The Zappa Project Begins With the Mothers of Invention’s Debut Album, ‘Freak Out!’

Oh, we like our projects here at Kittysneezes. We’ve reviewed every Sparks album (minus the latest one), every Residents album (minus the last couple) and we’re currently working on the Legendary Pink Dots and, even more daunting, every issue of MADBut who says that’s enough? So today is the launch of the Zappa Project. We’ll be reviewing every official Frank Zappa album, in order. And, of course, that means we’ll be starting with the Mothers’ first, the first double-album debut, Freak Out!

It’s strange to get a debut album that works almost like a mission statement, but Freak Out is a perfect mix of what Zappa’s best albums would be. The album spans genres, from R&B to avant garde, and flows perfectly. The story goes that Tom Wilson signed the Mothers to Verve thinking they were a white blues band, and, well, thankfully, Wilson was mistaken. The Mothers were so much more than that — though, given how painful most white blues bands are to listen to, that’s not exactly saying a lot.

Freak Out has some of Zappa’s strongest work, and songs he’d return to throughout his career. “How Could I Be Such a Fool?,” “I’m Not Satisfied,” “You Didn’t Try to Call Me,” and “Any Way the Wind Blows” were all re-recorded for the doo-wop album Cruisin’ With Ruben and the Jets, and “Trouble Every Day” would later show up on Roxy and Elsewhere and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life in a drastically different arrangement as “More Trouble Every Day.”

The album is probably the poppiest album Zappa ever made, but considering that it’s the album with “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” and “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” that’s not necessarily saying a whole lot. But aside from the bulk of the second disc, the songs are tight, mostly under three-and-a-half minutes, and feature easily-hummed melodies. Even songs like “Who Are the Brain Police?” with disturbing lyrics and an unnerving sound scape has a simple melody for the verses, almost like a nursery rhyme. “Brain Police” could almost have been cut from the later We’re Only In It For the Money, but even then, it’d probably need some abrupt edits and studio chatter to truly fit in.

While there are a number of great songs on Freak Out, the standout is “Trouble Every Day,” which kicks off the second LP. (I first came to Freak Out in the CD era, so I usually forget that “Trouble Every Day” doesn’t, in fact, close the first LP.) It’s the most blues-inspired of the album, and despite my slam on “white blues” before, the song is phenomenal and gives hope that the alternate-universe version of the Mothers that Tom Wilson thought he was signing wouldn’t be all that awful. The song, about the Watts Riots, is angry, driving, and surprisingly still prescient. If it weren’t for a few dated references in the lyrics — like the Brownie camera mentioned — it could have been recorded today. And I’ve often felt the sentiment Zappa shouts before the penultimate verse, “I’m not Black, but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white.”

freak out back cover
The back cover of “Freak Out,” albeit with the Ryko logo from the 1995 Rykodisc reissue.

The album ends with “Help, I’m a Rock!,” “It Can’t Happen Here” and the aforementioned “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” and I have to admit that while I enjoy the former, the latter two tend to leave me cold. Apparently, “Monster Magnet” wasn’t quite finished, and the band ran out of studio time, so it’s perhaps a little unfair to judge the song. But then, too, Zappa never went back to complete it the way he did with much of his other work, so it’s impossible to know what the final version would have been. But still, as a listener, though “Help, I’m a Rock!” predicts the later experimentation in composing and using the studio as an instrument, it’s got an undeniable groove to it. “It Can’t Happen Here,” continues the vibe, and if “Help, I’m a Rock!” feels like a rough draft for We’re Only In It For the Money, “It Can’t Happen Here,” could easily be incorporated into “Billy the Mountain” from Just Another Band From L.A., and no one would have been the wiser. (Some pressings include “It Can’t Happen Here” as the third part of the “Rock” suite, others track it as its own song. I generally think of it as part of “Rock,” but that’s up to you.)

“Monster Magnet,” on the other hand, just feels cacophonous. I have to admit, when I’m listening to Freak Out, I generally turn off the record somewhere after “Trouble Every Day.” Sometimes I’ll listen to “Rock,” sometimes I make it to “It Can’t Happen Here,” but I rarely sit through the 12-minute “Monster Magnet.” I don’t know if that makes me a bad Zappa fan, but, well, whatchagonnado?

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