The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out! (Verve, 1966)
I’ve had this album since high school (but I can hardly claim to be an early adopter — my copy lacks the notorious “Hot-Spots Freak Map” on the inside sleeve, and that item did indeed make the graphic design more coherent). I was very protective of my collection of Mothers on Verve because, in the days when becoming a cut-out meant an album was gone forever and ever and ever, I was sure they would fall out of the catalog some day. So I expected the vinyl to be in good shape. But my surprise was that while I played this for the first time on my rejuvenated turntable, I realized I hadn’t listened to it with more than half an ear since, well, since I became middle-aged at least.
Start with a killer-combo high and an enduring-rotter low.
The cover art was “psychedelic” awright, but with the grim-faced wackos garishly photo-solarized and slapped in your eyeballs, it was acid-art at its most aggressive and alienating. Ditto for the first track, the deathless “Hungry Freaks, Daddy.” This was the earliest I can remember that the counterculture movement was brazenly cast not as beautiful and liberating but vengeful and menacing. Zappa was onto a primal point: the straights were terrified of longhairs, not just puzzled and bemused by them. Supermarket America was way more fragile, nervous and paranoid than it ever liked to admit to itself. (Song has a special pang now because both bland Tomorrowland and the Krazy Freaque Orgy were both all too soon swept up into the start of the cold future we live in today.)
Immediately followed by “I Ain’t Got No Heart.” A song I always disliked because it sounded so damned mean, but it took me a long while to suss out exactly how much it was exactly what Zappa said: “a summary of my feelings in social-sexual relationships.” Yeah, it trashes the eternal-love with you-only wretch/wretch of the teen-pop era, but even back in the day the point was obviously spitting and stomping on the poor square chick who was the target of the invective. How much more visionary would be a number with this intensity that hollered let’s you and me both kick aside the goddamned chains of romance heaped on us and get to another world? A lasting lesson about a built-in problem with the social/cultural upheaval of the times.
The next aspect that strikes me is how musically ignorant us snotnoses were when we first encountered the Mothers. I didn’t recognize a quarter of the musicians (esp. jazz) named in the “These People Have Contributed Materially …” list. And we didn’t even know enough about doo-wop to get how it was being satirized. Sheesh, this album contained more doo-wop than any of us had heard in straight form!
Nowadays another quirk that jumps out is how much professional tunesmith Zappa could not help writing catchy numbers even when they were meant as corrosive spoofs of swoony romance and inspirational anthems. Then he tries to cover his commercial-instinct ass by saying it’s all a conscious effort to sucker in unsophisticated listeners. I actually prefer this guy I hear now with the penchant for enjoying and creating pleasurable ditties. Best: “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here,” which mixes up sneers and fun and inventive ideas and adept jamming and romps with it.
“Trouble Every Day” aptly described as “how I feel about racial unrest in general and the Watts situation in particular.” I’ve always wanted this number to be more successful than it is. Makes the key point that Caucasians, hipsters and square alike, got no closer to the action than watching their TVs, but can’t dredge up more than “I’m not black, but there’s a whole lotta times I wish I wasn’t white.” Maybe the downer is that things have changed so little.
“Help I’m a Rock” and “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.” These are wiggy and wooly drafts of the sound-music collages Zappa would later “perfect,” but I’ll go with these originals because everybody has so much obvious fucking fun making them — and they reflect an era when optimism and loony larks were more intoxicating than any time before or since. (Now, “Monster Magnet” can even sound like a satire of more pretentious later Zappa compositions.) Worth noting that Suzy Creamcheese herself gets a moment to be a smartass.