Well, here we go – the first preview of the chapter abstracts for the new Frank Zappa book I am editing – Frank Zappa and the And: Key Essays on the Contextualisation of his Legacy.
So far, everything is going to plan to get this with the publishers by the end of this year, so the book should be out around October 2012.
1. Zappa and Horror: Screamin’ at the Monster
Richard J. Hand
When looking at the links between horror and rock music what springs to mind most immediately is the high Gothic camp and appropriated horror iconography of the heavy metal genre or the specific image customised by groups such as Kiss and Marilyn Manson. In comparison, Frank Zappa seems a surprising figure to associate with horror, and yet there is a profound relationship. Throughout his career, Zappa reveals a recurrent interest in popular horror culture. This includes allusions to the clichés and ethos of low budget horror: Zappa’s early recording “Dear Jeepers” (1963) is a pastiche of novelty horror songs; Zappa’s keyboardist Don Preston developed an extended Jekyll and Hyde routine for live concerts in the late 1960s; while “Cheepnis” (1974) is a homage to the B-movie form, style and audience, a musical narrative which is a simultaneous celebration and derision of “spongeoid” horror. Halloween concerts became a Zappa institution and, as documented in the Baby Snakes (1979) film, represent saturnalian events that included Halloween-horror costumery. Within his repertoire, the ribaldry and satire often associated with his songs can be twisted into something more sinister by a fleeting reference to the Twilight Zone theme tune. Moreover, the dystopian visions of the epic Joe’s Garage (1979) and the zombie-world of the musical theatre deconstruction Thing-Fish (1984), draw their narrative potency from a sense of the nightmarish as much as the humorous. As well as examining specific lyrics and musical examples in Zappa’s oeuvre where horror is centrally and even blatantly emphasised, this chapter will also look at the theoretical parameters of horror and its potential as a tool with which to examine the art of Zappa more broadly. In particular, concepts such as Philip Brophy’s ‘horrality’ and Julia Kristeva’s ‘abjection’ will be used to explore Zappa’s work and philosophy.
2. Zappa and His Cultural Legacy: Authorship, Influences and Expressive Frontiers in Frank Zappa’s Movies
Manuel de la Fuente Soler
Frank Zappa’s career as a filmmaker shows a number of features that illuminate his interest in offering a personal project with social impact. In his eight full-feature films, Zappa uses influences of both commercial movies (mainly from science fiction) and avant-garde cinema (from Dziga Vertov to the underground scene in the 1970s); explores the expressive ways of moving between fiction and documentary films; and establishes a dialogue with the viewer in order to make them aware of the need to participate in social and political action. From 200 Motels (1971) to Uncle Meat (1989), Zappa uses audiovisual material for his films from a wide range of sources – not only shots of his concerts, rehearsals and public appearances, but also sequences of clay animation. In doing this, he attempts to emphasize his authorship in the creative process and stresses the subjectivity of the filmmaker in the production of movie art. The aim of this essay is to define the features of Frank Zappa’s movies and to reflect on his idea of cinema as a part of his work. Despite the fact that many of these features can also be found in his music, the aspect of Zappa’s filmmaking has rarely been considered for study. Nevertheless, this study is necessary to understand Frank Zappa’s work, since he insists in his film production on representing the musical and cultural industries in America as a government tool for social and political homogenization. In his work as a filmmaker, Zappa also expresses art’s possible answers to these strategies of social control.
3. Zappa and God: Music is the Best
As a document of Frank Zappa’s final tour, 1988’s Broadway the Hard Way captures the articulated anger of those last shows. The album’s parting shot is a nine-minute savaging of televangelists called “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk,” which lambasts Jimmy Swaggart, the Bakkers and Pat Robertson in an allusive arrangement that nods to the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” and the Christian hymn “Rock of Ages.”
Nine years earlier, Zappa had ventured into the realm of religious satire with Joe’s Garage, but with a considerably different tone. By way of an alternate-universe Nativity play in which Joseph and Mary meet, become romantically involved, and then fall victim to sexually transmitted disease and Scientology, Zappa presented a cynical but playful view of religious tropes. His takes on the promiscuity of “Catholic Girls” and the money-hungry technology fetishism of L. Ron Hubbard read as farce rather than indictment.
Significantly, Act III of Joe’s Garage features a religious vision. The “Voice of Mary’s Vision” appears with the following announcement: “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is THE BEST.” This is a celebration of Music as divine, and of Music as the ultimate universal force. While it is difficult to imagine Frank Zappa holding anything as sacred, this is as close to the sacred as he gets. In Zappa’s worldview, Music is God.
In this essay, I explain Zappa’s elevation of music as higher power throughout his career. He accomplished this elevation by using satire to deflate traditional religious orthodoxies, by lampooning all forms of spiritual quest that are not firmly grounded in music, and by celebrating music as an exalted form of communication and expression.
4. Zappa and the Razor: Editing, Sampling and Musique concrète
It is surely no coincidence that Civilization Phaze III, the last album Frank Zappa completed, ends with Waffenspiel, one of the “purest” pieces of musique concrète he
composed. Zappa’s manipulation of recorded sound was every bit as important in his output as the more conventional composerly business of organizing musical pitches in time. His radical editing and collage techniques were already in place in 1966 on the first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out! on tracks such as “Who Are The Brain Police” and “It Can’t Happen Here”.
While many commentators have recognized the importance and virtuosity of such techniques as employed on Zappa’s early albums—most notably Lumpy Gravy, Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich—there is often an implication that Zappa more or less abandoned collage and musique concrète from about 1971 onwards in favour of more conventional rock structures.
I propose, however, that the fly-on-the-wall audio of Playground Psychotics, the surveillance-like eavesdropping on the voices used as “grouting” in Sheik Yerbouti and Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, the xenochrony of Joe’s Garage, not to mention the digital Musique concrète of Porn Wars and the compendium of dislocational devices in Civilization Phaze III all continue practices already established in Zappa’s work by the time of Freak Out! That is to say that collage, tape editing and—later—sample manipulation were an integral part of Zappa’s compositional technique and aesthetic throughout his recording carrier and indeed a fundamental element of both the Project/Object and his dictum of AAAFNRAA (Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All).
Zappa, like musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995), developed an aesthetic practice that focused on the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. Indeed, French composer François Bayle might well have been describing Zappa’s recorded output when he described musique concrète as “a music that uses all the sounds of life.” But Zappa’s use of editing and abrupt dislocations is indebted at least as much to the aesthetic of Spike Jones as it is to Schaeffer’s. It is because of Zappa’s ability to flip instantaneously between such worlds that I would argue his Project/Object has an ambition and scope that dwarfs that of most composers of twentieth-century Western art music.
5. Zappa and Satire: From Conceptual Absurdism to the Perversity of Politics
Throughout Frank Zappa’s exploration of seemingly disparate musical styles there are a number of unifying constants, prominent among which was his sense of humour, specifically American-derived satire and European-influenced absurdism. This fuelled Zappa’s driving sense of narrative both musically and lyrically, resulting in almost every studio album having a ‘concept’ of some sort. He was undeniably a pioneer and it can be argued that The Mothers of Invention’s debut Freak Out was the first true concept album.
Zappa’s use of this humour is multi-levelled, structuring entire albums such as Joe’s Garage: Acts I, II & III. He has been often unfairly criticized for producing gimmicky songs such as “Valley Girl” and yet, while he wholeheartedly embraced the shock effect of satire and created a trademark style, this was done out of a strong sense of morality that became increasingly political (Thing-Fish).
This social commentary through humour is explored across the following
• The nature of satire and narrative in Zappa’s oeuvre – social or political or both?
• The post-war upheavals in music and society that led to the formation and development of Zappa’s humour.
• Zappa’s interrelationship with the counterculture.
• How movements in comedy in North America paralleled the evolution of modern popular music.
• Influences from Europe (dada, avant-garde, comedy).
• An overview of satirical motifs in Zappa’s more overtly concept albums and other works.
• Identification of Zappa’s moral and political mission • How satire created a vehicle for this moral and political message, initially eclipsing that message then later losing prominence.
• The case that Zappa’s influence in North America is more via the humour in his melodies and arrangements.
• The case that Zappa’s influence in the British Isles is more via the humour in his lyrics and album structures, particularly motivating British concept and near concept albums of the classic rock period (c.1965-1982).
It is hoped that this essay will help confirm Frank Zappa as a visionary unafraid of using every tool in the artistic and social palette available to him.
6. Frank Zappa and Resistance: The Pleasure Principle.
Frank Zappa is a ferocious satirist. His targets are numerous: the rock business, the American left, right wing politicians, and stupid people. But Frank Zappa is also an ambiguous character, and the satirist conceals a stern conservative. As a result, how can we assess the impact of his music on the listener? My thesis is that his reliance on humour, both gross and sexually incorrect, and his unashamed emphasis on (musical) pleasure can be analyzed as an act of resistance, or at least can function as a tool of resistance. For the sake of my demonstration, I will focus on the song “Do You Like My New Car / Happy Together”, on the Fillmore East, June 71 album. On this live recording Zappa mixes several strategies: the use of vulgar and sexual vocabulary, a bending of sexual identities, a lack of respect for conventional musical (including rock) codes, a blurring of the borders between avant-garde music and pop ditties, satire (of middle America, the rock industry), irony, or plain humor.
This raises a number of issues: can such a song be taken as an act of transgression, or is it just a playful number meant to entertain? Must we take it at face value or look below the surface? Is Zappa being critical or merely complacent? In other words, is there a “good” Zappa, politically, socially, and musically committed, and a “bad” one, sexually incorrect, playing easy, unchallenging music? Perhaps the answer is precisely that we don’t have to choose, that Zappa is both, and that precisely from the conflation of these contradictory facets stems a genuine act of empowerment and rebellion: he is showing us how to occupy our own space. Resistance is not a collective movement, a class statement, but the decision to act according to one’s own tastes, whatever they are; it is being alone, singular, whether it is in the margin or in the limelight. Through the adoption of strategies of pleasure rather than the more classic postures of opposition and revolt favoured by rock musicians, Zappa helps us redefine what resistance can be: a third way, between violent, frontal opposition and co-optation and selling out.
In terms of theoretical background, I would probably use Yves-Charles Grandjeat, Michel Delville and Andrew Norris, David Wragg, Marc-André Gagnon, and probably a Brechtian reading of Zappa’s strategies.
7. Zappa and Censorship: Contesting the boundaries of freedom of expression
Throughout his career Frank Zappa used sardonic humour and scathing satire to comment on and criticize the social and cultural world around him. Zappa’s compulsion to target and undermine society’s conventions by constantly prodding the accepted boundaries ultimately brought him to heads with moral crusaders who wished to censor him. The proposed chapter begins with a critical contextualization of Zappa’s controversial approach before considering the response of censors in two divergent contexts in which equally hostile reactions to Zappa’s recordings were evoked. The first being the United States and the second Apartheid South Africa. Official records and secondary accounts will be used to document and explore the censors’ arguments. These case studies are used to examine the conservative logic of the moral arguments lodged against Zappa. Following from this, the paper will document Zappa’s response to attempts to interfere with his and other musicians’ recordings by means of his attack on the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), both as a participant in the PMRC hearings, in his recorded work (in particular the album Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Prevention) and other antics (such as his zany album warning stickers). It will be shown that in his responses, Zappa was able to use the very sort of humour which the censors tried to silence in order to launch a successful attack on them. By so doing he was able to unleash the satirist’s strongest weapon – laughter – as a means of ridicule. It is argued that Zappa’s ability to combine ridicule and reproof through his music and other antics resulted in a form of laughter which signified triumph over the object of scorn. This, alongside his music, is a crucial part of Zappa’s legacy.
8. Zappa and Technology: His Incorporation of Time, Space and Place in Performing, Composing, Arranging Music
Often regarded as one of the most prolific and versatile composers of the rock idiom, Frank Zappa’s ability to amalgamate numerous popular music styles alongside musique concrète, electronic, and serial techniques make him a fascinating case study on the interdisciplinary roles of performer, composer, arranger and producer. Using these factors as creative mediums, Zappa can be considered possibly the only rock musician to consciously and consistently engage with time, space and place throughout his entire career, having a compulsive fascination with ensuring his entire life’s work was considered part of his Big Note philosophy, with many of his performances, compositions, arrangements and productions being part of an overarching and unifyingly premeditated organisational structure he sub texted conceptual continuity. He also developed the terminology project/object to describe the difference between the completed work of art and the process of redefining it, and made countless rearrangements of many of his compositions and performances, and clearly considered individual works of art as being in a constant state of development. To achieve these aims, he utilised available studio technology to create highly original ‘virtual studio’ and ‘virtual live performances’, which comprise of countless semiological clues alluding to both his own music and popular culture at large.
Examples range from the experimental employment of Xenochonic and cut and paste techniques, to alluding to figures such as Frank Sinatra, Verdi, Richard Strauss and The Beatles. This paper proposes to examine how Zappa pushed the boundaries of available studio technology to develop compositions, (re)arrangements and performances/virtual performances of his work, while creatively engaging with time, space and place through blurring the distinction between studio and live environments. After presenting an overview of his interface with technology throughout the 1960’s, the essay will progress to analyze albums such as Sheik Yerbouti (1979) and the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore (1988 – 1992) series, cumulating with his work on the synclavier during the late 1980’s – early 1990’s with albums such as Jazz From Hell (1986) and Civilization Phaze III (1993).
9. Zappa and Suburbia: Return of the Sons of the Plastic People
Zappa’s output from the late 1970s onwards is typically derided as reactionary (specifically: misogynistic and homophobic), trivial in its concerns and with a growing tendency to the scatological as the principal frame for his sketches of the mores of post-Nixon society. Certainly, the vista and culture that Zappa now surveyed and addressed unquestionably lacked the richness and oppositional nature of the time of his “classic” period, associated with the freak scene and counterculture. This vista was one that represented the failure, and so eradication, of that counterculture: the suburbs of Reaganite America to which, as foretold, American drinks and goes home. And yet this vista, to an carefully calibrated extent, also came to be the location in which a victory for liberal tolerance, via dynamic neo-conservatism, allowed for the private practices and civil gains that had previously been causes for political battles: sexual promiscuity and infidelity as the emancipation of women, drug use as the dividend of the right to hedonism, unionism as integrated into industrial relations, and gay clubs, of a number of varieties, as the post-Stonewall enclave afforded to sexual minorities. Zappa – never a man of the left – can be seen to re-orientate his focus to the suburbs at this juncture (which I would place as covering the period from Sheik Yerbouti to You Are What You Is), and speaks with a disconcerting ambiguity about them: the “city of tiny lights”, “valley girl” culture and, supremely, the picaresque journey through changing mythologies, beliefs, cultures and lifestyles in Joe’s Garage. In confronting the suburbs, did Zappa’s libertarian and satirical impulses reach their limits of critique, and finally succumb to bamboozlement?
This proposed chapter will seek to track the evolution and analyse the use and imagining of suburbia in Zappa’s universe at this point. Drawing on Marcuse’s theories of tolerance in Western society, and with attention paid as much to the musical construction (and especially the interjected “dialogue” of Zappa’s guitar solos) as the thematic and lyrical concerns of the music, this chapter will examine the vision of domesticated, apolitical West Coast America that Zappa confronted at the mid-point in his career. What was it that was both so fascinating and repellent about this encounter that Zappa afforded it so much time – only to the retreat to (and place a progressive faith in) “the music”, over social commentary, thereafter?
10. Zappa and the Freaks: Recording Wild Man Fischer
In 1968, Frank Zappa released a two-album document of the street musician Wild Man Fischer. The work has never been released on any other format than vinyl and remains a cult item for many people, particularly as a representation of the counter culture of the period. Then and now, the recording is funny, alarming, scary, off-putting, engaging and, ultimately, unforgettable. After only a single reception, pretty much any listener finds themselves confronted with the fact that a clear conflict existed between the performer and the producer; that Fischer and Zappa possessed distinct but clearly different, possibly antithetical, attitudes towards the project from Fischer. If nothing else, the never clear delineation between the performer and the private individual as embodied by Fischer makes for a complicated artefact. It remains difficult to know where the one begins and ends and the other starts, particularly when Zappa includes dialogue between the artist and the producer as they debate who controls the process and what manner of information will be permitted to be presented to the listener. In the end, one feels the need to ask, has Fischer allowed himself to be used in order potentially to achieve a degree and did Zappa wish to manipulate and benefit from this distinct and ‘’different’’ individual.
This essay proposes to examine this recording from a series of perspectives: as a document of the 1960s; as evidence of Zappa’s on-going fascination with ‘’freaks’’; as an act of surveillance; as it relates to Zappa’s other recordings of sponsored artists (Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Captain Beefheart, the GTOs); as a precursor of the phenomenon of outsider music; as an example of the work in popular music of a psychologically challenged artist (Skip Spence, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnson).
11. Zappa and Modernism: An Extended Study of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”
Frank Zappa is one of the outstanding figures in Western musical, cultural and even political life of the twentieth century. His massive musical production is of an extraordinary stylistic breadth and complexity no matter in which perspective it is viewed or reflected upon. His universe comprises an abundance of styles and genres across historical, artistic and musical boundaries yet still constitutes an intellectual whole, a cohesive musical oeuvre.
Taking the collage-composition “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” as a leading thread, the article weaves a mosaic of analyses, ranging from strictly structural analyses that are stylistic and semiotic in nature to purely discursive and hypertextual studies, constructing the case that Zappa’s work, rather than being a wild profusion of styles, is instead a highly coherent and stringently complex work of meaning. It is an oeuvre in which subtle correspondences between music styles, titles, lyrics, texts, pictures and more, critically reflect central aspects of modern culture and human life in a psychological, sociological as well as philosophical elucidation. In addition to close reading of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and references to other artists’ work, the article includes a number of partial analyses, correspondences and examples from most of Zappa’s discography (covering Freak Out (1966)) to Civilization Phase III (1993)) and aims to point out how the musical coding in Zappa’s work take on a decisive role in an almost Adornian sense, expressing the historical necessity of complexity and opposition.
12. Zappa and the Avant-Garde: Towards a Way-Out of Twentieth Century Art
In an oft-quoted passage of his poem-essay “The Artifice of Absorption”, former Language poet Charles Bernstein, one of the most influential representatives of the post-war American avant-garde, writes that “a poetic reading can be given to any piece of writing; a ‘poem’ may be understood as writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate with, proactive – rather than reactive – styles of reading”. “Artifice,” he adds, “is a measure of a poem’s intractability to being read as the sum of its devices & subject matters”. Bernstein’s target here is the so-called “voice” poem, “based on simplistic notions of absorption through unity, such / as those sometimes put forward by Ginsberg / (who as his work shows / knows better, but who has made an ideological / commitment to such simplicity)”. It seems to me that Bernstein’s attacks against the voice-based poem can be usefully extended to the study of popular lyrics which perhaps more than any other genre rely on the immediacy and “transparency” of voice as both the origin and the spontaneous vehicle of feeling and self-expression. In the context of this book, it also urges us to reconsider Zappa’s experimental poetics within the history of the contemporary avant-garde, raising the issue of the relationship between alternative, underground pop culture and the avant-garde while simultaneously questioning the boundaries that allegedly separate “experimental”, “ambitious”, “unusual” lyrics from published and performed poetry.
Because of the sheer wealth of private references and in-jokes contained in his songs, Zappa’s lyrics have so far proved rather resistant to critical analysis, whether of the literary or the musicological variety. As we will see, the non-absorptive strategies displayed in Zappa’s music clearly extend beyond the richness of “proactive” references to the use of impermeable materials that alternately further and hinder the absorption of the listener . Zappa’s music and lyrics, far from committing themselves to simple notions of unmediated self-expression, rely on complex strategies of manipulation and disfigurement (which include the use of various forms of collage, close miking, noise, speed-up cartoon-like voices, found spoken material, rehearsal and backstage conversations, etc.) that are bound to make his songs sound “foreign” and “impermeable” to his audience. Lastly, for Zappa, as for Bernstein, opacity and non-absorption are not ends in themselves, nor do they “necessarily mean nonentertaining”. Rather, they prepare the ground for “a more powerful (“souped-up”) absorption” characterized by “opaque & nonabsorbable / elements, digressions & / interruptions”.
Now, what can a popular song absorb or be impermeable to? And to what extent do Zappa’s songs subordinate subjectivity to “composition”, technique (and technology) to experience and, ultimately, make use of “absorptive means towards antiabsorptive ends”? This essay will attempt to answer some of those questions while examining Zappa’s ambivalent position towards the historical avant-garde.
If the avant-garde artist’s many postures include the figures of the revolutionary, the dandy, the anarchist, the aesthete, the technologist and the mystic (Krauss), Zappa’s own peculiar kind of vanguardist experiments does not seem to fit any of these models. Similarly, Zappa has never rejected past models or striven to live up to the cult of originality as an act of self-creation that would seem to characterize the modernist avant-garde. On the contrary, his music has not ceased to re-appropriate a wide range of existing styles and registers (ranging from blues-rock and gospel to orchestral music, jazz and doo-wop), an attitude which, on a superficial level, would seem to place him on the camp of the postmodern eclecticism, a mode whose powers of assimilation are themselves often associated with the exhaustion of the “avant-garde” trope. Yet, another way of approaching Zappa’s work is to measure it in terms that generally excludes general progressivist and utopian terms, veering instead in the direction of a critical investigation of the materiality of art production and a tendency to rely on earlier models – such as the baroque and the grotesque – that ultimately exceed the familiar controversies surrounding the historical avant-garde as well as the shift from modernism to postmodernism.
13. Zappa and the Mediation of Death: People who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read
“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
“Talking about Music is like dancing about architecture”
Two of the most famous quotations about the music press have been attributed to, albeit contentiously, Zappa. Whilst his position on the role of the media in general and music journalists specifically was often less than favourable his life, death and legacy have been much documented within its pages (on and offline) and Zappa himself chose the medium as a way to make visible his own death both in interviews and performances.
Popular music’s relationship with the subject of death has been extensively intertwined; the desire and increasing curiosity for an insight into this final rite of passage is relatively recent phenomenon. This chapter will explore the extent to which journalistic coverage, through the examination of Zappa’s dying and death, both reflects and shapes the reality of a life lived and also sheds light on a society’s views of death both culturally and historically.
By uncovering dominant discourses in the popular music press’s coverage of death, the piece will illustrate through the coverage of Zappa’s death the emergent ideologies of celebrity culture and thirst for ‘reality’ platforms (documenting a death), as well as attempt to understand the wider construction of cultural meanings and preoccupations with death in modern society.
Through an analysis of the news articles of Zappa’s last battle with prostate cancer and his obituaries, the latter being a highly constructed form of journalistic text, the chapter will seek to demonstrate how a life is renegotiated in the re-presentation of a particular type of death. One that not only reflects, shapes and views the musician’s life, but also, how that in turn, is a reflection of society.