Classic Albums: The Mothers Of Invention – Absolutely Free

Released in 1967 on Verve Records, just one year after ‘Freak Out’, the Mothers’ feral, audaciously progressive debut, ‘Absolutely Free’ expanded impressively on their already extraordinary multi-genre output.

Incorporating the very best of blues and R&B alongside intricate orchestration, its improvisations and explosive post-modern cut ‘n’ paste techniques piloted a whole new genre of rock which was fiercely intelligent and simultaneously humorous. As Zappa demonstrated throughout his inexhaustible career, he had an unprecedented touch in appropriating and subjugating musical forms. Like a mischievous magpie he mashed up garage rock with cheesy radio jingles, experimental jazz, doo-wop and dissonant symphonic forms and created an album of often uncomfortable but always fascinating listening. This is challenging stuff, out there amidst the most precocious reaches of rock, constructed of manifold interrelated parts, multi-layered codas; exploratory tape manipulations and fierce unconventional editing adding to the album’s already intense surrealistic musical collage.

Broadly speaking it consists of two suites of songs, which incorporate sides one and two of the album. The themes and concepts which Zappa utilised throughout his career are established here manifesto style; it’s a meticulous modus operandi of his subsequent work which incorporates political satire, incisive social commentary and a robustly ribald challenge to the status quo. The real magic is that this was achieved not only through provocative musicianship but unexpected humour, which often verges on the puerile. Through the surprising but no less derisive medium of nonsense verse, his biting commentaries about conformity, consumerism and commercial America pack an unpredictable punch. Although explicitly about the late-’60s its themes are general enough to still seem pertinent – album opener ‘Plastic People’ could easily be about any western political administration of the last forty years.

That he should reference so heavily the work of another musical iconoclast, innovative Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, may be of little surprise to contemporary ears au fait with such broad referencing in rock, but at the time of release listeners must have been faintly incredulous. One can pick out refrains from several of his major ballet works on ‘Absolutely Free’, in particular ‘The Rite Of Spring’ (which infamously caused a riot on its debut). Now Stravinsky’s atonal, often brutally deconstructed compositions seem like obvious inspirations. ‘Amnesia Vivace’ an intense assault of jarring time signatures quotes directly from the nocturne of ‘The Firebird’, and ‘Status Back Baby’ manages to allude to ‘Petrouchka’ in its middle section.

But it’s not just classical referencing of course; ‘Plastic People’ which ridicules not only the President of The United States but us all as listeners, begins with a bastardisation of ‘Louie Louie’. There are also elements of proto Krautrock, similarities to Faust are sometimes evident, especially in the epic improvisational sorcery (or unbearable noodling, dependent on your bent) of ‘Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin’, which also manages to quote the fourth movement of Gutav Holst’s ‘The Planets’. ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’ is the album’s jaw-dropping apex, a seven-minute-plus operetta which condenses each one of these influences and musical styles into something quite spectacular.

Amidst this high-brow inspiration and aggressive musical arrangement we have beautiful passages of melody, laugh-out-loud lyrics about vegetables and lacerating cynicism. Nonconformist, comedic and maverick, ‘Absolutely Free’ establishes Zappa as a fantastical musical mutineer and pioneering bandleader.  

Words by Anna Wilson

The Mothers Of Invention ‘Absolutely Free’

Released: May 26th 1967
Producer: Frank Zappa / Tom Wilson
Frank Zappa – guitar, vocals
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals,
Billy Mundi – drums, percussion
Jimmy Carl Black – drums, vocals
Jim Fielder – guitar, piano
Don Preston – keyboards
Don Ellis – trumpet
Bunk Gardner – woodwinds
John Rotella – percussion
Ray Collins – vocals, tambouring
Pamela Zarubica – vocals

‘Suite No.1: “Absolutely Free” (1st In A Series Of Underground Oratorios)’
1. ‘Plastic People’
2. ‘The Duke Of Prunes’
3. ‘Amnesia Vivace’
4. ‘The Duke Regains His Chops’
5. ‘Call Any Vegetable’
6. ‘Invocation & Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin’
7. ‘Soft-Sell Conclusion’
‘Suite No.2: “The M.O.I. American Pageant” (2nd In A Series Of Underground Oratorios)’
1. ‘America Drinks’
2. ‘Status Back Baby’
3. ‘Uncle Bernie’s Farm’
4. ‘Son Of Suzy Creamcheese’
5. ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’
6. ‘America Drinks And Goes Home’

1967: In The News
• Martin Luther King officially denounces Vietnam War – exactly one year before his assassination.
• Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet On A String’ wins the Eurovision Song Contest for Britain.
• Biafra declares independence (which lasts three years).
• The world’s first cash machine is unveiled by Barclays in Enfield.

1967: The Albums
The Doors – ‘The Doors’
The Rolling Stones – ‘Between The Buttons’
The Byrds – ‘Younger Than Yesterday’
The Velvet Underground – ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’

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