Released on June 27, 1966 on the Verve label, "Freak Out!" is the debut album from Frank Zappa's first band, the Mothers of Invention. The Mothers were a unique and colorful group of individuals who were either in tune with Zappa's unique brand of artistic expression or at least willing to go along with it. "Freak Out!" introduced the unsuspecting world of popular music to this brand, and although it was neither critically nor commercially successful in its time, the album has since grown in acclaim to become one of the seminal musical works of the 1960s. Generally considered ahead of its time, it is still remarkably inaccessible. It is dense, complex, and challenging. In fact, "Freak Out!" is expressly structured to force listeners to reexamine preconceived notions of what is musically, morally, and socially acceptable - an ambitious goal for a debut album!
Equally ambitious is the package in which this bundle of questions is presented. "Freak Out!" was the first double album debut by a recording artist, and one of the first rock double albums of any significance. The album sleeve itself tells a remarkable story, and I highly recommend that prospective listeners track down a copy of the album on vinyl, if only to examine the beautiful exterior and interior artwork. The back cover delivers a special message from Suzy Creamcheese (more on her in a minute), and the interior presents a collections of quotes, comments, and miscellany that Zappa felt necessary to include. This information provides a keen insight into Zappa's mindset at the time of the album's release, none more so that the introductory passage under the heading "What is 'Freaking Out'?"
"On a personal level, Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole."
The inclusion of this passage both explains the central premise of the album and raises an important question about the structure of "packaged art" - does it begin and end with the music, or does the music work together with the packaging in a deliberate artistic function? Is the album packaging a piece of art in and of itself, a piece of a larger whole with the music, or a disposable delivery mechanism that has no relevance to the actual product? In the case of "Freak Out!", the second option seems most correct (if not completely correct). But consider this: before a note has been heard, Zappa has already called into question basic assumptions we hold about music. A year before Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band hit stores, and months before recording on it began, Zappa had already profoundly called into question the relationship between music, packaging, and the listener.
"Freak Out!" contains fourteen tracks spread over four sides. On the original vinyl release, the listen went as follows:
- Hungry Freaks, Daddy
- I Ain't Got No Heart
- Who Are The Brain Police?
- Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder
- Motherly Love
- How Could I Be Such a Fool
- Wowie Zowie
- You Didn't Try to Call Me
- Any Way the Wind Blows
- I'm Not Satisfied
- You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here
- Trouble Every Day
- Help, I'm a Rock
- The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet
Each side of the album is arranged to contribute to the larger theme . The first is a series of songs about society, and disenchantment with traditional social conventions. The second portrays the process of letting go of those social conventions, without an accompanying transformation or enlightenment. The third shows the process of transformation, driven by both larger cultural events and internal conflicts. The fourth delivers on the promised "freak out" in glorious fashion. Distributed throughout the album are also themes of lost love, romantic futility, individualism, invasions of privacy, personal regret, teenage angst, sexual posturing, racial unrest, "plastic people" and an primal, almost-Lovecraftian chaos, all layered over musical arrangements from bubblegum pop to classic doo wop to California rock to wild, chaotic, and structureless post-modernism.
Songs on the album can be divided into roughly three categories: the anthems, the anti-love songs, and the experiments. The anthems include tracks such as "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," "Motherly Love," and "I'm Not Satisfied," among others, and defiantly state a point of view, either seriously or mockingly. "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" portrays the reaction of average middle-class citizens to the so-called "freak" class of which Zappa was a member, while at the same time showcasing the "freak" perspective on middle-class bliss, the Great Society, and 1960s America in general. Punctuated by dreamy vibraphone tones and a ripping guitar solo that utilizes standard 1960s guitar tones in a structureless, freeform fashion, "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" is a statement of purpose, and explicitly calls out the collective societal tendency to neglect genius in favor of the common and the status quo. It is equal parts individualist and radical, both indicting the standard progression of American society while at the same time appealing to America's history of individual excellence and opportunity. It, like the other anthems, employs standard rock-and-roll tones and meters, but pairs them with deliberately off-key vocalizations and cacophonous background noises (mostly provided by drummer Jimmy Carl Black) to create an unconventional yet recognizable sound. In these songs, Zappa is reaching out to people who may have already dabbled in "freaking out," but who may need a little extra push.
The anti-love songs, on the other hand, are for those individuals still clinging to their 1960s version of the American dream - a monochromatic (figuratively and literalll) society that could only go up; a benevolent government capable of structuring society in the optimal way; and the sad, painful, empty emotion mistaken for love that leads to sad, painful, empty marriages and existences. These songs, which include "I Ain't Got No Heart," "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder," and "You Didn't Try to Call Me," among others, paint portraits of heartbreak coupled with angst and rage - in fact, each of them makes a point to make explicit the protagonist's essential incompatibility with others, as though a meaningful romance that would not intrude on his individuality is utterly impossible given the context in which he exists.
The bridge between these two song styles is "Any Way the Wind Blows," of which Zappa writes in the liner notes
"'Any Way the Wind Blows' is a song I wrote about three years ago when I was considering divorce. If I had never gotten divorce, this piece of trivial nonsense would never have been recorded. It is included in this collection because, in a nutshell, kids, it is... how shall I say it? ... it is intellectually and emotionally accessible for you."
In this song, the protagonist joyously lets go of his previous romantic troubles and takes a step forward intellectually and emotionally, which both gives a payoff to the prior anthems on the album and sets the stage for our journey into the experimental. When listened to in a single sitting, this song is the point in the album wherein our hero realizes that he is an individual and that he is self-sufficient... but he does not yet know how or why. It is interesting to consider the context in which Zappa wrote the song, as well as how his divorce might have impacted the album and his way of thinking in general. Later, he married Gail Sloatman in 1967 and remained with her for the rest of his life, and the number of songs that he wrote concerning romantic difficulties decreased dramatically (although the number of songs explicitly dealing with sex increased). It is an interesting context in which to view the album, and I will comment on the way that Gail might have influenced his work as I progress through this series.
That covers sides one and two. Sides three and four are composed entirely of experimental tracks, most notably "Trouble Every Day," a song that explicitly recounts the events of the Watts Riots through the filter of media reporting, and serves as an indictment of media culture and, more subtly, passive existence. Throughout the song, we are told not what happened, but of the reports coming through of what happened, emphasizing the extent to which we are removed from reality in our daily lives. The question is raised: what is an existence of second-hand reports? You don't want to be in the center of chaos, but is being completely removed from it any better? Is it worse? Questions, questions, questions in the mind of the impressionable young listener. Musically, the piece is also interesting and trendsetting for being arguably the first rap song. Spoken (rather than sung) over a repeating backdrop of sound (itself deliberately designed to be bluesy and "black"), it challenges the dominant musical structure of its time, as if to deliberately say, "THIS IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT."
From here we progress into "Help, I'm a Rock," which elaborates upon the idea of passive existence and musically takes us into darker, more experimental territory. Included in this song is a subsection entitled "It Can't Happen Here," deconstructing the notion of isolated social change. All of this builds to the finale on side four, "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," introduced by the voice of Suzy Creamcheese and her conscience. Suzy, according to the album jacket, is from Salt Lake City and is the only person in her school who "gets" the Mothers' music. (Demographically, that may be about right.) Suzy is perhaps the audience for the album - the lone individual who totally buys into what Zappa is selling. Perhaps she is there to offer a lifeline to the listener, as if to say, "It's all right, there are others like you." In any even, her inclusion is notable, and we'll be seeing her again in future albums.
"The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," described by Zappa as "what freaks sound like when you turn them loose in a recording studio at one o'clock in the morning on $500 worth of rented percussion equipment" is a wildly experimental piece of music, a tribute to Zappa's idol Edgard Varèse, and the genuine climax of the album. Throughout "Freak Out!" there are a number of brief excerpts of a wild orgy of sound sprinkled liberally, as though the album itself is just barely holding back the chaos that might otherwise overtake the listener. In "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," the dam breaks and the chaos comes flooding out. It is structureless, uninhibited, and gloriously artistic - the "freak out" that we have all been promised. To describe it any further would be futile. It must be heard to be understand - if it is to be understood at all.
And so we have this album that presents us with these questions about society. But Zappa's music and his lyrics are not simple; why should we expect his message to be? The songs on the album can be read as indictments of 1960s society, but certain elements of them can also be read as indictments of freak culture itself. Zappa is careful to emphasize the essential creative nature of true "freak-dom," but surely he was aware that often the culture abandoned that creativity in favor of substance abuse and political radicalism (Zappa himself was famously an anti-drug libertarian). Although these themes would be better developed two albums later, there is enough evidence even at this stage to raise the question of just how committed to the freak culture Zappa was. Certainly he empathized, sympathized, and even bought into certain elements of the ethos, but where his believe in it began and ended remains vague. But then again, perhaps that's the point. What isn't vague that "Freak Out!" is ultimately a radical celebration of individualism and a rejection of "the way of doing things." Above all else, "Freak Out!" is the album of the conceptual "I."
"Freak Out!" was released the same year as "Pet Sounds," "Blonde on Blonde," and "Revolver." It achieved the commercial success of none of its contemporaries, but stands today as an equal - if not superior - artistic statement. It remains inaccessible, dense, and challenging, but those characteristics ensure that it never gets old or outdated.
Inside the album sleeve, there is a quote by Varèse from 1921. It says, "The present-day composer refuses to die!"
He was clearly talking about Frank Zappa.
The Lineup (left to right): Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals), Elliot Ingber (guitar), Ray Collins (vocals, harmonica, tambourine), Jimmy Carl Black (vocals, drums), Roy Estrada (bass, vocals),