Celebrating a Half Century of the Music of Frank Zappa

by Doc Jeffurious Higgason

By the time Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention released their second album Absolutely Free in May of 1967, the group had already fixed itself as a strident, intelligent satirical mirror that reflected back the pretentious aspects of American pop culture. At that particular juncture in our history Zappa and The Mothers of Invention had plenty of fodder to expound upon.

The first Human Be-In was held in January of that year in San Francisco. A key moment that helped touch off the mythical doings that later became known as “The Summer Of Love”. Seemingly in an instant, thousands of farm kids were dropping out, farming hair, heading to California to expand their horizons (take drugs and bang each other) while thousands of other farm kids were receiving free trips to Southeast Asia courtesy of the American Military-Industrial Complex.

Existing concurrently beneath the reeking flowery vapors of peace and love, the country was also exploding against itself with large anti-war demonstrations and race riots spreading across the nation from “Hell to breakfast.”

The role of “The Mothers” within the cultural principalities of the late 1960’s could be considered a “third perspective” that pushed against the ideologies of not only the government establishment, but also the so-called “hippie” culture and it’s leanings toward superficiality and excess.

The Mothers of Invention gleefully pointed out the flawed logic and motivations of both sides to expose their overall phoniness. They had humor and rebelled against the hippie-dippy-flower-power factions.  They weren’t all dark and foreboding like the Velvet Underground, or clubfooted and planted firmly in the hole of faux-poetry like The Doors.

One of the first recognized “concept albums”, Absolutely Free embraces a format in which both sides are their own miniature musical suite. The album begins with “Plastic People”, a jolly stab at conforming and holding tight to materialistic status set to the tune of the Richard Berry classic “Louie, Louie”. Later, GZA used samples of the song for his track “Cold World”.

The sound of Absolutely Free also throws the spotlight more on Zappa’s fetish with classical music. The “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” begins with the saxophone paraphrasing the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Pieces of Stravinsky can be found sprinkled about “Amnesia Vivace” you hear elements of: “The Rites Of Spring,” “The Firebird,” “Petrouchka” and “A Soldier’s Tale.”

“Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” has been called a two hour musical performance condensed into only a few minutes. This tiny opera is a volley fired across the bow of  suburban sameness and greed that eventually fritters down to a tale about a perverted city hall official who draws out a fantasy of having sex with a 13-year-old girl and dousing her with chocolate syrup only to “strap her on again.”

The inspiration for the song reportedly comes from a story written by reporter Hugh Sidey for Time magazine in 1966 involving then President Lyndon B. Johnson, who perpetrated the fashion crime of wearing brown shoes with a gray suit.

Where The Mothers of Invention’s first album Freak Out! was heavily driven by moods of rhythm and blues and doo-wop, intermingled with experimental sounds, Absolutely Free became the vehicle that propelled Zappa’s fusion of avant-garde classical elements into modern rock music. It set the standard that was an ever expanding platform in later Zappa albums.

Absolutely Free celebrates it’s 50th Anniversary this month.