Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Frank Zappa

In the early to mid-Nineties Jan Gertenbach was so heavily committed to his own personal Frank Zappa obsession that he went to a great deal of trouble in the pre-Amazon.com world to source and import the video cassette tape of the Zappa concert movie Baby Snakes, probably directly from Zappa's business enterprise. The story of his efforts to find and purchase this apparently elusive video, which was not available in South Africa at all, was an epic saga for many a braai and beer evening. Jan then invited a bunch of us around to the house he was then renting on Red Hill, in the Simon's Town area, to have a kind of gala viewing of the movie. I don't know what he paid for the video but it was quite a bit and the effort alone probably justified such a grand gesture. Having shared the tale of the quest with us for so long, Jan must have felt it was only right to let us see what the fuss was about.

Baby Snakes (1983) is a concert movie of the late Seventies version (the concert is from Hallowe'en 1977) of the Zappa band with Terry Bozzio on drums and Adrian Belew on guitar and a bunch of the usual musical suspects of Zappa's gang of the era. They were probably the cream of the jazz and off-centre rock world that paid no heed or mind to the punk revolution and in a fashion were at least sartorially and tonsorially close cousins to the Parliafunkadelicment Thang operating at the same time. The movie also has stop-animation footage of Bruce Bickford's quite astonishing (for a first time viewer like me) claymation work.

At the time of the Baby Snakes gala evening I already knew quite a bit about Frank Vincent Zappa, had heard a representative sample of his music and, either on the radio or from friends' collections, owned a Warner Bros "twofer" double alum collection of Hot Rats (1969) and Chunga's Revenge (1970) and a cassette tape album of Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982.)

I was however not in particular a fan of the man's music.

I'd bought the double set of albums from Sygma Records in Stellenbosch somewhere between 1077 and 1981 because I had read that Hot Rats was a work of jazz rock genius and, mostly, because it available at a discount price. The music was kind of interesting though I did not listen to the records all that much, partly because the surface noise on the records quickly became disturbing and partly because Zappa's jazzy noodling just did not hit the spot with me at a time when I was really into very basic rock and roll. My prevailing memory of Zappa's music is the ubiquitous presence of the vibraphone (I always just thought of it as an adult xylophone) and the weird time signatures and tempo changes that may have been indicators of a very sophisticated and advance technical ability but kind of bothered me.

Jan Gertenbach, though, was, like so many of my acquaintances at the University of Stellenbosch, a dedicated Zappaphile who apparently believed his genius was the best expression of what intelligent rock music should sound like, and most of them made a point of collecting his records. Dan Lombard lent me his copy of Bongo Fury (1975), which was also mostly a live album with Captain Beefheart. I taped the album and became quite fond of it. The music was about as straight ahead as Zappa ever got, a lot of the lyrics were mordantly funny (a Zappa trademark) and Captain Beefheart was a revelation.

Dan also raved about a Zappa song called "Billy the Mountain" of which he could talk in lengthy detail but I have to date never heard it.

I was not all that impressed with Baby Snakes because it was too much of the fleet tempo with intricate chord changes type of music most Zappaphiles apparently adored as some epitome of excellence. The japery between songs was also not that funny. Maybe you had to have been there and wasted too. This may not have been prog rock but it sure as dammit sounded like Zappa's personal version of it with less of the somewhat pretentious "poetry" of standard prog rock lyrics and more of the sarcasm with which he viewed the world. And the stupid on stage joking. In any event, the movie is just a live show with a band whose members looked weird and who concentrated on playing Zappa's intricate music. Perhaps I would take a different view of proceedings if I were to see the movie today. Back then it did not persuade me to pursue the oeuvre of Francis Zappa.

Some years before, perhaps as part of the University of Stellenbosch film club or maybe at the Labia theatre on Orange Street in Cape Town, I had the dubious privilege of watching an old, pretty bad print of 200 Motels (1971), the "surreal documentary" that notably featured Ringo Starr in a strange page boy haircut and tight-fitting polo neck sweater. Apart from a scene of Starr dangling from the ceiling in some kind of elastic rope contraption I have absolutely no recollection of the contents of the movie. It might have been a midnight show and I might have been too tired to appreciate it but I do remember wondering why on earth I had paid money to see this shit. 200 Motels is one of the few movies I did not understand at all and almost walked out of. As far as I was concerned this was a big put on that Zappa was allowed to perpetrate because of the perception of his alleged genius but without any presence of sense or intelligence and that it just a simple case of the hubris that afflicted so many rock stars at the time, believing that they were Renaissance men who could do anything and everything and that their audience would lap it up. Maybe 200 Motels is an underappreciated work of visionary genius that I have somehow missed. Is it on list of 1001 movies to see before I die?

Chris Prior was, and may still be, quite fond of Zappa in particular the Apostrophe (') album from 1974, and regularly played "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow", "Cosmik Debris" and "Stink-Foot." These tracks tended to make me think of Zappa as some kind of stand up comedian who also played guitar and composed intricate musical pieces, rather than as a straightforward rock musician. I guess Zappa was never a straightforward rock musician anyway. He had too much of an interest in serious music, famously influenced by Varese, and social commentary to be just a simple rock and roller. I do not know why Prior never played the title track from Apostrophe ('), as it is a really wild and solid guitar and bass (and drums) master class jam between Zappa and Jack Bruce, as if they trying to show where Cream might have gone to if Eric Clapton had been as much a jazzer as Bruce and Ginger Baker.

This mid-Seventies period Zappa, though, with Bongo Fury and Zoot Allures (1976), produced the Zappa music I most like. I heard "The Torture Never Stops" from Zoot Allures at Sygma Records when the sales guy played it over the public address system and fell in love with the song. The combination of Zappa's slow, deep, tactile tone of voice and the weird-funny lyrics were captivating. The main reason I did not buy the record then, other than financial, was that Frank Zappa's music in general was not to my taste at a time when I was into Bachmann Tuner Overdrive, Cream, Dr Feelgood and Golden Earring.

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch contains the "surprise" hit single "Valley Girl" featuring Zappa's daughter Moon Unit and was pretty much party rock with social commentary about a newly defined American teen age social type. I bought a cassette tape version of the album in 1983 or 1984, at a record sale somewhere, because I remembered reading a Time magazine piece about the song when it was a hit. The music in general is pretty much standard Zappa with the added presence of Steve Vai. He became the premier killer speed metal jazz guitar guy of the Eighties (who played the "impossible parts") and the kind of guitarist whose technical proficiency I can appreciate and whose lack of emotional depth in his playing I deplore. Anyhow, Ship Arriving Too Late … is an enjoyable record with a great deal of emphasis on close harmony and even quasi operatic vocals and the force of a tight band.

At some point between 1996 and 2004, when I still had a turntable, John Abel lent me his copies of Over-nite Sensation (1973) and One Size Fits All (1975), both of which have musicians I think of as the jazz rock troupe de luxe Zappa used after he disbanded the Mothers of Invention, and plays that vibes dominated "jazz from hell" that put me off Zappa for so long. I cannot even recall whether I bothered taping the records. Everything was technically proficient, there did not seem to be much ambition or excitement in the product and it was all much of a muchness.

If one looks at the Zappa discography there is a hell of a lot of Zappaproduct available (apparently 60 albums over 30 years) and quite a bit of it has been released posthumously. There is a series of CD albums I used to see at flea market stalls with all kinds of live concerts from the Seventies and Eighties that looked like "legal" bootlegs and now there are many very much authorised live recordings giving us an idea of the live sound of the various incarnations of the backing bands Zappa used, and there seems to be previously unreleased studio recordings as well. It's a Zappa universe and we only live in it.

Frank Zappa had a unique, distinctive smooth and soaring guitar style not a million miles removed from the distinctive Carlos Santana sound and it always amazed me that a guy I thought of more as a musical director, band leader and lyricist could play guitar that well. I really enjoyed his singing voice and preferred him to most of the vocalists he used over the years, except for Beefheart, of course. The funny songs, at least the best of them, are still funny and still captivating and deserve immortality. Perhaps I should invest in Strictly From Commercial, the "best of compilation" released after Zappa's death, to have a collection of the best moments of a long and productive career. On the other hand, perhaps I should simply buy Hot Rats, Apostrophe (') and Zoot Allures.
Sheik Yerbouti and the Joe's Garage albums were commercial success of sorts but I would not want to own too many Zappa records. I would imagine the schtick might pale after a while if one is exposed to too much of what the man put out there. Technical proficiency is not the be all and end all of good rock.

It seems to me that Zappa was too intent on being the modern composer and showing off that he was intellectually streets ahead of not only the human race in general but his peer group of musicians in particular. The thing is: rock and roll is often at its best when it's a tad dumb, simple and direct. Zappa never seemed to appreciate the "less is more" approach. Perhaps rock has to have someone like that to contrast with the trite and banal and perhaps it was once important to be able to show that rock wasn't just three chords and mindless boogie but ultimately rock should be visceral and not overtly intellectual and calculated and that is where Zappa leaves me cold. And I just do not like jazz rock all that much and technical virtuosity makes no nevermind to me if the music doesn't speak to my heart.

Apart from his sometimes bilious invective against flower power and general reactionary repression, and whatever else Zappa considered stupid and petty, and the amazing ensembles he led, and the vast, eclectic body of work he left behind, Frank Zappa is also known for naming his children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva. God knows why he thought he had to avoid non-controversial names. I would never have thought that the name Dweezil (even with the surname Zappa) could be of any benefit to any kind, unless it was the "boy named Sue" principle. Apparently Dweezil is as much a monster guitar player as his father and had a bit of rock career once but is now relatively quiet although he tours with the Zappa Plays Zappa "tribute" show dedicated to his father's music.

Who knows what happened to Moon Unit, Ahmet and Diva? Okay, WikiPedia to the rescue. Moon is an author musician and actress and is married to the drummer for Matchbox 20. Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa is a musician, actor and novelist. Diva Thin Muffin Pigeon (I bet the process of finding suitable names for the kids must have been a great source of undiluted fun in the Zappa household) is a musician, actress and artist. I guess one could not expect Frank Zappa's children to live quiet, uneventful suburban lives as wage slaves.

The fact that Frank Zappa recorded soundtracks for admittedly low budget movies and rented a studio for his private recording delight, long before he enjoyed any level of commercial success, must illustrate the ambition the young Zappa had and perhaps also that he would always be somewhat different to the rest of his peers, if he had peers. I cannot think of anyone else toiling in the same field as Frank Zappa or following in his footsteps. He is probably a unique phenomenon but due for revisiting, reviving and emulation.

Way back before MP3 downloads started killing off record companies Zappa was unique in controlling his own destiny by marketing his product through his label Barking Pumpkin. If he'd lived to see 2010 Barking Pumpkin would have been (if it isn't already) a website with plenty iTunes style downloadable content from the back catalogues.

As an artist Zappa was as close to a Renaissance man as a rock musician could get. He wrote music and lyrics and performed with a band as bandleader, singer and guitarist. He wrote rock, jazz and more or less serious instrumental works. He was prolific in his release schedule. His bands did not sound like anybody else I've yet heard.

I must admit that Frank Zappa is the kind of artist I admire more than like, mostly because his music is generally not visceral enough for my liking. If the jokes don't work, I don't care much for the rest of it. By and large Zappa's music has had to grow on me before I could begin to appreciate it and he is therefore the polar opposite of, say, Dr Feelgood, whom I unreservedly loved from the first note of "I Can Tell," the opening track off Malpractice, and who I still unreservedly love, at least for their Wilko Johnson led albums.

When I heard the Hot Rats album for the first time I was in my late teens and (at least theoretically) into punk and very much into blues. "Peaches En Regalia" was a nice, smooth, tuneful song but it sounded too much like the kind of schlock that would have slotted nicely into the type and style of music played on the Afrikaans service of the SABC at the time. It probably was never played on the Afrikaans service but that refusal would have been more of a reflection on the narrow-mindedness of the playlist compilers than on the quality of the music or the fact that it would have fitted right in there. Anyhow, this music was not the stuff of adoration as far as I was concerned. It was nice, that was all. Later on the typical Zappa sardonic lyric, underpinned by very serious music, with his truly scrumptious voice, drew me in to liking more Zappa music but never to the extent that I would have paid much money for his records or make an effort to acquire a collection of them.

In any event, back in the day when I bought a lot of records, the earlier Zappa albums were simply not available. The earliest widely available record I remember is Zoot Allures. Oh, and for some reason Sygma Records stocked Cruising With Reuben & The Jets (1968) and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970) at the time when I started hanging out there, which must have been from about 1972 onwards. I knew about albums like Freak Out! and We're Only in It For The Money but never saw the records. Most of the Eighties stuff was more or less freely available on release and in the CD age there was a great deal of reissuing of the classic albums. Nowadays, especially in the likes of Musica, you hardly come across any Zappa product. Under Z you will find Z Z Top and Zucchero but not Frank Zappa. I guess this means that he is not fashionable, or not yet. Just about every musical style is recycled at one time or another and I am sure that a major artist like Zappa is going to have his followers, even among young musicians, and that it is only a matter of time before a currently unknown group or individual releases a Zappa-esque tune or two which is greeted with great enthusiasm by the rock press and voted album of the year, or whatever, then Frank will find himself in public demand again, there will be the remastered re-releases, the eulogies and all of the rest of the trappings.

I've always wanted to own Freak Out!,
Cruising With Reuben & The Jets and even Weasels Ripped My Flesh (strictly speaking these albums are by the Mothers of Invention, but for all practical purposes it is all Frank Zappa.) In the case of the last two records the wish to own them is simply based on the nostalgic recollection of all those Friday afternoons I used to hang out at Sygma Records, flipping through the stacks of covers of albums I could not afford to buy even if I wanted to. I would also like to own Apostrophe(') for the nostalgic reason of recollecting many wonderful hours listening to the Chris Prior Show on Radio 5.

And that would be about it. At this point my main interest in the music of Frank Zappa is purely historical. Purely and simply I would like to know what it was all about and I cannot see myself suddenly developing an obsessed fascination with the man's music to the extent where I start seeking out all, or most, of the 60 albums out there.

I wonder whether Jan Gertenbach now owns the DVD version of Baby Snakes and if he ever watches it anymore? He was young and impressionable then; now he is divorced (so I hear) and works in the snows of Kazakhstan or some such distant oil rich republic that was once part of the Soviet Union. Maybe Baby Snakes is just what you need to pass the long dreary hours when you are not working. After all, it is music, it is funny (kind of) and the claymation effects are pretty amazing.