California Dreaming: Plastic People

(Note that in the book this will come after Song Simply Sung by Tim Buckley — I didn’t have the time to get that essay finished today)

The Mothers of Invention went through many line-up changes in late 1966, as Frank Zappa started expanding the band to be less of a garage-rock band, and closer to his vision of a band that could play a new kind of music, incorporating both theatrical comedy performances and serious musicianship, and playing music that incorporated influences as diverse as Johnny Otis and Stravinsky, Louie Louie and Webern.

Zappa also had to establish himself as leader. Shortly after Freak Out! was released, there were (according to Zappa’s later autobiography) rumblings within the band about replacing him because he wasn’t interested in the same recreational pharmaceuticals as the rest of the band. Having a larger band, from multiple backgrounds, whose only connections to each other were through Zappa and the band, would help cement Zappa’s position.

While the core rhythm section of Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black remained in place throughout, and Ray Collins came and went but mostly remained in the band, every other position in the band was shifting — and there were many of them. For a while, Van Dyke Parks, who had been playing with Zappa informally for a year or so, was the band’s keyboard player, and around the time Parks joined so did Billy Mundi and Jim Fielder, who had played with Parks on Tim Buckley’s first album. Fielder replaced Elliot Ingber on rhythm guitar, but would himself leave shortly after the recording sessions for the Mothers’ second album, Absolutely Free.

Parks didn’t get that far — he left the band very shortly after he started with them. Reports differ on the reasons — Zappa said in the 1970s that Parks was sacked because he was unprofessional and didn’t turn up to rehearsals, while Parks has said more recently that he quit because he didn’t like being shouted at.[FOOTNOTE For what it’s worth, I believe Parks here. Parks is honest to a fault about his own flaws, and would have been the first to admit had he behaved unprofessionally with the band, and he’s also a hugely respected professional musician with a reputation for doing good, thorough work in every situation.]

Either way, Parks’ departure left a void, which was filled by Don Preston. Preston was a jazz veteran, older than the rest of the band, in his mid thirties, and had already played with a huge number of jazz greats, including Nat “King” Cole, Paul and Carla Bley, Elvin Jones, and Herbie Mann. He had, since the early 1960s, been fascinated by experimental electronic music, and had regularly engaged in free jazz jam sessions with Zappa before the Mothers formed. He’d tried out for the band before Freak Out!, but while he could play the complex polyrhythms and atonalities of Zappa’s more difficult music, Zappa claimed he was unable to play Louie, Louie properly, and told him he needed to get more feel for rock music. After spending a year playing in bar bands, Preston could definitely play Louie, Louie well, and was in the band.

Preston in turn brought in Bunk Gardner, a jazz saxophonist he’d known for several years, who could double on flute when needed. Within a matter of months the five-piece rock band that made Freak Out! had become an eight-piece band, with two drummers, and with an instrumental palette and musical vocabulary wider than any other band in the music business. Zappa still wanted a bigger band, but now, for the first time ever, he had a band that was capable of playing both the greasy R&B he loved and the atonal experimental compositions that he was writing.

Plastic People, the opening track of the band’s second album, Absolutely Free, immediately shows this new versatility. While Freak Out! had led off with a relatively straightforward sounding rock song, here the album opens with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America!”, at which point a second voice comes in, singing “doo-doo-do, doo-doo,” — the Louie Louie riff — and the first voice adds “he’s been sick…”

The song then becomes a broken-down deconstruction of Louie Louie. While the initial live performances of the song were just new words over the old Richard Berry tune, here Zappa breaks down the song into its constituent parts, and reassembles them almost like a kaleidoscope. At times, the melody is Louie Louie played straight, while at others those familiar I-IV-V chords are played arhythmically, while the vocals go off in different directions.

While the music is fascinating, the lyrics are a different matter. This is one of those songs, so popular at this time, but usually written by British songwriters, about how the squares just don’t get it, and how the businessman in his suit and tie is just a conformist. Most of these songs leave a nasty taste in the mouth in hindsight, but this just about manages not to, by being considerably more cynical than anyone else in the mid-sixties and including the audience in the critique:

Take a break and walk around

Watch the Nazis run your town

Then go home and check yourself

You think we’re singing ’bout someone else?

This turns the song from the smug sanctimoniousness of the 60s pastoralists into something closer to the punk aesthetic. There’s still a sneeriness to this that could seem unpleasant, but Zappa isn’t saying to his audience “you’re part of a special group that’s superior and more enlightened”, but “you’re just as much a part of the problem as anyone else”. Six months before the summer of love, Zappa had already seen how the nascent counterculture had most of the same problems as the “straight” culture they were critiquing.

This is seen throughout the album, a rather magnificent, if perhaps overly savage, work, constructed as two long suites of songs, with recurring themes and call-backs, and combining all Zappa’s musical influences into a perfect synthesis. While Freak Out! had separated the more straightforward pop-rock songs and the long avant-garde section, here Call Any Vegetable pastiches Charles Ives, while Status Back Baby and Duke Of Prunes quote Stravinsky. And the whole thing is designed to criticise not only the easy target that is the rigid, conformist, 1950s nuclear family Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle against which youth culture was rebelling, but also the shallow, narcissistic, Baby Boomer culture that was replacing it.

Unfortunately, the critique was blunted somewhat by production delays, which meant the album didn’t come out until May 1967, rather than the original planned date of January. The original plan was to have the album include a printed copy of the lyrics (months before Sgt Pepper, which is usually credited as the first album to do this), but MGM wanted to censor them, so Zappa eventually arranged to publish them himself and put a note on the album cover giving a mail-order address for them. There were further delays when MGM objected to the phrase “War means work for all” on the cover, which was eventually printed in grey text, small enough to be almost illegible, but still left on the cover, as a compromise.

Music was moving so fast in the mid-1960s that what would have been seen as Zappa’s masterwork had it been released in January 1967 was rather ignored at the time. But Zappa was already moving on to the next thing…

Plastic People

Composer: Frank Zappa (early version sometimes credited to Zappa and Richard Berry)

Line-up: Frank Zappa (guitar, lead vocals), Ray Collins (vocals, tambourine), Don Preston (keyboards), Bunk Gardner (saxophone), Roy Estrada (bass, vocals), Jimmy Carl Black (drums, vocals), Billy Mundi (drums, percussion), Jim Fielder (rhythm guitar, uncredited on initial release). Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood is credited as a band member on the sleeve, but didn’t join until after the sessions were over.

Original release: Absolutely Free, The Mothers Of Invention, Verve V65013

Currently available on: Absolutely Free UMC CD

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to California Dreaming: Plastic People

  1. gavinburrows says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Enjoying these posts. However I have a question which, while a bit tangental to them, sounds like something you’d be likely to know. At what point does Zappa finally get over his groupie-shagging-anecdote phase and get back to the social satire stuff? I swear to God I don’t think i can cope with another reference to mud sharks!

    • Basically, the political satire only shows up again in 1981 (You Are What You Is) and 1988 (various albums, most notably Broadway The Hard Way). Everything else is groupie-shagging or instrumentals, apart from the occasional album of just pure absurdity like Apostrophe(‘). My advice is to stick to his instrumental or mostly-instrumental albums after the very early 70s…
      The following are the least groupie-shagging of his albums after Filmore East. I’ve put stars around the titles of any that are actually satirical…

      Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Apostrophe (‘), Roxy & Elsewhere, Bongo Fury, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More, Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, *You Are What You Is*, The Man from Utopia, London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I, Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, Francesco Zappa, *Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention*, Jazz from Hell, London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II, Guitar, You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1, You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 2, *Broadway the Hard Way*, The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, Make a Jazz Noise Here, You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 5 (disc 1 — original Mothers. Disc 2 is from 1982 and tedious rock wankery and dick jokes), Ahead of Their Time, The Yellow Shark, Civilization Phaze III, The Lost Episodes

      If you stick to those ones, you won’t get much of the satire that you get from the original Mothers, but you’ll get relatively little of Zappa’s “hilarious” opinions about the groupies and the homosexuals and the blowjobs (not none, but relatively little), and quite a lot of pretty good music. Handily, most of his albums with lyrics during the post-1970 period also happen to be the least interesting musically…

      • gavinburrows says:

        Wow, that’s really comprehensive! Thanks Andrew.

        Disappointingly, though, looks like I’ve already heard almost all the Zappa albums that I’m likely to want to.

Comments are closed.