Frank Zappa: complex artist, musical snob

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even from the grave, Frank Zappa continues to intimidate rock critics.

Facing the Zappa legacy is an enormous -- and, to some degree, thankless -- task. Not only does it involve days upon days of listening, it also requires far more thought and analysis than most rock music. Zappa wasn't like other rock stars, and his music has to be judged by a unique and idiosyncratic set of standards.

In the 27 years he spent making albums, the Baltimore-born Zappa indulged in everything from soundtracks and concept albums to orchestral works and concert recordings. There were nearly 60 titles overall -- an astonishing figure, given that the average rock star these days rarely produces more than an album every other year.

Amazingly, almost all of Zappa's work remains in print. Thanks to the consolidation that began with the sale of Zappa's catalog to Rykodisc, some 53 Zappa albums are currently in print (virtually all his albums except "200 Motels"). Moreover, plans are in the works for new albums to be compiled from unreleased material in the Zappa archives.

As a result, Zappa is ensured of taking up more shelf space than any other rocker of his generation.

To be honest, a fair amount of Zappa's reputation rests on the sheer bulk of his output, since most critics assume that only a genius could compose and record so much complicated music. But is quantity really an indicator of quality?

Not in this case. There has always been a lot to dislike about Zappa's writing, especially if you start with the words. Zappa's lyrics were often snidely sexist, reflecting an attitude that was misanthropic at best and misogynous at worst. It's not just that efforts like "Dinah-Moe Humm" from "Overnight Sensation" (Ryko or "Jewish Princess" from "Sheik Yerbouti" (Ryko 10528) seem politically incorrect by current standards; all too often, Zappa's songs presented women not as individual beings but as a semi-beguiling set of orifices. Even as a joke, that sort of thing isn't very funny.

Then there was his enduring interest in toilet humor, as typified by "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" from "Apostrophe (')" (Ryko 10519), and his tendency to treat average Joes as the punch line in some continuing moron jokes. Even his attacks on authority -- though often quite worthy, as with "Porn Wars" from "Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention" (Ryko 10547) -- often seemed embarrassingly mean-spirited.

Hold the humming

His music, on the other hand, generally earned the grudging admiration of his critics, if only because it was too complex for most of them to criticize intelligently. Where other songwriters would settle for a catchy chorus and a coherent verse, such Zappa tunes as "Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)" from "Roxy & Elsewhere" (Ryko 10520) proffered themes and variations of such complexity that you almost needed a music degree just to hum along.

Because his compositions tended to be as intricate as they were ingenious, Zappa was a musician's musician, admired by rockers, jazzmen and classically trained players alike. That he was a great bandleader goes without saying -- contrary to the title of "We're Only In It for the Money," nobody got rich playing with Zappa -- and the Mothers of Invention alumni roster includes such names as George Duke, Lowell George, Steve Vai, Adrian Belew, Captain Beefheart, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio, Duran Duran guitarist Warren Cucurullo, and Genesis tour drummer Chester Thompson.

Yet for all the intelligence and musicianship that went into Zappa's work, the question remains: Was it good music?

It wasn't good rock, but then Zappa wasn't much of a rocker. Sure, he looked the part -- he had the hair, the guitar, the groupies -- and was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. He even got mentioned in a Deep Purple song. So what about him wasn't rock and roll?

Beat avoidance

His music, frankly. As much as Zappa liked to play off stylistic devices of classic rock (particularly doo-wop harmonies and melodic conventions), his music generally avoided the most basic component of rock and roll: the beat. As Chuck Berry so aptly put it, the thing about rock and roll music is that it has "a backbeat/You can't lose it."

But Zappa did. He went whole albums without once resorting to that familiar boom-thwack!-boom-boom-thwack! rhythm. It wasn't that Zappa's drummers couldn't keep a beat; Zappa simply didn't want them to.

Some of that no doubt extended from Zappa's musicianly disdain for music as bone-simple as basic rock and roll. This, remember, was a guy whose "serious" compositions were extolled by Pierre Boulez and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and who was known to sprinkle allusions to 20th-century classical music through his work. In fact, the live album "Make a Jazz Noise Here" (Ryko 10552) includes excerpts from Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" and Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, both done Frank's way.

Choosing complexity

His style was just part of his identity problem; the rest had to do with a more basic difference in Zappa's attitude toward rhythm. He wasn't interested in propulsion -- your basic, foot-stomping, hip-twitching pulse -- so much as he was in complexity, and as a result, Zappa's music had more in common with modern jazz or Eastern European folk music than Chuck Berry's beloved backbeat.

He was inordinately fond of tricky time signatures and stutteringly complicated cadences. His taste in drummers was admirable, but it's no accident that most of Zappa's timekeepers wound up moving on to fusion jazz instead of mere rock and roll. (It's also telling that even though Zappa's bands invariably included an extra percussionist, he or she worked mainly with melodic instruments such as xylophone and marimba, instead of pulse-oriented stuff like conga or timbales.)

Thus, though Zappa's writing was often rhythm-based, what it offered wasn't groove so much as a sense of the mathematical possibilities that could emerge when a 4/4 beat is subdivided. "Transylvania Boogie," from "Chunga's Revenge" (Ryko 105112), is a classic example. Even though drummer Aynsley Dunbar keeps time in steady multiples of four, Zappa's guitar eddies and doubles back over the rhythm with the inventive agility of a Turkish saz player. The tune's only hint of "boogie" turns up about three minutes in, as Zappa unfurls a few rock-style guitar riffs before winding his way back to the Middle-Eastern licks he started with.

Then there's Zappa's disco send-up, "Dancin' Fool" (from "Sheik Yerbouti"). Despite its scene-setting use of the standard disco beat, there's nothing especially danceable about the tune, as Zappa continually knocks the beat off-kilter by interjecting bars of 3/4 and 11/8 into the pulse.

The sneer imperative

When Zappa did try to pay tribute to the rock tradition, whatever affection he felt for the genre was generally overwhelmed by his need to sneer at its simplicity. "Cruising With Ruben & the Jets" (Ryko 10505), his 1968 "homage" to doo-wop, is all too typical -- purporting to be an act of veneration, but ultimately coming across as a sarcastic genre exercise, written by a snob and performed by bored jazzbos.

Seriously, now, would a true doo-wop aficionado have put his name to the hack harmonies and sloppy singing of "Deseri," or tolerated the lax, jazzy rhythm work that keeps "Cheap Thrills" from really rocking? As for the slick, modal harmony and complex guitar fills of "Jelly Roll Gum Drop," they sound more like Todd Rundgren than anything the Ravens or the Regents would have recorded.

Zappa's disdain for rock's lowest common denominator is a recurring theme in his work. From the sarcastic references to hit singles and "Robert Planet" in the "Do You Like My New Car" routine from "Fillmore East, June 1971" (Ryko 10512), to the smirking burlesque of the mock-opera "Joe's Garage" (Ryko 10530/31), to the snarky, we're-too-good-for-this rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on "The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life" (Ryko 10553), Zappa's attitude suggests nothing but contempt for both mainstream rock and the cretins it attracts.

All of which makes it illuminating to consider Zappa's "pop" side. Frank Zappa only cracked the Top 40 once, with "Valley Girl" in 1982, and its popularity had more to do with daughter Moon's catch-phrase-spouting rap than anything Zappa and his sidemen were playing.

But Zappa's best-known work always owed more to the words than to the music. In August, Rykodisc will release a best-of album called "Strictly Commercial," and even though many of the titles will be familiar even to casual fans, the only truly memorable melody on the album belongs to "Peaches en Regalia" -- an instrumental.

Absurd fun

What made songs like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Dirty Love," "Montana" and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" FM favorites was that they were funny, not catchy. Zappa's wonderfully developed sense of the absurd was one of his most likable features, and listeners couldn't help but laugh when confronted with aspiring dental floss tycoons and Eskimo moms warning to "Watch out where the huskies go."

Zappa's humor always played a big part in his live shows. Routines like the monster-movie valentine "Cheepnis" from "Roxy Elsewhere" (Ryko 10520) or "The Illinois Enema Bandit" from "Zappa in New York" (Ryko 10524) were wise-guy favorites and probably accounted for more of his popularity than the intricate instrumental workouts surrounding the funny bits.

But there was always a certain nastiness lurking beneath Zappa's jibes, and as Zappa's popularity diminished, that mean streak became more pronounced. Titles like "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" and "Dumb All Over" -- both from "You Are What You Is" (Ryko 10536) -- aren't funny. They're condescending and cruel, qualities that have never had much place in rock and roll.

Ultimately, that's what makes the long march through Zappa's catalog seem such a chore. Despite the impressive musicianship and regular flashes of brilliance in his work, much of Zappa's oeuvre is deliberately intimidating and elitist, the work of an artist who had no use for his inferiors and only limited patience for his peers.

Because the music is so difficult, Zappa's reputation is in many ways critic-proof. Anyone who would complain that the albums are too complicated can easily be dismissed as an intellectual pygmy incapable of understanding what Zappa wrote. On the other hand, those capable of following the arcane logic of this music are usually too self-impressed to look beyond the technical trickery and see if there's anything at the core of these recordings.

Is there merit to Zappa's music? Sure there is -- but not 53 albums' worth. And that's the problem. Frank Zappa was extremely professional and astonishingly prolific, but he wasn't terribly consistent. So even though the Zappa catalog is often fascinating and occasionally stunning, it hardly ranks as essential listening.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear a sampling of Frank Zappa's tunes, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6144 after you hear the greeting.

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