Tuesday, June 20, 2017

America Thinks and Goes Home: The 50th Anniversary of Frank Zappa's Absolutely Free

While much of the pop music world today is celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, a few months before that landmark album made its way onto our turntables, Frank Zappa's second album, the rock oratorio Absolutely Free, was already sending up the culture wars with the irreverent verve and zeal of Spike Jones. Of course, it didn't draw anywhere near the attention of Pepper and no one is celebrating its 50th anniversary despite its daring and ribaldry. If Freak Out! (1966) announced the arrival of The Mothers of Invention and their subversive intentions (as well as influencing Sgt. Pepper), Absolutely Free was the fulfillment of those ambitions. On the inside cover of Freak Out!, Frank Zappa listed all those who had an impact on his work. But it’s on Absolutely Free that you can actually hear the presence of Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Lenny Bruce, and Edgard Varèse. Freak Out! was a beautifully designed map for The Mothers’ music, while Absolutely Free actually takes you places. Critic Greil Marcus wrote, in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, that “on this early effort the wit was liberating, the noise of the band not merely Absurdist but actually absurd. . . .”

Absolutely Free was indeed an oratorio of ridiculous extremes – performed at breakneck speed – with a tangy political satire woven into a musical embroidery. The history of 20th century music, from Stravinsky to The Supremes, happily plays bumper cars and lives up to the title of the record. No genre gets excluded – or not satirized. “We play the new free music – music as absolutely free, unencumbered by American cultural suppression,” Zappa announced. “We are systematically trying to do away with the creative roadblocks that our helpful American educational system has installed to make sure nothing creative leaks through to mass audiences. . . . The same patriotic feeling expressed in songs like ‘The Green Beret’ and ‘Day of Decision’ are embodied in our every performance, only on a more abstract level. . . .We represent the only true patriotism left.” This abstract example of true patriotism barely leaves you time to catch your breath, and the musical quotes just go whizzing past. And the album’s title turns out to be more than apt. All of Zappa’s musical ideas happily and freely collide in the rush hour traffic.

As a drum roll kicks in, Zappa introduces U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, just as singer Ray Collins, in the voice of LBJ, addresses the crowd: “Mah fella Americans . . .” Suddenly, we hear the intrusive opening notes of “Louie Louie.” The President of the United States isn’t safe from this pervasive song – and neither is the rest of the nation. Out of this preposterous fanfare, Zappa unveils “Plastic People.” In part, the song (using a variation of the “Louie Louie” chords) addresses the conformity he saw creeping into the freak culture during the riots on the Sunset Strip between freaks and the Los Angeles police. But the song is also an answer to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” where singer-songwriter Stephen Stills attempted to capture the division between the kids and the cops. Stills, however, took refuge in the paranoia of the persecuted hippies. “Young people speaking their minds / Getting so much resistance from behind,” Stills sang. “For What It’s Worth” caught the mood, but didn’t illuminate the hidden dynamics of the conflict. “Plastic People” spared neither side. Zappa didn’t mince words either about how dangerous succumbing to authoritarian ideas could be. Consider that these lyrics were written only a few years before American Nazis would march unscathed through the streets of Skokie, Illinois:

Take a day and walk around
Watch the Nazis run your town
Then go home and check yourself
You think we’re singing ’bout someone else?

“Plastic People” addressed the failure of the freaks who refused to distinguish themselves from the trendsetters. Yet the song would take on larger significance when countries behind the Iron Curtain adopted it as their anthem.“I had no idea that song made the impact it did there,” Zappa said years later. “The album was smuggled into the [Eastern bloc] within a year of its 1967 release. I found out ten years later how powerful the song had become.We were touring heavily in Europe at the time, and a few Czechs had come across the Austrian border to hear our concert in Vienna. I talked with them after the show, and they told me that ‘Plastic People’ was responsible for a whole movement of dissidents within Czechoslovakia. It came as a shock to me to find out that there was a group called the Plastic People there and that a cult of followers had grown up around them.” Milan Hlavsa, a Czech rock star, was the co-founder of that underground band, Plastic People of the Universe. They supported various dissidents, including Vaclav Havel, during the Seventies and Eighties. The band was arrested in 1976, inspiring the formation of the human-rights group Charter 77 the next year. It was perhaps ironic that the two bands who became important symbols for democracy in Czechoslovakia in those years – The Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground – absolutely loathed one another.

Plastic People of the Universe

After “Plastic People,” the album took a sharp turn. “The Duke of Prunes” was partly a parody of Gene Chandler’s doo-wop hit “Duke of Earl.” The tune, however, was taken from a theme used in the film Run Home Slow (1965), which Zappa had scored a couple of years earlier. “Duke of Prunes,”according to Zappa, was a surreal love song about lust. “[It uses] euphemistic sexual imagery popular in country blues tunes,” Zappa remarked at the time. But no country blues tune ever featured sexual imagery as ridiculous as this:

A moonbeam through the prune
In June
Reveals your chest
I see your lovely beans
And in that magic go-kart
I bite your neck
The cheese I have for you, my dear
Is real and very new.

“Frank had this very beautiful tune called ‘And Very True,’ and when we went in to record it, being a little crazy at the time, I just ad-libbed on the spot,” singer Ray Collins recalled. “The original lyrics I think were ‘Moonbeam through the night,’ something very loving – although Frank doesn’t like love songs – and I said, ‘Moonbeam through the prune, in June, I can see your tits.’ So later, after we recorded it, you can hear Frank cracking up on the record.” Collins, however, didn’t get a writing credit on the album. “I told Frank, ‘Well, you know, I just made up those lyrics, as we went along, so if not money . . . I should at least get an album credit for it.’ So he says, ‘Well, just tell me what you want to put on the album.’And so a couple of days later, I said, ‘Well, just put ‘Prune: Ray Collins.’” “The Duke of Prunes” is spread out over three parts. “Amnesia Vivace” quotes Stravinsky’s "Berceuse" from his Firebird Suite, and that melody floats – in Charles Ives fashion – over a theme from The Rite of Spring. In “The Duke Regains His Chops,” as the singer’s lust for his loved one reaches its peak, the group serves up a chorus of The Supremes’ “Baby Love” (retitled “Baby Prunes”). The song ends with Collins’ appropriate response, “Cheesy, cheesy.”

“Call Any Vegetable” immediately follows with the droll commercial announcement, “This is a song about vegetables. They keep you regular. They’re real good for you.” “Call Any Vegetable” is about how vegetables can be useful in achieving sexual gratification (“Call any vegetable / And the chances are good / That the vegetable will respond to you"). As the first part of “Call Any Vegetable” reaches its conclusion, Zappa moves into the instrumental “The Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” (which not only makes reference to Stravinsky’s “Ritual Dance” from The Rite of Spring, but is also preceded by a brief quote from “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets). “Invocation” was the first extended guitar piece Zappa recorded that demonstrates both his agility and his ability to improvise. It turns into a beautiful duet between Zappa and wind player Bunk Gardner. “[This piece] was a favorite of mine because I always got to play a solo and usually a long one,” Gardner recalled. “I had a King Soprano that only went up to a concert high D – most sopranos now go up to a high concert E flat. . . . The band was cooking and I was really pumped up and just kept playing and playing . . . I thought it sounded great and I loved my solo! Then Frank said, ‘Let’s do another take.’ So we went back out for take two. I didn’t think we captured the excitement so well the second time, but I think Frank thought he played a better solo on take two. So that’s the one that ended up on the album.” “Invocation” comes to a sudden end just as “Soft-Sell Conclusion” (the postscript for “Call Any Vegetable”) starts up. While Zappa sells us the full value of vegetable gratification (“Standing there shiny and proud by your side / Holding your joint while your neighbor decides / Why is a vegetable something to hide?”), he plays a variety of musical tricks to put it across, including another snatch of Stravinsky (the march from L’histoire du soldat).

Side Two begins with the phrase “One, two, buckle my shoe,” while nonsense syllables chime underneath. The cymbals, meanwhile, parody striptease music. The melody comes from the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song “My Little Red Book.” The song is “America Drinks,” sung by Collins in the sprechgesang (or “speech-song”) style developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a vocal technique that is a hybrid of speech and pure song. The singer performs a recitation on approximate pitches instead of the usual notes. The melody of “America Drinks” also parodies the lounge music Zappa played in bars with Joe Perrino and The Mellowtones back in the Fifties, but the lyrics are right out of fifties teen-pop America:

I tried to find how my heart could be so blind
How could I be fooled just like the rest
You came on strong with your fast car
and your class ring
Soft voice, and your sad eyes
I fell for the whole thing.

As Collins performs the track, he often seems on the verge of cracking up (he even flubs a lyric partway through the song) and sometimes even lets you in on the joke (especially when he pauses lasciviously after the word “came”). Aside from trying to keep his composure, Collins sings like a man stripped of all romantic pretense, as if he’s trying to remember why he fell in love in the first place. He recites words he’s been taught by countless love songs, but they no longer hold meaning for him. By the end, his efforts are rendered ridiculous by the sudden intrusion of Julius Fucik’s Entry of the Gladiators. “Status Back Baby” is the perfect follow-up to “America Drinks” – if the singer in that song was an automaton mouthing love lyrics, this one explores a whole group of people destined to become just as robotized:

I’m losing status at the high school
I used to think that it was my school.
I was the king of every school activity
But that’s no more
Oh mama, what will come of me?

The tune lists the joys of a handsome football star who is happily painting posters, playing “records by the Coasters,” and belonging to De Molay (a religious youth organization devoted to keeping kids on the “correct” moral path). But his status is slipping at the high school, and following De Molay’s moral path has not made him happy. To drive that point home, Zappa includes – in the bridge of the song – the opening melody of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a ballet about a puppet longing to be human. Zappa reverses the meaning in “Status Back Baby.” Here, a human being turns into a puppet.

Zappa's secretary Pauline Butcher first transcribed (with some trepidation) the lyrics to Absolutely Free (photo by Ed Caraeff).

“Uncle Bernie’s Farm” is a straightforward critique of children’s toys and their violent capabilities. It does, however, have a funny opening where the band vamps on Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” “Son of Suzy Creamcheese,” like “Plastic People,” borrows from “Louie Louie” and tarnishes Suzy Creamcheese with the same conformist brush Zappa used for the freaks. It’s also his first anti-drug song:

Suzy you were such a sweetie
Yeah, yeah, yeah,
Once you were my one and only
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Blew your mind on too much Kool-Aid.

The reference to Kool-Aid comes from Ken Kesey’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,where he described how LSD was introduced to members of the counterculture and Grateful Dead fans by means of the popular instant drink. By the end of the next decade, though, the image of Kool-Aid would carry a much more sinister association. Reverend Jim Jones of the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, would lead his followers to mass suicide by poisoned Kool-Aid. (Zappa commemorated this horrible event in his otherworldly synclavier composition “Jonestown,” on The Perfect Stranger: Boulez Conducts Zappa.)

“Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” is the premier cut on Absolutely Free. This controversial mini-opera, said Zappa, is about “people who run the governments, the people who make the laws that keep you from living the kind of life you know you should lead.” A seven-and-a-half minute opus paced at the speed of a Loony Tunes cartoon, the song is filled with enough musical quotes and references to inspire a dozen oratorios. It is about a middle-class American, just out of school and sitting at his pool. While calmly consuming a TV dinner, he’s looking to make a career for himself at City Hall. What he finds is something less than benign: “A world of secret hungers / Perverting the men who make your laws.” Soon City Hall Fred, as he comes to be known, has philandered his way through the entire secretarial pool, until he finally finds his own perverse pedophilic fantasy:

We see in the back
Of the City Hall mind
The dream of a girl about thirteen
Off with her clothes and into a bed
Where she tickles his fancy
All night long.

But Zappa doesn’t make this thirteen-year-old girl an innocent: 

She bites his fat neck and it lights up his nose
But he cannot be fooled
Old City Hall Fred
She’s nasty, she’s nasty
She digs it in bed.

Fred is ecstatic that “she’s only thirteen and she knows how to nasty,” and – to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” – he recites, “She’s a dirty young mind, corrupted, corroded.” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” ends with divorce and disgrace, and Fred once again sitting by his pool, quietly eating his TV dinner and sizing up his situation: “Life is such a ball / I run the world from City Hall.” While “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” is a scathing indictment that outlines how authoritarian attitudes are shaped, it is also a jab at the sexual revolution of the late Sixties. “Zappa proposes a cultural politics: the explosion of sexual freedom that will topple the powers-that-be,” wrote critic Ben Watson on the song. “As it dawned on him that it wasn’t going to work, the stress on sexuality became instead a satirical slant, a litmus test on the freedoms of his audience and his society.”

A portion of the score for "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"

Zappa also deployed a complete storehouse of musical concepts in this tune. “In ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’ most people hear only the words,”Zappa told Keyboard Magazine in 1987. “They don’t realize that there is, in the middle of that song, a completely academic and rigorous twelve-tone string quartet going on in the background. The other thing that was funny about that song was that by playing ‘God Bless America,’ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and one or two other patriotic songs at the end, all at the same time, I was making a musical joke about [Charles] Ives.” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” was the second song to bring an operatic structure to rock ’n’ roll. Even before they made history with Tommy, The Who’s first opera was the mini-epic “A Quick One While He’s Away,” from the Happy Jack album (1966). Because of the delay in the release of Absolutely Free, it’s likely The Who were recording their opus at the same time The Mothers were recording theirs.

Absolutely Free concludes with “America Drinks and Goes Home,” a Tin Pan Alley version of “America Drinks,” complete with a loud boozing crowd and a horribly fatuous, ingratiating singer: “Last call for alcohol / Drink it up, folks / Wonderful.” The song collapses in chaos, cash registers clanging, and a tidy “Night all.” The song is a parody of lounge crooners, but it is also a comment on Zappa’s contempt for the bars on the Sunset Strip where bands cater to the whims of the crowd. (The Rolling Stones tried to invoke the same atmosphere in “On With the Show” to conclude the psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967.) “America Drinks and Goes Home” is unmatched in the way it blends sardonic wit with scathing contempt for the bar crowd. “We used to work in cocktail lounges,” Zappa said in Melody Maker. “I didn’t think that anyone had really presented the horror of the cocktail lounge sufficiently and so we tried to relive a little of it. Everybody in the band at that time knew what the story was with the lounge musical life and they got off on making a parody of what they’d experienced in those lounges. All the clinking glasses and the fight that is going on in the background is specially staged. We had people all over the studio: a guy in the corner playing a cash register, another guy dropping broken glass into a garbage can and shaking it, and three people off in another booth having a fight over who was going to take this girl home, and it was all done simultaneously.”

Absolutely Free took four double sessions to record, totalling twenty-five hours in November 1966, and was mixed at MGM Studios in New York. Finally released in May 1967, it was a stunning leap in musical prowess from Freak Out! – despite some periodic sloppy playing. Heard today, the album has a ragged charm that's backed with a relentless and fearless intelligence. Absolutely Free embraced freedom so totally that in its own vehement exuberance it couldn’t help occasionally tripping over its own feet.

-- The Zappa Family Trust marked the 50th anniversary of Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention’s politically-charged, envelope-pushing sophomore album, Absolutely Free, with an expanded vinyl-exclusive edition last September 29 via Zappa Records/UMe. This double 180-gram LP version included the original record mastered by Bernie Grundman cut directly from the original analog master tapes and a second disc with 20 minutes of rare and unreleased bonus material, including the “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?”/“Big Leg Emma” single as well as vintage remixes, and radio ads from The Vault on side one and a laser etching of Zappa’s visage from the album cover on side two. The package features Zappa’s original layout and a reproduction of the rare, highly sought-after “libretto,” an 18-page booklet with a foreword by FZ and lyrics to all the compositions, that was offered only by mail order when originally released.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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