Why Zappa has gone overground

By Paul Tickell

Melody Maker, June 28, 1980

Frank Zappa
Wembley Arena

As usual, Zappa has gathered around himself musicians of devastating ability. They're there to be led. Zappa might jokily flash a conductor's baton and instruct Tommy Mars to "just play the chords", but that's the way of hammering home the fact that, at a twist of Frank's little finger, Tommy will build musical cathedrals with his keyboards.

Guitarists Ray White and Ike Willis have also been trained in the house of Zappa. Listen to them sing for their bones on "Dancing Fool" and "City Of Tiny Lights"! Naturally, everyone in the band is good enough to be running their own show. Instead, they do the next best thing and play Frank's complex orchestral fry-up of jazz, blues, doo-wop, hard rock, reggae and classical music. But where is the MC and ringmaster leading everyone? Not too far, because all the complex arrangements serve as wrapping for a very light-weight package – Frank's version of reality. A decade ago his satirical, nihilistic humour and scatological obsessions hurt. But Zappa's themes have worn this, and his targets grown easy. It's rather like watching a '60s underground mag turn yellow and date. This lessens the impact of the music, however brilliant. It comes over as pastiche (mere imitation) rather than parody (imitation with something to say).

Zappa has always avoided the laughable spiritual commitments which musicians of this calibre often take on. But he pays a price for his flippancy. As the musical expertise grows and the wit declines, the effect becomes strangely syrupy and operatic. Frank, every scornful of rock 'n roll values, has merely ended up as very superior showbiz.

He even misses the main chance. You'd think that in his tight satin pants, he'd manage a satire on the axe hero. But guitar solos are the only time he gets really serious, and, of course, he's better than Carlos and half-way to Jimi in paradise.

Maybe Frank should take a rest, during which time he could record a sort of K-Tel Universal History of Music.

1. Zappa had concerts at the Wembley Arena, London on June 17 and 18. The band was FZ, Ike Willis, Ray White, Arthur Barrow, David Logeman, Tommy Mars. (FZShows)