Zappaland the Hard Way
November 6, 2017 2:28 PM   Subscribe

snarling stylus

I've found my new sockpuppet account name.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:39 PM on November 6, 2017

Zappa is, of course, best played on the original bicycle.
posted by delfin at 2:42 PM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

You see, I think Zappa-haters’ knowledge is generally based on a very small pool of tracks. Listen to a Zappa album on Spotify, and the ‘you might like this’ suggestions at the end are always the same ones: Dirty Love, San Ber’dino, Willie the Pimp, Bobby Brown Goes Down, Valley Girl, Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.

I remember reading an interview with Zappa where he briefly complained that most people think he's some kind of "deranged comedian" and don't know the breadth of his work. But wasn't that his own fault? He put out that kind of stuff because it made money, money that he needed to release records, raise a family, and finance his other musical endeavors. After his death, someone recounted going to Zappa's studio in his Laurel Canyon home (that Lady Gaga bought after Gail Zappa's death) to see his brand new, beloved Synclavier. "Ya gotta play 'Dinah-Moe-Hum' a lot of times to afford one of these babies", Frank told him.

I'm not at all blaming him for finding something that he could do that was commercial, so that he could be independent of labels and have some freedom to work on esoteric stuff, but, if that turns out to be stuff like "Titties and Beer", what do you think the public's image of you is going to be?
posted by thelonius at 2:44 PM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Jazz fart...
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 2:53 PM on November 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm a huge fan, or at least i was growing up,when I went from discovering him via my parent;s Joe's Garage to consuming his entire discography via the local library, though I have a horrible feeling that this dream...

Zappa died in 1993, and inevitably I often wonder what kind of music he’d be producing today. The age of reality television, social media, the alt-right, Donald Trump, etc seems almost tailor-made for Zappa treatment, perhaps too much so. Would he think ‘That’s what everyone’s expecting me to do’ and instead do the total opposite? Who knows. I once had a horrible dream that Zappa came back from the dead and recorded a song about social justice and safe spaces called ‘Snowflakes’. (Thankfully I woke up before I heard it in full, although I remember he rhymed ‘problematic’ with ‘car’s an automatic’.) entirely too plausible, given the trajectory of similar artists with a similar contrarian streak from that era. Then again, maybe he'd surprise us all. Or just focus on making utterly unlistenable jazz.
posted by Artw at 2:56 PM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

It's funny you should post this today. I was a huge fan of his as a teenage girl. I was used to male artists talking about women like trash, so it didn't register as hard, and besides what I liked was the weirder One Size Fits All, which isn't really so nasty. I hadn't really thought of listening to him for decades, until last week, when I really needed to hear "You Are What You Is." Later, I went looking for Frankly A Cappella, an amazing doo-wop cover album by the Persuasions, which I lost ages ago. I was listening to their version of "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" yesterday when I heard the news from Texas. In a moment of bitterness, it occurred to me to share the track online. I did not.

I wish Zappa was still with us, of course, but I suspect that if he were, he would be an absolute dick online. Either that, or a complete internet hermit -- whatever struck him as the most contrary.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:57 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

The one track most representative of Frank Zappa’s oeuvre?

(fight me wth links)
posted by Sys Rq at 2:59 PM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

(I also really liked Trout Mask Replica in college, at first because women weren't supposed to, and then just because I did. Come to find out that that album was produced under a Mansonesque nightmare regime, and now I feel weird about listening to it.)

The one track most representative of Frank Zappa’s oeuvre?

(fight me wth links)

I'll see you that and raise you
posted by Countess Elena at 3:05 PM on November 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

Mansonesque nightmare regime


(I am also a fan)
posted by Artw at 3:10 PM on November 6, 2017

Circus Raves, December, 1975
Cohen: Rock 'n roll seemed more exciting in the Sixties because it was more rebellious and now it seems more traditional.
Zappa: Well, whose fault do you think that is?
Cohen: You mean, do I think it's the musicians' or the audiences' fault?
Zappa: No, I'd say it's the writers' fault.
Cohen: I wouldn't have thought of that.

Also it is difficult to discuss Frank without mentioning his role as a producer.
posted by adamvasco at 3:18 PM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Or just focus on making utterly unlistenable jazz.

That's because you're listening to the notes. You have to unlisten to what is not there.
posted by Fizz at 3:28 PM on November 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

I disagree Zappa was contrary for its own sake, or that there’s much value is speculating about what an artist would do or say “now” because we have their art for that. His disdain of censorship seethed and he could be an idiot about gender roles (and no telling what else). Sentiment? It can be a very fuzzy and ugly thing.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:34 PM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

As Spurious Zappa Offspring Names go, I gotta say I think "Fridge Magnet" is pretty good.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 3:37 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Good article. But I'm unconvinced. After "We're Only in it for the Money", he stopped challenging himself, and started indulging himself. From then on, the most interesting things Zappa did were the side projects: Beefheart, the GTOs, Wild Man Fisher, Alice Cooper, Sandy Hurvitz, Reuben and the Jets. Mind you, I said "interesting", not necessarily "good".
posted by Modest House at 3:45 PM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you ever see a sockpuppet account named You think you know everything. Maybe so., it's me.
posted by rlk at 4:15 PM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

> Mansonesque nightmare regime

On the one hand it seems like neither Beefheart nor Zappa would have become the adults they were if they hadn't been friends in high school. And on the other hand, it seems inevitable that two energetic control freaks of the first order with similar but contrasting artistic visions would inevitably fly apart like plutonium-240.
posted by ardgedee at 4:46 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

he stopped challenging himself, and started indulging himself

While I disagree I will also say, Frank Zappa indulging himself is better than 90% of anything else.
posted by Splunge at 4:49 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was maybe fourteen. It was three in the morning. My radio was on, tuned to a local top forty station. At three in the morning, they would put on a whole album. It was a record by a group I had never heard of - Absolutely Free by the Mothers of Invention. I lied there and listened closely to the whole thing. It opened up my mind. Really. In a few days it became the first record I ever bought. That musical moment shaped maybe my whole view of music - to be open to anything coupled with being critical of everything. I'm one of those 200 Motels and earlier Zappa aficionados but overall I can't think of any musician who had as much impact on my own musical taste and musical output. As I struggle trying to do anything musical, there is always that sound of freedom tracked by a wicked intelligence that inspires me on. "Call any vegetable, and the chances are good, that a vegetable will respond to you." I did.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:19 PM on November 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

My parents did not have a working turntable during the time in my life when Zappa would have spoken the most to me. So all I can say is I sure did like the covers for Uncle Meat, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Fillmore East, etc.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:48 PM on November 6, 2017

I don't love everything he put out but when he was on, man was it ever good. Also he made my all-time favorite album name/cover combo
posted by mannequito at 5:53 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hmm. I would have gone with...
posted by Artw at 6:28 PM on November 6, 2017

posted by Artw at 6:29 PM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Zircon-Encrusted Tweezers
posted by stinkfoot at 6:31 PM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

"She had a snake for a pet
And an amulet
She was breeding a dwarf
But she wasn't done yet
She had grey green skin
And a doll with a pin..."

I loved Freak Out so much, I still know every note in that whole thing, and can sing along with it. I am not sure why I have always felt I "got" Zappa, or his jokes, but he never offended me, with anything, I love the way he navigated any thing he cared to. I also loved Overnight Sensation. He was just a ridiculously able, creative musician, and an absolutely, unique event, like a Vonnegut, like a Brautigan, like a Joni Mitchell, one of a kind.

"I'll ignore your cheap aroma
And your little Bo Peep diploma
I'll just put you in a coma
With some dirty love..."
posted by Oyéah at 7:03 PM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Why don’t more people ‘get’ him?

To me, Zappa is at the lonely intersection of prog rock fans and joke/novelty/irreverent music fans. How many people like both Yes and Ween? (Well, me, but only if I'm really high)
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 7:33 PM on November 6, 2017 [11 favorites]

I have low tolerance for Zappa's humor, but I'm a massive fan of his series of live solo excerpt albums, "Shut Up...", "Guitar" and "Trance Fusion". There's some stunning guitar work on those records.
posted by davebush at 7:54 PM on November 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

I discovered Zappa through the novelty rock songs (as mentioned, Bobby Brown Goes Down was a massive hit in Norway, probably due to the fact that we as a nation didn't speak English quite at the level were we got the references), and later expanded into his other music. Among other things by force-listening through a 148 song playlist on Spotify called "Frank Zappa as Composer". I ended up paring it down to 18 tracks that grew on me...

If I can recommend something from that might it be a cover of Waka, jawaka by Harmonia Ensemble? (Spotify link, sorry)
posted by Harald74 at 12:41 AM on November 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

(I also really liked Trout Mask Replica in college, at first because women weren't supposed to, and then just because I did. Come to find out that that album was produced under a Mansonesque nightmare regime, and now I feel weird about listening to it.)

Man, what wasn't a Mansonesque nightmare in 1969?
posted by atoxyl at 12:44 AM on November 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

To be honest, I'd always categorised Zappa along with Beefhart and Grateful Dead as self consciously hippy, self consciously arty hippy music listened to by self consciously hippy, self consciously arty hippies, so was never particularly inclined to explore his works.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:40 AM on November 7, 2017

I’m not sure that being a Zappa fan is supposed to be easy. Sort of like mountaineering or trigonometry.
posted by Grangousier at 2:25 AM on November 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

To be honest, I'd always categorised Zappa along with Beefhart and Grateful Dead as self consciously hippy

Well, he had long hair, and that's about where his sympathy with hippies ends. I'm more well-versed in the mid-period FZ than in the Mothers Of Invention, late 60's stuff, but "Absolutely Free" is, iirc, a sustained attack on what he saw as the shallow and self-indulgent values of the Free Love era. Cf. also "Cosmik Debris". He despised drugs. He loved doo-wop and avant-garde classical music.

He was a big part of the Los Angeles freak scene, though, which is kind of related to the hippy phenomenon.
posted by thelonius at 2:43 AM on November 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have low tolerance for Zappa's humor

His bad boy schtick ("Got a job doing radio promo/And none of the jocks can even tell I'm a homo" and the like) really hasn't aged that well, and I'm kind of surprised the thread isn't filled with vehement denunciations.
posted by thelonius at 2:46 AM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

First, a clarification about Beefheart during the creation of Trout Mask Replica. He used classic mind control conditioning on the Magic Band members. He had them live together, isolated them from everyone else, disrupted their sleeping and eating regimes, abused them mentally and physically, etc. They ended up being completely under his control. The same kind of treatment that Manson or Jim Jones imposed on their followers.

Having said that, Trout Mask Replica is a brilliant but flawed recording. I just listened to it recently after not having heard it for at least 20 years, and was surprised to find out it held up so well. My musical experience is far greater then when I first encountered it, so I had much more appreciation of it's artistic merits this time around.

The flaws are mostly in Beefheart's singing and his often juvenile lyrics. It's the music and the performance of the musicians that are outstanding. Check out the instrumental tracks "Hair Pie Bake One" and "Hair Pie Bake Two" to hear what I am talking about. (See what I mean about the lyrics?)

Back to Zappa. When I was listening to Beefheart I also listened to Zappa from the Mothers of Invention era. On We're Only in It for the Money here are some of sections where Zappa is whispering into a microphone with a lot of reverb effect. He talks about what is happening at the time, and he says that he has multiple songs doing well on the charts and yet he had no money. That was the end of the Mothers, and after that Zappa became more commercial. I think he separated his avant-garde music from his popular music from that point onward. Earlier he mixed the two, often in the same track. He also played the clown in his rock lyrics, but even then he always had a satiric edge to what he was saying.

By the way, Lady Gaga bought Zappa's house and is planning on preserving the on site recording studio.
posted by Metacircular at 2:47 AM on November 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

He did a great disservice to his musical gifts, with his air-quote wit and air-quote satires. I think that he knew that, but did it compulsively, reactively. Kick-ass live bands, though. You really got your money's worth.
posted by Chitownfats at 5:49 AM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Favorited for the blog's name.
posted by whuppy at 6:04 AM on November 7, 2017

Yeah I regret never seeing him. I wasn't really into him yet in '82 or '84, and I don't think the '88 tour ever came to Atlanta (it ended early in Europe because of problems in the band)
posted by thelonius at 6:05 AM on November 7, 2017

I’m going to grab this chance to tell this coincidence story. I went to Uni with a chap called Alan and shared a flat with him for a year. He was studying design. We got on really well but our music tastes were pretty different. He was a big, big fan of Zappa but whereas most of Zappa's stuff left me cold there was one song which we both enjoyed and would sometimes drunkenly sing on the walk home from the pub.

It was a pretty obscure live version of a song called Lonesome Cowboy Nando and begins "My name is Nando, I'm a marine biologist..."

So for his final year Alan creates a model of a underwater robot thingy which leads him to a career in marine biology. He's not that long into it before his path crosses with a fellow marine biologist called Fernando Boero and they share a love for Zappa...

Of course it turns out that Fernando was the chap Zappa was singing about. He had discovered a new jellyfish and had named it after Frank who had then invited him to a show and reworked another song in his honour.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 6:56 AM on November 7, 2017 [17 favorites]

First off, the canonically best Captain Beefheart album is Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which is basically the best parts of Trout Mask Replica, distilled and purified, without all the weak points. (Provided, of course, you think Beefheart's vocals and lyrics are not weak points.)

As for Frank, I am a fan. I'm not the kind of music fan who is heavily into the technical complexity stuff, but something I do appreciate about Zappa's work and composition is that it can be incredibly technical without descending (too much) into masturbation. He had a brilliant mind for music and sound, and I find a lot of his Synclavier work very compelling in that regard. Not to say I'm the kind of guy who puts on Civilization: Phaze III to have a good time—'cause I don't. (Jazz From Hell or The Yellow Shark though? Maybe. ) I just really love the structures and the weird electronic sounds.

(In a way, Zappa's move to Electronic Music parallels another musically brilliant control freak, Raymond Scott, who built a career as a jazz band leader doing idiosyncratic compositions, but moved to electronics that he built himself so he didn't have to rely on fallible human musicians to replicate his work.)

Yeah, there's problematic elements to his work. I suspect part of it was a deliberate attempt to shock, particularly if you look at it in the context of his fight against the PMRC and the Moral Majority in the mid to late 80s. If you have 20 minutes to kill, go watch Frank on Crossfire in 1986. I think you can appreciate Zappa while acknowledging the problematic parts, and going "Man, I hope he would do better today." Though, I will say that if there's a running gag in his more mainstream, vocal rock music, it's his amusement at the very concept of human sex in general, be it heterosexual, homosexual, or beastial. (See also "The Poodle Lecture")

Though Thing-Fish is god-awful, and if I could undo anything from Frank's discography, it's that. Both for the painfully racist parts and the crappy, recycled music parts.
posted by SansPoint at 8:12 AM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah I regret never seeing him.

i saw him near grand rapids in 1976 - great band, but he seemed to be just going through the motions - his solo spot seemed an awful lot like a classical music rehearsal - playing acoustic by himself and running through something that i didn't think was all that compelling - it pretty much sucked the energy right out of the room

also i don't think the illinois enema bandit or the stuffed poodle kicking went down all that well - people weren't offended - just bored, i'm afraid - and it wasn't the audience - the sax players brought them to their feet, so they were willing to get into it - frank just seemed like he was having a bad night

he peaked at we're only in it for the money - the social satire turned into cheesy teenaged locker room talk and the music, although it was still technically brilliant, started to get repetitive and was often overpassed by others in the 70s

it always seemed to be an intellectual enterprise to him - he worked exceedlngly hard on his music but he never opened up his heart and bled into it

but it wasn't self-consciously arty hippy music - (neither was beefheart - and if you think the grateful dead of the 60s and early 70s were - they were fully capable of being self-indulgent - they were also capable of ripping your head off on the right night - check out live versions of "cream puff war" from 1966 - they were one punk as fuck garage band when they wanted to be)
posted by pyramid termite at 9:20 AM on November 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

pyramid termite: This might be why the best Zappa live recordings are the ones that are assemblages of various multiple shows. I don't just mean You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore (though some of those are good), but the other live compilation records (plus or minus Zappa's studio overdubs) too.
posted by SansPoint at 9:42 AM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I saw Dweezil a couple of months ago with my raging Zappa fan wife and got bored with his guitar noodlings, as I did sometimes with Frank's. But, then, a lot of people feel that way about bebop, which I play.

Once I saw The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa, who played last, and was disappointed with his "Don't Eat Yellow Snow" juvenalia. This was in the early 70s. In the 60s I was a teenager and loved him.

Zappa was the only one to get the classical/rock fusion thing right. Prog rock keyboard wizards did it all wrong.
posted by kozad at 10:27 AM on November 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

There’s a stubborn, sometimes adolescent, cynicism in much of his work, but my re-listening project reminded me just how warm he could be too. ... You can sense Zappa’s warmth in interviews too, where he’s endlessly patient in the face of the same terrible questions.
Now I'm all for interesting fan takes on Zappa but this just immediately crosses into down-is-up, black-is-white territory. This is like the exact opposite of anything even those most ardent Zappa defender has tried to ascribe to him.
posted by anazgnos at 1:47 PM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Second-generation Freak here. My Dad used to play "Who Are The Brain Police" for me when I was 3. You can't imagine the nightmares.
posted by NedKoppel at 2:03 PM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can sense Zappa’s warmth in interviews too, where he’s endlessly patient in the face of the same terrible questions.
Interview rabbit hole
posted by thelonius at 2:11 PM on November 7, 2017

Wow this brings back some memories
posted by thelonius at 2:15 PM on November 7, 2017

How many people like both Yes and Ween?

posted by davejay at 8:13 PM on November 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Muggles become Μύγαλοι [Mugaloi]Greek for...   |   The pod eased into the stream and he drank to his... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments