Alright, here we go!
Like most debut albums, knowing the back story usually helps put the album in context. With Freak Out! there are also tons of recordings before the first Mothers album, most of which is available on posthumous official releases.
I started off listening to one of Frank's earliest recordings - "The World's Greatest Sinner"
. This can be found on Beat The Boots vol. 3 (disc 3)
It's not the earliest of recordings, those can be found on The Lost Episodes
and The Mystery Disc
, which I assume will be covered later. This was recorded in 1961. Eleven minutes of symphonic classical music mixed with a dash of rhythm and blues, and some spoken word by a guy who sounds like your average 1950s announcer. The symphonic part is interesting, as Frank usually made avant-garde 20th Century classical in the vein of Varese and Stravinsky. There are some themes and melodies that would later appear on Frank's albums. Conceptual continuity started very early.
Next up, I listened to Cucamonga
released in 1998. This is a collection of songs recorded during Frank's Studio Z days (1961-1965). Not a real Zappa album, but it contains sounds that would appear on early Mothers albums and beyond. One of the songs is called World's Greatest Sinner but has nothing to do with the symphonic piece from earlier. I think Frank played a couple of guitar solos on some songs, but it's mostly different bands that utilized the studio for recording and releasing singles. Mostly doo-wop, rhythm n blues, 50s type ballads (Earth Angel, Earrrrth AAAANGELLL!!!), and some comedy rock (think "Rock Lobster"). Again, this is for context, and really makes you appreciate Frank's early work, and his blues work which is all over his discography. Seriously, listen to this and then listen to Lumpy Gravy, you would see what I mean. I have a mild appreciation for Frank's doo-wop side as I grew up on 50s and 60s 'oldies' music since my dad listened to a lot of that stuff. This album gives you a sense of the sounds Frank was tinkering with in the early 1960s.
More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pal_Recording_Studio
Next up is the album Joe's XMAS-age
(released in 2004) which is a collection of early Frank songs recorded in 1963 and a couple of field recordings and dialogue from the Studio Z days.
Before he even made his debut, Frank Zappa was already on late-night television shows, giving some... odd performances. Very funny stuff. Frank went on The Steve Allen Show
in 1963 and performed music using only a bicycle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MewcnFl_6Y
Also, in 1963, Frank conducted a classical performance of his own music, which can be found at http://www.zappateers.com/fzshows/orchestral.html
the FM broadcast (very good sound) can be downloaded if you sign up at Zappateers. It contains mostly 20th Century classical as only Frank could create, with a light dose of jazzy rhythms. Frank was already a master composer and musician in 1963!
There are also recordings of Frank and The Mothers before they recorded their debut. The album Joe's Corsage
(released in 2005) is basically a demo for Freak Out! but also contains some songs that didn't make it or was reworked for later albums.
Now on to Freak Out!
This is an album I didn't appreciate when I was new to Frank Zappa. I was attracted to the 72-79 era the most. However, I recall more than one time when I was younger and me and my friends were enjoying some 'chemical amusement aid' and we were blasting Help I'm A Rock and It Can't Happen Here and literally FREAKED OUT! It wasn't until later when I was exploring Frank's music more that I was able to give the album a real chance. Still not my favorite album, but it has grown on me a lot over the years. The key is to remember when this album was recorded (1965). Popular music at that point was very safe, coordinated, packed and shipped. There was no Beatles experimentation yet, the hippie movement, the progressive rock phenomena, the psychedelic movement was just getting under way barely. Along comes this album, and at first, you think it's a "nice album" until it gradually gets weirder and weirder until the last track you start losing your mind. Knowing what came later, this album can seem a little pedestrian for Frank, but at the time, it was revolutionary, and an influence on Paul McCartney to make Sgt. Peppers (which was then later mocked by Frank two albums later). Yup, without Frank Zappa, The Beatles would probably not have been as progressive and revolutionary as they were. Frank rarely gets the credit for basically being the first prog rock musician.
My favorite tracks:
Hungry Freaks, Daddy
How Could I Be Such A Fool
Trouble Every Day
Help I'm A Rock
It Can't Happen Here