Freak Out!

I have to be honest, I could care less about buying most new CD’s and records. Its not because, I don’t like new music. On the contrary, I think theres probably the highest percentage of good music being released now than ever before. It takes time to dig through all the crap, but any resourceful individual can go on last.fm or twitter or allmusic, or search through the thousands of review sites out there and find a lot of amazing music.

I’m also not in favor of pirating music. People deserve money for their art, particularly young artists attempting to push creative boundaries. If you’re going to download music, you should do it directly from an artists website, or their record labels site. This is the best way to insure that the artists and labels you support, get the largest cut of the money you spent on their product possible. That way they can afford to keep producing art, and possibly widen their creative range by allowing them to purchase better equipment.

My real issue is that most CDs and records come in packaging whose only purpose is to look aesthetically pleasing. Other than some pictures and basic band info, the most you’re going to get from most packaging is some lyrics and maybe a story or two about the band. Most bands miss the point that the packaging can be just as important as the music on the album.

I got a chance to check out an original printing of Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Freak Out! was released in 1966. At the time the most dangerous acts around were The Rolling Stones (whose rebellious streak was sheerly for appearances sake) and Bob Dylan. The Beatles wouldn’t release Revolver until the end of the year. Basically it was a draconian environment for anyone who didn’t want to get a decent job, have a family, and compete with the Joneses.

Into this climate Frank Zappa dropped a bombshell. Freak Out! advocated the restructuring of society into a place where tolerance and free speech would be advocated, and giant corporations would be forced to act ethically and produce good products lest they be replaced by independent firms.  He advocated all these ideas in songs which mixed ideas from R&B and 20th century avant-garde together in a perfectly executed sonic dada fest. Zappa was much brighter and realistic than his contemporaries. There was no, “love is the answer,” bullshit to be found here. There was only cold hard reality, and how to realistically change the way things are. Pretty radical ideas even for today.

Unlike todays artists Zappa didn’t have access to Myspace. There wasn’t even an independent music community to speak of. No zine promotion, no independent music clubs run by douchebags in wearing white belts. There was nothing. He was alone. So, the only way to reach the people who may be interested in his music, was to promote himself, play lots of gigs, and create packaging for his product designed to lure in the dissatisfied. <!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P.sdfootnote { margin-left: 0.2in; text-indent: -0.2in; margin-bottom: 0in; font-size: 10pt } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } A.sdfootnoteanc { font-size: 57% } –>

Zappa spent a large amount of money on the packaging for Freak Out! Unlike most records, the packaging was not meant to attract the average record buyer. The album cover of Freak Out! shows a 27 year old Zappa with long black hair grown past his shoulders, and his trademark mustache and goatee. The Mothers surrounded him, wearing beads, possessing strange facial hair, and in general looking radical and threatening. The album cover insinuated that these were radical road worn men who presented a threat to society.

In contrast to The Mothers, The Beatles were barely out of their teens when they released, “Meet The Beatles.” The cover shows four well combed kids smiling with their perfect teeth. The cover looks like four kids without much experience playing music, trying to look cute to attract girls. Except for Ringo, who worked as a session musician, none of The Beatles had any experience in the music industry. Prior to the release of Freak Out! Zappa had owned his own studio, recorded popular artists, and had extensive experience as a studio engineer and film editor. Not to mention The Mothers who were a hard working bar band prior to Zappa’s arrival.

By the time the public was introduced to Zappa his personality and ideas about music and politics were largely solidified. Comparatively John Lennon entered the public eye as a cute pop star with some latent anti-religious beliefs. One can chart the growth of his personality through The Beatles transition from cute pop stars into somewhat radical social critics, over the course of several albums. Zappa chose a more direct route to radicalism. Neil Slaven comments on the back cover stating, “The world was introduced to Suzy Creamcheese on the back cover. Her letter, written by Frank, was composed of sentences designed to attract the album’s potential ‘freak’ audience and repulse symbols of authority.1

Upon opening Freak Out!, the viewer is barraged with information quotes such as, “The present-day composer refuses to die!” and “If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they’ll murder you in your sleep.”  Also included in the album was a list of over 200, “Freaks.” The list mentioned everyone from 20th century avant-garde composers to Zappa’s high-school music teachers.  Enclosed in the original pressing, Zappa included a list of 36 Freak hot spots, where people could go and experience the counterculture.

Freak Out! wasn’t just an album with some songs that you liked on it. It was a cultural artifact which sought to expose America to new ideas, whether they be social or musical, that were being repressed by the predominant culture of the day. Though other artists have done unique and interesting things with CD packaging, I can’t think of anyone who made there packaging as multi-faceted and engaging as Zappa’s. Young bands who think they are doing something truly culturally important, should consider utilizing the packaging, as a venue for expressing their ideas just as much so as their music. Remember kids every scrap of information or product that is put out there with your name on it represents you, and in turn influences how people think of you.

1Slaven 61

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