Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention [extended]

  • Absolutely Free [Verve, 1967] B-
  • Hot Rats [Bizarre, 1969] C
  • Weasels Ripped My Flesh [Bizarre/Reprise, 1970] B+
  • Chunga's Revenge [Bizarre, 1970] C+
  • Fillmore East, June 1971 [Bizarre, 1971] C-
  • Waka/Jawaka--Hot Rats [Bizarre/Reprise, 1972] B
  • Just Another Band From L.A. [Bizarre, 1972] C
  • Over-Nite Sensation [DiscReet, 1973] C
  • Apostrophe (') [DiscReet, 1974] B-
  • Roxy and Elsewhere [DiscReet, 1974] C+
  • One Size Fits All [DiscReet, 1975] C+
  • Bongo Fury [DiscReet, 1975] B
  • Sleep Dirt [DiscReet, 1979] B-
  • Sheik Yerbouti [Zappa, 1979] C
  • We're Only in It for the Money [Rykodisc, 1995] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Mothers of Invention: Absolutely Free [Verve, 1967]
This well-paced, well-pastiched "oratorio" might be of compelling interest to the sort of avant-garde composer whose work incorporates pop usages; after all, here we have genuine pop musicians doing the obverse. But as rock and roll it's a moderately amusing novelty record, much too obvious in its satire, with harmonies and time changes that presage Yes and Jethro Tull rather than ELP and the Moody Blues. Best cut: "Call Any Vegetable." B-

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats [Bizarre, 1969]
Doo-doo to you, Frank--when I want movie music I'll listen to "Wonderwall." C

The Mothers of Invention: Weasels Ripped My Flesh [Bizarre/Reprise, 1970]
Talk about "montage"--the construction here is all juxtaposition, the composition all interruption. Together with some relatively straightforward instrumentals and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama," the album's two finest strokes--a metal remake of Little Richard's "Directly From My Heart to You" and "Oh No" a devastating reply to "All You Need Is Love"--would make for a highly enjoyable album. But if Brecht considered pure enjoyment counterrevolutionary, Zappa considers it dumb--that's why he breaks in constantly with dialogue and vocal or electronic sounds whose musical interest/value is essentially theoretical. I find most of these engaging enough to think I might want to listen again some day. But all that means is that I enjoy it, quite moderately, in spite of itself. B+

Frank Zappa: Chunga's Revenge [Bizarre, 1970]
Like Bobby Sherman, Zappa is a selfish exploiter of popular taste. That Bobby Sherman wants to make money while Zappa wants to make money and emulate Varese is beside the point--if anything, Zappa's aestheticism intensifies his contempt for rock and its audience. Even Hot Rats, his compositional peak, played as much with the moods and usages of Muzak as with those of rock and roll. This is definitely not his peak. Zappa plays a lot of guitar, just as his admirers always hope he will, but the overall effect is more Martin Denny than Varese. Also featured are a number of "dirty" jokes. C+

The Mothers: Fillmore East, June 1971 [Bizarre, 1971]
The sexist adolescent drivel that hooks these moderne mannerisms should dispel any doubts as to where Big Mother finds his market--among adolescents and sexists of every age and gender (bet he gets more adults than females). It must tickle Frank that a couple of ex-Turtles are now doing his dirty work. Probably tickled him too to split the only decent piece of rock and roll (or music) here between two sides. C-

Frank Zappa: Waka/Jawaka--Hot Rats [Bizarre/Reprise, 1972]
With Sal Marquez playing "many trumpets" all over "Big Swifty," there are times you could drop the needle and think you were listening to recent Miles Davis. That's certainly what Zappa's been doing. But where Davis is occasionally too loose, Zappa's always too tight--he seems to perceive only what is weird and alienating in his influences, never what is humane. Also, Sal Marquez doesn't play trumpet(s) as good as Miles. B

The Mothers: Just Another Band From L.A. [Bizarre, 1972]
You said it, Frank, I didn't. C

The Mothers: Over-Nite Sensation [DiscReet, 1973]
Oh, I get it--the soft-core porn is there to contextualize the serious stuff. Oh, I get it--the automatic solos are there to undercut the serious stuff. Oh, I get it--the marimbas are there to mock-trivialize the serious stuff. But where's the serious stuff? C

Frank Zappa: Apostrophe (') [DiscReet, 1974]
Disillusioned acolytes are complaining that he's retreated, which means he's finally made top ten, but that's just his reward for professional persistence. If anything, the satire's improved a little, and the title piece--an improvisation with Jack Bruce, Jim Gordon, and rhythm guitarist Tony Duran--forays into quartet-style jazz-rock. Given Frank's distaste for "Cosmik Debris" you'd think maybe he's come up with something earthier than Mahavishnu, but given his distaste for sex you can be sure it's more cerebral instead. B-

Frank Zappa/Mothers: Roxy and Elsewhere [DiscReet, 1974]
You can actually hear Zappa thinking on "More Trouble Every Day," and "Son of Orange County" is an uncommonly understated Nixon tribute. The rest is the usual eccentric clichés, replete with meters and voicings and key changes that are as hard to play as they are easy to forget. C+

One Size Fits All [DiscReet, 1975]
Zappa's music has gotten a little slicker rhythmically--which is what happens when you consort with jazz guys--but basically it's unchanged. And his satire has neither improved nor deteriorated--if his contempt would be beneath an overbright high school junior, there's also a brief lieder parody that I'd love to jam onto WQXR. What's changed is the tastes of his erstwhile lionizers--they've gotten bored with his repertoire of stylistic barbarities. Us smart people just got bored faster. C+

Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart/The Mothers: Bongo Fury [DiscReet, 1975]
This sentimental reunion album, recorded (where else?) in Austin with (what else?) additional L.A. studio work, is dismissed by Zappaphiles and 'Fhearthearts alike, but what were they expecting? Perhaps because there's a blues avatar up top, the jazzy music has a soulful integrity, and though it's embarrassing to hear the Captain deliver Frankie's latest pervo exploitations, the rest of the songs are funnier because he's singing them. B

Frank Zappa: Sleep Dirt [DiscReet, 1979]
For what it's worth, I thought I'd mention that this collection of outtakes showcases more good music than any Zappa album in years--including its companion piece, Studio Tan, which features a twenty-minute narrative called "Greggery Peccary" that could make me defend El Lay. Maybe the secret of Sleep Dirt is that Frank doesn't talk on it. But that didn't help Orchestral Favorites. B-

Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti [Zappa, 1979]
If this be social "satire," how come its sole targets are ordinary citizens whose weirdnesses happen to diverge from those of the retentive gent at the control board? Or are we to read his new fixation on buggery as an indication of approval? Makes you wonder whether his primo guitar solo on "Yo' Mama" and those as-unique-as-they-used-to-be rhythms and textures are as arid spiritually as he is. As if there were any question after all these years. C

We're Only in It for the Money [Rykodisc, 1995]
Whatever his ultimate standing as social critic or present-day composer who refuses to die, Zappa was everything he claimed to be on this 19-cut, 40-minute sendup of the Summer of Love. No, it wasn't like this; most of the naive teens who lost-and-found themselves in the Haight were sweeter and smarter than the "phony hippies" he lacerates with such hopeless contempt. But that doesn't mean his cruelty isn't good for laughs. And not only is every wee tune--motive, as composers say--as well-crafted as a Coke commercial, they all mesh together into one of those musical wholes you've read about. With bohemia permanent and changed utterly, this early attack on its massification hasn't so much dated as found its context. Cheap sarcasm is forever. A