Frank Zappa is revered in curiously paradoxical terms, as an iconoclastic icon. With his devilish beard, quick wit and quicker fingers, he’s the patron saint of all those who believe that pop and rock are risibly inferior musical forms, practised by earnestly deluded simpletons, consumed by gullible, dead-eyed suburbanite kids. On his most acclaimed albums, We’re Only In It For The Money and Absolutely Free, he swooped to conquer pop like some musical ubermensch first to parody pop styles (doo-wop, The Beatles, preppy Sixties garage music) showing with what effortless simplicity their inherent banality could be exposed, before ascending into furiously virtuoso avant-jazz and classical excursions, as if to demonstrate to pop bods the humiliating impoverishment of their cheesy culture compared with the ‘Proper’ music of the 20th century.
Yet, despite of his prodigious and eclectic output, despite his undoubted technical abilities, there’s ultimately a sense about Zappa that he actually had nothing to offer. he assembles formidable mosaics of existing genres on albums like Uncle Meat, yet he himself did not conceive any new musical style. He had no “voice” – he couldn’t sing, though we always hear a lot of him on his albums, those amusical, superciliously acerbic tones of his. In the great scheme of things, he was closer in spirit to a heckler than a performer.
His reputation is founded on his earliest albums, with their broadsides against consumerist America and pooping deflation of the aspirations of hippiedom. 30 years on, however, his assaults on “plastic people” sound dated, self-satisfied and the most trite manifestation of the sort of elitist artist’s basic contempt for humankind exposed in John Carey’s The Intellectuals And The Masses. Furthermore, if Zappa found the pop and rock scene of 1967 wanting – arguably its highest watermark – then you wonder if the man was capable of experiencing joy. His inability to experience pop music (even doo-wop, which he actually doted on) without breaking into a sneer is a congenital failing on his part, not on pop’s.
By 1969, the strain of years of iconoclasm, belching into the mic, tiresome parodies and running jokes about Suzy Creamcheese must have told even on him. From thereon, his albums increasingly became showcases for the musical virtuosos he assembled around him – the likes of George Duke and electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, whose endless soloing on Hot Rats and Burnt Weeny Sandwich offered a nightmarish vision of what music would be like in Zappatopia.
As a bandleader, Zappa was autocratic and a stickler for tightness, and that’s reflected in his albums – technically formidable yet ultimately pointless, inexpressive jazz-rock, which transmits no other message to the listener than “we can play this, you can’t”. Zappa’s own guitar solos particularly are fast, twaddly, Flight-Of-The-Bumble-Bee affairs high on skill, low on artistic impression or even invention – sound and fury signifying nothing.
Even many Zappa fans would concede that in his last 25 years he produced nothing but rubbish. When he attempted in the Seventies to revert to the lampoonery of the earliest years, the results were punitively unlistenable. Check “Billy The Mountain”, the comic odyssey on Just Another Band From LA, or the geriatric satire of “Disco Boy” on Zoot Allures. Zappa tried earnestly to establish a legacy as a figure worthy of consideration in the classical canon, encouraged by the likes of Pierre Boulez. But as his turgid orchestral pieces attest, Zappa was to classical music what Prince Charles is to impressionist painting. Indeed, he only tickled the palate of “serious” music buffs who imagined that pieces like “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” ranked him as a debunker of stuffy classical mores.
Therein lay Zappa’s problem – too highbrow to be a lowbrow, too lowbrow to be a highbrow. It’s only the rocktastically onomatopoeic nature of Zappa’s surname that ensures he is remembered (had he been called Frank Capper, we’d hear even less of him). Who among today’s musical generation actually listens to albums like Grand Wazoo or Weasels Ripped My Flesh for inspiration? Towards the end of his life, Zappa may have become aware of the absence within himself. It’s said he spent his last days listening over and over to the doo-wop records of his youth, sobbing uncontrollably – lamenting, perhaps, the soul he never had.