A year before Frank Zappa was introduced to the world along with his strange brethren in the Mothers of Invention, Bob Dylan released a masterpiece that almost made Zappa quit before he had even started. “I wanted to quit the music business,” he said when reflecting on ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, “because I felt: ‘If this wins and it does what it’s supposed to do, I don’t need to do anything else.”
It is important to keep that in mind when considering the Freak Out! that followed from flamboyant Mothers of Invention a year later, because on the surface it seems completely incongruous to the serious approach Zappa takes in his ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ appraisal. However, like a diplomat with a Siamese cat on his shoulder, they might have been jugglers and clowns, but their madness held a wry smile of societal cognisance.
Dylan’s electric venture that put the conceit of counterculture to the sword, had the same positively charged jolt that Frank always looked Zap into action. “Without deviation from the norm,” he once declared, “progress is not possible.” Freak Out! is an album of iconoclastic deviance that set the Mothers of Invention as outsiders standing aside from the necessity engines of invention.
Imagine being back in 1966: You lay the needle on the record and the opening Kinks-like riff of ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’ and you instantly nod your head like the music is that hammer the doctor taps your knee with, ‘Alright then’, you say. Then the vocals / strange, chanted incantation begins, and you think, ‘Okay, a little bit unusual but I like it, I guess’. By the time the peculiar dissonant middle-eight kicked in you’d be saying, ‘What the f—k is this?’.
‘I Ain’t Got No Heart’ follows a similar trajectory. Things are swinging beautifully until someone randomly starts making retching noises as though the subject is literally making them sick. Bearing in mind that this perturbing entity nearly didn’t exist owing to Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ you get a grasp of the very singular outfit we are dealing with.
Five years on from Freak Out! Zappa was asked by journalist Howard Smith, what he made of audiences becoming increasingly political, Zappa replied in trademark fashion, “It’s superficial, it’s as superficial as their music consciousness. It’s just another aspect of being involved in the actions of their peer group.”
When pressed for more details and whether he hadn’t noticed any changes coming from the political movements that began to entwine with his music he replied, “Sure, I’ve noticed a lot of changes, but I think they’re temporary changes. Any change for the good is always subject to cancellation, upon the arrival of the next fad.”
As shrewd and erudite as he was inscrutable and ironic, Zappa had one key similarity with Dylan that comes across clearly on his handshake with the world of pop culture. Paul Simon once said: “[With] Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time.” With Zappa, he’s telling you the truth, making fun, and about four other things all in the same kaleidoscopic song.
Mothers of Invention is all of that from the get-go. It barnstormed into counterculture like Chris Farley cartwheeling onto a talk show. It was mad, manic and brimming with talent, originality and more things to say than it could clearly convey. It remains an oddity but that ‘What the hell is this’ notion has well and truly been subsumed in the simple joy of it.