Marmite voices, "challenging" soundscapes, musical suicide notes and
elaborate private jokes. We've all got them. Do we play them? DORIAN
LYNSKEY spends two whole days plumbing the maddening depths of
THERE ARE ON MY CD shelves two albums that I have owned for about four years
without ever managing to listen to them all the way through. One is The Marble Index by
Nico, the other is Tilt by Scott Walker. They squat there, sullen and intimidating, and the
longer they do, the greater their power becomes, because I have made the mistake of
being cowed by their reputations as "difficult".
My procrastination strikes me as faintly pathetic. Music can never be difficult in the
sense that tin-mining or completing an Iron Man triathlon are difficult. It is not even as
difficult as reading. If I were one day to finish my suspiciously pristine copy of Ulysses, it
would take several hours of intense concentration. An album takes about an hour of my
time. So why do famously difficult records make me so hesitant?
It speaks to what we look for in music. In his 2002 essay Mr Difficult, Jonathan
Franzen identifies two models of the relationship between novelists and their readers. In
the Status model, art is essentially private and "invites a discourse of genius and art-
historical importance". In the Contract model, it goes looking for company and "the
discourse is one of pleasure and connection". The two kinds of reader coexist quite
happily with novels that qualify as both art and entertainment but when they get to
difficult novels they go to war: the Status crowd considers the Contract lot lazy and
unappreciative, while the Contract readers scorn the Status aficionados as snooty elitists.
Pop music, much more so than literature, privileges pleasure and connection, and
tends to import difficulty from jazz or the avant garde. A critics' poll of the top 100 albums
is considerably easier to work through than a list of the top 100 novels, which is why a
handful of albums have acquired such a fearsome reputation. They are islands of Status
in a sea of Contract and, as such, they have the power online or on CD as a single,
unbroken, hour-long track. It reminds me of both Martin Amis's description of Finnegans
Wake as "reader-hostile, reader-nuking" and the US officer in Vietnam who said, "It
became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." I don't know whether or not
the resulting headache means that I've been jolted out of my bourgeois complacency. I
do know that it makes Bitches Brew sound like Mantovani.
I am therefore as ready as I'll ever be for those notorious transmissions from the pit,
Tilt and The Marble Index, but here's a surprise: braced for the Walker album's funereal
crooning and clouds of doom, I find also majestic string arrangements, undulating
rhythms, and stirring rushes of melody. The modernism-loving, Booker-shortlisted
novelist Tom McCarthy recently warned that "adopting the vocabulary of the middlebrow
to praise the vanguard merely robs it of what animates it most", but I happily plead guilty.
A little middlebrow vocabulary would have encouraged me to hear and enjoy this record
years ago. The Drift, Walker's next record, is sterner stuff, paranoid and haunted, like
being inside a bunker while the evils of the world hammer on the door. The jolts between
ominous quiet and violent dissonance are more startling, the vocals more operatic, the
lyrics more fraught (there are songs about Mussolini, Milosevic and 9/11), and our old
friend the skronky free-jazz sax rears its baleful head. Whenever you think you've found
your footing, it kicks your legs out from under you and stamps on your head. Like many
difficult albums, it seems to speak a secret language that it challenges you to decode,
and to open up a chasm between entertainment and art. It fills me with frightened
It is still, however, not as bone-chillingly harrowing as The Marble Index. The human
voice in torment is perhaps the hardest sound of all to bear, hence the formidable
challenges of Diamanda Galas's unholy shrieking or Tim Buckley's Starsailor, on which
Buckley attempted to do with his voice what Ayler did with his sax or Penderecki with
strings, to much consternation all round. I know someone who says the album he finds
most painful is Billie Holiday's 1958 record of jazz standards, Lady In Satin, because
Holiday's voice is so destroyed that all you can hear is death. In 1969, Nico was not
dying, or even shrieking, but she sounded wiped out, drained of anything approaching
hope. Morrissey once described her voice as "the sound of a body being thrown out of a
window". If sparser songs like No One Is There have a certain exterminating beauty, then
Evening Of Light and Facing The Wind make you feel like you're being buried alive
beneath clanging dissonance and terrifyingly unidentifiable bangs and shrieks. Nietzsche
warned that "if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you". I'm more
worried that if you gaze for long into an abyss, Nico gazes into you.
AFTER TWO DAYS OF DEMANDING listening, only one album stands between me and
the sweet relief of Motown Gold. Trout Mask Replica is rock's Ulysses: not the most
difficult album but the consensus Difficult Album. It's the one that always appears on
canonical best album lists, a viper lurking in the long grass of Pet Sounds and What's
Going On. You may not like it but you're expected to at least have a crack at it. It's also
Joycean in its attempt to break down structure, language and comprehension and create
a new form of rock music: a kind of high-art primitivism. That said, I played it once a
decade ago, recoiled and bought Clear Spot instead.
This time it feels like an assault course (XTC's Andy Partridge once likened it to "being
trapped in a mad, giant watch"), or a private joke, or one of those bizarre Eastern
European cartoons you used to see on BBC2, or a mammoth crossword puzzle where
each clue is in a different language. The members of the Magic Band all appear to be
playing separate songs, without taking the trouble of alerting Captain Beefheart, who is
busy jumbling sense-defiling free association with ruminations on Vietnam and Dachau.
This goes on for over 70 minutes. Musicians love it because it represents an entirely
fresh way of making music, and I can appreciate that, even as it fills me with a fierce
passion for less fresh ways of making music. Though not as listener-despising as Lou
Reed's justly infamous Metal Machine Music, it is still a quintessential Status record: it
doesn't care what I, or anyone else, thinks of it. It will make sense in its own sweet time,
if at all. Its relationship to the listener is all or (as in my case) nothing.
But though I don't take any pleasure from the music, I do take some from my
bewilderment, and this, perhaps, is what difficult music is for. It makes the world seem
larger. It throws open doors to new ways of writing, playing, singing, listening, thinking,
living. It makes you wonder what drove people to make it. "What were they thinking?"
can be a useful question. Some of those doors I want to walk through and others I want
to slam shut, but I don't resent any of them, and I don't question the motives of people
who want to curl up with Machine Gun rather than Innervisions. Because, contra Hornby,
I don't see why you wouldn't want to go to extremes in art that you would avoid in life,
why that might not be cathartic or informative. As Robert Christgau wrote of Trout Mask
Replica, wrapping a serious point inside a joke: "Very great played at high volume when
you're feeling shitty, because you'll never feel as shitty as this record."
And the good thing about difficult records is that they're not going anywhere. They will
be there waiting for you years down the line, and maybe you won't find them difficult any
more, and then it will be time to seek out something else that you do.
What Has Zappa ever Done For Us?
Nobody made more Difficult Albums in the rock idiom than Frank Zappa. Nearly 20
years after his death, his music continues to inspire and perplex. ANDY GILL looks at his
legacy and talks to his son and heir
AT THE END OF THE Mothers Of Invention's Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which besides
being housed in the finest cover illustration in all rock history is also the most perfectly
balanced single-shot expression of the Complete Zappa Musical Aesthetic, the group's
imposing leader murmurs, "Goodnight, boys and girls." For most long-haired bands of
that era (1970), this would have been a benign farewell, the closing benison appropriate
to, say, a Cat Stevens fairytale. But the preceding title track - recorded live at a concert
in Birmingham - had been possibly the most testing two minutes of those Brummie
concertgoers' lives, a sustained blast of full-band discordancy within which can be
detected no specific melody, rhythm or harmony, just a searing, cacophonous blast of
noise prefaced by a burst of mocking laughter, which casts a more sardonic light on
Zappa's closing shot. It says much for the spirit of those Brummies that amongst the
applause are quite a few demands for "More!".
Earlier on in that same album, during Toads Of The Short Forest, Frank annotates the
music for another audience's benefit: "At this very moment on stage we have drummer A
playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8,
the tambourine playing in 3/4, and the alto sax blowing its nose." It's a peculiar blend of
arrogance punctured by humour, characteristic of Zappa. Back then, when the notion of
"difficult" music relied on basic technical proficiency - see how many notes I can play in
seven seconds! - or the ability to saddle classical or jazz themes with a rock beat, Frank
Zappa was operating on a whole other level, one that demanded high degrees of
concentration and openness, from musicians and audience alike. In so doing, he
stretched the notion of rock music into hitherto unexamined areas that, since his death,
have remained sadly little further explored.
"Frank's music has always been ahead of its time, and even now is unlike anything
else you might hear: stuff that's 40 years old is very modern," says his son Dweezil,
preparing for the upcoming Roundhouse Zappafest. "There's this balance in Frank's
music between these parts that are amazingly structured - which demand the most
respect, and hardest work - and those parts which allow this amazing freedom in the
improvisational sections, to go as far as you want.
Frank was often asked, 'Isn't it self-indulgent to do a long guitar solo, or have these
long instrumental sections?', and he would answer, `You'll sound mundane if the band
that's backing you up is mundane."
AS A CHILD, DWEEZIL WAS SUBJECTED TO NO MUSIC other than what his father
was currently working on or what he listened to for pleasure, which ranged from R&B to
Shostakovich, Bartok and Bulgarian choral music. Only when he was 13 did Dweezil
encounter "normal" pop like The Beatles, Queen and Led Zeppelin.
"I definitely knew my dad's music was different," he recalls. "It was far more orchestral
and complex, and had many more things in the arrangements. So when I started hearing
other music I thought, I like this - but I'm missing some of these other elements that I'm
so used to, all these other details. When people become fans of Frank's music, they do
get a change in perspective as to what they expect from music. Sometimes, regular
music is not enough!"
You can gauge the breadth of Zappa's irregular musical interests by the breadth of
critical commentary about him. Flick through the index of Zappologist Ben Watson's
exhaustive 600-page examination of Frank's work The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle
Play and, alongside the expected entries for albums, tracks and band members, you will
find copious references apiece to avant-garde composer Edgard Varese, political theorist
Theodor Adorno, science fiction writer Philip K Dick, legendary pery the Marquis De
Sade, literary modernists James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, player-piano genius Conlon
Nancarrow, and no fewer than nine entries for "teeth". Which offers some idea of the
expected range of interests that the committed Zappaphile regards as fruitful territory for
the elucidation of his work. It's this densely layered nature of Zappa's art - presented in
the minutely edited collages of live and studio recordings, catchphrases, private jokes,
phone calls, odd noises and found sounds that constituted his albums, with whimsical
linking threads binding his entire oeuvre together - that sets it apart from most rock
music, and that has been perhaps irreversibly lost since his death. It's not just a matter of
creating "rock operas" (though he composed several), or working with classical
orchestras (which he also did), so much as the absolute sprawl of what he considered
fair game for musical exploration. Like some artistic amoeba, his endeavour expanded to
assimilate virtually anything. Politics, sex, race, outsider lifestyles, social divisions, film,
food and futility were all grist to his creative mill, and as a social anthropologist he was so
fascinated by the minutiae of rock-band life - from groupies to grouches about money –
that he routinely taped the backstage conversation of his musicians, often covertly.
His music, meanwhile, took in every imaginable genre, from the R&B and doowop
upon which he was reared in the California desert, through the cheesiest pop and
heaviest metal to avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical experimentation. Zappa's
tastes were sometimes the result of studied antipathy to the mainstream: his interest in
Edgard Varese, which proved such a pivotal influence on the development of his own
aesthetic, was triggered as a teenager by reading an article that described the
composer's Ionisation as "dissonant and terrible... the worst music in the world". When,
interest duly piqued, he acquired a copy of the work, which incorporates, as Zappa put it,
"sirens and snare drums and bass drums and a lion's roar and all kinds of strange
sounds", family and friends alike "thought I was out of my fucking mind".
That readiness to be considered out of one's fucking mind is a quality that has virtually
disappeared from rock music, as unfettered creation has given way to blind, unthinking
ambition. Thankfully, Frank's family are just as out of their fucking minds as he was,
sustaining the creative sanctity of his original design by refusing to allow his carefully
constructed albums to be picked apart on iTunes (the only Zappa works available there
are the Beat The Boots series of repossessed bootlegs, which were not authorised
Zappa creations in the first place), and by performing his compositions in meticulous live
transcriptions with Dweezil's Zappa Plays Zappa band.
"Most people aren't familiar with Frank's music, and think of him as some novelty act,"
reflects Dweezil. "So part of this is re-educating people as to what Frank's music is, and
de-emphasising the humour aspect which causes casual listeners to think, 'Oh, he's like
Weird Al Yankovic, he's the guy with the kids with the crazy names.' That's disappointing,
because I think Frank made some major contributions to music that have been overlooked
for far too long."