I tried to describe Frank Zappa’s music to a friend the other day. This rather challenging task was made all the more tricky by virtue of the fact that I know almost bugger all about Zappa. My description went along the lines of…
Well, it’s a bit weird, like jazz with rock, but it’s not jazz-rock because that particular genre of music is a crime against nature and the baby Jesus. His roots are in Nuggets-like psych-rock of the mid sixties, but with complicated arrangements and marimbas. No, he’s not a hippie, in fact he was anti flower power. He even made an anti-Pepper album called We’re Only In It For The Money. Some of his records are very silly, some are highly political, some are both, and the silly commercial(ish) ones were done in order to finance the making of even more challenging jazz or even neo-classical works. His back catalogue is enormous, and I haven’t heard even 10% of it.
There, how did I do? No? Me neither.
Absolutely Free is Zappa’s Second LP and it’s great. Each side is like an extended suite of music and it is by turns bonkers, angry, funny, clever, witty, informed, intertextual… But, the really impressive thing about this record, and Zappa’s work that I know, is that for all its cleverness or strangeness, it never disappears up it’s own back-side.
I have my friend Joe from college to thank for getting me into Zappa. Thank you Joe. I didn’t get it at the time as I was too busy bouncing around the Rat & Emu, the union bar at Dartington College, to Wake Up Boo or Been Caught Stealing. But it was a few years later that the idea, that it was now time to enjoy Zappa, snuck into my brain. This was the same sort of time that my Stalinist approach to music, an approach that excluded all non-hip forms of entertainment, such as prog rock and ELO, started to wane. I didn’t read the NME any more, it was now OK to like Zappa.
Joe was, and probably still is, the world’s greatest, self taught exponent of boogie-woogie Fender Rhodes piano. He liked Zappa and he also liked Tom Waits. Dude. He, and a contingent of similarly cool, yet off-kilter guys at College, knew about this stuff. If they had been less clever they probably would have been metal-heads, but because they had read more than one book in their lives that particular genre had been left behind many moons ago. They were also all musicians, so they enjoyed the complexity and challenge of the music, often playing along while I sat in the corner trying to make occasional intelligent contributions.
One health warning, in this post-Saville world, is the uncomfortable lyric in Brown Shoes Don’t Make It. I’m going to give Frank the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume that the bit about smothering his thirteen year old daughter in honey was satirical.
That said, it is still startling that this record, only his second and from 1967, is completely unlike anything anyone is making at the time. In this, the same year of the summer of love, when the alleged counter-culture are talking about free love and dropping acid, Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention represent the true counter culture. Is it possible to be counter to the counter culture and still be counter-cultural? Get Gramsci on the phone please.
Stand-out track: Plastic People