Frank Zappa’s “The Freak Out List”: Unbind your mind

By on December 21, 2017

On the 77th anniversary of Frank Vincent Zappa‘s birthday — he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940; he died at the Zappa family compound in the Hollywood Hills on December 4, 1993, after a long battle with prostate cancer — we thought we’d give Night Flight’s blog readers another look at The Freak Out List, and this previously-posted blog penned by Zappa fanatic and Night Flight contributor Tom Brown.

This documentary film, which explores Zappa’s musical roots, is available now for our subscribers on Night Flight Plus!

Tom Brown:

I’ve been a hardcore Zappa fanatic since 1966, and even wrote a book about it, called Confessions Of A ZAPPA Fanatic, but I realize that you may have already convinced yourself that you don’t like Frank Zappa and you refuse to budge.

If that’s your current position, have a look at Frank Zappa’s The Freak Out List and also please allow me to try to unbind your mind so that you might be able to understand just what the Maestro was attempting to achieve.

There are no other pop groups (I use the term loosely) that I know about, then or now, that were capable of writing and performing rock n’ roll combined with orchestral music, along with the smutty and low-brow humor that we all know and love, the way that Frank Zappa did.


A few years ago, someone once said to me, “I hate Zappa and I hate those stupid novelty songs he wrote. He’s no better than Jimmy Buffett.”

In the short space of that one sentence this misinformed non-fan person revealed himself to be an incredibly ignorant individual, and likely made him one of the people Frank was referring to when he said “If your children knew how lame you were they’d murder you in your sleep.”

Let’s start back at the beginning. I realize you may have been too young to freak out in the Sixties, but I suggest you may want to give it a try presently, and there’s no better soundtrack for that than the Mothers of Invention’s album Freak Out, which was released in 1966.


The term “freak out” more or less was used as a new term for “party.” Freaking out meant you embraced an outsider’s stance, and you could express it by wearing outrageous clothing or wearing your hair long.

The album is credited in some circles with being the first double album, as well as the first concept album.


Found within said album are 179 names that are credited with being an influence on Frank and the Mothers, ranging from various blues musicians, composers, writers, actors, artists, friends and/or acquaintances, TV personalities and everything in-between, including his ex-wife.

The Freak Out List also contains the names of Molly Bee, Bill Stulla (Engineer Bill, red light, green light), Jeepers, Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Fred C. Dobbs and others you’d never expect to see on a list like this.

It would be ridiculous to think that all 179 names are covered in this documentary, but the major musical influences are definitely represented.

From the classical world you will find Edgard Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg.


The blues domain is thoroughly epitomized by Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Little Walter, Guitar Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Guitar Watson and others.

If you know anything at all about Frank Zappa, you know there has to be a discussion about R&B and doo-wop artists, and many are mentioned during this film.


We can’t leave out the jazz artists that are mentioned either, even though Frank always postulated that jazz was not dead, it just smelled funny.

Interestingly no one can quite come up with an explanation how Zappa could love composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Varese and have the same amount of adoration for the doo-wop genre.


In the documentary, the great George Duke — yet another of Frank’s converts — offers his opinion that Frank was a true musical genius and ahead of his time, putting it this way, simply:

“Hey, Frank loved music and to him it was all the same. He loved doo-wop, and when I first got in the band he had me playing triplets, and at first it irritated me. I was jazz guy, and this was the last thing I wanted to do.” (Insert ice pick in the forehead here.)


What it all boils down to here in this documentary is that Frank Zappa had perhaps the most eclectic tastes of any musician in rock or pop music. Even if you are unable to recognize his influences, if you’ve ever heard one of his albums or were lucky to have attended a live show of Zappa’s when he was alive, believe me, they’re all there on display.

The Freak Out List features various interview clips with cultivated professors and music historians, along with special guest stars, including Ian Underwood, Don Preston and the aforementioned George Duke, who all logged serious time in Frank’s band at one time or another.


Ian Underwood had graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s Degree in composition and a Master’s Degree in composition from UC Berkeley and admits he was oblivious to doo-wop before he got in the band, but wound up being very fond of it and loved playing it.

Don Preston was also won over after thinking doo-wop was just dumb. Coming from an avant-garde, electronic music background, it took him a little while to grasp the appeal too, but like Underwood, he also came around and today both are thankful to Frank for the experience.


At one point in the documentary they get a little sidetracked with Miles Davis, but that’s a minor quibble. Besides it’s always nice to spend some time with Miles.


There is also additional footage interspersed culled from old films and classic animation.

All in all, Frank Zappa’s The Freak Out List is an entertaining piece of journalism that may inspire you to freak out yourself, which is not that tough to do considering the current political state of things in our country today (if what’s going on in the news today doesn’t freak you out, nothing will).

This documentary might help to inspire you to listen to some of the artists mentioned, or better yet check out some of Frank Zappa’s enormous catalog. It may broaden your horizons and make you a happier person.

Watch The Freak Out List on Night Flight Plus!


About Tom Brown

Tom has published two terrific books, Summer Of Love, My Ass!: A Memoir June 12, 1967 – April 28, 1969, and Confessions Of A ZAPPA Fanatic, both credited to H.T. Brown (but please call him Tom). They’re both available from Amazon and other places where you can buy books. He's also previously worked in the music business, on both sides of the coin (or lack of it), at the venerable Rhino record company, and playing drums on the surf classic "Jezabel" by the Illusions, and with Zoogz Rift, beginning in 1988.
  • Destiny

    I’ve loved Frank since the age of 12, 45 years ago, and saw him perform at least once on every tour from ’73 to ’84 (wish I’d seen ’88, but unfortunately missed it). One of the reasons I took to Frank immediately upon hearing “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” on the radio was that the first 12 years of my life were spent listening to my father’s record collection, which included Stravinksy, Bartok, Varese (which Mom hated with a passion), Webern, Schoenberg, etc., and my sister’s record collection, which was rock and roll and doo wop. So, when I heard what Frank was doing, lights went off for me. That having been said, I really don’t mind it at all when people express their dissatisfaction with Zappa’s “novelty songs.” There was a point in his career when his lyrics simply started getting dumber and dumber – dumb to the point that he was betraying his own intelligence and it was detracting from the musical quality. The lyrics on his first few records were brilliant – they were sharply pointed yet subtle and had multiple meanings – and then by the 80s he was singing about Coneheads. He’d abandoned the subtlety for obviousness, and the sharpness for ranting. Even though his musical ideas expanded in his later years, and Frank himself remained as sharp as ever in his interviews, he never regained his talent as a lyricist. Only my opinion, of course, but as someone who knows Zappa’s musical output inside and out, well, maybe I wouldn’t prefer hearing Jimmy Buffet to Thing Fish, but I would certainly prefer We’re Only In It for the Money or One Size Fits All or just silence. As brilliant as Frank could be, he had a unique ability to express Stupid with just as much gusto as the other pop stars he satirized and parodied – he just did it in his own unique way. Still, stupid is stupid, even when there’s a genius wielding it.