Showing posts with label Frank Zappa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Zappa. Show all posts

Saturday, May 16, 2020

WEASELS RIP MY FLESH --The Mothers of Invention

Weasels Ripped My Flesh - WikipediaFrank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, along with King Crimson, are my two favorite bands from the "prog rock" school of making things busy, although my appreciation of both bands is that they are both outliers from the form. Before anyone knew it, there seemed to be a dozen bands that sounded like Yes, ELP, and Genesis, so many of them with similar riffs, oddly regimented time signatures, fantasy, sci-fi, or cosmic muffin levels of grandiose lyric baiting. I admit the truly committed prog partisans could tell the difference, as could I in most blindfold tests, but the real issue was precisely the point of all that repetition of effort. 

The answer was clear: sales of records and tickets, no less than the disco movement. It wasn't all mercenary, as it's unlikely anyone begins to play music of any kind without the love of making instruments produce sweet sounds. Still, the idea was that prog rock was selling and that despite the protests that maintain that it was a new art form, or a natural expression from musicians who'd grown up listening to the refined stuff, which it was in both cases, choosing to be in a prog band was a commercial move, not an artistic one. Zappa and KC, though, had other things in mind, a certain kind of monomania that made the music morphing, argumentative, diverse, and truly "out there" in both bands, than anything else. Weasels Rip my Flesh is my favorite Mothers/Zappa release simply because it pretty highlights the leader's astounding range, from gritty atonal classicism, free-jazz cacophony, old-school rhythm and blues, electronic skroinksterism, and a good amount of Zappa's flying dagger guitar improvisation. 

 It's a resume album, you might say, a release of what had not made it yet to the album release, outtakes they used to call them, music from both studio sessions and live dates sublimely edited together in such a way that it becomes a jaw-dropping realization that the styles and moods this record masterfully presents, the crankiest avant-garde experimentation coexisting with humdinger fanfares,  an obstacle course of rapid and bizarre meter changes, the sustained scream of a deranged arrangement for reed instruments, you begin, perhaps, to appreciate the genius Frank Zappa was. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, Oh No--these titles provide a good idea as to the peculiar landscape that is Zappa's imagination, which is satirical, vulgar, entirely surreal using the commodities of consumer capitalism rather than the convenient mythos of psychology to poke sharp sick into the vulnerable and obese sides of our collective American fetishism for gadgets, fads, and trends. An admirable facet of Zappa's work as a librettist is that he has no interest in creating poetic/philosophical/spiritual constructs that operate as Fire Exits for the consumer who wants a safe space for his psyche to believe, however fleetingly, that everything is okay and that he's doing just fine. 

No such luck, as Brother Zappa distorts the chaos, you're already in and aware of and makes it his goal to give you the shock of recognition. That is, what am I laughing at?  With the disconcerting variety and collision-course eclecticism the Mothers of Invention so brilliantly maintained, it would seem to have been Zappa's goal to shame a few folks in his audience, at least, to recognize the softness of their thinking, turn off the TV, and get a library card.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019



Frank Zappa was often brilliant in his composing in his multi-decade career as an agent provocateur in America's fickle, short-memory popular culture. Most early fans, I am convinced, because they thought he was weird, off the wall, psychedelic to a high degree, a man with a band, the Mothers of Invention, creating the perfect soundtrack for whatever recreational drugs you happen to take. It may seem like a conceited thing to say at this point in my life, and it may be due to romancing the glory days of the Sixties when one was discovering literature, art, great music,; I love his odd time signatures, abrupt switches between genres sans easy-going transitions, his dedication to dissonance. 

It was an audio-assault American audience weren't used to, large audiences, mass audiences in any event, but I soon suspected there was more to Zappa's game than random bizarreness as I encountered him in interviews insisting, over and over, that he didn't do drugs of any kind. He did imbibe alcohol from time to time, which was a relief since I couldn't imagine, in my still expanding mind-- because I was incapable of conceding that anyone could be as not-of-this-earth as Zappa without having to insult his brain in some manner.  Even so, he was sober as a judge, a serious composer, and the music he made from the early efforts to the end of his was the work of a man who regarded himself not as pop star, rock star, or  even professional celebrity, but rather as an artist, a composer, a serious composer making use of anything he found useful  in his goal of  alternately inspiring or antagonizing his audience . There's much admire to the dedication to complexity, although I understand why many have found him off-putting and arrogant. 

That he was, but I still like his music, and continue to listen to it since I first bought my first Zappa album, We're Only in it for the Money, in the late Sixties. That said, I have become less and less of a fan of Zappa's guitar solos, which I find, and have always found, repetitive and without direction. His long, live solos on many of his albums ruin the experience of hearing fine musicians play arresting compositions. It's a habit born of modern jazz players developed in the  40s and 50s and through a major portion of the 60s, when soloists of exceptional caliber would improvise ad infinitum, engaging the process of "spontaneous composition", an idea that a musician, responding to impulse, urge, inspiration and certainly without a great deal of preparation, careens off the highway and ventures down several tonal tributaries in a hunt for a better combination of notes in increasingly difficult formations. There are geniuses who've managed this consistently in their work, with John Coltrane coming to mind most easily; his music, with his friends Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison among a handful of others, is all of a piece. The invention, energy and spiritual power of the extended forays went far beyond a riffing variations-on-a-theme and became whole compositional endeavors.  Keith Jarrett also should be mentioned, although that for all the brilliance he demonstrates as band leader and band member, his several multi-disc solo piano concerts have merely bored me ; so much effort getting himself warmed up for the inspired parts  makes you think more of someone burning gasoline looking for the perfect parking space rather than an artist working his or her way efficiently to the dimension where they exceed their expectations. For Zappa, he is neither of these two musicians to whatever degree. He is an interesting guitarist, recognizable from the first note, effective in relatively short solos tailored to the material (One Size Fits All). He is not, though, the world-class concert soloist, although his True Believers wish it were the case.I wish he'd written sections for his best improvisers and let them shine; a lesson he might have learned from the Great Ellington. Lately, I've been dialing up interpretations of his daunting pieces, with generally good, even spectacular results. 

Here's a unit doing a tight and together take on the dizzying and sonically cubist "G Spot Tornado", originally from his  1986 release Jazz from Hell. This was a disc of wholly instrumental tunes with uncompromised complexity and density, with the majority of the tracks being the efforts of Zappa's programming of a then-bleeding edge synthesizer, the Synclavier, without the aid of other musicians for most of the album. The band here, Germany's hr-Bigband out of Frankfurt, serves a blistering version in this clip.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


I saw the documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in his Own Words the day before yesterday, and I thought it was a  generally good representation of Zappa, the social critic, and Zappa, the serious musician. The interview segments, which are abundant, span his career, as does the generous inclusion of live performances with The Mothers of Invention. He was brilliant, iconoclastic, and gifted as a composer. Still, like many others with vast talents that prefer no constraint and mouths that prefer no editing, you get the feeling he indulged his worst habits as often as he did his best skills. There is a repetition of ideas in his asides, rants, and excoriations, a set of notions that he continuously honed and delivered over the years, libertarian-genius bromides that wear you down toward the film's end. Still, despite the repetition, you marvel at how he cuts away the fat and gets to the crude, stupid heart that is the pulse of consumerist culture.

 But as a fan of Zappa's music, I was pleased, as the film includes generous portions from live performances that make us realize that above all else, Zappa was an artist, a genius of some sort.  Even die-hard fans and scholars of his work have complained that Zappa didn't challenge himself nearly enough and often times released albums that were sub-par, highlighting musical ideas from bygone decades that no longer seemed fresh, riveting, or daring. His satire also ceased being funny or witty in a considerable measure and was, for many records released through the Seventies and even though much of the Eighties, merely mean-spirited. His cynicism had conquered his inspiration, likely because he realized that he could make money being this cartoon character "Frank Zappa," becoming the man his fans wanted him to be. It was about making money to finance his larger orchestral projects, and the irony that he needed to compromise his principles and act the way new fans with disposable income expected to behave was likely not lost on him.T.

Orson Wells had a similar situation, the story goes, as he took a good many demeaning roles in whatever variety of Hollywood schlock came his way so he could finance his own projects. It's an odd curse, I suppose, a problem the working world would have considered a bother at all. How would one have challenged Zappa, though? His comfort zone was a strange amalgamation of influences --Lenny Bruce, Stravinsky, Sun Ra, Edgar Varese, Lord Buckley, Musique Concrete-- that it's probable that few would know what to suggest as a way for him to diverge from his rut. He created his niche, proud that he wasn't dependent on grant money, gifts from government agencies, and the like. He was something like a home-schooler, nearly irrational in his belief that government couldn't do anything good for the population. There are times when I have to filter the rants I agree with in principle-and turn up the on this music, a body of work that's confused, amused, confounded, entertained, and thrilled me to the marrow since I came across in the 60s.

Zappa's work as a severe composer already has a reasonably entire catalog; one could, I suspect, produce a week or two of unique concerts featuring Zappa's "serious" work. But I agree that there was much in the seventies I disliked from the man in the 70s. "One Size Fits All" was actually a solid album, firing on all cylinders, but commencing with "Apostrophe," featuring the egregious "Yellow Snow," and onward, his satire degenerated into a species of juvenile smut. What would have been interesting would have been if he had collaborated with artists of similar stature, on smaller projects, in different musical areas. Not the Elvis Costello grandstanding collaborations, but rather genuine efforts to work toward the best virtues of another artist. That would have been something had he wanted to make an effort, but his personality was controlling, ironically, despite his diatribes about freedom. There was something of Howard Roark in him that his work would be presented to the world on his terms solely, uncontaminated by meddlers, sycophants, and they're like.

The downside of Zappa's libertarian attitude about his music--my art, my way, at the price I said, or nothing at all--is that much of his output is a remarkably eccentric selection of self-invented cliches. As much as he deserves to be praised for resourcefulness and achieving a crazy amalgam of jazz, classical, comedy, and rock, there are go-to moves he never strayed from, bits of business that seemed more treading water than an expansion of established themes. I do wish he'd found time and interest in collaborating with other musicians on equal footing--singers, lyricists, musicians, other composers. The results might have been exciting and gotten the late FZ out of his comfort zone and lightened the lid on that vacuum-packed cynicism that ceased to be amusing long before he passed on.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Legacy and Anti Legacy of Sgt.Pepper's

Like it or love it, Sgt.Pepper is among the most important rock albums ever made, one of the most important albums period, and forty years after it's release, it is time to assess the album free of the globalizing hype and mythology it's biggest supporters have honored it with, and to veer away from the chronically negative reaction those less in love with the Beatles and the disc have made a religion out of. It is, in my view, important for any number of reasons, production and songwriting among them, and for me it's not just that Lennon and McCartney have set the standard on which such things would be judged against from now on, but that they've also given us the examples with which rock critics, paid and unpaid, by which we can tell who is being pretentious, phony, unfocused, incoherent, just plain bad.
Sure enough, the best songs have survived--"A Day In the Life, "Getting Better", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "Mr.Kite", but sure enough the less accomplished songs, all manner, pose, nervy and naive pseudo mysticism and intellectuality as in "Within You Without You" and "She's Leaving Home", are hardly played anywhere, by anyone, unless one tunes in an XM satellite station where the play list is all things Beatles, without discrimination.
What the Beatles did with the song craft, the central genius and downfall of much of Pepper's legacy, is that they've introduced thousands of forthcoming arty rockers to new levels of sophistication and fantastically dull pompousness. I love the Beatles, of course, that's the standard qualifier among us all, but this is the album with which rock criticism was finally created. Lovers and Haters of the disc finally had a rock and roll record that might sustain their liberal arts training. Sgt. Pepper also gave us brilliant and much less brilliant rock commentary. Here you may pick your own examples.

The reasons Beatle fans in general (rather than only) "hipsters" prefer Revolver to Sgt.Pepper is for the only reason that really matters when one is alone with their CD player or iPOD; the songwriter is consistently better, the production crisper, the lyrics succeed in being intriguingly poetic without the florid excess that capsized about half of Sgt.Pepper's songs, and one still perceived the Beatles as a band, guitar bass and drums, performing tunes with a signature sound that comes only after of years of the same musicians performing together.

It might be compared to Miles Davis when he was performing with his classic bands--John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock,Tony Williams, Ron Carter, et al-- with a long string of releases like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue (name your favorite here) and when he turned to the jazz rock fusion of Bitches Brew and On the Corner, which featured the endeavors of Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin . The first mentioned releases are conspicuous examples of bands sensitive to each members nuances, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and signatures, combing with the material to offer adventurous improvisations as part of an ensemble effort, while with Bitches Brew Davis and his producers culled performances from hours of taped jam sessions where ideas and motifs were explored to produce albums that are, in effect, mosaics. a The general tone of the later releases was less the sparks that occur between musicians confronting each other in performance but rather something more theatrical; thought the musicianship is rather magnificent and often times bracing on the later electric releases, they seem more in service to Davis' cantankerous muse , performing as directed. As much as I admire and respect the accomplishment of both the Beatles and Davis in their late work, studio craft and all, a larger part of me would have preferred if the musicians had found a way to expand their horizons without abandoning their identities as bands. The Rolling Stones sought to produce their own version of Sgt.Pepper with the releases of the bloated and wasted Satanic Requests, and it's a fine thing to appreciate the Stones self critical response to bad notices (and perhaps some sober listening to the record, after the fact); they abandoned their attempts to compete with the Beatles on their new turf and returned , brilliantly, to riffy, rhythm and blues tinged rock and roll.

What hasn't been mentioned here is that Frank Zappa released his first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out on June 27, 1966, a full month before the Beatles released Revolver in August of that year. Zappa was an erratic, quizzical, quarrelsome presence, but he achieved things with that album that neither the Beatles nor the Stones came close to; both those bands were more influential in the pop music sphere, where their separate approaches to including cross genre and avant gard gestures made for pleasant and easily appreciated (and imitated)music for a large record buying public. Zappa, though, with his solid chops as composer, producer, guitarist, satirist and multi media maven, was miles further up the road and around the bend with respect to advancing the primitive ways of rock and roll into an art form. A good amount of Zappa's early music remains challenging to this day, which is another way of saying that it's hard to sit through and that it's downright ugly. The ugliness, though, wasn't merely my limited aesthetic; Zappa cultivated it, advanced it, and gloried in it. Now that's integrity.