Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Frank Zappa - 1966 [1995] "Freak Out!"

Freak Out! is the debut album by American band The Mothers of Invention, released June 27, 1966 on Verve Records. Often cited as one of rock music's first concept albums, the album is a satirical expression of frontman Frank Zappa's perception of American pop culture. It was also one of the earliest double albums in rock music (although Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde preceded it by a week), and the first 2-record debut. In the UK the album was originally released as a single disc.
The album was produced by Tom Wilson, who signed The Mothers, formerly a bar band called the Soul Giants. Zappa said many years later that Wilson signed the group to a record deal in the belief that they were a white blues band. The album features Zappa on vocals and guitar, along with lead vocalist/tambourine player Ray Collins, bass player/vocalist Roy Estrada, drummer/vocalist Jimmy Carl Black and guitar player Elliot Ingber, who would later join Captain Beefheart's Magic Band under the name Winged Eel Fingerling.
The band's original repertoire consisted of rhythm and blues covers; though after Zappa joined the band he encouraged them to play his own original material, and the name was changed to The Mothers. The musical content of Freak Out! ranges from rhythm and blues, doo-wop and standard blues-influenced rock to orchestral arrangements and avant-garde sound collages. Although the album was initially poorly received in the United States, it was a success in Europe. It gained a cult following in America, where it continued to sell in substantial quantities until it was discontinued in the early 1970s.
In 1999, it was honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, and in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it among the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time." In 2006, The MOFO Project/Object, an audio documentary on the making of the album, was released in honor of its 40th anniversary. This is Official Release #1.

One of the most ambitious debuts in rock history, Freak Out! was a seminal concept album that somehow foreshadowed both art rock and punk at the same time. Its four LP sides deconstruct rock conventions right and left, eventually pushing into territory inspired by avant-garde classical composers. Yet the album is sequenced in an accessibly logical progression; the first half is dedicated to catchy, satirical pop/rock songs that question assumptions about pop music, setting the tone for the radical new directions of the second half. Opening with the nonconformist call to arms "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," Freak Out! quickly posits the Mothers of Invention as the antithesis of teen-idol bands, often with sneering mockeries of the teen-romance songs that had long been rock's commercial stock-in-trade. Despite his genuine emotional alienation and dissatisfaction with pop conventions, though, Frank Zappa was actually a skilled pop composer; even with the raw performances and his stinging guitar work, there's a subtle sophistication apparent in his unorthodox arrangements and tight, unpredictable melodicism. After returning to social criticism on the first song of the second half, the perceptive Watts riot protest "Trouble Every Day," Zappa exchanges pop song structure for experiments with musique concrète, amelodic dissonance, shifting time signatures, and studio effects. It's the first salvo in his career-long project of synthesizing popular and art music, high and low culture; while these pieces can meander, they virtually explode the limits of what can appear on a rock album, and effectively illustrate Freak Out!'s underlying principles: acceptance of differences and free individual expression. Zappa would spend much of his career developing and exploring ideas -- both musical and conceptual -- first put forth here; while his myriad directions often produced more sophisticated work, Freak Out! contains at least the rudiments of almost everything that followed, and few of Zappa's records can match its excitement over its own sense of possibility.

"This is the voice of your conscience, baby..." The recording debut of the Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention is a brilliantly wicked counter-strike to the flower power sensibilities prevalent at the time of it's release in 1966. Arguably rock music's first true "concept album," Zappa's aural collage mashes together chunks of psychedelic guitars, outspoken political commentary, cultural satire, and avant-garde musical sensibilities, and then hides it all under cleverly crafted pop melodies. Not diminished in the slightest by the passage of time, Freak Out! remains as vital and relevant today as it was in the 1960's.

Frank Zappa's extraordinary 60+album output is, in essence, one single thematically related piece of music. True Zappaphiles (of which I am one) appreciate all aspects of this remarkable lifetime achievement, but the point of reviews like this are to point out the salient characteristics of individual albums.
Released in 1966, Freak Out! presented itself as the annunciation of a cultural revolution. Much like the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks (1977), this was pop music as threat. But its scope goes far beyond this. The album begins with the proto-punk anthem, "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," a raw, blistering electric rave-up that works as well as "Anarchy in the U.K.," and stands up just as well. If this was all that remained of Freak Out!, it would still be a classic, but the album goes much deeper. Zappa works dilligently on perfectly realized pop songs built on cliche's, contrasting them with "reality songs" like "Motherly Love" (a brutal rocker that appeals for groupies to have sex with the band members), "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" (a savage attack on the shallowness of the youth culture likely to consume the album), and most importantly, the strange, enigmatic "Who Are the Brain Police?" (in which people and objects are unreal, manufactured, interchangeable and subject to melting). The overly arranged love songs sit side by side with material that deconstructs them as false representations (particularly the '50s doo-wop parody "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder."
I'll never complain about 2 LPs on one CD, but the breakup of the two sections does hurt the psychological impact of the album somewhat. Keep in mind that Side 3 of the LP was where Freak Out! began moving the listener into deeper territory, throwing more light upon what had already occured. The sprawling, grungy blues of "More Trouble Every Day" kicks this off, with a savage, biting report of the Watts riots and the media coverage in a racially and economically divided America that has not changed much. Here, we're a million miles from the pop gleen of "Wowie Zowie" and "How Could I Be Such a Fool?" The next step takes us where no "popular" artist had dared step before.
"Help, I'm a Rock" is musical event in stasis, relieved by shock. Everything the album has been so far has mutated into a new form, an "abstract" pop where representations become more difficult to pin down. The "freak" threat now arises full-blown: but what is it? (These are not hippies, friends--but they are the dissafected, the "left behinds" who are rising up to claim a stake in the American dream--and they will transform it in a new image.) An atonal barbershop quartet taunts, "You're safe, mama. You're safe, baby." (Meaning of course, quite the opposite.)
Did Zappa believe this was actually going to happen? Possibly in 1966 he did, but not much longer. The message of Freak Out! is much larger than that--it amounts to nothing less than a demand for complete social/sexual/aesthetic emancipation. His conclusion lies in the side-long epic, "The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet" Often castigated/dismissed as chaotic noise, close listening will reveal a very controlled hand at work. This is the soundtrack of the awakening of a new individual sensibility. Section 1 ("Ritual Dance of the Child-Killer") is a destruction of the innocence that allows people to accept a prefabricated reality (the "Brain Police"), while the avant-garde Section 2 ("Nullis Prettii") translates "No Commercial Potential," a slogan Zappa wore as his badge of honor.
Now or in 1966, this album is an audacious, vital masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of the century. (And did I forget to mention it's melodic, catchy and funny, too?)For the uninitiated, or the underinitiated, this is the perfect place to start what could be a lifelong dialectic with the most challenging, exciting and rewarding musicians/composers you will ever encounter.
The present-day composer refuses to die! Long live Frank Zappa.

Tracklisting:

01. Hungry Freaks, Daddy 3:27
02. I Ain't Got No Heart 2:33
03. Who Are The Brain Police? 3:33
04. Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder 3:39
05. Motherly Love 2:43
06. How Could I Be Such A Fool 2:11
07. Wowie Zowie 2:51
08. You Didn't Try To Call Me 3:16
09. Any Way The Wind Blows 2:54
10. I'm Not Satisfied 2:38
11. You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here 3:38
12. Trouble Every Day 5:49
13. Help, I'm A Rock 4:43
14. It Can't Happen Here 3:55
15. The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet 12:16

The Mothers of Invention:

Frank Zappa: Leader and Musical director
Ray Collins: Lead vocalist, harmonica, tambourine, finger cymbals, bobby pin & tweezers
Jim Black: Drums (also sings in some foreign language)
Roy Estrada: Bass & guitarron; boy soprano
Elliot Ingber: Alternate lead & rhythm guitar with clear white light

1 comment:

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