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Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention—In the 1960s DVD(Sexy Intellectual Productions)

Frank Zappa—The Freak Out List DVD(Sexy Intellectual Productions)

When Freak Out!, the debut by Mothers of Invention, was released by Verve Records in June 1966, for many it must’ve felt like an alien spacecraft had landed. A ship whose sneering occupants held up a scrambled mirror that satirized not only Earth’s popular conventions, but the supposedly “revolutionary” pop scene as well. With their defiantly unhinged mix of raw rock ’n’ roll, surreal and humorous lyrics, jazz chops, and avant-garde experimentalism, the Mothers challenged even those who considered themselves progressive; Freak Out! drew a line in the dirt and told listeners to either hop on board or get out of the way and go back to their Herman’s Hermits records. The ambitious double album cast the die for Mothers leader Frank Zappa’s entire career, and in retrospect can be seen as a work whose balance of art and chutzpah he would attempt to recapture—with, arguably, ever-diminishing returns—for the rest of his days.

But in the decade of their formation the Mothers were at their creative peak, blowing minds at gigs in the US and Europe and following up Freak Out! with still more inventive classics: Absolutely Free, We’re Only in It for the Money (both Verve) and, on Zappa’s own Bizarre label, Uncle Meat, another double album. Although he broke up the original band in August of ’69, Zappa would resurrect the Mothers of Invention name not long after and release two archival releases by the charter lineup, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (both 1970, Bizarre). In the 1960s is a fascinating look at the original Mothers’ first flush of fertile fecundity, and tells the story of Zappa and the band through revelatory performance footage and interviews with LA svengali Kim Fowley, music journalists like biographer Billy James, and Mothers keyboardist Don Preston, saxophonist Bunk Gardner, and drummers Art Tripp and Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group). Naturally, fans will go nuts for the rare clips and insightful anecdotes, but for those unfamiliar with the Mothers and looking to get a sense of exactly what made Zappa and his group so unique, In the 1960s makes a great introduction—one likely to inspire further investigation of their trailblazing early albums.

The Freak Out List, however, is another matter. The proposition: Dig into Zappa’s musical makeup by examining several of the 72 artist names he listed as influences inside Freak Out!’s gatefold sleeve. Thus, you get much of the same footage found on In the 1960s interspersed with commentary by Preston and his fellow ex-Mothers, saxophonist Ian Underwood and keyboardist George Duke, as well as yakking by most of the same music scribes (why does the droll, dry-as-dust droning of Alan Clayson seem to crop up in so many of these docs?). Zappa’s tastes were famously diverse—everything from Modernist composers like Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky to the doo-wop sounds the Mothers explored on ’68’s aberrant Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (Verve)—and, of course, there’s no way to explore all of them in a mere 88 minutes. While it’s interesting to hear pundits and players analyze the way passages from “The Rite of Spring” made their way into Zappa’s music, the overall flat presentation is dangerously close to a dull college lecture. For serious music geeks (guilty!) and Mother-maniacs only.—Peter Aaron

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