Blog of the AMM

Frank Zappa: Results and Prospects (Some Links)

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In so far as he’s been heard of — and Frank Zappa is quite a long way down in the pecking order of celebrity granted his contemporaries Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — Zappa divides opinion. I was down in Vin Mags on the corner of Great Windmill Street and Brewer Street in Soho the other day, looking for an old issue of Hustler magazine — issue 10 (April 1984) to be precise, because it contained an obscene photo shoot of tableaux from Thing-Fish, Zappa’s ‘off-Broadway’ musical — and the proprietor shot back: “Zappa? I can’t stand him”. As Andy Wilson discovered when reviewing David Stubbs’ Fear of Music for International Socialism, Zappa offends Zero Books people too; and since Richard Cook’s departure, Zappa has been persona non grata at The Wire (with a putdown of Zappa by Ian Penman on their website to explain why). At the AMM, though, we think Zappa is fantastic, and believe there are many reasons why Marxists and revolutionaries should dig him.

But we face a dilemma. We don’t believe in using theory to prove musical value. We resist people telling us that certain musics are ‘good’ for political or moral reasons. We believe that taking seriously involuntary responses to musical experience is the beginning of a process which can psychoanalyse ourselves and society — without paying some ‘expert’ a fortune. So how to get you to listen to Zappa? We could post tracks on the site, but single tracks — capitalism’s way of commodifying music — won’t necessarily carry the interruption to normalcy they carry on the albums, where the placement of the detail in the overall macrostructure is crucial. Post albums? Copyright problems. Then Bob Dobbs, our McLuhanite correspondent in Maui, Hawaii, sent us a link to a fabulous Zappa documentary made in 2007 for Dutch TV and we thought, Unkant persons have gotta see this! Our only criticism is that the film culminates in Dweezil (Zappa’s eldest son), whose concerts are turgid — we’d have rather it culminated in, say, Ike Willis (Zappa’s singer in the 1980s) or the Zappanale, the 23-year-old annual Zappa fest in East Germany.

What we love about this documentary is that it rightly emphasizes the R&B of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson as the tap root of Zappa’s art; and that it makes clear that Zappa’s enthusiastic response to the “Bolshevism in sound” (Evening Standard, 1921) of Edgard Varèse has NOTHING TO DO WITH CLASSICAL MUSIC AND WEARING POWDERED WIGS. The doc’s sensitive editing of Zappa’s tender music alongside film of the desert where he grew up made us listen as if for the first time. Zappa: greatest composer of the twentieth century. Watch this documentary and weep, academics!

Out To Lunch

PS. Just to make sure your cup floweth over, here’s one-time actor Calvin Ahlgren performing scenes from a puppet play Zappa wrote about Francesco Zappa, an obscure Italian composer who “flourished 1763-1788” according to the Grove dictionary of music and who became a vehicle for Zappa’s polemics on music, sex and the English ruling class. Ben Watson would love to air it on his ‘Late Lunch with Out To Lunch’ show on Resonance FM, but its, um, colorful language would land Resonance in shitloads of trouble. The scenes were play-read in San Francisco on May 20th1984 in Zappa’s presence. It’s pretty funny …

Calvin Ahlgren: Them or Us

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