Coming from the heart of the burgeoning freak culture on the American West Coast, Frank Zappa‘s band were originally known simply as The Mothers until a nervous MGM realised that the name might frighten off radio DJ’s. “As if our name was going to be The Big Problem,” Zappa observed dryly in his later autobiography . . .
The band set out to blow minds with their debut release, Freak Out! (1966). The album was rock’s second ever double LP (Dylan‘s Blonde On Blonde just pipped it), and each tune formed a part of an overall satirical concept. Who Are The Brain Police? sums up that concept neatly: creepy, anti-authoritarian moaning that describes the melting of objects and minds alike.
Alongside overtly weird numbers are parodies of bubbly pop, such as the doo-wop pastiche Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder, juxtaposed with intricately arranged love songs such as How Could I Be Such A Fool?
Psychedelic guitars and dirty blues riffs start dragging the album deeper as it enters its second half: Help, I’m A Rock distils the freak essence and turns everything abstract; The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet – which made up the entirety of side four on the vinyl release – is an experimental and noisy showstopper.
Freak Out! signalled the emergence of a uniquely exciting and challenging composer who made a career out of breaking down boundaries.
Zappa‘s fourth album with The Mothers Of Invention, We’re Only In It For The Money (1968), confirmed his status as a visionary genius.
From the start it was extraordinary – courageously alienated from its time and beloved by first-generation dope-smoking hippies – even while it ripped apart their lifestyle and its totems with savage wit and vitality.
Check out Who Needs The Peace Corps? or Flower Punk (to the tune of Hey Joe at double tempo). Gaze at its artwork – an all-dragged-up surreal mockery of Sgt Pepper (considered rock’s holy grail). And consider its confrontational title, just as musicians were being lauded as visionaries, philosophers and saints . . .
But the album was also a hauntingly prescient attack on conservative mores, lifestyle and nihilistic politics in the United States. Its tightly interconnecting and seductively catchy songs, featuring Zappa on lead vocals, weave a cogent analysis of a society that breeds imperialist war-mongering, addiction, and personal and family breakdown – see the chirpily belligerent Mother People.
Zappa’s swipes at American uber-authoritarianism started to look like prescience in the wake of the killing of two anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University in 1970.