Zappa, guitar, and Dangerous Cretins

A diminutive Scottish muso of the classical variety once sat down and watched a bit of the Bemolution’s extensive collection of Frank Zappa videos. Like a lot of classical buffs who stupidly shun anything that isn’t staggeringly, inscrutably complicated, thereby writing-off a mass of the most beautiful and exhilarating music ever created, she did have a somewhat bewildered but very genuine respect for Zappa.

That said, watching him scowl intently into his Les Paul and loudly, furiously, if not dementedly play for several minutes without stopping, she did hypothesise that music was just an excuse for Uncle Frank to angrily vent his dissatisfaction with the world through his guitar. She was half-joking, and there was nothing in life Zappa took more seriously that music, but to some extent she was on to something.

The guitar solo as a phenomenon can be roughly and over-simplistically divided into three broad categories. One, prettifying embellishments that simply exist because they sound nice, two, masturbatory showboating that achieves little other than showing how loud and fast and uninterestingly a guitarist can play, and three, attempts at further evoking the mood and/or sentiment of the song in question with the lead instrument – the unassailably good Richard Thompson is master of the third.

Typically, the nothing-if-not-individual Zappa deserves a fourth category of his own. Midway through one or other acerbic ditty, when he and his guitar would take the solo spot, what followed was an experiment in spontaneous composition. The aim was to play something that didn’t just sound good as a guitar interlude, on the stage, in that moment, but that could just as well be performed in ten years by an orchestra as by a lone moustachioed maverick. The sluice gates would be opened on Uncle Frank’s ever-mutating musical genius, his volatile brew of jazz, blues, avant-garde classical, hard rock and musique concrete, and he and his audience would see in what startling shape it would come out.

What came out could well be ten minutes-plus of dense noise, yielding nothing but a few nuggets of excellence or a lone godly snippet of something mad and brilliant that only he could ever dream up, among burbling mediocrity. It could also be nerve-janglingly amazing, astounding and inspired from start to finish. Band-mates and concert-goers recall with awe instances in which their employer/hero would nonchalantly soar, making music that was – depending on what he was going for – dazzlingly beautiful, heart-wrenchingly anguished or terrifyingly angry.

As for which it was, fumbling noise that never really went anywhere, blazing brilliance, or somewhere in between, Zappa himself wasn’t overly bothered. This shouldn’t be mistaken for scorn or indifference to his audience – to be a Zappa fan you certainly have to be patient, and his followers knew that the price for experimentation was occasional failure, or the risk of producing nothing special, but were willing for him to try.

Hard-core Zappa adherents very quickly learn that his rock-based music largely was an excuse to play his guitar. He was very open about the fact that if it was commercially viable, he’d do away with lyrics altogether and happily go about composing instrumentals. The crude, moronic nature of many of his songs was in part a somewhat embittered reaction to the financial necessity of dumbing down – if he had to dumb down, he was going to dumb down as far and as offensively as he could to make a point.

And, to keep things tolerable for the restless innovator, there was a hell of a lot of him playing the guitar. This was very fortunate for music fans with the stomach for it, because as a player Zappa was truly unique, hitting the sweet spot where inspiration and musical genius meet technical ability. Genius without ability can find a way through, but it’s ability without imagination that has spawned the legions of identikit shredders that plague YouTube and elsewhere, competing to widdly-widdly-widdly a microsecond faster than the other mug. Zappa could play blindingly fast, but did so sparingly, for effect.

Hot Rats, the album that first brought us the kind of extended feats of improvisation for which Zappa would later become known was billed as ‘a movie for your ears’. It was an approach that stuck. At its best, his playing produced masterpieces of tension and release, impossibly nuanced, drenched in feeling, with the atmosphere and individuality of a film, and plain emotive in a way that a man playing an electric guitar really shouldn’t be.

Unless you don’t know the first thing about Frank Zappa – which would be a real shame, but understandable given how little airplay he’s given nowadays – you’ll immediately notice that the attached video does NOT feature the man himself. It is, in fact, an Israeli guitarist called Lior Frenkel from the band Hot Fur, playing Zappa’s flailing perverted-reggae creation ‘Dangerous Cretins’ from his flabbergasting Shut Up ‘N’ Play Yer Guitar album. Frenkel’s rendition is a note-perfect reproduction of Frank’s original. But what’s most astonishing of all is that a piece that an excellent guitar player had to pour months of toil into getting right was casually made up on the spot by Zappa on stage in 1979.

For some annoying reason, if you want to actually watch the video bit of a WordPress-embedded YouTube video rather just hear the audio, you have to either watch it fullscreen or click to watch it on YouTube itself.