Sunday, January 4, 2009

Absolutely Free

Imagine for a moment a 10-year-old boy finding one of his older brother’s albums, and being curious, he put it on the family’s stereo to give it a listen. This boy was already familiar with a considerable bit of pop music from the time (we’re talking circa 1968). He was very familiar with The Beatles, The Monkees, and The Rolling Stones. There was a Young Rascals album. There were The Bee Gees, plus a plethora of 45 r.p.m. singles that included a vast array of pop tunes from the time in this boy’s home as well.

But it wasn’t just pop music this boy had a yen for. He was brought up listening to the recordings in the collection “The Golden Treasury of Classical Music,” as well as the Latin jazz sounds of Herb Alpert and Xavier Cougat. This boy was also taking up the saxophone, having given up on the piano.

Now you know my musical state of mind when I first listened to my brother’s copy of “Absolutely Free.” Not only did the lyrics captivate me with their absurdity as well as their perspicuity, but the rhythmic flow of the music, its pacing and the way it all sounded connected, also hypnotized me. There was something intense going on with this music from a structural point of view that intrigued me.

It was my first moment of hearing The Mothers of Invention. I was hooked.

There were so many things about this album that captivated me. First, there was the album cover itself. There was so much going on with the cover art that I could peruse it time after time and still see something new that I had missed before. And, of course, with each repeated listen of the album, some of the cryptic messages on the cover began to make sense.

Musically, Zappa’s thematic structural style was strengthened in this release over what he had accomplished with “Freak Out!” Each side presents its own theme: Side A with “Absolutely Free: 1st in a series of underground oratorios,” and Side B with “The M.O.I. American Pageant: 2nd in a series of underground oratorios.”

Kasper Sloots provides some very interesting musical analysis of much of Zappa’s repertoire, but his comments regarding “Absolutely Free” are very interesting. The album has some very basic pop tunes, such as “Status Back Baby,” (a jab at the mindless pop of the Beach Boys?) but even that, as Sloots points out, had a structure more complex than most pop songs of the time.

“Plastic People” contained hints of recognizable music from “Louie Louie,” which Zappa used for live shows. But the studio release is uniquely Zappa with time changes and key changes, as well as singing style changes throughout the song that draws a listener in. And the theme is so simple to get that even my 10-year-old mind at the time knew what he was singing about.

Despite this musical progression with “Absolutely Free,” Zappa explains in his autobiography how challenging it was to complete because of all the constraints placed on him by the record company.

“When it came time for us to do our second album, Absolutely Free, MGM proclaimed that we couldn't spend more than eleven thousand dollars on it. The recording schedules were ridiculous, making it impossible to perfect anything on the album. It was typical of the kind of bullshit we had to put up with until I got my own studio.”

Nonetheless, there were fun moments in the album’s production as well, such as when Ray Collins ad-libbed his lyrics during “The Duke of Prunes.” And the delightful “Call Any Vegetable” is followed with the frenetic and fantastic “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin,” a brilliant instrumental that amazes me every time I listen to it. Yes, “what a pumpkin!”

My favorite, however, has always been “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and though Zappa played it often during concerts, the studio version on this album remains my favorite. Despite there being some clear sexual content in the song, when I was 10 I was more enamored by the song’s structure and its melody.

Accurately describing the album can be a challenge as there are so many musical motifs and lyrical themes working all at once. But Joe McGinchey writing at Ground and Sky sums it up rather well, even if his description borders on the verbose:

“Basically, take the impressionistic sociopolitical satire of the Firesign Theatre on their most classic albums - words at a distance seemingly random, at close range deadly precise - and set it to an equally hallucinogenic fabric of music that wouldn't be afraid to reference anyone from Gustav Holst to The Archies. Alternatively, imagine if Edward Albee, Stanley Kubrick, and Andy Kaufman got together and wrote a musical. The thematic territory here always seemed to me the single most natural target for Zappa's crosshairs, examining the neuroses of an American middle class (the "Plastic People") navel gazing their lives away in a complacent world of tv dinners and swimming pools, all under the upstanding shadow of city hall.”

Interestingly, quite a few reviewers (including those at Ground and Sky) of the album rate this one higher than “We’re Only In It For the Money,” an album consistently rated by both fans and others as the best one of the entire catalog. Matt P’s review at Ground and Sky says it best:

“Recorded in November of 1966, (“Absolutely Free”) had no precedent in popular music other than for a couple of songs on the flip side of the band’s own debut album, “Freak Out.” … “Absolutely Free” combined greater musical sophistication with studio technology experimentation to an extent that was well beyond what the Beatles and Beach Boys were doing, and while the socially-conscious lyrics weren’t as eloquent, subtle or imagistic as Dylan’s, their messages were just pertinent and they worked with the music on a level of wit and intelligence that I think was the equal of Dylan's. Were it not for the overwhelming influence that King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” cast over 1970s progressive rock, I would probably consider “Absolutely Free” to be the first progressive rock album. Secondly, the album is striking in that it was written as a social protest for a particular time and place, yet addressed its themes on a general enough level that it now transcends that time and place — unlike the much ballyhooed follow-up, 1968’s “We’re Only In It For the Money,” which is so immutably set in 1967 Southern California that it’s difficult to get much out of the album without first prepping one’s self on its many period references.”

I apologize for that length extrapolation, but he does it so well. And given what is currently going on in the world, the album’s theme is just as relevant today as when it was released. The CD release included two other songs sandwiched into the middle that were omitted from the vinyl release: “Big Leg Emma,” and “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?” I prefer the original vinyl line up.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: May 26, 1967, Verve Records.

Track listings:

Side one
Suite No. 1: "Absolutely Free" (1st in a Series of Underground Oratorios)

"Plastic People" – 3:42
"The Duke of Prunes" – 2:13
"Amnesia Vivace" – 1:01
"The Duke Regains His Chops" – 1:52
"Call Any Vegetable" – 2:15
"Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" – 7:00
"Soft-Sell Conclusion" – 1:40
1967 Mothers of Invention single, bonus tracks for the 1995 Rykodisc CD reissue:
"Big Leg Emma" – 2:31
"Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?" – 2:37

Side two
Suite No. 2: "The M.O.I. American Pageant" (2nd in a Series of Underground Oratorios)

"America Drinks" – 1:52
"Status Back Baby" – 2:54
"Uncle Bernie's Farm" – 2:10
"Son of Suzy Creamcheese" – 1:34
"Brown Shoes Don't Make It" – 7:30
"America Drinks and Goes Home" – 2:46


Frank Zappa – guitar, conductor, vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – drums, vocals
Ray Collins – vocals, tambourine
Don Ellis – trumpet on "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals
Bunk Gardner – woodwinds
Billy Mundi – drums, percussion
Don Preston – keyboards
John Rotella – percussion
Jim Fielder – guitar, piano
Pamela Zarubica – vocals
Herb Cohen
Lisa Cohen
Kurt Retar


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Richard Harrold said...

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