The Mothers of Invention released the double LP, Freak Out in 1966. Frank Zappa and his band of misfits took full advantage of having four albums sides at their disposal. A mix of psychedelic rock, doo-wop, kazoo solos, and avant-garde soundscapes, Freak Out is not an easy album to process.
A carefully designed gatefold helps listeners grasp the eclectic debut. Extensive liner notes provide a mix of humor, social commentary and biography. As a package, Freak Out is a veritable crash-course in all things Zappa.
Freak Out introduced the Mothers of Invention to the world. The front cover unveils a band that looks distinctly psychedelic. The photo seems expressly designed to attract the LSD eating hippies of the sixties.
Flipping to the rear cover, there is another trippy photograph. The focus is on Zappa himself who addresses a woman named Suzy Creamcheese by means of a giant bubble balloon.
Above the photograph we see why Zappa chastises Suzy. Writing from the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City, Utah, Suzy offers a damning assessment of this new California band.
“These Mothers are crazy. You can tell by their clothes. One guys wears beads and they all smell bad. We were gonna get them for a dance after the basketball game but my best pal warned me you can never tell how many will show up…sometimes the guy in the fur coat doesn’t show up and sometimes he does show up only he brings big bunch of crazy people with him and they dance all over the place. None of the kids at my school likes these Mothers … especially since my teacher told us what the words to their songs meant.”
Suzy’s letter contains many Zappa-isms. American adolescent culture is mocked. The insanity of a Mothers concert is revealed. Above all, there is humor. Essentially it’s a witty bio meant to pique the interest of record buyers.
Additional biographies appear inside the gatefold. “The guy in the fur coat” turns out to be Frank Zappa. Not to be outdone by a fictional groupie, Zappa pens his own witty bio.
Frank’s bio corroborates much of Suzy’s story. Zappa confirms that he occasionally doesn’t perform, opting to let that “big bunch of crazy people” act out his vision. The photo shows Zappa working in his capacity as director. Waving a drumstick in the air, the mad composer orders The Mothers to “FREAK OUT!”
Of course, this command raises a pertinent question. What does it mean to Freak Out? The Mothers are kind enough to offer a precise definition.
“On a personal level, Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole. Less perceptive individuals have referred to us who have chosen this way of thinking and FEELING as “Freaks,” hence the term: Freaking Out.
On a collective level, when any number of “Freaks” gather and express themselves creatively through music or dance, for example, it is generally referred to as a FREAK OUT. The participants, already emancipated from our national social slavery, dressed in their most inspired apparel, realize as a group whatever potential they possess for free expression.
We would like to encourage everyone who HEARS this music to join us…become a member of The United Mutations…FREAK OUT!”
“Freaking Out” is both a criticism of conformity and a call to arms. Those wishing to break free from “social slavery” are encouraged to unite in a collective overthrow of societal norms. Where can one find like-minded individuals? Surely a Mother of Invention concert would be prime breeding ground for those wishing to FREAK OUT!
Frank may be “the leader and musical director” but his vision would not be possible without a talented band. A lengthy list of contributors comprise “The Mother’s Auxiliary,” yet four musicians form the core of The Mothers.
Each musician has a unique talent. Ray Collins contributes “finger cymbals, bobby pin & tweezers” in addition to harmonica and vocals. Jimmy Black “sings in some foreign language” while Roy Estrada serves as the all-important “boy soprano.” Elliot Ingber enhances his guitar “with clear white light.” It would all seem like a joke if Freak Out wasn’t a cacophony of brilliant noise.
Frank Zappa may now be a household name, but in 1966 The Mothers of Invention were an unknown band. The Freak Out gatefold makes a considerable effort at introducing the new group in painstaking detail. A box dedicated to “BIOGRAPHICAL TRIVIA” offers yet ANOTHER bio.
Zappa is revealed as “a self-taught musician, composer” that divorced his first wife before moving into his recording studio. Ray, Jim and Roy soon joined Frank to “starve” and play “a lot of freaky music.”
Zappa devotes a considerable amount of gatefold real estate to his musical heroes. Affectionately dubbed the “Freak Out List,” Zappa-philes have explored each name with an obsessive devotion. There is even a documentary that deconstructs the list!
Influences and biographies aside, it’s the music that truly matters. “Notes on the compositions included herein,” provides a summary of each song. Informative and hilarious, this portion of the gatefold offers additional insight into the mind of Frank Zappa.
“Hungry Freaks Daddy” encourages listeners to “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.” It wouldn’t be the last time that Zappa encouraged free-thinking.
Some stories, if true, are downright creepy. Take Frank’s explanation for “Who Are the Brain Police?” “At 5:00 in the morning someone kept saying this in my mind and made me write it down. I will admit to being frightened when I finally played it loud and sang the words.”
“Trouble Every Day” finds Zappa commenting on social issues in the explosive climate of the civil rights era. “Trouble Every Day is how I feel about racial unrest in general and the Watts situation in particular. It was written during the Watts riot as it developed. I shopped it briefly all over Hollywood but no one would touch it…everybody worries so much about not getting any airplay. My, my.”
Of course there is a steady dose of humor as well. “Motherly Love is a body commercial for the band. It is sung during live performances to advise the female audience of potential delights to be derived from social contact with us folks. Trivial poop.” Not to mention the admission that “Wowie Zowie is carefully designed to suck the 12 year old listener into our camp.”
“Relevant Quotes” followed by “More Relevant Quotes” offers additional laughs. Take the esteemed opinion of “A VERY IMPORTANT MAN AT COLUMBIA RECORDS” who deemed the Mothers to have “No commercial potential.” It’s a phrase that Zappa would use throughout his career.
While the responses of straight-laced businessmen are hilarious, it’s The Mothers who provide the best quote. In a “closing message to tourists at the Hollywood Whisky A-GO-GO,” the band warned, “If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they’ll murder you in your sleep.” It was yet another indication of the hilarity that fueled a Mothers concert.
The most famous component of the Freak Out package technically wasn’t part of the gatefold. Fans that mailed a dollar to the band were rewarded with a “Freak Out Hot Spots” map.
Original maps are exceedingly rare. Fortunately, the recent reissue includes a replica. Aspiring hippies wishing to join the madness are advised to make their way to the “Freak Sanctuary” known as “Laurel Canyon.”
They are also advised to avoid the “cultural desert” of suburbia.
There is even a warning to freaks about the discrimination they should expect at the hands of LA’s finest. Simply looking different is a crime. An image taken ”from a highly recommended film: Blue Fascism” shows three police officers beating a man who has clearly been subdued. The caption reads, “All I wanted was a pastrami!” His protests are met with “SILENCE, FOOL!” as the assault continues.
If there is any doubt that pot-smoking longhairs are LAPD targets, a nifty ad for the Police Department makes it clear that stoned hippies are the enemy. Bright red letters encourage upstanding teenagers to rid LA of its growing freak community. “HEY KIDS! WANNA SET UP A BUST? Dial this number.” The extension takes potential narcs straight to the detective bureau.
Certainly being hassled for having long hair isn’t fair. Neither is being harassed because of your skin color. Reflective freaks hopefully spent time contemplating the institutional and economic forces that result in three strategically arranged ghettos.
Freak Out is a perfectly executed record. While the songs speak for themselves, the gatefold enhances the music with a visual element. Freak Out remains the ultimate introduction to Frank Zappa!