Frank Zappa, 2012
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 19, 2012

I think it's not really indispensable for readers to be in complete agreement with me when I say that I consider the re-release program of Frank Zappa's quite large catalogue as being the "event of the year" for 2012 for them to share my opinion that the coverage of this event by the press - both the "specialized" and the "generalist" kind - has been quite inadequate in both quantity and quality.

Sure, though it's a "convention" and not a "rule" we're talking about here, the fact that a certain kind of anniversaries seem to count more than others has to be taken into account - Frank Zappa died on December 4, 1993, so this is "only" the 19th anniversary of his death we're talking about (does this entail we're gonna have a loud dirge resonating in the press at the end of 2013?). Of course, if it's wetting one's handkerchief what we're talking about nothing can compete with death itself, as it's something that happens only once in one's life: I still remember the mournful words on the pages of the Italian press, written to celebrate the work of a musician they had stopped talking about for at least a decade; quite logically, having spent all their grief at the time of his death, the following year they failed to even mention the release of Civilization Phaze III, the album on which Zappa had worked so hard in the last years of his life: an excellent piece of work that, though it features such superb electronic pieces like those which close the album - Dio Fa, Beat The Reaper, Waffenspiel - remains still unknown to most.

I have to admit I was more than I bit annoyed to see that the largest amount of inches given to Zappa by the press during the last chapters of his life were about his collaboration with the Ensemble Modern - their concerts, and their CD titled The Yellow Shark. This doesn't mean that I considered their collaboration as lacking, the CD in question being a very good work that has definitely stood the test of time; it's because this kind of "extra special attention", so to speak, appeared to run in parallel with two circumstances that I perceived as being quite unpleasant: Zappa's irrelevance in what one could loosely define as "the rock world"; and his being admitted to a place where ghostly entities - say, Fred Frith - still believe to be alive. Fred Frith, right. But Zappa?

Back to now. It's obvious that comparing the attention given to the re-release of Zappa's catalogue with the amount given to the re-release of the catalogue by groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin would be absurd, those being big money operations - and who could argue with money? But what about the attention currently given to groups such as The Velvet Underground or artists such as Nico and Captain Beefheart? (Nick Drake being in a category by himself). I was quite surprised to see Mojo, in their thin review about the whole re-release operation, single out Zappa's first LP, Freak Out! - an album that compared to what came later is obviously quite embryonic, and which is not even one of those (twenty-two) titles which have greatly benefited from a new mastering, fresh off the original analogue tapes.

Sure, the fact that today the world is not the same that it was twenty years ago has to be taken into account. The crisis that has made mincemeat of the press revenues and had a lot of historic newspapers and magazines go belly-up - and which has made the expression "adequate retribution" an anachronism - has made the chance for readers to find reliable information at the newsstands quite slim. The Web has come to the rescue, only not - as one would hope - with reliable magazine, but under the guise of highly specialized sources which are able to shed light on some complex issues; and it's on such Forums that the Zappa re-releases have been talked about reliably and at length (it has to be stressed that the fact of having samples of waveforms uploaded makes the degree of subjectivism in these discussions lower than in the past).

It goes without saying that these places are sometimes of almost no use for the neophyte, who usually needs less detailed maps in order to travel unfamiliar territories - which was in fact the role of those paper magazines which were once sold at newsstands. (Here those who have cultivated the stereotype which goes "I'll listen to it, then I'll make up my mind" are invited to think about the unintended consequences of their behaviour).

But why, one asks, is Frank Zappa so seldom praised - or even mentioned - today? I tried to reach a (hypothetical) conclusion, my answer to that question being maybe banal - but highly disturbing nonetheless.

Today, for the most part Frank Zappa's music makes for quite difficult listening, this being true both of his instrumental compositions such as Uncle Meat, King Kong, The Black Page, and so on, and of his songs, which - though they sometimes sound not too far from jokey sing-alongs - feature a degree of complexity which, compared to what's nowadays referred to as "a song", come from a completely different world (just consider their internal variety in timbre, style, tempo, and quotes).

But if one places Zappa's music inside the proper time framework - the 60s and 70s - one can't help but notice a larger degree of "affinity" with the given environment. Let's recall - those points of divergence notwithstanding - the largely instrumental dimension of those groups - Led Zeppelin, Santana, Pink Floyd, etc. - that in the 70s filled stadiums and sold millions of albums. There's also a dimension of "scale" that - in a hypothetical itinerary that goes: Beatles, Moody Blues, King Crimson, Henry Cow - made musicians' survival at least plausible. Sure, the Italian success of groups such as Van der Graaf Generator is a case by itself, but let's remember those two hundred thousand import copies sold in the United States by Gentle Giant, or Thick As A Brick by Jethro Tull going straight to #1, or high-charting works such as Fragile and Close To The Edge by Yes being an influence on a long series of musicians, from Todd Rundgren to Trent Reznor.

So we have to take into consideration the fact of listening to complex instrumental music as a relatively common pastime. And let's not forget the guitar, since it was the guitar that held a great amount of attention for those in the "rock" audience - just recall Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Robert Fripp - then John McLaughlin, his Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the whole "Fusion" chapter.

So it's obvious that - starting with the electric Miles Davis, circa Bitches Brew - those who attended Zappa's summer concerts in 1973 shared a wide palette of listening experiences within a sub-universe made of people who - though a minority - were able to decode "difficult" events such as odd time signatures, complex melodies, and long, convoluted solos - without batting an eyelid.

Let's try now making a list of those "rock" groups which we could define as playing "difficult music for stadiums". Radiohead? Sigur Rs? Flaming Lips?

So my hypothesis is that the problem "Zappa" is not exclusive to Zappa, but it's a unifying trait for a whole class of "items" that share many peculiar traits; and of which Zappa, thanks to his past celebrity, is the most visible specimen - and the tip of the iceberg.

This is not something that we can consider as being specific to music, of course, the attention span of today when it comes to reading, and stuff in general, being quite low. We have also to consider the fact that the unwillingness on one's part to engage with difficult content progressively turns into one's impossibility to give their attention to difficult matters.

Does it hold water?

Beppe Colli 2012 | Nov. 19, 2012