Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Mothers of Invention "Freak Out"

Released just a couple of months after "Blonde on Blonde" comes the second ever pop double album and by another great pop innovator. It is a bit of a puzzle why an established record company such as MGM would allow a relatively unknown group possessed of limited teen appeal to issue a two disc set as their debut release. Frank Zappa was to demonstrate throughout his career an exceptional ability to get things done, so presumably it was his persuasive powers that talked the company into it.

There is a sense that Zappa might have thought this was going to be his only chance to make a statement on a large label and there is an element of everything and the kitchen sink about the songs and arrangements (and also the inside cover which exists as an almost separate statement from the record). The album is a game of two halves, the first record consisting of shorter "pop" songs and the second of longer, more exploratory pieces. Frankly, the second record with its sound collages, musique concrète and general smart aleckness is all but unlistenable. It perhaps has value as a documentary record of what passed for cool in mid-60s LA, but comparison with the following year's "Lumpy Gravy" shows how quickly Zappa was to improve his organisational control over abstract and ambient material to produce a far more satisfying collage.

Unlike most debut lps, this album does not feel like a straight recording of the band's live set. A number of the songs feel like they were composed by Zappa specifically for inclusion on this record, such as "Who are the Brain Police" and "Hungry Freaks, Daddy". It is the doo-wop parody songs that feel most like numbers that have been performed live. These are also the songs that sound as if they feature the Mothers themselves playing rather than the team of session musicians that enhance many of the other songs' more outré arrangements.

I first heard this record after hearing many others sorts of music and did find it a record that is difficult to love. The arrangements are too complex, the production is unsympathetic, the vocals sound too high in the mix, its got kazoos on it, the singers sound old (compared to many groups they were old) and the songs of teen love sound creepy being sung by leery old men. The sleeve notes are supercilious and condescending and very off putting. This is a cardinal sin with Zappa. He never invites you in to his music and always wants to let you know that he is cleverer than you. This is invariably true but it is not nice to be told.

That said, "How Could I Be Such a Fool" is gorgeous and some parts of the shorter songs indicate that Zappa could have been another Brain Wilson had he wished to follow that path. "Wowee Zowee" is infectious and indicates that perhaps one should think of the Mothers' interpretations of the musical styles of the 1950s and early 60s in the same way one thinks of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's interpretations of songs from the 1920s and 30s - as affectionate reinterpretations with associated jokes ("I don't care if your dad's the heat"). One way or another, between the songs themselves, the arrangements, the performances (particularly Roy Estrada's pachucoisms), and the sleeve notes there are more ideas (both musical and lyrical) on this album than almost any other, with the probable exception of Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica". Beefheart went to school with Zappa so perhaps that is where it started.

The best track on the album ("How Could I Be Such a Fool") was released as a single coupled with the worst track ("It Can't Happen Here"). The former is a commercially attractive, memorable melody expressing conventional pop sentiments. The latter is a spoken word piece of provocation. I have the UK edition of this single and in the UK the sides were reversed putting the spoken word provocation as the A side. This seems like commercial suicide for a major record company, particularly in the mid-60s, a guarantee of no air-play. It must have been a mistake but there it is, existing.

Anyway, great cover.


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