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Zappa Zappa Doings

These web sites are devoted to the late, great Zappa:

Frank Zappa Tribute Page

The Black Page

St. Alphonzo's Pancake Home Page

    While his peers settled for the easy predictability of three-chord rock, Zappa challenged audiences with compositions that ricocheted wildly from genre to genre. Often within one song, Euro-art music, doo-wop, jazz, rock, New York avant-garde and beyond jostled energetically for the listener's attention. And he was prolific; producing some 60 albums, a few films (most notoriously, 200 Motels) and an autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book (Simon & Schuster, 1990).

    When Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer in 1993, rock--check that, American music--was robbed of one its most extraordinary and idiosyncratic voices. When he was alive, however, it was the rabble-rousing Zappa that drew the most attention. A bitter foe of censorship, he lashed out at rightist pols on recordings and in Washington; in the '80s, he appeared before the Senate subcommittee investigating "X-rated rock."

    On his final tour, in 1980, Zappa turned civic-minded, conducting voter-registration drives in the lobbies of the venues he played across the nation. But the mustachioed rocker was no left-winger, either; he had little tolerance for the herd mentality in any guise.

    Ironically, the sheer force of Zappa's personality served to draw attention away from his formidable gifts as a composer, bandleader, guitarist and performer. Rykodisc to the rescue. The "little" label that could has undertaken a massive retrospective project, re-releasing the entire Zappa catalog, more than 50 titles in all. Converted from analog to digital in the mid-'80s, the albums were remastered a second time under Zappa's supervision.

    Boasting original artwork, additional graphics, rare photos and lyrics, this is a Zappaddict's wet dream come true. But it could also be the neophyte's nightmare; with so many titles to choose from, where does one begin? Why, at the beginning, of course.

    Freak Out! (1966), Absolutely Free (1967),We're Only in It for the Money (1968) and Over-Nite Sensation (1973) are all seminal works dramatically expanding rock's parameters both musically and conceptually. Recorded with the infamous Mothers of Invention, the first three vividly demonstrate Zappa's gifts as a spot-on parodist and provocateur.

    Besides the glassy-eyed paranoia of "Who Are the Brain Police?" Freak Out! also contains some truly inspired moments, including some goofy but memorable doo-wop in the tongue-in-cheek histrionics of "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder" ("Go ahead and let the tear drops fall from your eyes/let them fall on your dress/Who cares if it makes a mess!?"). Of course, in order to be effective, musical parody has to ring true, and "Go Cry" and "Wowie Zowie" sound as if they were recorded by a crew of Harlem homies.

    What is most intriguing about these tunes is that, at a time when "white rock" was self-consciously seeking to carve out an identity that had little to do with its black roots, Zappa and his Mothers defiantly raised the R&B flag. Indeed, "Any Way the Wind Blows" and "I'm Not Satisfied" are fairly straight readings in that tradition; they could have been commercial successes if Verve, the Mothers' original home, weren't so, ah, freaked out by Zappa's other material. Stuff like "Trouble Every Day," an acid-tongued commentary on the 1965 Watts insurrection, didn't help their chances. All things considered, Freak Out! is one of Zappa's most accessible offerings.

    On Absolutely Free, things begin to get demonstrably strange. Described by Zappa as "underground oratorios," the compositions evidence his infatuation with the works of outlaw white classicist Edgar Varese. Where his first album toed the commercial line with mostly 2 1/2- to 3-minute ditties, here Zappa's Mothers dabble in extended forms on "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and "Call Any Vegetable."

    With an expanded lineup for the album, the Mothers gallivant across the musical universe. "Plastic People" is all arty ambition. On "Big Leg Emma," the unit recasts juke-joint R&B in its own slightly seedy image. The blues get disemboweled on "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right," and contemporary pop rates an enema on "Status Back Baby."

    On We're Only in It for the Money, the Mothers' most ambitious work to that point, hippie chic, apotheosized by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, wilts under Zappa's withering gaze. To his prescient way of thinking, the Summer of Love was less an exercise in blossoming flower-power than it was mindless conformity; corporate sponsorship, not counterculture, ruled.

    To a bull-headed individualist like Zappa, the Haight-Ashbury's vaunted communalist ethic was a sham, a lame excuse for irresponsible behavior--and an easy target for then-Gov. Reagan's jack-booted thugs. No one escapes Zappa's wrath. Songs like "Flower Punk" (an amped-up inversion of "Hey Joe") and "The Idiot Bastard Son" lampoon dope-addled longhairs and authoritarianism alike. With this album, Zappa positioned himself as the consummate antirockist insider, peeling back the layers of hypocrisy for all to see.

    The 1973 release of Over-Nite Sensation showed that Zappa had lost none of his venom; he simply outfitted it in a more attractive package. Of course, that attractive package is rent with seriously scatological material. Minus the Mothers, Zappa steps up as a singer and guitarist while introducing elements of rock-jazz fusion into the mix.

    Accompanied by a stellar cast of backing musicians, including fusion head George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty, Zappa effortlessly navigates what were then relatively uncharted waters. Given its uncluttered arrangements and head-bobbing melodies, it comes as no surprise that Over-Nite Sensation proved to be one of his most highly praised--and listened to--recordings. Never mind that "Camarillo Brillo," "Dirty Love" and "Dinah-Moe-Humm" were dirty little ditties celebrating doing the nasty in language the late Redd Foxx could appreciate. Of course, Zappa has more than sex on his mind, as the anti-boob tube diatribe "I'm the Slime" more than makes clear.

    Choosing from so many albums is a formidable challenge, and Uncle Meat's oeuvre covers a lot of ground, only a small portion of which is suggested here, but there you have it: a four-pack of Frank's finest from the early years.

    Just keep in mind what awaits for the real collector with a lot of spare change: the fiendishly funny Apostrophe ('); the matchless instrumental virtuosity of the Hot Rats albums and much more. But know one thing: every note Zappa committed to tape revealed the mind and soul of an artist always striving to push the envelope to the next level. And when push came to shove, he just didn't give a damn what anybody else thought. Frank Zappa was a real mother for ya.

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From the Oct. 19-26, 1995 issue of Metro

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