Sunday, December 21, 2014

Frank Zappa • Freak Out!



   Frank Zappa’s debut album turned out to be a breakthrough determining the direction of popular music development in late 1960’s as well as in next decades. In the years prior to the recording sessions, Zappa wrote some music for the movies with Run Home Slow soundtrack. He was also the author of several musical experiments, sometimes promising but never successful. What has not brought him recognition became creative workshop. Anyway, steeped in rhythm-and-blues and anarchistic freaks cultural movement, young artist never dreamed to become a star of popular music. His ambition from the very beginning was to be a “serious” composer. In fact this was the purpose from the moment Zappa as a 14-year-old bought his first album with music by Edgar Varese.
   When MGM Records signed a contract producers were convinced that this is just one more rhythm and blues band singing easy-digestible, unsophisticated songs. The recordings were made at the turn of 1965 and 1966. As managers had expected, recorded material included a number of tracks resembling contemporary pop songs. Tracks like Wowie Zowie or You Didn’t Try to Call Me might actually appear on many other albums recorded at this time. Some songs, like I Aint Got No Heart or Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder though thematically linked to the popular sentimental songs, in fact, were a perverse mockery of their style. Zappa in his songs even ridiculed the mother’s love, however, it was part of artistic vision of social problems. What's more, he was able to enter into the manufacturer's requirements enough part of his own vision to make the album instantly famous. Production which, according to the manager had no commercial potential, soon became a legend.

Frank Zappa & Mothers of Invention – Freak Out! (1966)

   Even if album title Freak Out! was suggesting something different, there were many serious texts on double LP. The very first song starts with apostrophe “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”. In the third song when the value and durability of reality is questioned, as the chorus returns the question: “Who are the brain police?” – this way social criticism packed in naive melodies and ironic sentimentality distinct from standard hippie hits. But this was the result of a compromise between Zappa’s ambitions and expectations of managers.
   Luckily he succeeded in persuading MGM Records to produce the double album. The second disc contains three songs that were not songs anymore. The first of them, Trouble Every Day is maintained in the nervous rhythm description of social media and the political reality of the sixties. Last two pieces are avant-garde compositions: Help, I'm a Rock (Suite in Three Movements – Okay to Tap Dance, In Memoriam, Edgard Varèse, It Can't Happen Here) and The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableaux – I. Ritual Dance of the Child-Killer, II. Nullis Pretii – “No Commercial Potential”). Both are minimalistic constructions, based on the motoric rhythms, precussion effects and vocal manipulations with lots of improvised material. And needless to say it was possibly here, where Zappa’s experimenting pays its debts.

Frank Zappa – Help I'm a Rock (1966)

   The first Frank Zappa’s album signed as band The Mothers of Invention became a turning point in the history of popular culture. First of all, it has changed the approach to the musical forms of rock which has greatly contributed to development of progressive rock. Freak Out! broke the customary standards of the record companies. While concert music and jazz for years were setting their own standards, the popular music was recorded in the mid-sixties still using a simple rule: on the beginning of both sides were placed radio or single hits and every side was filled with a few songs more. No one had ever worried too much if songs were connected in any reasonable statement. These principles were used in all styles of popular music from country, through pop, to rhythm and blues, soul and rock. And Frank Zappa released some fresh ideas in music business.
   Soon after June 27th 1966 when Freak Out! was published, concept albums and more or less conceptual double albums with improvisations and experimental fragments of rock performers begin to appear. The time was high, four months after Freak Out! The Kinks released Face to Face (October 1966), in December 1966 The Beatles begin recording sessions to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and in October 1968 were released In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson and Ummagumma by Pink Floyd. The cover of Zappa’s first album was part of artistic vision associated with its content too. Also this was beyond the standards of record production. Freak Out! was the beginning of the revolution, which in a few years has changed the image of music for decades. Absolute full scale five stars for the album, the music and the value.

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