Sunday, September 13, 2009

Zapped from Joe's Garage

Frank Zappa's music was something that I know a bit about long before I had ever really listened to it. I knew that he was an ardent disciple of Edgard Varèse - a fantastically innovative and inventive avant-garde composer of the early twentieth century. So when you combine that sort of influence with Zappa's own talent, wit, and politics, you are bound to end up with something interesting and so, naturally, it has been a great experience for me to immerse myself today, at last, in Frank Zappa's mammoth assaut on modern commercialism, Joe's Garage.

Joe's Garage is a kind of opera, telling the story of Joe, a backyard, garage musician who is swept away into a journey through the commercial music world. I couldn't help but see some parallels here with the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht masterpiece, Seven Deadly Sins, and I reckon Zappa here is a very fine match for those two masters of savagery and satire.

His music is very, very clever. It's always got a very cheeky grin on its face, but its wit is sometimes very acerbic, and you have to be careful what you're laughing at because sometimes the joke might be on you.

Things get started with the title song, and its infectious tribute to straightforward, pre-commercial rock. But there's a long way to go yet, and this music will eventually take you through a whole catalogue of styles, all infused and bound together with Zappa's own unique character, running like a jaunty, unpredictable, multi-hued thread through it all, doing interesting, original things with sound at every twist and turn the music takes, like the mock dark blue colours of "Crew Slut", or the blazing show tunes of "Wet Shirt Competition", or the stunning jazz/blues guitar work that pokes its head through all the time, sometimes creating a sense almost of tragedy and pain, as it does before turning around to make fun of itself in "Why does it hurt when I pee?".

There's the brilliant romance of "Sly Borg", while Joe makes love to a gleaming model XQJ-37 nuclear powered Pan-sexual Roto-Plooker, which lands him in all kinds of trouble when the machine short-circuits in the most sordid way imagineable, and he is unable to pay for its repair so ends up in jail as the music morphs via the soft swing of "Dong Work for Yuda" to the hard rock of "Keep it Greasy" - a couple of songs where the brutality of modern commercialism is told through a grotesquely black story of prison rape.

There's the symphonic climax to "Outside Now", as Joe dreams of strangling the executives who raped him - starngling them with guitar notes that don't sell any records - all to some of the most awesome non-commercial guitar playing you'll ever hear, finally becoming infinitely nostalgic and beautiful, if still very tongue-in-cheek, in "Watermelon in Easter Hay".

The journey ends with the delightfully meaningless and trite "A Little Green Rosetta", sung by the story's narrator, the Central Scrutiniser, as a reminder of where we're headed in an inane world of commercialism. But even this track, intentionally banal and just a little too tuneful, sounds nothing short of brilliant in the hands of Frank Zappa - coloured with those quirky, unsettling sounds and chords and noises, telling you that these tunes, even while you're dancing to them, are more than just a little bit scary.

Joe's Garage is a brilliant work in every sense - its message, its lyrics, its music. It all hangs together so incredibly well. It laughs at itself when it pretends to be serious - but with a savage laugh that leaves you uneasy, even when you're laughing along with it.

And if you get the chance sometime, listen to a bit of Varèse too - just to see where all this has come from.

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