutiny afforded by many revisits. America Drinks & Goes Home is the other side of You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here, a bar band that instead of judging the audience is more than happy to play for them. It has lyrics almost identical to those of America Drinks, but with an extended end section that captures the intended barroom atmosphere so precisely. This bottling of atmosphere is down to Zappa’s edited-together collage of tills ringing, people shouting and screaming — voices courtesy of filmmaker Terry Gilliam and his friends. It was one of his earliest commercial tape music works, though he had made tape collages before. Readers will recall my mention of the Mt. St. Mary’s College Concert, which featured early Zappa works including a piece called Opus 5, consisting itself of tape and live music. This barroom background tape was made concurrently with the original Capitol-commissioned Lumpy Gravy, the release of which was prevented by Verve for whom Zappa would add musique concrète segments the following year. The editing was so seamless that listeners believed it to be a field recording, and Zappa was displeased owing to the time and effort he had put into the job. This may well have been a valuable lesson and turning point for him, for the music would continue to grow more complex, more contiguous, more abstract, more masterfully constructed, all without a trace of interest from the composer in the audience’s understanding of its structures, techniques, and inner workings, its allusions and sophisticated musical humour. Zappa was entering into the early stages of his maturity as a composer.

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