Here are my reviews of studio albums credited to the Mothers of Invention. Frank Zappa himself has way too many albums and I’ve only listened to a small selection of non-Mothers Zappa albums.
1966: Freak Out! (10/10)
It’s quite hard for our ears to put this record in perspective but literally nothing had ever sounded like this before. The closest thing I can think of for the most radical music here is maybe a track on the Fugs album from earlier in the year, and that is about it. But, basically, this was the most radical, forward-thinking rock music album ever released when it came out. And, as much as Revolver might be the better record, you could argue that Freak Out! remained the most innovative rock record ever made until the Mothers topped themselves the next year. Why is that so?
For the first three sides, Zappa mixes doo wop, rock and roll and rhythm and blues with ideas taken from modernism, one of the forms of classical music that emerged at the turn of the century. This isn’t just some Baroque-inspired vocal arrangement for one part of a song, or the use of conventional orchestra arrangements; this is music that most people – certainly most rock fans – had never ever heard before. The ideas of modernism infuse most of the songs on the first three sides, which are almost all otherwise conventional; weird little fills happen all the time, there are drastic changes in tempo (albeit brief ones) and other things that I cannot explain because I have no musical education, but I hear them (I just can’t put them into words). And on top of this is some biting satire – of teenage and rock and roll culture and of the greater social problems. It’s so snarky and sarcastic that when the serious social comment song appears you aren’t ready to take it seriously (even though it’s one of Zappa’s best serious lyrics, if not his best).
And then, on side 4, everything is thrown out the window for the most avant garde “rock” music the world has ever heard outside of one track on a Fugs album, and certainly that anyone who had ever heard who wasn’t a keen listener to the “classical” avant garde. Yes, this part of the album has dated particularly poorly, but that’s just because Zappa and many others found better ways to incorporate radical ideas into rock music. It’s still a watershed moment in the history of popular music. The first three sides were already radical enough – essentially inventing art rock and prog rock in one record – but this last side breaks the last remaining conventions in rock music.
After Freak Out!, anything is possible. Nietzsche but for popular music.
Read my reviews of albums released in 1966. This one is tied for my #2.
1967: Absolutely Free (10/10)
From the opening moments, when the President of The United States can only hum “Louie Louie,” to the parody of a lounge act closing for the night, Absolutely Free is an all out assault on the conventions of popular music (and society at large). Whether musically – two suites of song-fragments arranged together in ways never before heard outside of “high art music” – or lyrically – this album arguably contains some of the most offensive lyrics yet recorded by a rock band in the incest section – this album obliterated the rules of what was possible in popular music.
It may be the first ever “post modern” album in popular music history too (if Freak Out doesn’t count): popular music (“Louie Louie,” “Havana Moon,” and “Duke of Earl” among others) is combined willynilly with Stravinsky, Varese, jazz and all sorts of other stuff, as if they are all worthy of the same attention. On top of this, the performances emphasize our awareness that this is all constructed, particularly when Zappa interrupts a song to compare it to The Supremes, but also in the vocalizations of the instrumental parts. And there are callbacks too. All of this isn’t that odd for the 21st century, but in 1967 nobody in pop rock had ever done anything like this. Nobody.
Once you listen to this album there’s no going back. This is the decisive break with the rock and roll past that rendered that past obsolete. It is the pop rock equivalent of Nietzsche.
Oh yeah, it’s funny.
Read my reviews of music from 1967. I put this one tied for #1.
Mothers of Invention albums from 1968:
We’re Only in it for the Money (10/10)
We’re Only in It for the Money is both more radical and less radical than Absolutely Free.
On the one hand, there are a bunch of actual, standalone songs here, at least one of which appears to contain entirely sincere Zappa (who rarely appears) and those songs, though perhaps dating a little better than the most avant garde songs here, are not among his best songs. “Mom & Dad” was another one of his sincere message songs that he soon stopped writing but I’m not sure it’s as effective as satirical Zappa. “Let’s Make Make the Water Turn Black” works better because it’s Zappa being Zappa, lyrically if not musically.
On the other hand, this record is as challenging or perhaps even more challenging than Absolutely Free. “Are You Hung Up?” is the most radical opening of a popular music recording in the history of the medium – nobody had ever dared to put anything like that as the lead track before… and who had yet recorded anything like that? And the other interludes are often just as jarring. (“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” was the most radical recording yet made by any “rock band” to date, I’m pretty sure.”) Sound effects have also become a normal part of making a record as so many people add dialogue and noises in between real songs now.
With the possible exception of the last track, perhaps, I think you can claim the “proper” music is less sophisticated than on Absolutely Free – or maybe Zappa is just better at combining his ideas so they seem less radical. But the satirical bite is still here – some of which (the misogyny) has dated rather poorly. And, more importantly, the package is the most radical that had ever been assembled for popular music to date. It may not sound like it today, with much of this becoming normal, but these sounds and snippets inserted between and into songs had never been done to this extent before (and only really done by Zappa).
There’s just nothing else like it. (Yes, I prefer Absolutely Free as a listening experience.)
Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (7*/10)
I love Zappa and I have a guilty pleasure love of doo-wop so I like this more than some, I’m sure. But it certainly is a step back. The first sign, I guess, that the Mothers were done with being the most innovative band on the planet. It’s like a less daring and less varied version of Freak Out!, this time sticking to one genre, with far fewer obvious diversions into modern classical music. But it’s still really entertaining and it’s slowly weaseling into my skull.
2023: I must have been really drinking the Zappa Kool-Aid to give this album a 7/10.
Read my reviews of 1968 albums. I have Money tied for #2.
1969: Uncle Meat (???)
I have listened to this album at least once. I have yet to review it.
Mothers of Invention albums from 1970:
Burnt Weeny Sandwich (???)
Another I’ve listened to at least once but never reviewed.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh (9/10)
Zappa takes his musique concrete collage obsession and applies it to a live album. It’s nowhere near as radical as the Mothers’ records at their apex – as this is mostly a collage of songs, rather than song fragments, jokes and the like – but it’s still hard to recall another “live” album of this (or any) era that is this deliberately constructed, and where the construction is visible on its sleeve.
Though I have yet to fully familiarize myself with Zappa’s post-Mothers discography (beyond his biggest “hits”), this has to be one of the last times Zappa was as boundary pushing as he was in the heyday of the Mothers.
A pretty great record.
1972: The Grand Wazoo (???)
The only Mothers studio album I’ve never listened to. My understanding is that it has nothing to do with the original Mothers of Invention beyond Zappa’s involvement. (It is credited to “The Mothers” so that’s something.)
1972: Over-Nite Sensation (7/10)
Once I wrote: “A far cry from the original Mothers, that’s for sure. Still very entertaining.” In 2018, I wrote the following:
Though I’ve hardly listened to every one of Zappa’s records between his debut and this one – this is number fifteen in the first 7+ years of his career, including at least three live records – I’ve listened to many of them, maybe even half. This is, from memory, the most commercial of them to date, the most likely to connect with people outside of experimental and comedy rock fans. (And that’s true, as it produced a relative hit for him with “Montana.”)
Musically, it shows off Zappa’s ability to incorporate his heretofore avant garde musical sensibility in pretty accessible rock songs; the melodies are about as strong as they’ve ever been and the whole thing is pretty slickly done. If you’ve never listened to Zappa, this music is likely pretty damn weird for you but trust me, this is really accessible compared to the original Mothers of Invention.
And so I think this is a bit of an accomplishment, from a musical perspective, bringing really radical music into a commercial rock format. This is a Zappa gateway album if such exists. It is expertly played and performed, of course.
Where I struggle is with the lyrics. I used to not agree with the critics who got upset that Zappa started getting obsessed with sex and low comedy in the ’70s; I figured he’s always been obsessed with these things. But the older I get – perhaps I become more prudish – the more I have trouble with them. At least three of these songs are just stupid sex jokes on top of pretty great music. They’re funny, sure, but they’re misogynist and kind of pointless. And the older I get the less funny they seem to me.
But it’s harder to take them when he wants us to take his social comment about TV seriously on another track. Maybe release an album of just social comment or just sex jokes, not both.
None of this applies to “Montana,” one of Zappa’s best songs and reason to listen to this record; it is the best example I know of to date of Zappa’s ability to combine his avant rock sensibility with commercial rock music.
Anyway, I want to like this more than I do, but those lyrics wear me out.
Note: This is not really a Mothers record. He recorded a “solo” album at the same time with the same musicians, if I’m not mistaken.
1975: One Size Fits All (???)
Like Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich, I have heard this at least once but never reviewed it. Like Over-Nite Sensation, it’s hardly a true Mothers of Invention record.