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Revisit Frank Zappa's controversial live album 'Fillmore East' 50 years on


Frank Zappa: the man, the machismo, the moustache. He’s an intrinsic part of popular American music and spent a career pushing his art to its very limits. His second release with the newly-reformed band The Mothers, Fillmore East – June 1971, is an undeniably peculiar record. Occupying the intersection between live rock album, theatre, and sketch comedy, it was hard to define at the time and feels just as bewildering now. So, on this, the 50th anniversary of the release of the album, we take a look back at what has made it such a hard nut to crack.

Fillmore East – June 1971 has had a difficult life from its inception. Many fans didn’t like the new incarnation of ‘The Mothers’, nor the record as a whole. For some, it was the childish jokes and disturbing anecdotes. For others, it was the high-pitched vocal style of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. Indeed, most of Zappa’s releases around this period were regarded as lacking in the indefinable flair which had characterised his earlier work.

For Zappa, however, Fillmore East – June 1971 was an opportunity to pursue his increasingly pervasive obsession with making complex music accessible. His groundbreaking 1966 album, Freak Out, had been at the cutting edge of musical experimentation, blending R&B, blues, and sound collage in a way that captured the underground “Freak Culture” of Los Angeles in the 1960s.

However, towards the end of the 1960s, The Mothers of Invention were not doing well financially. Zappa also felt that his attempts to blend the compositional style of orchestral composers like Stravinsky with a pop music sensibility had gone over the heads of his audience. As a result, The Mothers disbanded, leaving Zappa to write and produce his acclaimed solo album, Hot Rats, in 1969. But in 1970, The Mothers returned, and Zappa bought in a new selection of musicians, including three members of The Turtles, whose flowery pop had been the very antithesis of what Zappa had been striving for in his own work.

The premise of Fillmore East was largely inspired by The Mothers’ double-album soundtrack to the movie 200 Motels. The film, which Zappa was also involved in, focused on the sordid adventures of a rock band on tour and resulted in two live albums, of which Fillmore East is one. For Zappa, the album was an opportunity to explore the theatricality of rock music, as well as the concept of persona. However, it seems to also have been an opportunity to a little bit of rock-n-roll gloating, featuring numerous anecdotes about the band’s sexual encounters on the road. This strange contrast between serious artistic experimentation and adolescent showmanship left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans at the time.

The album certainly contains some of the most disturbing tales from a time when artists such as Zappa were king. One of the most controversial can be heard in the song ‘Mud Shark’. In it, Zappa tells a story in which a shark is caught by a member of Vanilla Fudge and then used to pleasure a young groupie. The question of whether the girl consented to the act is still being debated today. Regardless, the song proves an uncomfortable listen and seems to be an example of the dangerous excesses of rock-n-roll culture.

Despite the macho lyrics and misogynistic anecdotes, one gets the sense that Zappa and The Mothers are playing with the audience’s perception of the rock musician – riffing on the cliches of rock-n-roll excess in a way that is, at once, self-glorifying and self-deprecating. In ‘Willie, The Pimp’, for example, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan sing the lines: “All groupies must bow down in the presence of the latex solar beef”.

Now, maybe I’ve just seen Spinal Tap too many times, but it’s hard to take lyrics like that seriously. And, arguably, they’re not supposed to be. Whilst the sentiment feels a little sinister, the band’s high-pitched squeals conjure up images of rock stars who have grown fat on their own egos of sexually potent slugs waving their spandex-clad packages around willy nilly. It’s possible Zappa was laughing at himself quite audibly.

50 years later, Fillmore East – June 1971 is still as bewildering a riddle as it was when it was released. Its subject matter makes it feel utterly at odds with the current social landscape, and, for that reason, it might be a difficult album for new listeners to access. It seems to walk the tight rope between deliberate provocation and self-obsession, between truth and fiction, between art and comedy. It blends high and low art in a way that is absolutely fascinating. The album would, therefore, be a shame to relegate it to the realm of ‘the cancelled’. But 50 years on, now seems the perfect time for a reappraisal of Fillmore East, one which acknowledges its artistic worth whilst also questioning its uglier aspects.