Frank Zappa, Sex and Popular Music

Here’s some more details on my forthcoming book chapter on Zappa. It is being released in the next couple of weeks in Germany, so I have copied the abstract below.

Also – here are some additional details – but they are all in German. Time to use Google Translate!!

Editorial Sex und populäre Musik

Details of Cover

Throughout his controversial career, Frank Zappa (1940-93) was often associated with his right to indoctrinate his First Amendment rights into both his music and lyrics. Although his very public confrontation with the Parents Music Resource Centre in September 1985 is probably the pinnacle of his antipathy toward state prescribed restrictions, it is apparent that his entire compositional portfolio is littered with both overt and more subliminal references to sex. The inaugural instance of this practice began in 1964 after Zappa was arrested and imprisoned for producing an audiotape of simulated sexual acts while still a jobbing musician, and was to continue in more legitimized forms for the next three decades. There is a matrix of sexual reference to Zappa’s oeuvre: content ranges from seemingly immature references to sex,[1] quasi-moral narratives about sexually transmitted diseases,[2] sex as a conduit for social and religious satire,[3] sustained science fiction visions of sexual dystopia,[4] conspiracy driven accounts of the rise of AIDS,[5] to anthropological adventures, including the voyeuristic orgasm through torture dystopia of ‘The Torture Never Stops’. Zappa rationalized his liberalistic views on sex by stating that the ‘sex equals sin’ propaganda instilled by pressure groups such as the PMRC only resulted in the institutionalization of the “neurotic misconception that keeps pornographers in business” and that lack of sex had the potential to result in some of the USA’s social problems. At times a libertarian with principles that seem to match aural explorations with oral expediency, Zappa remains one of the most extraordinary and far-reaching figures in popular music to have explored sex in the analysis of the human condition in all its cruelty, comedy and potential freedom. This paper concerns Zappa’s frequently strategic anti-essentialist relationship with sex drawing on a range of examples from Zappa’s oeuvre.

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“Make a Sex Noise Here”: Frank Zappa, Sex and Popular Music

Paul Carr

University of Glamorgan, Wales UK

Throughout his controversial career, Frank Zappa (1940-93) was often associated with his right to indoctrinate his First Amendment rights into both his music and lyrics. Although his very public confrontation with the Parents Music Resource Centre in September 1985 is probably the pinnacle of his antipathy toward state prescribed restrictions, it is apparent that his entire compositional portfolio is littered with both overt and more subliminal references to sex. The inaugural instance of this practice began in 1964 after Zappa was arrested and imprisoned for producing an audiotape of simulated sexual acts while still a jobbing musician, and was to continue in more legitimized forms for the next three decades. There is a matrix of sexual reference to Zappa’s oeuvre: content ranges from seemingly immature references to sex,[1] quasi-moral narratives about sexually transmitted diseases,[2] sex as a conduit for social and religious satire,[3] sustained science fiction visions of sexual dystopia,[4] conspiracy driven accounts of the rise of AIDS,[5] to anthropological adventures, including the voyeuristic orgasm through torture dystopia of ‘The Torture Never Stops’. Zappa rationalized his liberalistic views on sex by stating that the ‘sex equals sin’ propaganda instilled by pressure groups such as the PMRC only resulted in the institutionalization of the “neurotic misconception that keeps pornographers in business” and that lack of sex had the potential to result in some of the USA’s social problems. At times a libertarian with principles that seem to match aural explorations with oral expediency, Zappa remains one of the most extraordinary and far-reaching figures in popular music to have explored sex in the analysis of the human condition in all its cruelty, comedy and potential freedom. This paper concerns Zappa’s frequently strategic anti-essentialist relationship with sex drawing on a range of examples from Zappa’s oeuvre.


Born on December 21st 1940, Zappa can be considered part of the 60’s generation that celebrated sexual liberation to the soundtrack of the emerging rock genre. As Frith and McRobbie verified in their 1978 landmark essay “Rock and Sexuality” (1978), rock seemed to treat the problems of puberty, drawing upon and enunciating “the psychological and physical tensions of adolescence”.[6] In the near 30 year period that he was in the public eye, Zappa’s music not only articulated these factors for his ‘teenage audience’, but accurately and humorously reported upon how society at large and his close colleagues interfaced with sexual practice. After forming The Mothers on Mothers Day 1964,[7] Zappa’s music began to adhere to the ‘cock rock’ criteria outlined by Frith & McRobbie, who describe its performance conventions as an “explicit, crude and often aggressive expression of male sexuality” (p.374). They continue to describe rock’s musicians as “aggressive, dominating and boastful”, constantly seeking to “remind their audience of their prowess, [and] their control” (Ibid). The authors’ sharply contrast this music with what they describe as “teenybop”, which they portray as relying on “older romantic conventions” being based on “female crushes and emotional affairs”.[8] This is an important difference when referring to Zappa, who clearly made a distinction between love and sex.[9] When discussing the former, he stated “I detest love lyrics. I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on love lyrics”.[10] Zappa continues to discuss how these lyrics create an ideology of love that creates a “desire for an imaginary situation which will never exist”.[11] These mythologies are dealt with throughout Zappa’s career, ranging from entire albums such as Crusin’ With Ruben And The Jets to individual song’s like ‘I Have Been In You’, both of which skillfully and sarcastically dissemble a genre that he described as ‘the ultimate form of absurdity’.[12]

Prior to discussing Zappa in detail, it is important to briefly reestablish that music directly or indirectly alluding to sex was not only associated with rock music emerging during the 1960’s, nor indeed the Rock and Roll of the 1950’s. Bernard Gendron discusses that one of the most pervasive myths associated with the style is that rock and roll ‘revolutionized popular music by supporting uninhibited sexuality’, proceeding to quite rightly discuss how the earlier Tin Pan Alley style was erroneously associated with ‘romantic’ as opposed to erotic or sexual subject matter.[13] An examination of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” serves as an indicative example of this point, with its graphic treatment of prostitution being far more contentious than many of the songs targeted by Zappa’s much maligned Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) during the 1980’s.  It is well documented how sex is portrayed in other contemporary musical styles such as blues, country, rap and Jazz , but when discussing eroticism in a genre not normally associated with sex,  baroque opera, Derek Scott believes that ‘the problem that faces today’s audience may be a lack of recognition of a representation of eroticism by the composer’.[14] The author proceeds to discuss how this was also the case during the Victorian period, and notes the robin as being a pervasive signifier for sex at the time, with songs such as ‘Won’t You Come Home Robin’ (Claribel 1861), ‘Poor Robin’ and ‘Colin and Susan’ all showing an association between the robin and the penis. This is usually achieved metaphorically,[15] and it is interesting to link this to Zappa’s association with the guitar, arguably the most pervasive signifier of male sexual prowess in contemporary music today. Research has indicated that specific instruments have female or male associations,[16] and the phallic nature of the electric guitar has been widely discussed by academics such as Whiteley,[17] Bennett[18] and Bayton[19]. In Instruments Of Desire, Steve Wakesman typifies this argument by discussing how the instrument has the potential to ‘accentuate the phallic dimensions of the performing male body’,[20] but interestingly, Zappa did not resolve to overtly incorporate the performance gestures of the archetypical rock guitarist. He did however recognize the sexual attraction of the instrument, as can be seen from the humorous way his band members incorporated guitar necks emanating from their genital areas in Zappa’s film – Uncle Meat.

The formation of the PMRC was a direct response to Tipper Gore’s personal objection to the explicit sexual content in Prince’s  ‘Darling Nicki’,[21] and perhaps best typifies Zappa’s determination regarding his right to freedom of speech, in particular when it comes to explicit subject matter. The lobby group quickly responded by threatening to sue the Record Industry Association of America for exposing its youth to the realisms of sex, drugs and alcohol, demanding that all albums were to undergo a rating system similar to the movies, and include detailed warning stickers on covers. As outlined in detail in both his autobiography and the May 1989 edition of Penthouse Magazine, Zappa was outspoken regarding what he believed to be a restriction on an artists first amendment rights, describing the proposals as ‘anti sexual, pseudo Christian legislative fervor’ and that the misconception of sex equals sin as responsible for keeping pornographers in business.[22] Zappa’s argument was continued periodically on American TV over the next two years, where he defended the assertion that Rock and Roll music was directly associated with the rise of aids and sexual immorality, defiantly stating that ‘the government does not belong in the bedroom’.[23] In both the 1986 Crossfire interview and his autobiography, Zappa reiterated the fact that lyrics ‘cannot hurt anyone’,[24] although this assertion clearly conflicts with his position outlined above regarding the impact of love lyrics. In his autobiography, he stated – ‘You’re getting the bulk of your ‘behavior norms’ mapped out for you in the lyrics of some dumb fucking love song’.[25] Despite pinpointing tracks such as ‘Do That To Me One More Time’ as offensive, Zappa’s portfolio was never touched by the PMRC, although he obstinately included his own stickers on a number of releases, including the award winning Jazz From Hell – an instrumental album.[26]

It is apparent that throughout his career, Zappa both abhorred the restrictions of society, while simultaneously instilling his own sometimes-severe control mechanisms on his band.  This was perpetuated through various means, ranging from the autocratic ways he used musicians in both live and recorded environments, to the voyeuristic documentation of their sexual activities – usually from an ‘outsiders’ anti essentialist perspective.

 

As can be observed on many of his live recordings, when working with Zappa, his musicians would not only be showcasing their musical gifts, but would also be required to ‘behave’ in specific ways. This ranged from archetypal rock and roll stage antics to a more unusual acceptance of Zappa anthropologically documenting their ‘road stories’, which often included public declarations of sexual activities that would otherwise be private.

The inclusion of sex in one form or another is included throughout Zappa’s entire portfolio, ranging from the onomatopoeic soundscape of ‘Help I’m a Rock’ and ‘The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet’ in his inaugural  Freak Out, to the suggestion of pony beastiality in ‘A Very Nice Body’ on his final recording – Civilization Phaze III. Subject areas ranged from observational groupie road stories,[27] to the documentation of specific band members sexual activities,[28] to amusing  consequences of infidelity,[29] to depictions of news reports,[30] to more perverse sex with aliens,[31] vegetables,[32] children[33] or as noted above – animals[34].  As a family man, this paper is absolutely not suggesting that Zappa condoned these activities himself, but that he felt an anthropological responsibility to document and portray the existence of these practices as they existed in the world he lived.

 

Regarding the means through which he obtained the band based information, he commented

 

Every morning, the ones who woke up early enough to eat breakfast before they got on the bus or went to the airport, would give the report of whatever they had done the night before, you know, and some of those reports were interesting, and some of them were boring (Air Sculpture BBC Radio Documentary part 2)

 

 

As outlined above, in addition to translating life as he perceived it into his compositions, Zappa was also prepared to release the actual raw material as recorded live.  He commented

 

 

I put together a tape called the Anthropology Of A Rock And Roll Band at one time but the contents of the thing could be proved to be so embarrassing to so many people who have become so much more sophisticated these days, that I doubt that it will ever be released, but it contains things like breakfast reports and [pause], recordings made in motel rooms, just stuff taped on the bus, and actual dialogue [35]

 

 

Although Zappa continues to doubt whether this project would ever be released as a ‘commercially viable product’, it is unclear from this dialogue if it is moral responsibility or legal restrictions that prevented the release of this so called ‘album’. This practice links to Zappa’s 10 day imprisonment in San Bernardo County Jail in 1964 for recording an illegal sex tape,[36] having to use his royalties from ‘Memories of El Monte [37]and ‘Grunion Run’ [38] to get his ‘accomplice’ Lorraine Belcher out on bail.[39] Zappa later described the lead up to his imprisonment as ‘entrapment’, where he was commissioned by an undercover detective to compile what he describes as a recording of ‘bogus grunts and squeaky bedsprings’, with ‘no actual sex involved’.[40] Zappa was more revealing when describing the sexual dystopia of The Torture Never Stops, depicting the grunts and groans as ‘an evenings work’, he elaborated

 

We did most of it in the bedroom of my house.  There were two chicks there – one was my wife – plus myself. I think they enjoyed it very much. We got four hours on tape and then cut it down to just under ten minutes.[41]

Although this comment does not provide any explicit detail, it is one of the few instances of Zappa admitting direct involvement, as opposed to his usual strategic anti essentialist position. Susaina Maria describes this practice as ‘the ability to highlight, underscore, and augment an aspect of ones identity that one can not express directly’,[42] a statement that George Lipez accentuates by suggesting that the artist adopts a disguise ‘in order to express indirectly parts of their identity that might be to threatening to express directly’.[43] With a few exceptions, this is the position that Zappa adopts consistently, in his song lyrics and in films such as Uncle Meat and 200 motels, where he observes and records the sexual activity either through a movie lens in the former, or via an actor (played by Ringo Star) in the latter.

 

One of the most pervasive themes that Zappa revisited is that of groupie folklore,[44] an early example of which can be found in ‘Son of Suzy Creemcheese’.[45] In typical fashion, Zappa uses double entendre when describing this piece as ‘a stirring saga of a young groupie’ who is ‘motivated by a desire to be ‘in’ at all times’.[46] Although the piece itself is tame by his later standards, this description is an early example of the euphemistic way he was to often deal with sexual subject matter in his later work.[47] When discussing Groupies during his time with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant distinguished between Fans who wanted a brief sexual encounter and Groupies who travelled with musicians for extended periods of time, acting as surrogate girlfriends or mothers, often taking care of the musician’s valuables, drugs, wardrobe and social life (Hammer Of The Gods details). If this distinction is true, then Zappa’s interface with Pamela Ann Miller,[48] Linda Sue Parker,[49] Lucy Offerall, Christine Frka,[50] Sandra Leano,[51] Mercy Fontenot [52] and Cynthia Wells [53] provides a quintessential example, indeed it accentuates the norm of groupie involvement associated with rock stars of the time. Collectively entitled Girls Together Outrageously (G.T.O)[54] by Zappa himself, various members of the group lived in Zappa’s log cabin during the 1960’s, with Frka and Des Barnes both acting as a live in nanny for his eldest children – Dweezil and Moon Unit, and Frka being a central feature on the cover of Zappa’s Hot Rats. Offerall also appeared in a number of Zappa’s films, including Uncle Meat, 200 Motels[55] and Video From Hell, always playing the part of a groupie. Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘Groupie Special’ issue of February 1969 described the group as ‘a sociological creation of Frank Zappa’,[56] who financed and produced their only release, Permanent Damage (Bizarre 1969), a recording largely consisting of songs mixed with other friends, including the infamous groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster,[57] notorious for creating plaster casts of famous musicians’ penisis.  Although never participating, Zappa was a known supporter of her work, and after moving her to Los Angelos, evolved the concept of publishing her diary and preserving her casts for a potential exhibition. [58]

 

When discussing his ongoing fascination with groupie related activates, particularly during the early 1970’s, he stated

 

I think that what you’re describing is something that was common, only maybe over a 4 or 5 year period, in the early days when that type of sexual activity was a general topic of conversation, it would be like –  idiotic to try and do an album dealing with that topic right now, you know– who cares? [59]

 

 

Zappa clearly believes he is encapsulating the Zeitgeist, with his work around Groupies coming to a peak during the Flo and Eddy era of the early 1970s, commencing with songs such as ‘Road Ladies’s on their debut Chunga’s Revenge, but cumulating on Fillmore East: June 1971.

 

Taken from this album, Zappa applies the following couplet to ‘What Kind Of Girl Do You Think We Are’

 

‘These girls wouldn’t let anyone spew on their vital parts.

They want a guy in a group with a big hit single in the charts’

 

It is apparent that this short statement not only incorporates euphemistic language[60] and sexual connotation,[61] but is verified as factual by Cynthia Allbitton . She stated

 

I don’t chase people just because they are famous – people like actors, vice precedents or war heroes – but only if they play good music [62]

 

 

Conclusion

The question remains, what do Zappa’s practices actually signify about him? Do his sometimes perverted lyrics, stage antics, and voyeuristic tendencies display what Time Magazine described as ‘a force of cultural darkness’, or can we contextualize this along side his other work and describe it as simply a means to shock and confront the norms of society in a similar way to comedians such as Bill Hicks, Richard Prior and his friend Lenny Bruce. In 1973 Australia’s Go Set described Zappa as ‘the greatest satirist of all time. The distorted mirror through which we experience ourselves and the neurotic perverted society that man has created’ Do we simply find Zappa’s honesty too revealing? When it comes to the love/sex continuum, it is suggested that his sarcastic introduction to ‘I Have Been In You’ is a microcosm of his position, where he outlines what he describes as the ‘preposterous’ way ‘the subject of love is dealt with in the lyrics of various rock artists’. Using Peter Frampton’s best selling album I’m In You as a source, he asks the audience how a title such as this can be rationalized.[63] In a bootleg of the same track recorded in New York in 1978, Zappa describes the title itself as ‘extremely offensive’ and after hearing it deciding ‘something must be done’. He then informs the audience he ‘Went to his laboratory, boiled up some ammonia, got on some ladies underpants – just like Wagner used to do’.[64] This is a pertinent comment, as like Zappa, Wagner is in fact an interesting example of a composer who composed marvelous music, whilst simultaneously being associated with an undercurrent of great controversy, in Wagner’s case anti-semitism and racism. To quote his biographer Owen Lee

 

How is it that a man some regard as morally corrupt can produce works of art that are, to many people of good conscience, indispensible. Can a terrible man produce art that is good, true and beautiful?[65]

 

Although this paper is certainly not suggesting that Zappa was a ‘terrible man’, he did use lyrics, visuals and musical techniques to portray a sexual message that could be considered by ‘many people of good conscience’ – as shocking. In Zappa’s case he decided to deal with the realities of the world by combining an uncompromisingly honest satirical eye through a strategic anti essentialist perspective. During this process, he had the capacity to ambiguously combine both an emic and etic conceptual position, where he straddled the divide between an inside member of a rock and roll group, and an impartial observer, a process that give him credibility and cultural/personal neutrality.

 

Rather than cast an opinion of Zappa’s moral standards, it is best contextualised in a famous quote by Herbert Marcuse, who stated

 

Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to expressions of its own morality but to those of another. Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of the Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace.

 

I am sure Zappa would have agreed with this statement. Future work on this paper will expand on some of the stated themes and investigate other factors such as the polysemic nature of how his music is received and the more subliminal phallic nature of his life’s work.

 

Thank You

 


 

[1] Concert set-pieces such as ‘Make A Sex Noise Here’ and ‘The Groupie Routine’.

[2] ‘Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?’.

[3] ‘Jewish Princess’ and ‘Catholic Girls’.

[4] Joe’s Garage Acts I, II and III.

[5] Thing-Fish.

[6] (Frith & McRobbie details). In ‘on the record book)

[7] Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, The real Frank Zappa book (Simon & Schuster, 1990), p.68

[8] Ibid p.379

[9] On Nightwatch, Zappa reiterated this point when stating “You don’t need to love someone to have sex”.

[10] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, p.89

[11] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, p.89.

[12] Keel, C. (1979). Interview: Frank Zappa. Genesis Magazine 6(9).

[13] Simon Frith, Popular Music: The rock era (Routledge, 2004), p.298

[14] Derek B. Scott, From the erotic to the demonic (Oxford University Press US, 2003), p.20

[15] With lines such as “She had rosy cheeks and a dimpled chin, and a hole to put poor robin in”

[16] Refer to John Shepherd, Continuum encyclopedia of popular music of the world (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), p.232 for more details

[17] Sheila Whiteley, Sexing the groove (Routledge, 1997), p.40

[18] Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe, Guitar cultures (Berg Publishers, 2001), p.55

[19] Mavis Bayton, in Simon Frith, Popular Music: Music and society (Routledge, 2004), p.270

[20] Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire (Harvard University Press, 2001), p.244

[21] In particular the lines “I met her in a hotel lobby, Masturbating with a magazine”.

[22] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, p.265

[23] Crossfire

[24] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, p.284

[25] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, p.89

[26] Roy Shuker, Understanding popular music (Routledge, 2001), p.122

[27] For example Mudd Shark (Fillmore East) – what else

[28] For example ‘Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ (Man From Utopia 1983) and ‘Stevie’s Spanking’ (Them Or Us 1984).

[29]‘Why Does It Hurt When I Pee’.

[30] ‘The Illinois Enema Bandid’

[31] “The Radio Is Broken” (Man From Utopia 1983)

[32] Tracks 2 – 7 on Absolutely Free, a suite of pieces that cumulate with the heavy breathing of “Soft Cell Conclusion”

[33] ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’.

[34] ‘The Poodle Lecture’/’Dirty Love’ (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6 date), “Penguin In Bondage” (Roxy and Elsewhere 1974)

[35] Air Sculpture 2

[36] Billy James, Necessity Is . . . (SAF Publishing Ltd, 2002), p.22

[37] The Penguins Date

[38] Details

[39] Neil Slaven, Electric Don Quixote (Omnibus Press, 2003), p.42

[40] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, p.56

[41] Slaven, p.230

[42] Sunaina Maira, Desis in the house (Temple University Press, 2002), p.80

[43] George Lipsitz, Dangerous crossroads (Verso, 1994), p.62

[44] Although Zappa’s ongoing almost voyeuristic involvement with groupie folklore is unusual, examples of other musicians dealing with groupie subject matter in some form is prevalent, with notable examples including Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen (details), The Beatles “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” (Abby Road date)[44] Pink Floyd’s “Summer 68” (details) and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (details).

[45] Absolutely Free 1967.

[46] Sleeve notes Absolutely Free 1967.

[47] For example “I Have Been In You”, “Easy Mean” and “Would You Go All The Way” (Chunga’s Revenge)

[48] Miss Pamela. She later became known as Pamela Des Barnes.

[49] Miss Sparky.

[50] Miss Christine.

[51]Miss  Sandra.

[52] Miss Mercy.

[53] Miss Cynderella.

[54] Although the acronym has an interchangeable meaning, with ‘Girls Together Often’ and Girls Together Only’ being frequently adopted.

[55] Alongside Pamela Ann Miller.

[56] P.16

[57] Cynthia Albritton, who Zappa tried to persuade to join the group.

[58] Rolling Stone. P.20.

[59] Air Sculpture 2.

[60] ‘Spew’ and ‘Vital Parts’.

[61] ‘Big’.

[62] Rolling Stone p.20.

 

[63] ‘Is That Guy Kidding Or What’. You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol 6.

[64] ‘Is That Guy Kidding Or What’ Mid Hudson Centre, Poughkeepsie NY, September 21, 1978.

[65] M. Owen Lee, Wagner (University of Toronto Press, 1999), pp.3-4

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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One Response to Frank Zappa, Sex and Popular Music

  1. Pingback: Frank Zappa And Sex | Kill Ugly Radio

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