One Size Fits All: Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention

This is a watershed for Frank Zappa in his unique musical catalog.  It’s so together on so many levels it became a standard by which I measured all subsequent releases by other artists.  Unfortunately, in this day and age of singles (mp3) the art of putting together a work that moves you from beginning to end is becoming less frequent. None the less this album is a one of the best examples of where art and commercialism live side by side.

Where to start?  Let’s look at the packaging first. A big maroon sofa floating in space. A Zappa mythology brought to life for the eyes by the brilliant artist Cal Shenkel. God’s sofa. One Size certainly fits all. Hilarious subtle pseudo scientific sketches abound along with continuity clues in the form of astrological hokum. Tremendous detail. Giant ants rip apart Hollywood under a blanket of absurd sounding constellations many of which are subtle references found on a myriad of Frank Zappa recordings.  Inside we have the credits and lyrics written on Fresco in a calligraphic font (refers to the actual vinyl record), almost to indicate a sort of religious reverence for the music contained herein.  This album sealed my fate as a recording artist.

The active mixing and perfectly equalized sound by engineer Kerry McNabb, the colorful instrumentation, the climaxes, the solos, the absurd word play, the continued air pressure /segues  from one song to the next… it was all here.  Frank Zappa laid his cards on the table and presented his ideas not as just a composer but in capturing a group effort of amazing musicians.  All these pieces are so strong melodically and rhythmically it’s a real testament to the man’s brilliance as a composer.  The forms are so clear and memorable it’s no wonder the album hit the top 40 in 1975.  That was quite an achievement for such a left field player as Frank Zappa.  But it’s not a sell out.  It’s high caliber progressive hard rock, fusion, mixing with classical elements and humor, flirting in the pop world.  Like the best of Frank Zappa’s efforts there is something here for everyone.  And it’s only 42:58 !  Not one minute is wasted.

Highlights:  Inca Roads.  Not only one of Frank Zappa’s most beautiful melodies but contains one of his greatest guitar solos transferred from a live concert in Helsinki to the basic track which was recorded live at KCET TV. Brilliant.  For me, there aren’t many rock guitarist who can sustain such an inventive electric solo over 7 minutes.  It’s so melodic you can practically whistle it verbatim. It’s supported by Chester Thompson’s tasty funk driven drumming, Ruth Underwood’s amazingly precise mallet playing and of course George Duke adding his genius to the keyboards and vocals.  Too paraphrase Giorgio from the TV show Ancient Aliens – “I’m not saying it was aliens playing this… but it was aliens!” Frank Zappa asks the folklore question “Did a vehicle come from somewhere out there?  Just to Land in the Andes? We can only speculate but I think if extraterrestrials heard this music they would dig it. The whole whirling flying saucer of a tune crashes into one of Frank Zappa’s most harmonically complex rock songs where there is a modulation almost every measure.  Yet, the melody is so concise and memorable it’s completely listenable, wrapped around some of Frank Zappa’s most socially conscious observations about the state of the union.  “Can’t Afford No Shoes” indeed. The piece ends with a dashing maniac guitar meltdown that cuts off for a second and strikingly pushes us into classical rock at it’s best.  “It’s Sofa No. 1.”  A stoic little waltz played with panache and intricate precision.  It’s such a strong composition it reprises itself as the last tune with lyrics that add to the already quirky bizarreness.  Only Zappa. This time the music doesn’t segue.  You have a second to stop conducting and then a snotty D minor blues riff begins to emanate from Frank Zappa’s Pignose amp.  It’s the FM staple “Po-jama People”.  Purportedly written about some of his band members and their banal lifestyle outside of performing on stage. It’s Frank Zappa’s at his most sarcastic yet he doesn’t take himself too seriously. You can hear this in the humorous outro chorus where Frank Zappa, Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke start vocalizing over the basic hook.  It’s a catchy track with one of Zappa’s most superb frenzied guitar soloing complimented by Duke’s piano interjections, Chester Thompson’s drums and Tom Fowler’s bass.  Classic 70’s rock jamming.

Next, (which used to be the start of Side 2 on vinyl) the abstract “Florentine Pogen”.  This is a love song according to Zappa; or more fitting, a rhapsodic mini rock symphony with esoteric lyrics centering around an Italian cookie.

The music is incredible. Again, it was recorded live no less at TV station KCET with overdubbed vocals by Nappy Brock, Duke and FZ. Chester Thompson plays a short tasty drum solo towards the end, and Ruth Underwood handles mallets / percussion and duck call.  The song mysteriously fades with the tribal chant Chester’s gorilla – she goes quack. Chester’s gorilla she goes oink. Chester’s gorilla she goes moo…Chester’s gorilla she go Haratche- platche etc… More conceptual continuity for you Zappa fanatics.  What could follow such an odd piece?  Where do you go when you spill out so much music?  Where?  Another multi layered piece?  Of course not.  F.Z. surprises us with “Evelyn A Modified Dog”; a skewed observation of one of his pets half sung over a beautiful harpsichord accompaniment. It’s the perfect humorous release after the the intense “Florentine”.  Zappa’s bellowing vocal is doubled here and the listener is immediately captivated by it. He ends his canine homage with “Arf, she said!” seamlessly edited into “San Berdino”, a manly redneck romp with Frank Zappa tackling the slide guitar.  Something about it reminds me of the Eagles guitar laden “Life In The Fast Lane” which did not come out until 2 years later! Was this song an influence?  Captain Beefheart injects his quirky harmonica playing through out and Johnny Guitar Watson does the best outro scatting on a rock record since McCartney’s frenzy on “Hey, Jude”!  He ends the piece by saying, “Bobby, I’m sorry you have a head like a potato – I really am”… Heh- heh… This leads to an awesome segue that really picks up the pace.

Zappa takes it up a bunch of notches with this B/A in the bass, other worldly intro for “Andy”.  It’s a rhythmic blues masterpiece with Duke and Brock trading vocal sections. Tense, funky snare drum rhythms (almost a march) play against a long, flowing melody executed on a B3 organ eventually broken into a million pieces by Frank Zappa’s nebula sounding guitar break. The piece just cooks.  It’s angry but beautiful. Towards the end we’re pumped with a slick drum groove over which  Johnny Guitar Watson again spews his vocal madness.  At this point the whole band is flailing away.  Fantastic energy. Frank Zappa flies up and down the fret board bringing us to an exhilarating conclusion which disintegrates with pure joy and laughter.  Just as we take a breath of relief so does George Duke who begins singing:  “I Am The Heaven” “I am the water”…  It’s “Sofa No. 2”.  This time with words in English and in German. Zappa and Duke trade verses. It’s a majestic, absurd hoot.  Such a fitting cap to what went before.  The waltz takes us for a three minute ride and then ends with a totally over the top jive ass r&b sounding absurdist line – “Yeah my sofa – Ya -ha -high!”

It’s too good. For a young boy of 14 back in 1975 there was no rock album like this to compare. Nothing I can think of that could sustain my interest every step of the way for 42 minutes straight.  To me it was a mystery how it was done – how it was captured.  But it was expected.  FZ had, and continually produced some of the most entertaining records of the 20th century. This is one of them.  Timeless music to shake up the airwaves.  Definitely a keeper in any serious progressive music lover’s collection. Of note, this was the last record that bore the name “Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention.”

By John Tabacco

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