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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Frank Zappa

Freak Out!

Review by Julie Knispel

Prog certainly existed after Freak Out!, but was there anything coming out at the time that did for the boundaries of rock and roll what Freak Out! did? It’s unlikely. Frank Zappa took all the lessons the Beatles reacquainted rock audiences with (unusual arrangements, the return of horns to rock and roll), and with the assistance of some influences from Stockhausen and Varese, blew them into the stratosphere. The album itself is timeless...it exists in and of itself without fitting into its own time, or any time thereafter. Forty years on, it is as strange and unique as ever.

This was Zappa’s introduction musically to the world, and what an introduction it was. The 2 LPs cover a wide swath of styles, from psychedelic rock to doo wop to avant garde composition. While the original Mothers of Invention would never have the incredible chops that latter bands would showcase, the group here is more than capable of handling what Zappa tossed at them. Over the albums that followed (concluding with 1969’s Uncle Meat), the Mothers of Invention would shift from garage band to a well tuned combo, verging on jazz/fusionas adept at complex pieces such as "Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague" or Freak Out!’s “The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet” as they were with straight up rock pieces such as “Any Way The Wind Blows.”

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Hungry Freaks Daddy
The album opens with some nicely fuzzed guitar chords on a driving little rock song with slightly monotone, almost chanted multitracked lyrics. Right from the beginning, Zappa is elevating the “left behinds,” the ones who didn’t care about sock hops and pep rallies, who instead remained behind in the school library and educated themselves. The same people he ridiculed in the 1960’s for being square would be the ones he’d berate in a Senate hearing about pornographic sex and violence in rock lyrics - the same people who slapped a “Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics” sticker on his wholly instrumental Jazz From Hell album decades later.
Ain't Got No Heart
I love the arrangements on this song. The piece has a distinct Motown vibe, mixed with west coast chiming guitar and lush vocal harmonies. This is not a love song. Love does not really exist in FZ’s musical world - it’s either sex, or a business relationship. The horns are brilliant here, and the intense climax, interpolating bits from “Help I’m A Rock” and a great Spanish trumpet cadence, is incredibly memorable. This song would be played pretty straight in the early 1980’s, albeit sped up nearly double time, and it continues to resonate today.
Who Are The Brain Police
A strange psychedelic waltz, vocals are twisted and nightmarish. My daughter gets a kick out of the shifts in mood and tone here...the vocal verses are kind of bright and upbeat, and then you hit the chorus/bridge...massive slabs of dark chords, a nasty descending bass line, kazoos, and the oncoming storm. Who are the brain police? If you have to ask, then it’s already too late for you.
Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder
True fact: Zappa loved doo wop. The early Mothers albums show this in abundance, and he had a massive collection of 45’s from doo wop groups no one remembers today. This track is a pretty straightforward vocal piece, at least from a Zappa standpoint. The early Mothers had some pretty solid vocal chops, as evidenced by the layers of perfectly 50’s sounding harmonies. Of course, live versions would twist the teen love lyrics...even in 1966 Frank had no problem with the twisted humor...”I gave you my high school ring...and you gave me...VD...”
Motherly Love
No, not that kind of motherly love...what do you think, this is a clean-cut record? This is The Mothers’ ode to the teen-age girls who pressed their hair to look like Susan Dey in the Partridge Family (yes, I know the show started 4 years after this record...just go with my conceptual continuity here, OK?), and how what they really needed was a little bit of something special back stage or out on the bus. What is it with prog bands and singing about groupies? King Crimson did it (twice, actually...”Ladies of the Road” and “Easy Money” both pretty much till the same ground). Zappa did it more times than anyone should count...
How Could I Be Such a Fool?
Genuine emotion? On a Zappa album? Impossible! Yet its true. The liner notes reference Motown on this song, and as someone who has listened to a load of 60’s Motown, I can hear it for sure. Add in some wonderful Mexican trumpeting, and you have a very cool hodge podge of styles in just slightly over 2 minutes.
Wowie Zowie
The more I write about this album, the more I see how much a piece of juvenilia Freak Out was. But the fact remains that Zappa was doing things no other group would dare do at the time. This piece is a bright, poppy little number with chiming, Byrds like guitar chords and 50’s influenced vocals. The piano line adds...something...to the arrangement. Other groups might have left that bit off, and the song would have been just as complete, but it’s presence here is early evidence of Zappa’s desire to mash together as many ideas and sounds as possible, in a very post-modern composer kind of way.
You Didn't Try to Call Me
Remember, this was 1966, the year this album came out. You didn’t just launch an album about brown shoes and talking to vegetables on an unsuspecting nation. You eased them into it. Hence the fact that Freak Out! features so many “traditional” mid-1960’s songs, albeit couched in the stylistic trappings that Zappa made his own. Horns, a very catchy vocal hook...everyone makes a big deal over Zappa’s compositional complexity and guitar skills, but he wrote some great vocal music as well, and from the beginning, he had the singers to pull it off. This is a great slice of 1960’s psychedelia.
Any Way the Wind Blows
More evidence of unique instrumentation in what is mostly a straight forward rock song...we have marimba (or is it zylophone? Tuned percussion, OK?). With a neat little clean guitar solo this is – safe. Your parents will dig it. Maybe even...dare I say it...get off on it? But you’ll know, won’t you? You’ll know what's lurking just around the corner.
I'm Not Satisfied
Who needs peace and love? Who needs flower power? I’m not satisfied. I don’t like the way life has been abusing me. Maybe I’ll just kill myself, cause I don’t care no more. This was 1966! I dare you to find a more nihilistic song in the same era. All the while we have great horn charts, great vocal arrangements, and a wonderfully uplifting closing cadence.
You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here
And so am I. While so many other groups were trying to attract the dumb teen audience, Zappa was actively pushing it away, ridiculing it. In the midst of the apathy the title presents, you get stuff like this: Just as much as you wonder
'Bout me bein' in this place
(Yeah!)
That's just how much I marvel
At the lameness on your face
You rise each day the same old way
And join your friends out on the street
Spray your hair
And think you're neat
I think your life is incomplete
But maybe that's not for me to say
They only pay me here to play


Trouble Every Day
As we hit Side 3 (LP 2), we hit the meat of the album. The preceding 11 tracks were “safe.” Now we’ve hit the seedy underbelly of the swinging, psychedelic 1960’s. Dirty, grungy slide guitar, wailing, black snake moan harmonica, and a repeating guitar line in the background set the scene for Zappa’s white blues about the descent into anarchy and chaos in Watts - violence, politics, bloodshed, destruction. Some of the earliest amazing Zappa guitar playing is on this song, albeit in a very 1960’s psych style, rather than his later jazz/rock style. “I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots of times I wish I could say I’m not white...”
Help I'm a Rock
What did a teenager in 1966 think when they hit this track? Probably much the same thing I did, “what the heck is this?” It has a deceptively simple repeated bass line and very simple drumming. The vocals fade in slowly, mixed deeply in the sound field. Fuzz the bass and add a female voice and you’d have proto-Zeuhl! The first part of this 8 minute suite treads some pretty out there waters, while the second half, “It Can’t Happen Here,” takes it out there even further, with layers upon layers of battling, complexly arranged voices. It almost sounds like an out of control mess, but careful listening will pick up the slightly shifting patterns. A piece solidly from the Varese/musique concrete school of composition, it serves as a gentle introduction to the madness that follows...
The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableaux)
“Suzy Creamcheese, honey...what’s got into you?” More strange, nonsensical lyrics with lots of electronics...theremin, swooping square waves, and drums - lots of drums - $200 (in 1966 dollars) worth of rented percussion. If you want to know what an acid trip sounded like in 1966, this is where I’d direct you first. (If you want to hear what an acid trip sounded like in the mid-1990’s, though, I’ll direct you to “Voyage 34.”. FZ invited a load of guests into the studio to bash drums and cymbals, chant, scream, and generally freak out as much as possible. In later interviews, Zappa claimed this piece was unfinished, as he was cut off from additional funding to complete more than the percussion tracks. I can’t imagine how much more could have been added to the mix without it losing definition.
 
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