Mind Widening Music: Bizarro Music #1 – Frank Zappa
by Lee Widener
This is the first in a monthly series I will be writing about Bizarro Music. We all are familiar with Bizarro Fiction, but what is Bizarro Music? In this column I will illustrate what I mean by Bizarro Music by using the same principles used to define Bizarro Fiction. For my first column I’ll profile a musician who is an obvious choice, someone most of you will be familiar with- Frank Zappa.
For those who may not be familiar:
“Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940– December 4, 1993) was an American musician, songwriter, composer, record producer, actor and filmmaker. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock n’ roll, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the more than sixty albums he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. He also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers.”
Frank Zappa’s musical output ranged from the most sophomoric, juvenile humor to sophisticated orchestral compositions. He parodied musical styles such as doo wop and satirized American culture. He was a keen observer and critic of American society that often appeared on talk and news shows, and even appeared before the U.S. Senate, addressing the subject of musical censorship.
What is it though, that makes his music “Bizarro?” To answer this question I’ll show how his music and lyrics parallel Bizarro Fiction. In his lecture on Bizarro Fiction to Rhoades University in South Africa, Cameron Pierce, Bizarro author and Editor of Lazy Fascist Press outlined some common Bizarro Fiction tropes.
“Although the movement associates itself with no political ideologies, in the work itself there exists an overwhelming condemnation of the mainstream culture and beliefs of the United States. Bizarro critiques of capitalism tend to be veiled in satire…” – Cameron Pierce
In the following video we’ll see a stunning live performance of Zappa’s song “Montana,” which is told from the viewpoint of an individual whose fondest desire is to move to Montana, ride on a pygmy pony and raise dental floss. This is his version of the American Capitalist Dream. Certainly there is a lot of literature and music which uses satire to criticize American society that is not Bizarro. It’s combining the satire with weird elements like a dental floss farm, something which does not exist, that tips it into Bizarro territory. There’s also a blistering hot guitar solo.
Another Bizarro trope Cameron Pierce mentions in his lecture is anthropomorphism:
“Bizarro might be the only genre where not only animals, but also foods and inanimate objects, are so often anthropomorphized and appear as main characters that it’s considered normal.” -Cameron Pierce
In the following clip Frank Zappa encourages us to call vegetables on the phone and have a dialogue with them. In Bizarro Fiction anthropomorphized characters sometimes have a meaning behind them, they’re used as metaphors, and sometimes they might be totally random. In “Call Any Vegetable,” Zappa is using a metaphor. In “Absolutely Free: The Complete Libretto,” a lyric sheet included in the original release of his album “Absolutely Free” he states:
“The best clue to this song might lie in the fact that people who are inactive in a society … people who do not live up to their responsibilities are vegetables. I feel that these people, even if they are inactive, apathetic or unconcerned at this point, can be motivated toward a more useful sort of existence. I believe that if you call any vegetable it will respond to you.” -Frank Zappa
Also in this clip we’ll see a prime example of Zappa’s unique brand of crude sexual humor and skewering of the musical business. A little bit of background is in order.
The Turtles were an American pop band from 1965 – 1970 that produced a string of Top 40 hits including “Elenore” and “Happy Together.” The latter song, their biggest hit, was an extremely infectious piece of ear candy thanks to the marvelous vocal harmonies of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman. The band dissolved in 1970 from the pressures of the musical business. Kaylan and Volman (along with bass player Jim Pons) joined Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, revealing themselves not to be squeaky clean American pop idols, but just as sick and twisted as some of the most infamous rock stars of the era, with their sordid tales of groupies and the vicissitudes of life on the road.
In the clip below you’ll find them deftly satirizing the music industry, culminating in a rock solid performance of the Turtles hit “Happy Together.” Just the very act of the Mothers of Invention, an arduously uncommercial outfit performing a syrupy love song like “Happy Together” is Bizarro in itself.
In the following clip we have an even better example of Zappa’s use of anthropomorphism. In “Billy the Mountain,” from “Just Another Band From L.A.,” Zappa and the Mothers tell the story of a mountain named Billy, and his wife Ethel, who is a tree growing off of his shoulder. Billy receives a fat royalty payment from posing for postcards and takes off for a vacation in New York, leveling Las Vegas and other cities in the process. Along the way we get endless pop cultural references ranging as far and wide as the Johnny Carson Show theme, Jerry Lewis, Los Angeles radio advertisements, the Wizard of Oz, Dudley Do-Right, and countless others, before Billy gets his draft notice, rebels, and is labeled a Communist.
In the end there’s no resolution, and the story just kind of peters out. This also echoes Bizarro Fiction: the story might just end, with things left unresolved. My apologies for the lack of visuals for this lengthy clip. There are no video or film records of the piece in existence.
In this first column on Bizarro music I have tried to highlight three specific pieces of music that embody the same principles as Bizarro Fiction. This will be my focus throughout the series. It’s not enough to be funny. It’s not enough to be weird, or have a weird video. The music has to follow Bizarro principles. I focused on two this month- satiric critique of mainstream culture and anthropomorphism- but those aren’t the only indicators of Bizarro. I’ll talk about others in the coming months.
I hope you enjoyed this first installment of a monthly column on Bizarro in music. I’d love to read your comments below, as well as your suggestions for artists to cover in the future.
Lee Widener is a lifelong collector of weird music. For ten years he ran the internet radio station NeverEndingWonder Radio, which specialized in odd, unusual, freaky and bizarre music, and still runs a small Halloween themed radio station, which can be found at Welcome to Weirdsville . He is the author of “David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me!” and “Rock N Roll Head Case” published in October 2015 by Eraserhead Press.