Zappa no musical genuis

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 16/12/2012
zappa

Hero or zero? Sorely missed by fans, the late Frank Zappa is not lamented by others.

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OPINION: You want to say, "Oh, look, please, go away." You want to poke a finger in each ear like a child and chant "La! La! La! La!" to block out the sound. But good manners dictate that a music reviewer is always on duty, and thus fair game for anyone to approach at parties, pubs and burger joints for a conversation about music.

People are forever sidling up to me to proclaim their affections for such insufferable yawn-meisters as Mark Knopfler, Lenny Kravitz or Jack Johnson. I was once waylaid by an earnest stranger who tried to convince me the greatest pop artist who ever lived was former British milkman Sting.

But perhaps the worst offenders are Frank Zappa fans. Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, aged 52, and is sorely missed in some quarters. To Zappa fans, dear old Frank was the hot flaming sun around which all other popular music orbited, drawing freely from his warmth.

With a straight face, such fans will assert it was Zappa who taught the young Jimi Hendrix how to use a wah-wah pedal, and Zappa's Freak Out was the album that inspired The Beatles to launch into the unknown with Sgt. Peppers.

These people hate to see their hero slighted in any way. There exists on the internet a "World's Greatest Guitarists" website that had the temerity to rank Zappa at No 77. The comments section is crammed with disgruntled Frank-ophiles, all fuming like a dirty barbecue. "Frank was a real giant compared to all the dwarfs from 1 to 77!" writes one outraged correspondent. "He's a musician that will last throughout the next centuries."

Another writes: "No-one plays like Frank on stage anymore. That's because he is dead, and no-one else is skilled enough to play his music." Brilliant. But this is my favourite: "Frank should be Number One, not only for his guitar playing, but for the fact that he had a better understanding of music than probably anyone on this list. When he wrote music, it was on paper."

Yes, all right, we get it. Some of our more impressionable citizens love Frank Zappa. Each to their own. But listening to his albums 20 years ago, they always struck me as deeply irritating, full of interminable guitar wankery, crappy faux-classical passages and crass sexual satire. Was I missing something?

Time, it seems, to find out. Just last week some sadist at a local record company sent me down a dozen Zappa CDs, the first batch of 60 Zappa albums to be reissued by the end of 2012.

I spent a few days listening to them all, beginning with his 1966 double album debut, Freak Out. And what do you know? It's far better than I'd remembered, offering up a deeply sarcastic pastiche of prevailing 60s pop styles, from teen idol ballads to Byrdsy folk-rock, Motown and early Beatles to acid rock.

Opening track Hungry Freaks, Daddy is an unprecedented pile-up of jazz vibraphone, 60s guitar and gratuitous blasts of kazoo. Who are the Brain Police? is a savage satire of the Beach Boys, in which glorious four-part vocal harmonies are crushed by a Sherman Tank of distorted guitar.

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It's a sonically radical record, alive with energy and invention. But then I played the other 11 albums and, apart from a brief glimmer of brilliance with 1969's Hot Rats, every other CD in the pile sucked like a Dyson.

There were half-arsed baroque rock experiments, puerile pop ditties and tiresome spoken word segments. There were entire albums lampooning Stravinsky and 50s doo-wop groups, and multiple unfunny jazz-rock jams about groupies and STDs.

It became clear that Zappa had become more embittered with every new release. Under the guise of provocative social commentary, his songs dripped contempt for virtually everyone: Hippies, conservatives, blacks, gays, Jews, women and, most of all, himself.

After two exhausting days visiting Planet Zappa, I was desperate to leave again. But at least I have clarified my position. The next time a stranger comes up to me in a takeaway bar and proclaims Frank Zappa a genius, I can say, no, my friend, Frank Zappa was a conservative posing as a revolutionary, a snickering teenage boy masquerading as a grown man, a gifted musician happy to squander his talent on cheap smut and fart jokes.

Frank Zappa was irony made flesh: a tireless anti-censorship activist whose songs tested the limits of free speech but, in the end, had nothing worthwhile to say.

Now step aside; I'm waiting for my burger.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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