Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
Baby Snakes

I’m in the mood for a diatribe so here goes: Frank Zappa is, without a doubt, the most annoying rock act who’s ever lived. More annoying than Rush; more annoying (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) than Emerson, Lake & Palmer even. He was prissy, pretentious, punctilious, arrogant, and smug, possessed a sense of humor that atrophied during his early adolescence, and never met a decent song he couldn’t render unlistenable with his incurable proclivity for impossibly intricate arrangements. He even came close to fucking up “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” which is impossible.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about Zappa was his knack for writing condescending and not very funny novelty songs. “Jewish Princess.” “Bobby Brown.” “Dancin’ Fool.” “Valley Girl.” And on 1983’s Baby Snakes, “Disco Boy” and “Titties and Beer.” If Zappa was so smart, how was it he wrote satire so facile, juvenile, and petty? I mean, talk about your low-hanging fruit.

Baby Snakes was the soundtrack to a film of the same name, and features several of the songs from the film. It shares the same characteristics of most of Zappa’s innumerable other live LPs, which feature “zany” interactions between the players that increase the annoyance factor considerably. On “Titties and Beer” for instance, there’s an exchange between Zappa and another player in which Zappa repeats the song’s title about ten times in a row. You may as well be back in the playground, and it’s a pity they don’t give out Grammy awards for impersonating an eleven-year-old.

But before that you get the title track, which would be a nice straight-ahead rocker if it weren’t for the cartoon voices repeating “baaaby snaaaakes” over and over again. The frantic piano is nice, but the only thing that even made Zappa’s music listenable was his guitar solos—the guy was truly one of the greats—and you won’t find one here, or on most of the rest of the album either.

The band’s too busy performing unfunny bits and jumping from this musical idea to that in order to demonstrate their uncontested technical virtuosity. This could be the reason 1969’s mostly instrumental Hot Rats, which consists of songs unpolluted by Zappa’s so-called sense of humor (he doesn’t even open his mouth!) and don’t suffer from musical ADD is the only one of his LPs I can bear hearing.

“The Black Page #2″ is the kind of mock symphonic, xylophone-heavy fusion Zappa specialized in, and it’s made even worse by a synthesizer that brings the worst of progressive rock to mind. It segues into “Jones Crusher,” a high-octane number and the LP’s only undisputed success story—it even gives Zappa the (albeit brief) chance to shut up and play his guitar.

Unfortunately it’s followed by “Disco Boy,” which features the infuriatingly cutesy vocals from “Baby Snakes” and lyrics along the lines of, “Disco boy, that’s the way it goes, so wipe your nose/And try it again, to get a little pussy tomorrow (you can do it).” And what’s truly, truly frightening is he was capable of much worse—check out “Valley Girl” if you don’t believe me.

“Dinah-Moe Hum” features a complex vocal arrangement (so what’s new) and such sophisticated—and sexist—lyrical sentiments as “So I pulled on her hair/Got her legs in the air/An’ asked if she had any cooties in there.” To say nothing of the classy farting noise that punctuates the proceedings.

For years people have been telling me that such lyrics were Zappa’s way of attracting a (presumably pre-pubescent) audience, but (true or not) how far was our musical genius willing to sink to sell records? No, I believe he was simply expressing his crass and juvenile self. Frankly I have more respect for the Mentors, who never argued they were being offensive in order to attract fans to their superior music. They were simply being their lovable, deeply offensive selves.

I must admit I’m prejudiced against “Punky’s Whips” because I spent a fair amount of time interviewing the former Angel (they were the anti-Kiss!) guitarist Punky Meadows and he’s a swell guy. But even if I hated his guts the stupid voices and lines like “I promise not to come in your mouth” and “maybe he’d like to yank my crank” (our Frank sure knows how to coin an original phrase and keep things classy, that’s for sure) wouldn’t predispose me to like this song, on which Zappa does his usual mockery bit to an audience sympathetic to the great man’s manifest homophobia. The only good thing to be said about the song is that Zappa finally shuts his boorish trap and plays his guitar, which so far as I’m concerned was the only thing he was ever good for.

I’m in agreement with the rock critic Robert Christgau, who summed up Zappa’s career with the words “Oh shut up.” And it speaks volumes that Zappa’s the only person on Planet Earth who ever tempted me to side with Tipper Gore. His early work will stand the test of time, as will some of the albums from the 1970s, yellow snow and all. But by 1983 he was a parody of himself, an insufferable elitist, sexist, homophobe whose species of junior high school buffoonery had coarsened into a series of anything-but-funny nervous tics. I suppose there’s something to be said for him if your idea of a good time is oafish humor accompanied by xylophones. If not, make an immediate beeline for Emerson, Lake & Palmer. At least you can laugh at them.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

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