19 FEBRUARY 1977, Page 25

Father of invention

Edward Jones

Reside me in the stalls of the Hammersmith ?clean last week were two young Scotsmen, Doth extremely genial and very evidently the worse (or better) for considerable ingestions illegal chemicals. They rocked back and forth in their seats, flicking dandruff-laden rats tails in my direction, oblivious of all ,except the polyphonic stampede booming 'r°o1 massive banks of loudspeakers on the stage.

They could have been at any heavy rock concert in the last decade. Yet the focus of their automatic enthusiasm was Frank ZaPpa, one of the few performers in the 1-nedium who could reasonably claim to be.a serious artist, as he does, frequently. He is nc'w in Britain, his first visit here since 1971, hen he was thrown from the stage of the Sin bow Theatre by a deranged fan. Born in Maryland in 1940, Zappa moved toCalifornia when he was ten, there enjoying the indulgent middle class adolescence he was later to ridicule so extensively. Like any °ther healthy young Californian of the ,13criod, he taught himself to play guitar and junls and performed in high-school bands. ,,nlike most, however, he also investigated gle work of such serious modern composers ,as.r Stravinsky and Varese, whose cry that r Present day composer refuses to die egularlY adorned early Zappa album covers, z Moving to Los Angeles at nineteen, b413Pa spent several years playing in bar ,ands, recording flop singles, writing radio '41inmercial5 and unproducable movie Ores with such irresistible titles as `1 Was t7:reenage Maltshop.' Not that all recogniZ° Passed him by: he gained nationwide " coverage on the Steve Allan Show t13,erforming a 'Concerto for Bicycle.' By the irrle he was twenty-two, some small successes had brought him a five-track recording sttudio in Cucamonga, Calif., and he formed bile. first version of the band which was to ring worldwide notoriety, The Muthers. 41er re-named The Mothers Of Invention. Their first record, 'Freak Out,' was seleased in 1966, and, with its immediate „,11ccessor, 'Absolutely Free,' outlined what Fre to be Zappa's major preoccupations rckighout,a career so far spanning twenty

albums. He attacks the sheeplike cility of American teenagers, swallowing 'plastic' products of the pop media,

ially concerned with appearance and doclbolescent one-upmanship' while, un,thserved, the CIA prowls the suburbs and ,,"e Nazis are running your town.' Middle merica's older generation, smugly swilling

and hypocritically ignoring the 'left°ehinds of the Great Society,' gets off no i

rriore lightly Even while Dad is being

warned to `beware the rising tide of hungry freaks,' he is blandly reassuring Mom that `It can't happen here, it can't happen here/ you're safe, baby, just cook the TV Dinner...'

Bizarrely anthropomorphic plants supply protagonists for those few songs where humans are felt to be beyond the reach of cartoons, as in 'Duke of Prunes' and 'Call Any Vegetable,' which, taking the ecology movement a stage further, exhorts: ... call any vegetable, call it by name/and the chances are good/that the vegetable will respond to you.'

In the late 1960s Zappa felt it necessary to stress that he wasn't a hippy, but he shared some attitudes of those who were, notably in relation to the discussion of sex. While assaults on prudery were widespread, Zappa's own took an almost prurient interest in the sexual peccadilloes of his elders. A middle-aged man procures a young girl in `Brown Shoes Don't Make It': 'Only thirteen and she knows how to nasty,' he leers. `Off with

her clothes and into a bed/ where she tickles his fancy all night long

He also takes the opportunity regularly of talking dirty about excretion and indulging a dehumanising misogyny, primarily focused on 'groupies,' female fans who thrust their favours on rock musicians. These two neuroses are perhaps the price one pays for the scathing energy of the rest. It is not surprising that males predominate among his fans.

The musical range of the early records is unique and was at the time revolutionary. Aural collage by tape-editing is now unremarkable, but then the juxtaposition of pop and rock parodies, free jazz, recitative, nightclub asides, clips from interviews, electronic white noise and neo-classical orchestrations was a revelation. The outstanding record from this period is 'Uncle 'Meat' (1968), which includes some of his most experimental work and some brilliant 'straight' compositions.

As well as his wizardry within the recording studio, Zappa has as always tried to

bring moments of salon i to his live performances, even at the risk of alienating his audience. During a series in Greenwich Village in 1967, he invited some US Marines on stage, threw them a toy doll and said: 'That's a good baby. Show us how we treat gooks in Vietnam.' The Marines tore the doll apart.

Ceaseless critic of American society though he tried to be, it was his least satirical record which introduced him to the mass audience.. 'Hot Rats' (1969) contained six orthodox instrumental pieces embodying extensive improvisations, led by Zappa and saxophonist Ian Underwood, which are among the finest recorded in the hybrid field of rock-jazz avant-garde. Ironically, when Zappa protested least, he achieved most. Yet he returned to mine the yein of vulgarity and increasingly blunted social comment, typically in the disastrous film about life on the road, 200 Motels, whose scabrous script led to his banning by the Royal Albert Hall on the grounds of obscenity in 1971. Losing the resulting High Court case cost him £20,000.

Several records later came the return to a more straightforward, musical approach and this produced the satisfying `Apostrophe' in 1974, where a bevy of the finest LA session musicians and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce steamed slickly through a number of instrumentals, though the vocal tracks still dwelt on excretion and the socially-peripheral as issues for comment.

Zappa's latest recording, 'Zoot Allures,' from which he plays several pieces during his present concert tour, lacks the towering excellence of his best, but illustrates the contrary consistency of his eleven-year career. The deliberate offence of 'The Torture Never Stops' screams of the 'rats, snot and vomit" on a dungeon floor. Idle youth is criticised in 'Disco Boy' much as it had been in 1966. But, like a diamond among the dross, the title track is a tingling guitar interlude, elegant in form and brilliant in execution.

Zappa may not be a performer who is reassuring or respectable or reliable; but as long as he can produce moments like that, I'll take a gamble on him.

Shadowed by a huge black bodyguard, he is a gaunt lugubrious figure not unlike a grim version of Groucho Marx, and from the start directs affairs like a ringmaster from his place at the centre of the stage. The four other members of the band are only in their early twenties and throughout the complex two-and-a-half-hour show they demonstrate that Zappa retains his talent for patronage of the best young musicians. They never flag, effortlessly turning from a headlong piece of jazz rock to a finely honed pop parody and back again. Zappa himself takes most of the solos and impresses as a craftsman-guitarist; always searching for new notes, novel phrasings and unexpected changes. The clichés of rock shows—the lead guitarist's pose of tortured creativity, the spokesman's coy acknowledgement of an encore—are mercilessly sent up.