Roger Scruton on Fakery in Art

52 Guitars: Week 49

Frank Zappa

I want to say more or less the same thing about Frank Zappa now that I did in a 2007 review of Hot Rats, so I may as well not bother rephrasing it, and just quote:

I must say right off that I had never taken very seriously Zappa’s ambition to be taken very seriously as a musician. Maybe “ambition” is the wrong word, since the general air of dadaist clownishness with which he invested his work certainly encouraged one to treat it as a joke. That was my original difficulty. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were essentially a musical comedy act, and when albums like Lumpy Gravyand Hot Rats came out, people didn’t know what to make of them. I think I heard each of them approximately once. I have a faint memory of hearing them in the company of friends, all of us waiting for the jokes to start, puzzled and bored when they never arrived.

Subsequently I heard Zappa’s music praised often enough, but usually by the sort of people who think songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are tremendously funny, so that the commendation of the music came across as an unpersuasive afterthought, a bit reminiscent of an old-timePlayboy reader praising the magazine’s journalism. Nor did Zappa’s general air of angry cynicism—which seemed, on the basis of occasional media reports, to harden over the years, along with his liking for crudeness and obscenity—suggest that I should reconsider his music. 

I went on to be pretty positive about Hot Rats (I'm not linking to the review because it seems somehow not to have made it over to this blog and is still on the old one, which is going to be taken down Any Day Now).

Zappa's more dedicated fans remind me a little of dogmatic libertarians: intelligent in a constricted, rationalistic sort of way, a little deficient in understanding of the totality of the human. (Dogmatic Thomists can be somewhat the same way.) And Zappa's music seems similar: in the realm of pop music you couldn't get much further away from the emotional power of, say, Van Morrison. 

One thing the fans always insist upon is that he was a great guitarist. Other than "Willie the Pimp" on Hot Rats, I had never encountered much evidence of that. But it's true. I don't hear anything in any of the three clips that follow that reaches down into the emotions the way, for instance, a much more technically limited blues guitarist can do. But his playing is certainly interesting

"Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar": 


"Chunga's Revenge": This is one of the best Zappa solos I found on YouTube, but embedding is disabled, so click here.  This is a live performance, and there are embeddable copies of the album version, but it's not nearly as guitar-centric and generally as appealing as this one. 

And here's an interesting case study of what I said above about the head-vs.-heart contrast. I was very surprised to find Zappa playing the Allman Brothers' intense classic "Whipping Post". Zappa's solo (a couple of minutes in) is not very bluesy, and is very--here's that word I can't seem to avoid--interesting, but overall, in spite of the singer's earnest effort, this just doesn't touch the emotions in the way the Allmans' original does (click here if you don't know it).


More than twenty-five years ago I lent someone my original 1967 copy of the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out album, and never got it back. I wish I had. What a fascinating curio from that time it is.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Best joke he ever created was, Dweezil.
Musician? I thought he was a golfer...

What about the Journal Archive? Have you got all that somewhere? And is it someplace others can see?


Okay, yes, I see that it is.


I'm not sure what you're referring to as the Journal Archive, but everything that was ever posted (not including comments) at should be here, but that doesn't seem to be.

I thought Moon Unit was funnier, Clarityseeker.

Let's not forget Ahmet ... Well Mac, I would have never thought Zappa would end up on your list! I got to see him in Miami play live when I was a kid. As a kid, I liked all of the silly songs and my friends and I were unprepared for the first half of the show, which was FZ sitting on a stool playing his guitar with band accompaniment. I'm sure that he was brilliant but we were happier after the break when the silly songs began. Now, many many years later the only Zappa I really go looking for is the instrumental, though there are also songs (usually sung by others in his band) that are quite good and NOT "silly". I don't know any other way to describe them. Frank Zappa was real rock and roll, a great guitarist, and a great bandleader.

I'm pretty sure I would still find the Mothers of Invention albums funny, at least in places. At one point they (and, a bit later, Firesign Theater) were to me and some of my friends what Monty Python became to younger people: the source of bits of apparently meaningless bits of verbiage that were always funny. You could hardly mention the word "vegetable", for instance, without someone saying "Call any vegetable" and someone else responding "And a vegetable will respond to you."

Listening to Hot Rats was the point where I accepted that he really could make good music that wasn't just funny or clever. Specifically, "Peaches En Regalia".

I always assumed Ahmet was named after Ahmet Ertegun.

And speaking of serious Zappa songs, the very first Mothers album contained one that I still think of occasionally, "Trouble Every Day," which is about racial unrest.

I'm not psychologist, but I just think Zappa was emotionally stunted in some way. No warmth, just seething anger and a lot of condescension. He's one of those people who thinks he so much of a genius that no one can understand his brilliance. Like Twisted. Have you seen the video where he played the bicycle on the Steve Allen Show? Was he serious? Who knows? Who cares?

Yes, I have seen that video. I took it as just playful. For what it's worth, I've read that he was actually quite a decent guy. I hope so. "Emotionally stunted" doesn't seem like an overstatement for some of the stuff I've heard quoted from his later lyrics.

Something to note in defense of Zappa the man: he married his wife, Gail, in 1967, when she was pregnant with Moon, and they had three more children and stayed married till his death in 1993.

Zappa also was a hero to the Czech dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s and later became a regular at 'the Castle' when Havel became president

Ever since I read this post Ive been fruitlessly trying to remember what song it is on Blonde and Blonde that is supposed to be based on Hot Rats. I cam rememer the tune of the latter and keep trying to match it to a BonB tune

People obsessed with scatological humour usually are emotionally stunted but they can sometimes be morally vety good people

I watched some interviews with him on YT when I was looking for stuff to post. He comes across as pretty likeable, really, although one of those smart people who have an overly high opinion of their own intelligence.

I wonder if that Zappa-Dylan connection you're thinking of was the other way around, because BoB came out before HR. Or maybe it was a different Dylan album?

I remember reading that Havel et. al. were big on music like Zappa's. I can well imagine that such complete irreverence would have seemed heroic to them. I didn't know they actually met, though. That's pretty cool.

Yes, I survived the last three weeks of semester by reading a biography of Havel. I think that many East Europeans were relating to a kind of de-contextualized America and even Western Europe at that time.

I am going to go and *look at my copy of Blonde on Blonde* to see what I'm trying to talk about

Listening to Zappa is apparently my response to Donald Trump being elected. I thought I remembered this post ... his guitar playing is amazing to me, I just find it like no other and it's fun to drive a car and hear his guitar at the same time. Was listening to a live version of "Trouble Every Day" on my way to work today, Mac. Also, his banter on stage and with audience members is really fun. Since this posting his widow died, can't remember when but not very long ago. May FZ's music play forever!

Funny, I listened to "Trouble Every Day" just a week or so ago. Didn't seek it out, it just happened to be on the cd full of mp3s that I had in the car. Pretty apropos.

Hot Rats was on the same cd. Zappa's guitar on "Willie the Pimp" is great. At least I assume that's him.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)