One of The Certified Classics - Mothers of Invention, 'Freak Out'
Frank Zappa first, and one of his best
Many would debate whether Freak Out!, the first official Frank Zappa release with his Mothers of Invention belongs among the classics based on its musical merits, but there are other elements of this release that undeniably put it among the classics.
Starting from the more mundane, it is an album issued more than fifty years ago, so in that respect, if you compare it to the automobile classification, it is literally a classic. I’m sure Zappa himself, with him constantly keeping at least his toes in humor, sarcasm, and irony in all he did would approve of this classification if he was still around.
In other ‘statistical’ parameters’, Freak Out! would also rank among the classics - it was only the second double album in rock history (Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde) beating it by a few months and is one of the first, if not the first rock albums issued on the stalwart jazz label Verve.
More importantly, and by all other accounts, Freak Out! is considered as the first concept album in rock music, and that is where the story of its musical/lyrical merits should really start. Basically, this could be the case, but not necessarily. If such a concept exists, it doesn’t come across as it was a conscious process on Zappa’s part, even less on the part of the former Soul Giants, as The MOF were known before Zappa rode into literally take over the reins.
Still, Zappa picked up on the idea and kept promoting ‘the concept’ as things developed. In retrospect, he was right to do so, because, consciously or unconsciously, things, or the music to be more precise, do fall in place as a unified whole.
Still, the contours of the concept through some freaky rock songs, distorted, drenched in humor doo-wop and Varese/Stravinsky-inspired avant-garde. It all hinges on the quintet of some of the best brief songs Zappa came up with - “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”, “Who Are The Brain Police?”, “I’m Not Satisfied”, “ You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” and “Trouble Every Day”.
It all started with the latter song, based on which album’s producer Tom Wilson actually recommended The MOF to MGM/Verve and culminates with “Who Are The Brain Police?” track that still rings with its message fifty or so years after it was recorded, and probably one of the most ‘serious’ (if there is such a thing) in Zappa’s canon. These tracks, along with the title of the album itself, are the ones that created Zappa’s social consciousness image. At one point in the late Sixties, you weren’t considered as hip or ‘anti-establishment’ if you didn’t have a copy of this album, or at least a poster of Zappa on a toilet seat on a prominent place in your abode.
The other set of songs, deal with Zappa's outlook on the rock music life and the whole scene rock music created, particularly at that time when Zappa came up with this material, something he later expanded on, particularly on We’re In It Only For The Money, yet another of his masterpieces.
The more experimental, avant-garde material (“Help I’m A Rock”, “It Can’t Happen Here” and “The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”), based on Zappa’s lifelong fascination with modern classical composers like Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky and the free jazz that was in full development at the time, serves as a sort of a musical glue for the two seemingly disparate themes Zappa introduces on the album, as well as his constant ironic approach (the introduction of the recurring character of Suzy Creamcheese) and the diversity of musical themes and genres Zappa would so deftly tackle throughout his career.
Not that everything was smooth sailing. Throughout the recording Zappa’s dictatorial tendencies grated on the band members and the whole process of in/out the band started; MGM/Verve had no idea what they were getting into, and as was also apparent in the case of the Velvet Underground debut that also came out on Verve the following year, had no idea how to properly produce, promote or handle rock records in general. But even less so, they had no idea what they were getting into with Zappa, they curtailed some of the things he wanted to introduce in “The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”. In the end, Zappa prevailed anyway. Luckily.
Still, with all that, Freak Out! is a true classic, not only for its historical and cultural, but also its musical merits and deserves all those high places it gets on ‘best of all times’ lists.