Zappa (2)


So, let’s start at the very beginning.

Typically, my Zappa fandom started all wrong, with this MGM Golden Archive Series compilation (the Velvets had one too, I think), a hand-me-down from my brother, and, for a time, a record I listened to quite frequently, if selectively (I played the shit out of “Wowie Zowie” and “Mother People” but don’t recall ever sitting through “I Ain’t Got No Heart” or “Absolutely Free”). This is “all wrong,” of course because Frank Zappa, especially early Frank Zappa, made albums — montages, epic collages, spliced-together art statements of a sort — not pop records, not singles, and (therefore) not greatest hits LPs. (I’m guessing that the Mothers did release singles, right? in any event, they never brushed the Top 100, though as a solo artist Zappa, over the course of a 30-year career and god knows how many official albums had an impressive chart run as a singles artist, placing three hits in the Top 100, one of which actually reached the lower reaches of the Top 40 — um, wowie zowie, indeed). I only have three brief things to say about this record right now, though.

1) At the time (I would have been six or seven, probably) it mostly struck me as “funny” music — weird stuff I couldn’t really make sense of, but which was clearly, to my mind, intended as a kind of comedy record. How else to explain the munchkin voices and out-of-control wah-wah mongering on “Flower Punk,” for instance? The one exception was the part near the end of “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” where the singer — not even sure I knew who Frank Zappa was at this point, to be honest — talked about the cops kicking the shit out of him on the streets, a line that definitely made me uncomfortable and which I probably skipped over when I remembered to in time for fear of it being overheard by my parents.

2) Twenty-five years later when I delved into this music again, but via the actual Mothers albums, I of course heard it quite differently. Suddenly cops-kicking-the-shit-out-of-him-on-the-street predominated what I heard, and the second time around, “Flower Punk,” while still kind of hilarious, was also unbelievably sinister (and prescient; shit, this is roots-of-punk stuff as surely as “Waiting for the Man” is roots-of-punk stuff, no?).

3) On its own merits, The Mothers of Invention (don’t even know what year it came out; the album’s no longer in my, or my brother’s, hands) is a pretty damn great pop record. It could be better (where’s “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” maybe the slyest, prettiest-sounding song Zappa ever recorded?), and because it’s Zappa — which is to say, because damn near every one of these catchy ditties (save “Wowie Zowie” and “I Ain’t Got No Heart”) has a part that plays like an upside to the head — the issue of its poppiness gets complicated, but there’s a little bit of vocal teenage heaven right here on earth and right here on this record, I swear. I heard it then, I can still hear it now. But this is a thread — Frank Zappa, purveyor of pop music — I’ll likely continue to explore, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

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