Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Mothers of Invention—
Freak Out!


Released 1966 on Verve
The Seth Man, September 2003ce
When you hear a record you never heard before and the response to your brain is unique, original and makes you feel innocent of your own dirt all at once, the imminent payoff is amazing because rock’n’roll has just happened to you and you’re fucking alive AND loving it.

One such moment happened exactly two decades ago to this month when I entered a favourite record shop that wasn’t near school, but I MADE it closer by going there every time money of any amount fell into my hands. It was Friday morning before class, and since I had already paid three visits since Monday I was beginning to feel poor, irresponsible and looking for any reason to cut class and head home early with a reasonable find and spent the rest of the weekend marveling all over it instead of worrying who the fuck I was gonna be when I grew up. So I scanned the used bin and what did I alight on in the very last row but a copy of “Freak Out!’ by The Mothers of Invention marked at the insanely cheap price of $3.99 (Remember, this was in that pre-CD world when copies of “Freak Out!” were deadly rare -- although since issued on CD it caused a deluge of original vinyl copies to be traded in and have been far more common a sight ever since.) And although its condition was spoiled by marks on all four sides and obviously had been played to death, it looked far from unplayable. And even if there were skips, so what: at least I could finally hear it. But forget listening to it, I was ALREADY freaking out. “Freak Out!” for four bucks?!! I’d never even SEEN the inside gatefold of it because it was always up on the wall of record shops behind the counter in a plastic sleeve alongside all the other top-drawer and un-stickered items like original albums on International Artists, “The Trip” soundtrack and all the other ones that were so expensive you hadda bother an employee just to look at it up close and even then, if you didn’t buy it you would suffer a dark-clouded silence from Hell that silently screamed “LOSER” as it was withdrawn from your grasp and put back up on the wall. A friend of mine had an older brother who had copies of every single Mothers album from “Freak Out!” on up to “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” AND the MGM post mortem compilations but even then I hadda beg to just drool at the sight of them in their boxes stowed away in the family attic. The sleeves were thought-provoking, disturbing and funny all at once while giving off the vibe that this was the kind of daunting stuff one ‘got’ only by the time you were in college, or something. But that was five years in the then completely distant teenaged future and if my grades didn’t start exhibiting signs of improvement, it would be even longer. Fuuckk...

But there I was during the first three weeks at art school and as if on cue, “Freak Out!” was in my collection and that’s where it’s been ever since. I was so fucking alive AND loving every second that wouldn’t pass quick enough as I trucked down the street with it under my arm. It was one of the many sweetly giddy moments I ever got out of rock’n’roll. And I’ve played it all the way through countless times: at parties, at myself, at friends and even made out to it once which I really don’t recommend doing as a lot of the tracks here are atypical love songs or discordant instrumental passages that break any mood even approaching romance, toot sweet.

Every time I listen to “Freak Out!” it still resounds with that one moment in time when I realised that I would not and could not postpone my own joy: and that it was solid, Jackson. “Freak Out!” is possessed with the same spirit of a vision fulfilled and I still think it was Zappa’s boldest statement, ever. It’s demanding and rewarding in equal parts with the directness of Zappa’s barbed wit already warming to the task at hand mercilessly by targeting the hypocrisies of society and its patterns of behaviour with considered observations while questioning a whole lotta things that were usually accepted simply as ‘the way things are.’ And the ‘way things are’ back in those days of rock’n’roll was to sound either like The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Byrds or all four at once while kowtowing to popular taste by diluting it with stock in trade pop devices from Tin Pan Alley. What it WASN’T was making your debut album a double, calling it “Freak Out!” then hiring an orchestra to back your ugly electric rock’n’roll band while deliberately making each successive album side gain in strength and bizarreness and culminating with the full-length/-blown barbarian Yahoo of side four’s only ‘song’ AND calling it “The Return Of The Son of Monster Magnet” while taking the remaining third of the LP and dipping it in a vat of greasy kid stuff doo-wop.

“Freak Out” was the culmination of several months of composing and rehearsing before recording commenced in early 1966 with producer Tom Wilson at the console. Already with albums by Bob Dylan and The Blues Project to his credit, it would be only months before he would be producing sessions for The Velvet Underground’s first album, and it was due to Wilson’s recommendation and foresight that The Mothers were signed in the first place. He also allowed “Freak Out!” to run over budget due to the protracted time Zappa spent in the studio conducting and re-arranging the album to its final state. And although it was the smallest Mothers lineup to record -- the short-lived quintet comprised of Zappa, Ray Collins, Elliot Ingber, Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black -- they were backed by ‘The Mothers Auxiliary’ and a handful of other session players who contributed fullness to the proceedings that were both loose during improvisation and tight during orchestration.

From a distance, “Freak Out!’ is a pastiche of styles from which no one style emerges as a single defining characteristic and that’s only one of its many qualities that are so subversive. Through variable speed manipulations, orchestral scores, leaking cross-cutting segments from side four over the first two and drowning the whole shebang in a drained Olympic-sized swimming pool of echo, “Freak Out!” is dense and compressed both in sound and production as Zappa proceeded to sew together a composite picture of his musical influences from R&B, Fifties doo-wop and especially the dissonances of Edgar Varèse, whose quote “The present-day composer refuses to die!” Zappa placed upon all the earliest Mothers sleeves as his own personal statement of intent because it was as much Varèse’s sounds as the iconoclasm that informed them which Zappa embraced so heartily. The rock’n’roll played by The Mothers was about as eccentric and complex as the dizzying arrangements and orchestrations directed by Zappa that quickly shifted, sorted and organised the musical mayhem that resided within all fifteen tracks as they adhered to their own distinct and carefully plotted series of rigid tempos, syncopated rhythms, accentuations, jarring crescendos and unpredictable scenarios.

The two records that comprised the “Freak Out!” double album were programmed for two different sensibilities. Except for three tracks, the first record of “Freak Out!” is an assortment of teen love songs generally rendered in the doo-wop idiom (so no surprise four of them later wound up on The Mothers’ 1968 doo-wop album released under their nom-de-Pachuco, Ruben & The Jets.) Actually, they deal more with the heartbreak that generally is teenage love, as their titles “How Could I Be Such A Fool?,” “You Didn’t Try To Call Me,” “Any Way The Wind Blows” and “I’m Not Satisfied” all clearly attest. But I do not believe for a second the accusations later made by ex-musical associates of Zappa that he was just running down the boss tunes of his own adolescence from a position of condescending superiority. Were these dumb songs? Did they champion the longings and hormonal outgrowths of fifties greasers and zit-farms everywhere? Did they use painfully low bass voices that are (face it) hilariously funny and sound as though the guy really is singing in a closet? Yes, yes and yes: but it didn’t prevent Zappa -- a musician who sought to break down barriers between low- and high-brow art at every turn -- from cherishing its innocence as much as its structure by any means. Plus, they were bright, snappy numbers (hotcha!) so they could take a little sarcasm and still remain buoyant (and mebbe even a little bit more so for it) because they are rock’n’roll songs.

The ginchiest track is probably “Wowie Zowie,” which sounds a lot like the way The Blues Project did on “Projections” albeit with additional mallet mischief all over the xylophone. In the liner notes, Zappa said that “Little Richard likes it” and I can hear why. I bet The McCoys liked it, too.

Remember the three tracks I mentioned earlier that WEREN’T love songs? Well, they’re hands down the best tracks on the first record of “Freak Out!” because they are scathing, satirical, scab picking, status quo- and head-fucking songs that take no prisoners. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” and “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” bookend record one and are hilarious in their pointed social critiques and fuck off bon mots as much as Zappa’s own accompanying liner notes and musically are rhythmically strong as they hold an abundance of divergent sounds. Between the opening twin BRAAAANG! of Ingber’s and Zappa’s rhythm fuzztone guitars with accompanying xylophones, spare piano chords and that booming yet clipped echo on Zappa’s voice, what hangs together here is the sound of a truly outsider anthem. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” caps it all off with batteries of raspberry-blowing kazoo and the highlight for me every time is the line “You tore a big hole in your convertible top/what will you tell your Mom and Pop?” quickly followed by the matter-of-factly response, “Mom, I tore a big hole in the convertible.”

But all of this aside, the one song that really, really makes it has got to be “Who Are The Brain Police?” It’s got a retarded, swaying drawled out Yardbirds-styled Gregorian chant for openers and on top of that one of the most viciously struck fuzztone guitar riffs of all time as drum sticks randomly strike out at studio furniture, gear and finally clatter to the floor in the background. Zappa’s voice is echoed to truly abusive levels, and the kazoo blats only add to the menacing atmosphere concocted out of continual fuzztone blasts and tympani that roams in the background in clodhopping blindness. It’s the first mesmerising moment on “Freak Out!” before things get even more out of hand on the next record, and there’s even a snippet from side four placed on it as though in warning that things will only get more intense as the record progresses.

That warning isn’t kidding, either: The second record of “Freak Out!” is far darker and comprised of only three tracks that defiantly run against previous subject matter and run off the rails. Side three commences with “Trouble Comin’ Every Day,” Zappa’s own elongated observation on the 1965 race riots in Watts that are as stinging as the Bloomfield-esque guitar licks while the rolling ensemble backing enters behind Zappa’s near-spoken recital that is unflinchingly direct in its appraisal of race relations, the social inequalities from which it grows, the media’s coverage and the growing flames of hatred that proliferate not only in a section of Los Angeles but throughout the world. The wailing harmonica halfway through indicates hope in at least some degree in the same way it was later reprised by Steve Winwood on “Mr. Fantasy.”

Everything turns to celebratory abandon as freaks enter to run amok throughout the repetitious, percussion-based patterning that is “Help, I’m A Rock” (Suite In Three Moments).” Signaling the beginning of the freaking out, Kim Fowley prominently caterwauls all manically quavering against the slow drum pattern that gets interfered by low grunting, abrupt tape edits, pandemonium and eventually the blast of audio dénouement that previously erupted within the confines of “I Ain’t Got No Heart” and “Who Are The Brain Police?” from side one. Uh-oh, what’s going on? Pretty soon, you don’t know whether “1st Movement: Okay To Tap Dance” has finished or you’re midway through “2nd Movement: In Memoriam, Edgar Varèse” but as soon as “3rd Movement: It Can’t Happen Here” elbows itself into your interior conversation (Here comprised of laughter, question marks, etc) you know it because everything has cut out except for the vocals repeating the title in a verbal display of Chinese water torture.

The tempestuous sprawl-out that is “The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet In Two Tableaus)” is segmented into the two-part “Ritual Dance Of The Child-Killers” and “Nullis Pretii (No Commercial Potential).” This is the MOTHER of all freak-outs literally, figuratively and chronologically as it takes the percussive-based freedoms of the previous song even further OUT and across soundscapes of theremin, overdubbed piano and primeval tympani. Vocals appear chanting, screaming, yelling, grunting, whispering, trading monkey calls and insect chatter as everything including the kitchen sink of your mind is thrown into tempos that quicken, sicken, slow down and speed up once more… then vanishes altogether into a cellular breakdown of silence, leaving only tape-sped chipmunky vocals and rapid piano massage going on as you wonder who you were before this erupted on your sound system.

Even though Zappa’s solo output is the size of Texas, The Mothers of Invention’s is far more compact and New Jersey in size. It’s also just as stinky, so best to start here if you’re unfamiliar with it all (or “Hot Rats” if you want to take the easy way out.) Either way, you’ll know in an instant if it’s for you or not. Some people think he’s abhorrent in his cynicism and cantankerousness while others revel in his genius. But like him or loathe him, the man truly was an artist who pushed the envelope against the status quo and all the other plastic people of the universe and through his musical talents was able to create what most people aren’t capable of imaging in the first place. Me? I love most of the Verve/Bizarre stuff in equal measures although only few of even those really do it for me like “Freak Out!” does. I mean, how could they?