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Frank Zappa - The Mothers Of Invention: Freak Out! CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.91 | 595 ratings

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5 stars Just as Athena was not born as an infant but instead emerged fully grown and clothed out of the split-open skull of Zeus, Freak Out! presented Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention as a fully matured (ha) entity ready to take on the world of pop music from day one (of course, for the analogy to be complete, Athena would have needed to have immediately taken a giant dump on Zeus' head, but never mind that). From the beginning, Frank rips on society, politics and music culture in a way that seemingly nobody had ever previously conceived, and in the process creates one of the most innovative (in comparison to its time) albums ever made.

What's funny about that innovative property of the album, though, is that it ends up as an innovative album not only despite there being large stretches of the album that aren't innovative in and of themselves, but also arguably because large stretches of the album aren't innovative in and of themselves. You see, as detractors of the album are often only too eager to point out, the majority of the first LP (I guess I should mention that this was a double album, the second one in rock, even though it's only about 60 minutes long) is filled with a mix of "regular" 60's pop-rock and a whole lot of doo-wop. Of course, "regular" isn't exactly the right word to use; there is an unbelievable amount of satire and parody and plain ole vitriol to be found in these tracks, the kind that wasn't common back then. The doo-wop songs have absolutely no optimism in them whatsoever, and that should be obvious (even without giving the tracks a serious listen) just from the titles. What kind of self-respecting doo-wop band would release songs with titles like "I Ain't Got No Heart," "Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder," "How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "You Didn't Try to Call Me?" The 60's pop-rock pastiches that make up much of the rest are just as jabbing; "Motherly Love" is proto-cock-rock at its deliberately dumbest (well, sorta), "Wowie Zowie" is an interesting pop song with hilariously dumb lyrics, and "Any Way the Wind Blows" is a fantastic "typical" 60's pop song that would actually have serious commercial potential in the hands of a different band (who would probably do the vocal arrangement more straight-laced, naturally).

Still, for an album with the title Freak Out!, it might seem only natural to expect something a little more "extreme" than a bunch of slightly tweaked doo-wop and 60's-pop songs, and on a surface level, that seems a reasonable statement. In my view, though, this belief overlooks one of the primary innovations of this album, which is definitely found in these songs as much as anything else; the concept of deliberately messing with the listener. Zappa knows that all those songs aren't the kind of huge stylistic left-turns one would expect after reading the liner notes, and in fact he explicitly clues the audience into this fact by ending this stretch with a song called "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here." After starting the album with such a deep-hitting counter-culture anthem as "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" (one of the best social protest anthems ever, as far as I'm concerned, even if it's not even the best social protest anthem on the album), and early on assaulting the listener with the hyper-low-pitched grumbling, hilariously lethargic "Who Are the Brain Police" (a song that instrumentally almost sounds as if it were recorded twice as fast and then played back at its current pace, and which has hilariously off-pitched dirgey vocals and which breaks into a really disturbing freak out in the middle), the idea of making nine of the album's first eleven tracks pop and doo-wop, tweaked as they may be, is utterly absurd and incongruous with the supposed album concept, and that's the point. Zappa is playing his audience, batting it around like a cat with a ball of yarn, until he feels the joke has gone on long enough, at which point he immediately switches gears and veers off back to the "main attraction."

The first stop is "Trouble Every Day," a "blues-rocker" that is indeed the best song on the album and an even better social protest anthem than "HF,D." Structurally, it's much more direct than the kinds of things Zappa would do for social protest in the future, but in this case that's really for the best, because it's the lyrics and delivery that matter most here, and the blues-rock background absolutely rips in terms of giving these lyrics the extra power they deserve. Zappa doesn't so much sing as he orates with a couple of pitch changes here and there, declaring at a rapid pace that, in essence, he's disgusted with society and the way people treat each other and how moronically they act. More relevant to the album itself, the implication is also that he's disgusted with the (in many ways) "trite" music culture of the day that stood by and was complicit with all of the other negative forces in society in that they helped lull people into a mindless stupor that would make listeners more willing to sit back and passively accept things (parallels can clearly be seen in the later Third Reich and Roll by The Residents, though in that case the response is just to cleverly mock pop music instead of to attempt to completely redo the music culture). Clearly, Zappa is postulating that if music is going to be able to snap out of this state and act against negative forces, it essentially needs to start over and reform as something as different from present music as possible.

For better or for worse, the solution he proposes makes up the rest of the album (the second LP of the original release). "Help, I'm a Rock" is a rhythmic jam that largely consists of chanting the title repeatedly while all sorts of sounds get built up around it, "It Can't Happen Here" is a bunch of a capella muttering and "singing" of whatever, and "Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" takes the "sound collage" concept to a hilarious level. The funniest part, in my ears, is at the beginning of "Monster Magnet" when Frank addresses his made-up female 'heroine' (well, actually, she's just a recurring character that would later appear on a lot of Zappa albums, but whatever) in the guise of her conscience and asks her, "What's got into you," but that's really just one amusing bit of many. Is the whole thing overlong and ridiculous? Of course. If these tracks were released as a stand-alone album, the truth is I probably wouldn't have the slightest idea what to make of them, and it's entirely possible that I would (to my detriment) just try to completely ignore it. But the thing that matters (to me, anyway) is that this jam/collage is the logical conclusion to the question implicitly postulated in the first part of the album. Frank's solution to the "problem" of pop music is musique concrete, and whether or not that's a "good" answer (I think it's kinda silly, to be honest) seems largely irrelevant to me. The fact that somebody even bothered to ask a question like this, produce an answer, and then release it to the general public is flat- out amazing to me, and that's where I find the greatness of Freak Out!.

In short, Freak Out! strikes me, overall, as one of the smartest albums Frank ever made in his long, long career. Yes, there are plenty of individual moments (heck, there are long stretches) where, taken on their own, it doesn't seem like this should be considered an incredibly great album, but taken as a whole, this album is a shiny jewel. A shiny, sarcastic, orgasm-noise-making jewel.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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