My second choice this week is the tongue-in-cheek song “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats,” by another American, and wearer of many hats, Frank Zappa, from his 1983 release The Man from Utopia. Zappa wrote music in all genres from rock to orchestral, and was noted for the theatrical nature of many of his works and wild live shows, his embrace of the avant-garde (in both America and Europe), and his staunch political and social stances which often clashed with established norms: in 1985 he famously appeared before the Senate to fight the censorship of music in America by the Tipper Gore headed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), calling the PMRC’s proposal, “the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation;” to be clear, Frank Zappa was the picture of a maverick. However, this genre tightrope act he walked throughout his life persistently created a tension from both sides of his output: many of his rock and pop critics found his work too bizarre or controversial in the wake of his activism, while his more “classical” leaning works were often disregarded because of his mainstream success and the elitism that is still palpable in the world of “high” art.
Just as many of his works, “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” stylistically straddles the genre horse thoroughly. Zappa recounts an absurd and raunchy tale about a newfound practice some of his bandmates picked up on the road, “Once upon a time…in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” The lyrics are matter-of-fact, jaunty, and a bit crude, as is the incessant setting Zappa employs: the song is entirely in unison with Zappa strumming along to his affected and meandering vocal line, employing his signature “meltdown” vocal styling which can found throughout this album on classic tracks like “The Dangerous Kitchen,” and “The Radio is Broken.” This “meltdown” technique is a gray-area type of speak-singing, the two morphing into each other like hot wax, baring similarity to the Sprechstimme of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, but Zappa makes it entirely his own through a unison instrumental line which plays exactly the rhythmic and melodic contours of Zappa’s complex crooning (a transcription by Steve Vai can be seen here in all of its rigorous ligatures and tuplets). This inbetween of singing and speech is made, for me, much more interesting than Schoenberg’s initial explorations through Zappa’s signature callous and blunt delivery, the tonally drifting but strangely catchy melodic passages, the jazzy fills from the rhythm section, and the speech-like rhythmic treatment which gives these “meltdown” works a relatable air, despite their complexities and peculiarities:
“(Some of you might think this is weird…
No wonder. It’s not exactly normal, but
What the fuck?)…
Whatever you can do to have a good time, let’s get on with it,
So long as it doesn’t cause a murder…)”