Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Freak Out!

I've been a fan of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention since I first heard 'em in 1968. I just bought his most recent album "Feeding the Monkies at Ma Maison" released something like 18 years after his death. Along with it came this book by his British secretary, Pauline Butcher. It turned out to be a great read and one of the most intimate, insightful and revealing accounts of life with Zappa and his extended family, his wife, his Mothers, his A-List rock star friends and assorted Freaks. Pauline was offered the chance to live and work in the Zappas' sprawling new home in Los Angeles. She thought her move from Twickenham to Laurel Canyon would bring glamour and luxury. The truth turned out to be far far from it!

This book provides new incites into the complex mind of Zappa and his music, his complex relationship with friends, family, staff, managers, groupies, nannies, "Plaster Casters" and with the musicians who made the music for him - and why he fired them. It's also a portrait of the 1968-72 Los Angeles - before and after Charlie Manson, seen through the eyes of an outsider. Pauline also skilfully keeps us in suspense about who's sleeping with whom and who's on drugs and who isn't, and then….well, you'll have to read it yourself.

A question mark hangs over whether anyone younger than, say, 40 - or someone who's never heard of Frank Zappa (or Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Wild Man Fischer) would find this book interesting. I think they would. As someone a bit older than that I thought it was great!


  1. Here's a great clip from Youtube, you may be aware of it, but even so - it's a striking example of the genius that was already evident in a pre-Zappa Zappa.

    BTW- Did you know, the story goes, that Vaclav Havel wanted to make Zappa minister for culture?...Sadly, that didn't pan out.

  2. Stewart. I don't want to sound like a know-it-all but a clip of Zappa playing bicycle on the Steve Allen Show is in a very good DVD called "Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention in the 60s". Here it is:

    There was a two hour edition of The Late Show on UK TV that included Zappa telling the story of his brief arrangement with Vaclav Havel. He said that James Baker turned up and told Havel that he could either deal with Zappa or he could deal with the United States of America.

  3. Brian,

    As someone only slightly over 40, I am aware of Frank Zappa but never knew quite what was worth getting out of those many albums ("all of them" I hear you say) - any recommendations?

  4. James Baker said that?...jings, I'd no idea it had gone that far. I wonder which was the better choice? :9))

    I'm sure you've seen them all but It was his appearances on Crossfire that made me a fan of the man....and that bike clip!
    BTW- Crossfire is the same show that Jon Stewart later destroyed as a guest, it was pulled from TV I think after he appeared and critically lacerated them. (All clips are on Youtube)

  5. SREW. I'm always keen to spread the gospel of Zappa. Bad choice of words there, probably!

    It depends on what kind of music you like. Every kind of art succeeds, if at all, because it was completely new in its time. So in 1966 when Freak Out came out there was nothing like it. It was the first rock music double album (probably alongside Dylan's Blonde on Blonde which was acoustic folk). Freak Out was more sinister in tone than anything before. It took you on a journey from something you may have heard before into something more free-form, incomprehensible and, yes, freaky. It's hard to imagine how it would be perceived by someone coming at it today. By the time of the third album "We're Only In It For The Money" in 1968 Zappa had moved on to a cut and paste of noise collages interspersed with songs that were a comment on and a piss take of the youth scene of the time and its battle with the police and the older generation. Some of Zappa's best songs are on this album. And they're funny! It's my favourite album and the one I bought first.

    After Zappa disbanded the original Mothers in 1969 his huge output was patchy. Several albums I didn't like at all. Some had one or two great numbers next to smutty ramblings like "Titties n' beer"! Which I didn't like very much. If you like his guitar solos you might like the later albums more. I, personally prefer his first 7 or 8 albums and recommend them. Buy them in order. They were:

    Freak Out
    Absolutely Free
    We're Only In It For The Money
    Lumpy Gravy (This one isn't to everyone's taste)
    Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (Zappa's affectionate take on the doo-wop songs of his youth)
    Uncle Meat (A great double Album)
    Hot Rats (Instrumental album)
    Burnt Weenie Sandwich (This one isn't so good so it's optional)
    Weasels Ripped My Flesh (The second half of this is great and contains Zappa's most beautiful song "Oh No")

    Once you've bought all those come back to me and I'll recommend some more!

  6. Thanks! I'll check them out! By the way, did you ever do any Zappa-related art?