Musings On Music

Freak Out! At Fifty!: A Relevant Blueprint For The Professionally Weird

With some albums, it’s fairly easy to comprehend that they are half a century old this year, but it’s damned difficult to wrap you head around the idea that The Mothers Of Invention’s Freak Out! is in that particular record club. Frank Zappa’s first album is a musical landmark for many reasons, but at the time it flew in the face of every convention and it laid the groundwork for the professionally weird. It wasn’t just the album and music itself that makes it such an important release either, the packaging, the subversive liner notes and “The List” that it came with, were nearly as influential. If Zappa had stopped there, the album would still be a footnote in the history of rock, but more as a curiosity than anything else or relegated to the notion of it as a novelty record. Instead it was the foundation for Zappa’s entire career and it was one of a number of “underground” albums that would alter the definition of what you could do with an album and its influence in the music world cannot be overstated. It is said that it is one of the albums that actually influenced The Beatles in making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Zappa would then mock three albums later with We’re Only In It For The Money.

The album also had a lot of firsts in recording history, other than it being Zappa’s and his Mother’s Of Invention debut. Over the years, it’s been debated whether or not it was the first double album in rock history, mainly because no one at Columbia records seems to be able to determine when the hell they released Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Whether or not it was the first double album may never be known, but it was certainly the first double album debut by anyone. It is also considered by many to be the first concept album ever released, which it certainly was one of the first at the very least, and some see it as an album that laid the early ground rock for the Prog Rock explosion that would occur in the following decade. Whatever it was or was not, it was an avante-garde, experimental album that while not commercially successful in any capacity, would soon develop a cult following in the US and Europe. While the first disc of the album was almost traditional rock music for the time, combining elements of blues, doo-wop, pop and rock, it was the second disc of the set that took the limits of music to new horizons, reimagining what music could be at the time.

Freak Out! was also an unusual record as it was released on the blue label of Verve Records a division of MGM and a label best known for some of the greatest Jazz records of all time. This would be the same label that would release The Velvet Underground’s debut a year later. Part of the reason that the album became such a cult classic is that when MGM merged with Polygram in 1972, the MGM/Verve releases were deleted for the sake of profitability, making the early Mothers Of Invention and Velvet Underground albums difficult to find and relegated to a rare surprise in used record bins. This financial history of the album (as well as the Velvet’s records) only helped to fuel the legacy and cement their “Cult Classic” status. This seems only fitting since the concept behind the album was a wry, sarcastic commentary on the music industry and American pop culture in general. It’s no wonder that it was vastly more successful in the UK than at home for that reason alone.

The album itself is, of course, named after the popular term for a bad drug reaction and with the supremely bizarre and challenging music found throughout the record, most audiences assumed that this was simply drug fuelled, psychedelic meanderings of madness, often dismissing it that way. No one knew at the time that even though Zappa was making music largely enjoyed and embraced by the drug crowd, he didn’t take drugs or even drink alcohol. He also would not tolerate this in his band and went so far as to not associatewith musicians who did. With that in mind, Freak Out! is an even more amazing and bizarre record, because in complete sobriety, Zappa out-weirded the drug crowd just gripped to his own musical vision. While drugs were not used by The Mothers Of Invention, the same cannot be said for the albums producer and the man that put his reputation on the line to sign the band to MGM/Verve, Tom Wilson. Reportedly, Wilson was taking LSD during the recording of Freak Out!

Even when the songs were “normal sounding”, their titles and lyrics were utterly subversive, which is best represented by the first eleven tracks that comprised the first record. If those songs and only those songs had been the album proper, it still would have pressed boundaries–nothing necessarily as revelatory or revolutionary as what was presented on the second disc though. Nevertheless, beginning with the full on blues rock of “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” that begins ” Mr. America, walk on by, Your schools that do not teach, Mr. America, walk on by, The minds that won’t be reached” the record sounds just relevant today as it did in 1966. “Ain’t Got No Heart” is a psychedelic rocker in the vein of The Byrds “Eight Miles High” released only months previously, which is a complete indictment of the Hippy culture and free love, it’s an anti-hippy hippy song if there ever was one. The first real swing into strangeness is the now classic “Who Are The Brain Police?” which literally sounds like the musical equivalent of a impressionistic painting of a bad acid trip. If this didn’t mess a few folks up I’d be pretty surprised. After that total mind fuck, the total doo wop send up of “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” is a stunning course change and one of the funniest “anti-love” songs of all time. “Motherly Love”, which actually made more sense when the band went by their original moniker as The Mothers, but that was changed at the urgency of the MGM is another blues rocker and may have been their best chance at a single, but it’s a sardonic swipe at bands who pose as their fans salvation. Closing out the first side is another anti-love song, “How Could I Be Such A Fool” performed in the vein of a Motown tune, but telling a hyperbolic tale of heartbreak.

The pure headbopping pop of “Wowie Zowie” opening side two is a laughable tale that once more takes a swipe at the hippie culture of the time, but works just as well today. It’s a brilliant pop song and a hilarious romp about being in love with a Earth Muffin that doesn’t shave her legs. “You Didn’t Try To Call Me” is another song mocking the traditional mid 1960s love song that dominated the airwaves and the charts at the time, before rock’n'roll as we know it completely took over, it seems pretty straightforward until it devolves into lyrical pleading and madness in much the same way “Go Cry…” did on side one and feels like almost a prelude to that song. Meanwhile the pure bubblegum pop of “Any Way The Wind Blows” seems like the conclusion as our happy hero has now found a woman worthy of his love, but Zappa uses it as an attack on the lying, cheating woman who wouldn’t call on Friday. Another staunch reaction against the times follows with “I’m Not Satisfied.” Which is an exaggerated reaction to feeling unloved and considering suicide with adolescent phrases like “Who’d care if I was dead and gone”, which may seem like nothing now in light of Emo, but at the time this boldly flew in the face of every sentiment on the airwaves. The second side concludes with “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” which may have the first kazoo solo on a rock track ever. It’s a total indictment of the “In Crowd” and at this point it seems no one is safe from Zappa’s incredulous look at nearly every aspect of society, whether it’s hippies, rockers, or mods.

There had to be a lot of curiosity about the second disc of Freak Out! because between two sides it only featured three songs. This was years ahead of that curve and probably why it fits in the foundation of the prog rock timeline. Side three featured two “songs”, the first being the amazing blues rock tune “Trouble Every Day” which might have been another contender for a single. It’s a complete attack on television and the grip that the media has on people’s perceptions in the first half and in the second half it is an anthem about the madness of racial discrimination. The haunting lyric that starts the second portion of the song is “Hey, you know something people? I’m not black, But there’s a whole lots a times, I wish I could say I’m not white.” It is an amazing perceptive, objective look at the state of social issues in America at the time and every bit of it sadly rings just as true today. It would be the last “straight forward” song on the album. The near nine minute “Help I’m A Rock” would finish the first side as a suite in three movements. The first movement “Okay To Tap Dance” is built on a hypnotic groove and pounding repetitious rhythms with vocals seemingly consisting of nonsense of syllables in a mocking way toward mantras that were becoming popular at the time, as well as groans, moans and a variety of cacophony. If this wasn’t at least part of the inspiration for the krautrock of Can that would follow three years later, it would be surprising. “In Memoriam Edgar Varese” is the second movement and what  has been called “Help I’m a Rock (Proper)” which pokes fun as the hallucinatory detachment and confusion of drug taking bliss ninnies. The final movement, and on some pressings, presented as a separate song is “It Can’t Happen Here.”  It’s a brilliant song that incorporates avant-garde jazz, multi channel stereo madness as it makes fun of the freak revolution spreading into middle America and the fears that squares had that what was happening in California would spread and destroy their safe, suburban or rural way of life. It ends with Zappa having a conversation with the fictional Suzy Creamcheese.

“The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet” would take up the entirety of the fourth side and at over twelve minutes long it would be sure to blow some minds, for those who had even gotten that far into the album. It picks up where “It Can’t Happen Here” left off, with Zappa speaking with Suzy Creamcheese with the following tripped out exchange:

FZ: Suzy?
Suzy: Yes
FZ: Suzy Creamcheese?
Suzy: Yes
FZ: This is the voice of your conscience baby, uh . . . I just want to check one thing out with ya, you don’t mind, do ya?
Suzy: What?
FZ: Suzy Creamcheese, honey, what’s got into ya?

It is a fascinating ride to say the very least and while MGM had certain lyrical content removed from the song they seemed to completely miss the speeded up exclamation of “Fuck” at 11:36, even though it’s immediately followed by Zappa asking “Did you pick up on that?” It is a dizzying affair and a psychedelic masterpiece, that apparently wasn’t even finished upon release of the record. The song used back masking, pitch shifting, speed changes and every bit of studio tricks that were possible at the time, with grunts, grows, groans and the simulated sounds of a female orgasm. When there are lyrics that aren’t nonsensical, it takes easy jabs at American nationalist pride. I can’t even imagine how this could be possible digested by people on acid in 1966, because I could barely handle it under the same conditions thirty years later. Nothing like this had ever been done before and the results are very nearly terrifying even if you are not in a psychedelicate state of mind. So one of the strangest debut albums of all time concludes in near atonal madness and chants of “Creamcheese.”

While the music on the album was a masterful stroke at celebrating intellectual weirdness with satirical lyrics and poignant unpopular observations about every side of society, the packaging was just as strange, but there were many clues to Zappa’s inspiration left on “The List.” The list was nearly as important as the album itself in some circles. In the liner notes it says “These People Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What it is. Please Do Not Hold it Against them.” This is followed by the names of 181 individuals from all walks of life including friends and acquaintances, artists, writers, stars of film, radio and TV, produces and industry types, as well as singers, musicians and even classic composers. It was almost a guide book to the artistic elite and the heroes of the avant garde, including the likes of Ravel, Schonberg, Stravinsky, Willie Dixon, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bill Evans, Buddy Guy, Slim Harpo, Charles Mingus, Elvis Presley, Ravi Shankar, Don Vliet (Captain Beefheart), Phil Spector, Lenny Bruce, Wolfman Jack, Melvin Belli, Sacco & Vanzetti. James Joyce, Salvador Dali, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Wayne, and many, many more. It was almost Zappa’s way of saying, “If you like this album, you’re weird and I’m weird too and so might dig some of the people below.” Some people knew about the list and began hunting down the references, before they ever even heard the album.

One thing that adds perspective to the idea that Freak Out! turning fifty years old this Summer, is that for however much has changed in those fifty years, this album is still undeniably, wonderfully weird and unlike any other debut. More importantly, it’s clear that for all that has changed in a half century of American History, the lyrics are still on point, they could have been written last week. For however much this country has changed since 1966, it’s remarkable how little it has changed as well. It’s a funny album too, but with every bit of humor contained within the entire hour long ordeal, there is continually found a nugget of truth. Zappa would take this concept and run with it for the rest of his musical career and his life, always treated by the media as a misunderstood, misguided and offensively rebellious spirit who was in fact a musical genius with a perspective free of anyone’s vision but his own.


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