Rock and Roll Feature: Freak Out with the Mothers of Invention

This is the seventeenth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that fascinates me about rock and roll is the overall progression of ideas. From back when it started in the 50s, artists have pushed the boundaries to almost limitless proportions in a relatively short time. I've written a number about these musical progressions, but each new album is like a new piece of the puzzle, continuing to intrigue me as more of the rock family tree is revealed and new connections are made. The album I've chosen for this month's feature is a big piece of the puzzle for me and represents innovation which would be the roots of many different genres. It is also the first from an artist who would go on to be one of the most prolific composers in history and one that forever changed rock and roll when it was released way back in 1966.

The band was called the Mothers originally, but they were relabeled the Mothers of Invention, and were under the command of the one and only Frank Zappa. Their debut album from this groundbreaking group, Freak Out!, is a mix of gritty rock and roll, doo-wop, experimentalism and hints of jazz, all wrapped around a razor sharp satirical wit. I'm a pretty new Zappa fan having really started to get interested in his music just in the past few years, but this album has a charm all it's own and has rapidly become one of my favorites. Plus, I see it as a truly a groundbreaking work, laying groundwork not only for art rock, but also the psychedelic and later punk movements. It's a fun album (a pretty funny one too) that has some great musical moments, and is also the roots of the rest of Zappa's extensive career.

Stylistically, the album actually follows a pretty logical path, starting with the more accessible numbers and progressing towards the avant garde. "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" is a pretty standard rocker of the times by musical standards, although with the added touch of Zappa's advanced guitar prowess. Lyrically though, it is non-conformist, edgy, social commentary, setting the stage immediately that this is no ordinary band. "I Ain't Got No Heart" feature's some especially great lyrical lines, but it's in the chord progressions and slightly haunting feel that it really strikes me. There's just a touch of a psychedelic feel to it, recalling bits of Jefferson Airplane and Cream especially, but actually was recorded before either of those bands were around.

"Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder" is a bitingly satirical take on 50s doo-wop, while "Who Are the Brain Police" is a dark, slightly mystic flavored number. With fuzzy guitars and an explosive, hard hitting, noisy middle section, this one's one of my favorites. "Motherly Love" continues as another lighthearted rocker with plenty of humor, while "How Could I Be Such A Fool" takes a surprising twist. I like this slow, even bluesy ballad because although it's delivered with an slight sneering edge, it's almost believably serious... or maybe it is serious?... I guess that's open for debate. Either way, I also think that the arrangement and composition of this one is fantastic, hinting at some of the sweepingly powerful compositions that Zappa would pen in later years.

'Wowie Zowie" is another personal favorite with it's lighthearted beat and classic, slightly absurdist humor... all social comment of course. The pushed falsetto backing vocals also make me laugh, taking a great potshot at all those classic 50s and early 60s style numbers. Both "You Didn't Try to Call Me" and "Any Way the Wind Blows" continue the love song mocking with touches of doo-wop again, but also feature pretty complex arrangements with layered textures and instrumentation. "I'm Not Satisfied" on the other hand" is darker, with a style that is less bouncy and more driving, something that compliments it's angst-ridden lyrics. Again, not necessarily seriously angst-ridden, but more a reflection of those kinds of songs seen through the lens of social commentary... or something deep and artistic like that. "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" is back towards the humorous end again. Absurdist and mocking, with a complex, slightly twisted, humorous style complete with what might just be kazoos, it's still a strangely compelling song... and like all these numbers, is pretty funny.

I think "Trouble Every Day" might be my favorite track from this album, although it's hard to choose, especially because it's such a lengthy work. It's bluesy... if it wasn't for the lyrics you might even mistake it for a Yardbirds song... completed by harmonica, obligatory blues guitar riffs, and some of my favorite Zappa lyrics. After that song though, is when things start to become really strange... or "progressive" if you will. "Help, I'm a Rock" is a hypnotic pulsing number with strange nonsensical or spoken word lyrical parts that come from all sides, making great use of the stereo image. "It Can't Happen Here" is more great humorous social comment, this time in the form of a partially acappella oddity. The parts that have instrumentation are sort of spontaneous free form jazz noodling... or something along those lines... but it's the layered vocals and lyrics that are the focus. An odd track, sure, but it's really funny and quite complex at the same time. This track blends somewhat seamlessly with the one that follows. The spoken words parts continue, but this time give way to a 12 minute, slightly mystic flavored groove called "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet". It takes several different twists and turns, speeding up, slowing down, shifting tempos with various sounds and motifs echoing from all sides (if you have headphones, which you definitely should). Another complex experimental track that definitely isn't for everyone, but is almost intensely engrossing... if you let it be.

Wrap it all up and you have one of the most adventurous albums of certainly it's time, and perhaps all time. Many of these songs sound straight forward enough that they could easily pass for standard rock and roll fair, although with a gritty proto punk edge... think about the Velvet Underground for a decent comparison. Just like that band though, their lyrics and style set them apart from the standard rock and make them completely unique. They create social comment by taking the standard styles and pushing them towards a biting mockery with often hilariously absurd wordplay, while still having overall positive messages. These tracks also hide a hidden compositional complexity though. The same depth that exists in the more experimental tracks is there in the layers and textures of the more standard numbers, just not as obviously audible.

Definitely a fun album, but also a complex one that ranges from humorous to thought provoking experimentalism to deep promotion of open mindedness, individuality and acceptance. Plus, not only does this work demonstrates Frank Zappa's unique personality, but also the roots of his incredible skill as a composer.

What's really interesting and something I find to be one of the most striking things about this entire release though, is actually it's release date. Recorded in early '66 and released in July of '66 (I think), it is completely ahead of it's time. The psychedelic movement hadn't really taken off yet with both Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead not really in full swing... JA would release their first album in August of '66 and the Dead would make their album debut in '67. The Who, who share a touch of the Mother's social comment sense of humor, would release A Quick One in '66, but the more wide reaching, adventurous and conceptual The Who Sell Out wouldn't come out until '67. The Beatles certainly were making some interesting and advanced music in '66 with Revolver, but except for "Tomorrow Never Knows", nothing of this level of experimentation (yet), and their more humorous and satirical moments wouldn't really come into bloom until '68's "White Album". Even the bands I think of as most in the same vein as the Mothers at this time, the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett Era Pink Floyd, wouldn't be on the scene till the next year either.

Now, release dates aren't everything, but this kind of puts Zappa and the Mothers at the beginning of a lot of different musical movements including psychedelia, jazz rock and proto punk, (it seems to foreshadow all of these genres) making them something of true innovators if you choose to look at it that way. If anything, they were definitely ahead of their time with many new ideas that were influential in shaping the way rock and roll would play out for years to come.

It's place in rock and roll history aside, I think that Frank Zappa and the Mother of Invention's Freak Out! is just a great album that is exciting, adventurous, intelligent and well... funny. Many more great albums would follow both from the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa on his own, but this is where it all started. It may not be for everyone, but if you have a penchant for the more avant garde side of rock and roll, and have a good sense of humor, then this (and actually a lot of Zappa's music) should be right up your alley, so check it out.

You can find this album directly from Amazon here: Freak Out!

By the way, there's one other reason I chose a Frank Zappa album as the feature this month. The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is going to be having an exciting special event later this month. Check back around April 20th and 21th for more Zappa related material and more information on this special event.

UPDATE: Check out my review of the new Zappa Plays Zappa DVD here: Zappa Plays Zappa: A DVD Review


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