Zappa still makes bizarre music

By Shel Kagan

Circus, 30 October 1979

Frank Zappa – Joe's Garage, Act I (Zappa)

Ever since his first album with The Mothers of Invention (Freak Out!, [1966]) the era in which he wrote songs like "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and "America Drinks Up and Goes Home," Frank Zappa has specialized in the bizarre and the satiric.

But, you say, he's done the same thing for over ten years. Well, pioneers have a way of turning into the establishment they attack if you give them enough time. To his credit, Zappa has preserved his penchant for belting the estabtishment in the chops.

On top of the success of his last album, Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa suffered the slings and arrows of outraged clergymen over that album's "Jewish American Princess." Wait'll they hear this one's "Catholic Girls," in which he again flays the bureaucracy, the middle class and the pretentious everywhere. Joe's Garage is the story at a rock band, Toad-O, and a girl named Mary who gives
head to the roadies along the way.

There are slices of contemporary life in "Crew Slut," "The Wet T-Shirt Contest" and "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee" (the last admittedly not the height of creative good taste, but even a genius can be allowed a lapse now and then. Especially a genius).

Though the title song is a delightful history of every garage band that ever came out of rock & roll, the album is marred by a fault that has dogged Zappa's career since its beginning: sheer overindulgence. The narrative, otherwise perceptive and satiric, is weighed down with an overtext supplied by a computer voice dubbed The Central Scrutinizer, an icon which represents the establishment.

In both the album notes and the spoken narration, Zappa uses the Scrutinizer to say that higher authority is trying to a) do away with music, b) enslave the poplulation through use of music. Forget the paradox, despite the pun (the Scrutinizer is screwing us, see?) these tact-like ravings don't in any way illuminate the high-schoolish (he admits it) plot.

Besides, with music co-opted by huge conglomerated labels, and with punk groups graduating to the money-making ranks of New Wave pop stardom, it's hard to tell the establishment from the rebels. Zappa's scorecard no longer fits the game.

He's lost none of his musicianship, and there's always that to admire. The man was into classical, jazz, fusion and dissonance (musical and semantic) before it was fashionable. The title song is another pop hit and there isn't a boring moment, even if we've heard it all before.

Besides, anybody who characterizes a wet t-shirt as "a thoroughly soaked, stupid looking white sort of male person's conservative kind of middle-of-the-road COTTON UNDERGARMENT" and makes it work musically, must be OK.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)