July 14th, 2016
Quick, what’s the greatest rock album of all time?
Nope, it’s not Sgt. Pepper’s. Or Pet Sounds. Nope. Or Blonde By Blonde. Nice try, though.
Don’t trust anyone who tells you emphatically what the best album of all time is. How do they know? Maybe it’s the best album as ranked by a like-minded group of writers and musicians in the same peer group who all grew up with the same music which is why you end up with a bunch of fifty-year old albums like the ones above in the top spot (hi, Rolling Stone).
I’m sure if you ask the right group of people, they’ll tell you that David Bowie’s fucking Tin Machine made the best al-
Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention released “Freak Out!” fifty years ago this summer.
I think about how well regarded “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys is now. Brian Wilson is fondly remembered as a brilliant songwriter and producer. He gets to live his winter years being venerated as a genius, a Kennedy Center honoree, touring for adoring fans. After decades of disrepair and mental torment, Brian Wilson is the victor.
“Freak Out!” was released the same year as “Pet Sounds”. Zappa would make records with various lineups under the name “Mothers of Invention” until 1975, and continued a solo career up until his passing in 1993. There hasn’t been a revival of Zappa music at least since 1995 when Rykodisc released CDs of every Zappa and Mothers album (over 60). Rykodisc released several approved compliations of his music, and found long-lost treasures like the soundtrack to 200 Motels, which had been out of print over 25 years and the never-released “Lather”.
Unfortunately, Frank isn’t here to celebrate with us. He passed away from prostate cancer in 1993. Three of the five Mothers on the cover of “Freak Out!” are dead and a fourth is in prison. You don’t know want to know why.
It’s a double-album, which was unheard of at the time. The only other artist to do it at that time was Bob Dylan who was at the apex of Bob Dylan God-hood. It took a lot of nerve for Frank to insist on this for his very first album but perhaps he thought it would be his “only” album so why not get the most out of it.
The sound of the album is indicative of 1960s California rock, complete with session musicians. Unlike “Pet Sounds”, the Mothers actually play their instruments on “Freak Out!” even when joined by orchestral accompaniment. The horns are replaced by the grating of kazoos. Either to save money or because it sounds appropriate. The first song is a garage rocker with anti-LBJ Great Society sentiment and bile to match in the lyrics. It’s dirty punk before punk is a thing. Zappa is barely singing, mostly sneering his lyrics. Ray Collins is carrying most of the melody vocally. Ray does such a great job as a singer and as a straight man to Frank’s wiseguy on the side.
“I Aint Got No Heart” is a vicious anti-love love song. Ray handles the lead and Frank lays back and harmonizes instead. They don’t play it for laughs which gives the song its’ power. There’s a hallucinatory cut right at the end that you don’t expect. “Who Are The Brain Police?” is when things turn for the strange. More hallucinatory cuts and a main tune that disturbs. This song is why distorted fuzz bass was invented. Also the song is asking you who are the fucking brain police.
“Motherly Love” is a song about how good the Mothers of Invention are at sex. “Wowie Zowie” is a nonsense with a nice marimba part that’s designed to make children happy even though there’s a line that says “I don’t even care if your dad’s [a cop]”.
The first disc on “Freak Out!” is a cynical take on 60’s culture and pop music skewed and bent totally out of shape with lyrics that reflect the band’s daily reality as a nighttime entertainment on the Los Angeles club circuit. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” is the culmination of the bar-band musician’s nightmare and he completes that sentence with “and so am I, so am I”.
Disc two is where “Freak Out!” separates itself from any other album before or after it. “Trouble Every Day” is the last conventional song, a lengthy talking protest blues written by Frank after the Watts riot in ’65. It is unfortunately still timely today.
“Hey you know something people? I’m not black but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white!”
You know we got to sit around at home
And watch this thing begin
But I bet there won’t be many live
To see it really end
‘Cause the fire in the street
Ain’t like the fire in the heart
And in the eyes of all these people
Don’t you know that this could start
On any street in any town
In any state if any clown
Decides that now’s the time to fight
For some ideal he thinks is right
And if a million more agree
There ain’t no Great Society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
From there, the album devolves or evolves into experimental music. First with the bizarre “Help I’m A Rock” which uses those hallucinatory cuts from “Who Are The Brain Police” to connect its’ parts. Smash cuts of gibberish over a one-note beat into multi-level stoned doo-wop about Kansas and swimming pools, all with the sinister refrain “it can’t happen here”. In between, Frank complains about being a rock: “Wow, man, it’s a drag being a rock. I wish I was anything but a rock. Heck, I’d even like to be a policeman.”
The final track on “Freak Out!” is “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”. It’s about twelve minutes long and is the sound of a room full of acid freaks banging on a bunch of rented percussion equipment. The only people not on acid during the recording were Frank (notoriously straight his whole life) and the recording engineer. The “song” is an edited but unfinished rhythm track (because the label would not let Frank spend more money to finish it) and sounds like a trip, either good or bad. Through the acid mist, there’s the mocking voice of Frank Zappa cutting in to say “America is wonderful! Wonderful wonderful wonderful! It really makes it!” before the track speeds up into absurdity and flies away forever.
A lot of bands tried to copy “Sgt. Pepper’s” after it came out but many more tried to copy “Freak Out!” right down to its’ end-of-album freak-out. Some albums become important retroactively but “Freak Out!” had an impact that was felt immediately. Every band had to try to do their own version of that album.
Frank didn’t know if he would ever get a shot like that again. He was twenty-five, which was old for rock ‘n roll at the time. The Mothers were not an attractive band but what they had were attitude and commitment to an ideal. They also had the chops to go against just about any other band but what did any of that mean career-wise? They were still struggling on the club circuit. If you only get one chance you want to make it the best you can and not save your better material for better circumstances. You have three days to make this album. The band is practically starving. Well-rehearsed but starving. What do you do?
You swing for the fucking fences? That’s what you do.
Frank made over sixty albums in his lifetime. Some of them are pretty good (“One Size Fits All”, “Joe’s Garage”), some of them are the dirt worst ever released (hi, “Thing-Fish”) but NONE of them would exist without the artistic success that was “Freak Out!” which is worth it all on its’ own.