Artist: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Album: Freak Out!
Genre: Experimental Rock
“Mr. America, walk on by your schools that do not teach
Mr. America, walk on by the minds that won’t be reached
Mr. america try to hide the emptiness that’s you inside
But once you find that the way you lied
And all the corny tricks you tried
Will not forestall the rising tide of hungry freaks daddy”
After a long delay, I finally decided to crank this one out. I had been pushing it for far too long and figured it’s better late than never. There’s quite a few reasons why but the main one was I really wanted to do this album justice. You see, I really love Frank Zappa, he’s one of my all-time favourite musicians. His album Sheik Yerbouti is in my top 5 and his vast and extensive catalogue remains one I am constantly visiting to discover and re-discover and re-re-discover (because it’s really difficult to remember everything he’s done, the man has like 80 albums spanning the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and even post-humously). There’s a lot I’d love to say about Zappa and honestly you could write full books on every single one of his albums. There’s a whole lot to say and I was really nervous about sitting down and writing it out. In the end, I decided I’ll try to be as concise as possible and just stick to what I feel. If I forget anything, well, there’s still two other Zappa albums to talk about on this list and make sure to mention it there.
So here goes.
Frank Zappa is one of my all-time favourites. Not just one of my favourite musicians but one of my favourite people. He is everything I aspire and hope to be one day and is one of the people I look up to in terms of ideology, attitude, philosophy and politics. He was able to speak his mind and opinions in a cool-mannered and intelligent way, deflecting criticism and rebuttals with wit and a calm demeanour. Nothing phased him as he had the confidence to defend every single one of his controversial opinions, taking down both the right and the left politically. It’s funny how he had an incredibly liberal-minded attitude but still considered himself a conservative. Socially Liberal, but Fiscally Conservative. Believed the country should have social programs if people were willing to pay for them. Would tear down the conservative, traditional attitudes related to religion, misogyny, racism and sticking it to the man, while simultaneously distancing himself from hippies and leftists (who saw him as their revolutionary hero) calling them fascists and being against protests and censorship. If you don’t believe me, he says it himself in the documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in his Own Words, a documentary purely centered around Zappa interviews and live performances. Everything said in that film comes from his own mouth and there’s nothing more satisfying than when he explains how there’s no such things as dirty words. “If you want to tell someone to ‘get fucked’ than ‘get fucked’ are the best words to use”. I always identified with him, but he was a much more confident, intelligent and articulate person, more than I’ll ever be, but I will always look to him as a spiritual mentor of sorts.
He was incredibly perceptive when it came to social observations. He seemed to understand society and people better than anyone else and was able to predict where they were headed as well. Lyrically and musically he was way ahead of his time, with most of his music being incredibly relevant and possibly even more poignant today than it was back in the 60s and 70s and even 80s. Calling Zappa a mad genius is a bit of an understatement and he comes across as your third party philosopher, watching things as they unfold and criticizing what’s going wrong. One could call him the perfect stoner if it weren’t for the fact that he was highly against drug use of any kind (A fact that is shocking to many people, especially if you’ve listened to his music). He would ban his band from doing drugs during tours and practice and thought it was a stupid idea to partake in drugs for artistic enlightenment. If anything Zappa proves that you don’t need to do drugs to reach that level of artistic integrity, just confidence and a slightly warped view on things.
Freak Out, Zappa’s debut, is the perfect introduction to his world. It holds the achievement of being one of the first double-lps and the first debut double lp. It was hugely influential in creating both the Prog Rock genre and Art Rock genre and would be looked to as a source of inspiration for some of the biggest artist’s of the time. The Beatles cite this album as their inspiration for Sargeant Pepper, stating it was their Freak Out. Zappa would call them copy cats and criticise them as “Only being in it for the money”, which would become a title for one of his next albums and a jab at The Beatles. Zappa took extra care with every single one of his songs on every album. He hated the idea of filler and made sure every single song had a point to it. He even cites this album as having a wide demographic, something for everyone between the ages of 6 and 80. He didn’t take the pressure of producing a hit single and being forced to create an album around it, he made sure every song had something to say and usually had a satirical element to it, making this album one of the first concept albums as well. The themes either centred around social commentary, satirical jabs at puppy love and pop rock or a deconstruction of traditional music (or anti-music if you’d like).
Because of this, I decided to do a track-by-track review (My very first and not my last) of this album. I will try to keep it brief for each song so as not to ramble on, but I am not making any promises.
“Hungry Freaks, Daddy”
I have to say this is not only a great opener on this album but possibly the perfect song to open all of Zappa’s extensive catalogue and musical career. It’s the perfect blend of everything Zappa, from odd, satirical lyrics to unusual sounds. It perfectly mixes his accessible music with his stylistic tunes creating a song that sets the tone for everything that is to come. A Zappa lover will recognize his eccentricities but a newcomer will be intrigued enough by it to keep on listening. Even lyrically it encompasses everything Zappa, with a general satirical look at American society. He doesn’t latch on to anything specific but rather questions how ideal American society really is, mentioning the school system, government and consumerist culture. Who are the Hungry Freaks? Probably Zappa and his band (and like-minded people). The freaks willing to question society and are hungry for the truth. A classic and a good place to start.
“I Ain’t Got No Heart”
The first of Zappa’s anti-love songs. Poking fun at the puppy love themes of most pop rock music that was coming out at the time, this turned it on it’s head. A person questioning fools in love and exclaiming they don’t have a heart to give to a girl who’s pining for their love. It’s interesting to see the other side of this conversation, where most songs talk about the person they want who gave them that feeling of pure love only to have their hearts broken. Zappa deconstructs this idea from the other point-of-view, making claims against their ego (“Why do you think you’re so fine?”) and about their confusion between lust and love. Infatuation can often be confused for love and with this song he laughs at those who proclaim their love from brief moments of ecstasy ( “Why should an embrace or two, Make me such a part of you?”). A cynical look at love from a narrator who was just in it for a quick fling makes for a decent Zappa song.
“Who Are The Brain Police”
Zappa’s art rock sensibilities are starting to shine through with this song. An absurd art piece that rattles the brain (ha!) and mesmerizes you, keeping you in a trance the whole way through. I had difficulty with this song at first, but upon relistening to it a couple of times you start to notice the genius of it all. Lyrically it’s quite a poignant song, asking the question Who are the brain police still sounds incredibly relevant today. With everything happening today with the regressive left and the so-called Social Justice Warriors (a term I hate to use but am using for lack of a better way to talk about it) it isn’t crazy to feel like they’re trying to police our thoughts. It’s taking a page out of George Orwell’s 1984, where people can be imprisoned based on Thoughtcrimes. Zappa was highly against censorship and felt every opinion and thought should be expressed freely and when it comes to the point that we’re being scolded just for our thoughts, it’s practically a dystopian time. Mentions of plastic and chrome in the song refer to the fake fronts everyone puts when out in society, putting on a plastic face as to not offend or keep things in line. But what happens when you go home and the plastic and chrome melts away and you’re back to you’re normal self and thoughts? Who will stop you then? Who are the brain police coming to get you for what you think? What would the brain police think if they only knew what you actually thought? Zappa asks some poignant questions with this one and it’s a question that has yet to be answered.
“Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder”
Another one of his anti-love songs and this time it’s in the style of doo-wop (a genre he would later explore in more depth in his album Reuben and the Jets). Once again it’s a cynical look at the puppy love he clearly hated with the narrator basically telling an ex to fuck off. His wishes for her to “Go cry on somebody else’s shoulder” reveals the true feelings of someone who just doesn’t give a shit after a relationship turned sour. He’s dealing with none of her bullshit to try and get back together and gets right to the point without beating around the bush. There’s even a nice jab at the shallowness of it all by the end of it, where the person can’t understand why they don’t want to be with them after they’ve revamped their look with consumer products to seem more attractive. the narrator isn’t having any of it and it’s a refreshing look at those typical break-up songs.
It’s about fucking groupies. It’s as simple as that. Through clever wordplay and euphemisms the band tricks the listener into thinking this is just another sweet, love song until you realise the Mother in Motherly Love actually refers to the band (The Mother of Invention). Zappa has said he finds groupies to have sold their souls, but at the same time is totally OK with what they’re doing. As this song says: “Nature’s been good, To this here band”. Once you know the double meaning, the song is pretty straightforward with Zappa calling out for groupies to come get their sweet motherly love.
“How Could I Be Such A Fool”
Another song satirizing the idea of teenage puppy love. In this case, the narrator takes on the position of the one who is heart-broken and questions how could he be so stupid as to be so madly in love when he knew it wasn’t going to last. Zappa criticises young couples and the over the top infatuation they have for each other, giving them the blind belief that they’ll last forever when it rarely ever does (it does, but those are exceptions to the rules). Young love should never be taken seriously and only a fool would be gullible enough to have not seen the end of it coming.
Sometimes in order to make fun of something you have to become what it is. Embrace the stupidity in order to reveal it’s truth. Exaggerate certain elements to show it for what it really is. This is the perfect example of this. What Zappa claims to be the song he made for children, Wowie Zowie takes on pop sensibilities and exaggerates it to a annoyingly stupid level with the narrator claiming Wowie Zowie due to their newfound puppy love (There’s that puppy love again that Zappa clearly hated). he openly mocks pop rock by being a corny piece of pop rock. It’s mushy, it’s cringe-worthy, it’s cheesy and gooey and in the hands of Zappa it’s fucking hilarious. Whether you like it because you’re into that mush or love it because you get the joke, it’s one that can be enjoyed by everyone.
“You Didn’t Try To Call Me”
Zappa continues what he did with Wowie Zowie and mocks the love ballads of narrator’s yearning for a lost love and mending a broken heart. What he does so well here is by taking on the role of the broken-hearted he reveals the creepy stalkerish vibe that a lot of these songs tend to have and the whole thing reaks of desperation and is seething in teenage loneliness and horniness. He shows off how pathetic a lot of these musicians sound with their exclamations of how lonely they are without them and how badly they need them, not realising how creepy it actually all sounds. Another gem from this album that continues the satirical look of teenage love pop songs.
“Any Way The Wind Blows”
One of Zappa’s most straight-forward songs and even a little autobiographical. At the time he made this song he was divcorcing his wife and attempting to start a new relationship. That’s essentially what the song is about, ending one relationship to start another. When things turn to shit sometimes the best thing to do is go your own way rather than stay in it. Toxicity is never good and when you can’t fix what’s toxic it’s best to be rid of it. In some ways it’s a rather weak Zappa song, a little void of satire and too straightforward. Zappa even says if he “wasn’t getting divorced, this piece of trivial nonsense would have never been made”. Zappa may hate it but it still stands as a pretty solid piece and making it personal added a personal layer that would not be seen again in his music, which was often more alienating and disconnected from society, while this one connects a little deeper.
“I’m Not Satisfied”
Another brilliant piece of satire, this time from the point of view of an apathetic man. When you’ve come to the point that nothing is satisfying and you just don’t care anymore all you can do is wallow in you’re own misery and pity. The song’s narrator is an incredibly sad person who feels unwanted and alone, but what Zappa does cleverly here is he mocks this person’s attitude of giving up and not trying to make things better without putting down his actual problems. Things get hard, but wallowing in your tub of self-pity is not the way to do it. By taking on the point-of-view of this person, he reveals how self-deprecating it is and how unhelpful it is for someone to constantly put themselves into that vicious cycle. It is tough to see if it’s a genuinely sincere lament of one’s personal and social downfall or a mocking piece of satire. Knowing Zappa it’s probably the latter. He was good at understanding the human condition and revealing the ugly truth found in each and everyone of us. This is probably no exception.
“You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”
Zappa’s battle cry to society. You’re probably wondering why I’m here was probably a common phrase running through Zappa’s mind as he made his way through live shows, baffling and mesmerizing those who just didn’t get what he was doing. He openly mocks the audience’s need to abide by social norms and only enjoy that which is familiar and safe. The minute something new comes along that challenges the norm, it’s always met with confusion and resentment. Remember, Freak Out didn’t achieve commercial or critical success when it came out, mostly due to how strange and absurd the album was. People didn’t get it and didn’t really want to get it and the inclusion of this song basically answers what was going through the audience’s head: If you don’t want to make normal music, why the hell are you here? People don’t like things that are different, especially if they’re having their ideas challenged. This song is basically the band’s reaction to people’s reactions, questioning their beliefs and staring at them with the same confusion they’re receiving, not understanding how they could be so plain and boring, abiding by the social norms.
“Trouble Every Day”
This is the song that got Zappa and his band a record deal. One that was loved so much that they were given carte blanche to produce their album, having unlimited funds (a decision that the label both regrets and doesn’t). They were brought into the studio with the belief that they were another talented blues-based band, not knowing what Zappa was about to unleash on them. This is definitely a stand-out song on the album, not only because it’s a damn good blues-based song but because it hits hard with the social commentary. What’s interesting about this one is Zappa doesn’t rely on satire and humour to get his point across, he says it as it is, directly and honestly. In pure blues fashion it makes for quite a depressing song, not because it’s emotional but because it reveals sad truths of society. The narrator sits and watches the news hoping for something good to happen, but is only met with horrifying story after horrifying story. Society is a bleak place where bad things happen all the time. When he says there’s trouble every day, he doesn’t say it as a way to make a jab at society, but rather believes what he says. It isn’t sarcastic but honest. In his words: “There ain’t no Great Society as it applies to you and me. Our country isn’t free and the law refuses to see, if all that you can ever be is just a lousy janitor, unless your uncle owns a store. You know that five in every four just won’t amount to nothin’ more. Gonna watch the rats go across the floor
and make up songs about being poor” pretty much sums up the feelings of the song and the sad truth that has dawned on the narrator about what society really is.
“Help, I’m A Rock”
This is one hell of a song. A predecessor to what would eventually become prog rock, this song is essentially three different songs melded together to form one long one and it’s a brain teaser. What it means and what it’s about is really up to interpretation, especially since a majority of it is drowned in experimentation and almost non-sensical lyrics that don’t really seem to mean anything. But his exclamations of “Help, I’m a rock” and the lyrics of the final part seem to all add up. It’s the desperate cries of a person who hasn’t made it anywhere. The heavily experimental parts create the atmosphere and mind-set of this person, slightly going crazy and racking their brains over what-ifs and what could have beens if only. A person undecided of what they’d like to be eventually finding themselves being a nothing, another rock lost in the sea of pebbles on the ground, unnoticed and uninteresting. To this person anything would have been great and now they let out their cries of help, anything they can do, just to become a someone or something, just to have someone acknowledge them. No one wants to become a rock. It’s a constant fight for individualism and creating an identity that your worst fear is to become another face in the crowd. Once you realise you are, all you can really exclaim is “Help, I’m a rock!”
“The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”
If you can survive through the entirety of this song without losing your mind than you’re a strong, strong person. This is the most absurd, highly experimental, brain melting, incredibly artistic piece of art rock anti-music. With a mix of spoken word, weird noises, hypnotic beats, backwards and sped up audio and sound collage with music concrete, this becomes an incredibly difficult piece of music to listen to that can easily alienate anyone who had been enjoying the rest of the album. Believe it or not this is actually an incomplete piece, Zappa wanted to add more to it to make it full but the producer said no. Apparently he was incredibly high on LSD while listening to it, an image that makes Zappa laugh as he could only imagine what the producer was experiencing with this one. In some way sit’s an ode of being yourself and not being afraid to create the art you want and being considered really weird, perfectly done by itself being an incredibly weird piece of music that Zappa knew wouldn’t be enjoyed at all. In some ways it could also be seen as a drugged up experience, not seen through the user but seen through the outsider. As I said before Zappa was against drug use and this seemingly incoherent piece of music could be how he saw people on drugs, yammering on incomprehensibly, repeating the words cream cheese over and over due to some fascination with it or the way they sound. To him, who knows what was going through their minds while under substances, but boy do they sure look stupid. Now, this is purely left to interpretation and with Zappa having passed we may never know what this piece of pure absurdity was really all about, but boy can we enjoy it (or not) for what it is.
There you have it. The king of the counter-counter-culture and his debut album that would go on in history as an exemplary piece of satire and art rock in music. This is a rare treat as Zappa would soon start to experiment with his albums, mixing live performances with redubs over them to polish them up. This is rather unique in his catalogue as it was purely in-studio recordings and was before he would have full control over every aspect of his albums. I don’t think anyone could predict where Zappa would go from here, but being a lover of music with his own unique vision, he would go on to produce some of the most absurd yet amazing pieces of work out there. He’s not for everyone and you either love him or hate him, but there’s no denying, he was one mad genius.
Song of Choice: Hungry Freaks, Daddy