Does humor belong in music? To American composer and guitarist Frank Zappa the answer was easy: yes! Take for instance the song ‘Titties and Beer’ from the album “Zappa in New York”, in which he enters into a dialogue with the devil. In this case it’s drummer Terry Bozzio, an esteemed musician who regularly performs at De Boerderij. Or the song ‘Who needs the Peace Corps’ from the album “We’re Only in it for the Money”, in which he wipes the floor with hippie culture with lyrics like “I’m hippy and I’m trippy. I’m completely stoned.”
Zappa also put humor in his covers. The cover of “We’re Only in it for the Money” is a nice parody of the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The image you see pictured here was actually meant to be the front cover, but the record company banished the picture to the inside. On the outside cover we now only see Frank Zappa and the band members of his Mothers of Invention, with a yellow background. This yellow, in turn, is a reference to “Sgt. Pepper”, where the four Beatles are depicted against a yellow background. What is certainly striking is that Zappa and his Mothers are dressed in women’s clothes, both on the inner and outer cover. That was very daring in the late 1960s, especially in America.
I can spend hours looking at this inner sleeve; there are so many layers. Instead of flowers, as with “Sgt. Pepper”, Zappa uses fruits and vegetables to write the band’s name on the floor. It is not just a parody, but also a reference to the earlier Zappa song ‘Call Any Vegetable’. The album’s name is on the front of a bass drum, just like the Beatles. And like the Beatles, The Mothers present themselves twice, in the center dressed as women, and on the right with plaster sculptures. The artwork was created by Cal Schenkel, who also came up with the composition for the cover in close cooperation with Zappa. The two worked together for years; Schenkel’s cartoonish photo collages and caricatures with big noses adorn many a Zappa album. Humor: Zappa’s own nose was quite a sight to see.
In the background we see a strange selection of individuals and props gathered, including the Statue of Liberty, a Christmas tree, Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy’s assassin) and Elvis Presley. The only overlapping figure with “Sgt. Pepper” is Albert Einstein.
Another interesting detail is that Jimi Hendrix, in the flesh, joins the band on the far right. He happened to be around and liked being on the cover. Zappa was a great admirer of Hendrix’s guitar playing.
At the foot of Frank Zappa is a bust of composer Edgar Varèse. That’s where it all started for Frank Zappa as far as music is concerned. As a 16-year-old boy, he bought the album “Ionisation” and was immediately sold to this music. A world opened up for him. Since then, he wanted to follow in Varèse’s footsteps.
I always thought of myself as a super fan of Zappa’s, but the internet search for this cover was a humbling experience. I turned out to be just a regular fan. Super fans write pages full of analyses, reflections and details about Frank Zappa’s music, covers and lyrics. But like these super fans, I think Zappa is a genius. Hard to pigeonhole, too. As far as I’m concerned, he belongs in the category of contemporary (classical) composers, just like his idol Edgar Varèse, and not just as a rock musician.
But people who hate Zappa and his music are just as easy to find as fans. I once tried to get my wife to listen to Zappa’s music. It never worked. At home, I put Zappa on when I want to be alone for a moment and try to get my wife to leave the room.
As a guitarist he is one of the very best in the world. Which is sometimes underestimated. But take a solo on the song ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ (on the album “Frank Zappa: Guitar”). Then you’ll know what I mean.
Just a shame Frank Zappa was a chain smoker. Partly because of this, he died much too early, at the age of 53 in 1993.
Unfortunately, I discovered Zappa and his music much too late, at the end of the eighties. So I never saw him perform live. Fortunately, his son Dweezil imitates his father’s music almost perfectly. It is always a joy to go to a Dweezil Zappa concert and know that he is not only on stage for the money but also to honor his father.