Getting Comfortable With Frank Zappa's "One SIze Fits All": Prog Rock Countdown #18

Getting Comfortable With Frank Zappa's "One SIze Fits All": Prog Rock Countdown #18

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Frank Zappa. I've known that name for a long time, yet I’ve never listened to a single song.

I've been dimply aware of Zappa as a forerunner of prog, an epitomic practitioner in psychedelic music, and so immensely bizarre: purposefully counter cultural in a smart and unexpected way. In my imagination, his music is too weird to really be enjoyable. His oeuvre is to be strange and shocking as a musician. I guess there's even been a bit of an association in my mind with him and more recent shock rockers like Marilyn Manson or GWAR, and other oddball musical acts.

Zappa's actual music was a total blank to me, however, and after listening to One Size Fits All, I'd say my nearly baseless assessment of Zappa was 75% correct.

I was expecting to be bewildered and put off by One Size Fits All, if not outright hating it. After all, I've said before that I'm not particularly interested in the psychedelic and jazzy sides of prog.

Zappa is certainly playing in that register, though there's a lot more going on as well. But I was amazed at how approachable One Size Fits All has been. Nothing on here screams prog to me, and it is more firmly psychedelic, jazzy, and bluesy, with maybe some progish impulses here and there with the instrumentation choices. In other words, this sounds more classic rock than prog to me.

On my initial listen, only a couple tracks stood out ("Sofa No. 1" and "Po-Jama People"). But after a week or two of playing the album at least once a day, I've been enjoying it more and more. I doubt I'll listen to it again anytime soon, but I've come away with some appreciation for what Zappa is all about, and I'd welcome recommendations for other albums more suited to my tastes.

In the end, this is a remarkably non-weird album considering what I was expecting. Not that Zappa doesn't try to screw with listeners, such as on the last track ("Sofa No. 2") by singing nonsense phrases in German with a variety of put-on voices. There's very little to be made of the lyrics "I am the author of all tucks / and damask piping / I am the chrome dinette."

A Modified Dog?

Then there's the spoken word "Evelyn, a Modified Dog," where the title character observes, in increasingly inflated, convoluted narration, a very minor occurrence. The song describes the motion of a doily on a piano caused (possibly) by the snoring of a human owner out of sight. Never are we told how Evelyn is modified, nor whether her thoughts are a reflection of her modified condition, nor even what exactly causes the motion of the doily.

After her long pondering - well, not that long since the track runs only a minute - Evelyn's ponderings are concluded with a single summary statement that leaves listeners even more confused: "Arf," she says.

Are we meant to understand that she has been modified in any way that gives her thought, as the set up suggests? Such a reading deflates when we hear her bark and reinterpret everything else as mere projection by an unseen narrator. It is literally a shaggy dog story.

It's been a while since I discussed lyrics in one of these reviews, so it's nice to have an album with lyrics so bizarre, and yet probably well considered, that they demand attention. It's also worth reiterating that, musically, One Size Fits All isn't all that strange, even if the lyrics are.

There are many shifts in style and tone in the longer songs, and a lot of variety in instruments, percussion in particular. But the weirdness of Zappa is only evident on this album in the lyrics. There's the opener "Inca Roads" that describes a strange vehicle flying around the Andes, partially sung in a silly fast-speaking falsetto. Then it's the groovy "Can't Afford New Shoes," a high energy, upbeat rocker about being too poor to buy new shoes, I guess.

The track that most captured my attention at first and since is "Po-Jama People," a straightforward bluesy number on which Zappa complains of "Po-Jama people" who make him sleepy and who need to get out of the way.

In all cases, the lyrics confirm hippy stereotypes of trippy drug-inspired visions. They're lyrics that kind of almost make sense if you work at it, but are really just about putting together words in fun ways, often with simple, catchy rhymes. It's a lyric writing strategy the Red Hot Chili Peppers in particular have gotten a ton of mileage from.

Of all the tracks, "Andy" is the one that comes closest to telling a coherent narrative or having a cogent message. "Is there anything good inside of you / If there is, I really wanna know," Zappa begins. And then he never stops beginning to ask that question.

Near the end, instead of developing the idea further or giving us a response, the song devolves into nonsense rhymes: "Andy de vine (de vine) / Had a thong rind (rind) /It was sublime (sublime) / But the wrong kind / Have I aligned / With a blown mind / Wasted my time / On a drawn blind"

The answer is there, though. The plaintive inquiry into the moral state of a man is later answered by an emotive conclusion that Andy is simply a "drawn blind," perhaps the result of drug related burnout? The speaker is wasting his time trying to get an answer. There may be no good in Andy after all, and there may be no reason for his evil. The moral reasoning in the first half of the song is shut down with silence and nonsense.

That lyrical structure applies throughout the album. There's usually a set up of some kind: Introductions to characters, or descriptions of a scene. And then nothing ever goes beyond this exposition. No story emerges, and certainly no moral or philosophical conclusions. This is surely purposeful. It dismisses the idea that a song must tell a story or offer insight. The music is its own reason, and the lyrics are nothing more than one part of the musical whole.

Obviously, I'm projecting my own feelings about lyrics here, to some extent. I will happily sing along to a song whether or not the lyrics are themselves meaningful to me. Because it's the song that makes meaning, not the words.

Overall, I find Zappa and One Size Fits All refreshing change from the seriousness of many prog acts. But then, Rush are gleeful self-parodists, and silliness is not that foreign to prog in general, despite its reputation for being snobbish and overdone. Part of what makes prog so enjoyable is its intrinsic iconoclasm. Prog is all about moving music in new directions. That can mean incredibly self-serious, introspective, cultural critique, and it can mean irreverent riffs on popular forms and subjects.

Zappa's One Size Fits All is entirely on the latter side.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Yes – Close to the Edge

  4. King Crimson - Red

  5. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  9. Rush - Moving Pictures

  10. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  11. Pink Floyd - Animals

  12. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  13. Yes - Fragile

  14. Rush - Hemispheres

  15. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  16. Can - Future Days

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

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