Blast From The Past: Frank Zappa

I’m an unabashed Frank Zappa fan; I probably own more albums of his than of any other artist, a fact that owes as much to his prolific artistry as it does to my love of his music. And I certainly don’t suggest that anyone should skip over the majesty of his catalogue to settle for a greatest hits collection.

But I have to remind myself that it’s been over fifteen years since his passing and there’s a generation of listeners who probably have no first-hand observation of the man’s genius. Where does one start? Of course, I always will recommend that one start at the beginning and work forward to be richly rewarded by one great album after another.

But times are tough and money is tight. So if you’re looking to get a mere snapshot, one suggestion is a collection of songs that finds Frank flipping the audio bird at some not-so-sacred cows, entitled Have I Offended Someone. Rykodisc’s fifteen track CD was released posthumously in 1997. Here’s my review, originally published in May of that year…

Thankfully...yes, you have!

Thankfully...yes, you have!

To say that Zappa pushed the envelope would be an understatement. Before it was in vogue to do so, Frank thrilled audiences with theatrical rock shows in residence and issued concept albums. His perfectionist nature led him to discover, nurture, and support talented musicians like Lowell George, Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio. His music encompassed orchestral movements, rock, jazz, and featured everything from classical strings to funky horn sections. When label support would be unavailable (as it usually was from Warner Brothers) Zappa would finance his own tours, usually at a loss, to present his music in a form he felt it deserved. And politically he suffered no fools, as evidenced by his long time campaign against the PMRC and their proposed rating system – again, at his own expense and for the issue, not the glory.

During his 1988 tour – a phenomenal series of performances that has still not been fully documented – he made arrangements with the League Of Women Voters in each city to set up a booth to register voters. For all his idiosyncrasies (and truth be known, they were mostly perceived), Zappa was a brilliant and prolific musician and orator with a biting wit and a generous heart. He never told people what to think – he merely asked them to think for themselves.

Yet to many, Zappa was a man feeding toilet humor to the masses in place of music, a crass and disgusting artist who made fun of gays, blacks, Jews, Catholics…oh hell, everybody. Crass? Well…maybe. Zappa used his satire to pop the balloons of many targets, but never with hatred. What Frank did so well was to take matters like homophobia, racism, sexual prohibition and especially intellectual repression, and let them bask in their own hypocritical bright light.

Have I Offended Someone brings together most of the songs that got under the skin of the politically correct set, those who unfortunately missed the humor and sarcasm. Of course, you also have the closet hypocrites, too. (You can spot them in a second – they’re the ones who laughed at “Jewish Princess” but got pissed when “Catholic Girls” came out a couple of years later.) Zappa was offended too, but by phony televangelists, slimy record executives, two-faced politicians, drug-addled air heads, and especially apathetic whiners. But rather than sit back and complain – or worse, do nothing – Zappa stood up for what he believed in, in song, and in deed.

These witticisms were only a small fragment of a recording career which comprises hundreds of hours of music that spanned the full spectrum of music. But for those new to the Zappa world looking to get a clue to his satirical side, this is as good a place to start as any. Although each of the fifteen pieces on Offended is available in some form on previous releases, eight are remixed or reconstructed and two are previously unavailable live versions – “Tinsel Town Rebellion” and “Dumb All Over”, the latter featuring some stunning guitar work. Other highlights include the driving “Disco Boy” and the hilarious “We’re Turning Again”, Frank’s dead on shot at aging hippies: ‘Now I see ’em tightnin’ up their headbands / On the weekend and they get loaded when they came to town / They walk around in Greenwich Village buying posters they can hang up / In those smelly little secret black light bedrooms on Long Island / Singing JIMI COME BACK!…’

There are enough extras here to please even the Zappa completists, and Rykodisc has done their usual stellar job with sound quality and packaging. Fittingly, the cover art is from outlaw artist Ralph Steadman and the liner notes from ex-Fug honcho Ed Sanders, both of whom know something about artistic repression. Frank Zappa was the Curt Flood of rock and roll, the man who took one for the team and said out loud what many others did not have the courage to voice. When he took on the Senate Committee and the PMRC equipped with only wit, intellect and the Bill Of Rights, it was a slaughter. The suits never stood a chance.

Have I Offended Someone? God, I hope so.

And since Robert Novak has left this mortal coil…here’s Frank on Crossfire.

zappa moustache

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1 Comment

Filed under Music, Reviews

One response to “Blast From The Past: Frank Zappa

  1. Will Trame

    The world is definitely a poorer place with Frank Zappa’s passing. It’s hard to believe it has been over fifteen years since we lost him. I own about 97% of his catalogue; I especially like the early sets such as “Freak Out!” and “Absolutely Free” as they were excellent examples of Zappa’s ugly satires which included self-serving and self-mocking diatribes, and the songs equally lampooned the fifties beat generation, the sixties counter-culture movement and “Sgt Pepper”. Zappa was a master musician who transcended various music genres such as classical and jazz fusion (“Hot Rats”). I bleieve the reason that he turned to the smutty scatalogical themes that permeated his output from the early ’70s on was that he realized that shock tactics weren’t going to garner him a position in the Top 40 then perhaps the toilet humour was. In a manner, it did, as “Overnite Sensation” and “Apostrophe (‘)” (his sole top 10 album) were the only works to be certified gold award. In addition, Zappa felt by performing his shocking and tasteless material it would gain him the financial reward to further his ambition of having his compositions performed by an orchestra. Zappa’s orchestral albums were just as impressive as his quirky satirical rock LPs were. Overall, Frank was a unique talent who would challenge the status quo and strive to break down the boundaries of what was acceptable..and not acceptable…within the popular music idiom. It is a cosmic pity we will never see his like again.

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