Robert Shelton – “Frank Zappa: Son of Suzy Creamcheese” (1966)

November 26, 2008 at 9:58 pm (Frank Zappa, Reviews & Articles)

Written for The New York Times, Christmas Day, 1966, The Mothers of Invention were still a new band at this point and had only just come out with their debut album Freak Out! in June. Most people did not know what to make of Zappa & his band of weirdos when they first exploded onto the scene. This was one of the first major articles written about Zappa…


The most original new group to simmer out of the steaming rock’n’roll underground in the last hour and one-half is an audacious crew from the West Coast called The Mothers of Invention. The eight-member group will be appearing through New Year’s Eve at the Balloon Farm, the new haven for young hippies at 23 St. Mark’s Place, atop the Dom.
The Mothers of Invention are primarily musical satirists. Beyond that, they are perhaps the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock’n’roll with the serious music of Stravinsky and others. Both in their material and in their looks, they are also furthering some of the more outrageous elements of anti-convention, thus contributing to a new style that might be called “shock rock.”
Compared to the Mothers of Invention, such earlier big-beat groups as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones emerge as Boy Scouts with electric guitars. The hairier-than-thou personnel of The Mothers, include at this writing (“everyone in the band has quit three times”) performers on harmonica, tambourine, percussion and timpani, electric bassoon, soprano saxophone, tenor sax, flute, gongs, electric clavichord and “mouth.” There is a lot of alternation of instruments among the band members. No one knows for sure who plays drums. The father (or Dada) of The Mothers of Invention is 26-year-old Frank Zappa, spindly-framed, sharp-nosed gamester whose appearance suggests some of the more sinister aspects of Edgar Allen Poe, John Carradine and Rasputin. In truth, Mr. Zappa is no more sinister than a cultural revolutionary bent on overthrowing every rule in the music book.
On arriving here, Mr. Zappa took a moment off from worrying about when the plane carrying the bands 18 boxes of equipment would be found by the airline, loosened his pink-on-pink tie from his Carnaby Street collar and explained to a visitor just what he is up to: “I am trying to use the weapons of a disoriented and unhappy society against itself. The Mothers of Invention are designed to come in the back door and kill you while you’re sleeping.” A smile crept through the undergrowth of mustache and goatee, and he continued: “One of our main, short-range objectives is to do away with the top-40 broadcasting format because it is basically wrong, unethical and unmusical . . . Sure, we’re satirists, and we are out to satirize everything. Most of the guys in the band feel that we’re going to do something to help.”
Mr. Zappa was not explicit about how he was going to lead his crusade against the pop and serious music Establishments, other than to get his band’s work more widely heard. Audiences at the Balloon Farm have been listening to variations on Mr. Zappa’s themes with considerable delight. They have heard such Zappa originals as “Help, I’m a Rock” (“. . . dedicated to Elvis Presley. Note the intersting formal structure and the stunning four-part barbershop harmony toward the end. Note the obvious lack of commercial potential. Ho hum”), “Motown Waltz,” “Who Are the Brain Police?” “Wowie Zowie” (“. . . carefully designed to suck the 12-year-old listener into our camp”) and “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.” Other works are entitled “The Mother’s American Pageant,” “The Duke of Prunes,” “Plastic People,” and “Son of Suzy Creamcheese.”
If all of this sounds even a bit outlandish, Mr. Zappa has apparently hit his mark, for he thinks that “freaking out” is an important method of expression and effecting change. He defines “freaking out” as “a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restrictive thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole.” Not the least of the fascinations of hearing The Mothers at work are the incidental uses of classical or serious music in rock arrangements. Besides Stravinsky, Mr. Zappa has scored rock adaptations of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Holst’s The Planets and a touch or two of Edgar Varese.
Mr. Zappa began serious composition at the age of 14. “At 15 I gave it up and decided to become a plumber. How long did I stay in plumbing? I’m still a plumber . . .” The Baltimore-born, West-Coast-reared musician has had a turn at nearly every form of music extant. He has written “serious” works for string quartet, chamber orchestra, scores for the films World’s Greatest Sinner and Run Home Slow. He describes the latter as the only known cowboy picture using electronic music, in which the good guys presumably head off the bad guys at the oscillator. Mr. Zappa had almost despaired of “making it” in serious American music, but admits that he might make it through the back door of rock’n’roll. But “rock is not just a stepping-stone,” he cautions. “Rock is tha only living music in America today. It’s alive. I’m bringin music music [serious or classical concepts] to our rock arrangements. Stravinsky in rock is like a get-acquainted offer, a loss-leader. It’s a gradual progression to bring in my own ‘serious’ music.”
Listening to The Mothers of Invention is an adventure, in which the auditor is warned to expect veering curves and sudden changes. Some of it is psychedelic sound (without the drugs), some is a marvelous spoof on the late-1950’s teen-scene nonsense, some of it is social comment on the hypocrisies of contemporary life, and some of it is just, to use Mr. Zappa’s phrase, “music music.”
Mr. Zappa urges that every lover of pop music run out and buy the Vanguard recording of Varese’s futuristic “Ameriques.” “It blows my mind. It’s my favorite top-40 record.”

Robert Shelton

1 Comment

  1. Paul Carr said,

    This is a really interesting article that captures Zappa’s intent to be a ‘serious’ composer as early as 1966. I have written a number of academic articles on Zappa’s work which you can access via my blog at



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