Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
The maverick composer’s album covers, by assorted hands, were provocative examples of rock art
In the second half of the 1960s, maverick musician Frank Zappa, who died at the end of last year, recorded a series of albums with his band the Mothers of Invention which established his reputation as a contemporary composer working in rock. The sleeves of these records – usually gatefold, in thick board – stand up equally well as expressions of Zappa’s barbed wit and truculent vision, and as examples of the impact the folded-open 12-inch sleeve could achieve in the right hands. Each of the four sleeves collected here is by a different designer. The psychedelic aggression of Freak Out! (1966) was the work of Jack Anesh; Cal Schenkel made the queasy Dadaist collage for Uncle Meat (1968); Neon Park, creator of the similarly lurid covers for Little Feat, painted Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970); and Zappa himself was responsible for the cover art, collages, and layout of Absolutely Free (1967) – the inside front cover is also shown. But despite the division of labour, it is clear looking at these sleeves as a group that the co-ordinating sensibility could only have come from Zappa, composer of such edifying ditties as “Who are the Brain Police?” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask”. And how different this graphic intelligence was from the empty-headed acid musings that adorned long-forgotten psychedelic records by rock musician members of Zappa’s prime satirical target: the hippies. In at least one of the covers here, for Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Zappa sponsored a generally acknowledged “classic” of rock art. Weasels is one of those perturbing sleeves, like the Sex Pistols’ brutally efficient Never Mind the Bollocks, which, once seen, is unlikely to be forgotten. Warner Bros tried to block it; the printer was outraged. Viciously daubed in yellow and purple, its apparent senselessness was an affront to the squeamish (whether bourgeois or hippie) which retains at least a trace of its original shock value even in the age of gangsta rap. It is as good a reminder as any of what has been lost in the all but complete transition to the inherently tasteful format of the diminutive CD.
First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994