The Science Fiction Protocols of Frank Zappa: Problems of Genre and Satire in ‘Billy the Mountain’, Joe's Garage, and Thing-Fish

Michael J. Prince
Spring 2005



Frank Zappa is an enigmatic figure on the American cultural horizon. Until his untimely death in December 1993, he was a fiercely original composer of innovative popular and concert music—Freak Out and Joe's Garage both include epigraphs from Edgar Varese [1] —and yet is best known for his obscene lyrics slung at American iconic figures, from groupies to hippies, from tele-evangelists to music executives. And while he has also lashed out against big business, particularly the music industry, the success of his own record labels and music studio exhibit a knack for entrepreneurial capitalism, particular when it comes to his managing his own musical expression, be it in concert or as a recorded commodity. His statements in the press and an autobiography depict an essentially libertarian mindset, and, indeed, some of his interviews and prose are striking in the force and clarity of their insights and arguments.

When it comes to Frank Zappa's lyrics, however, another discursive process is deployed to reflect on music, the music business, or the state of the nation. The process of composition—in fact, any creative act—often begins by one's being affected by something. As Zappa said in a 1983 interview: "Every song is different. It just depends on what it's eventually going to wind up being. I could start off with just two or three words. . . . . Songs that are basically vocal oriented, I usually start off with a story idea or just a phrase” (Muhlhern, 1983). In this explanation, the texts of the vocal compositions grow from a relatively trivial kernel to their finished form. This may go some way to explain lyrics about "yellow snow" and "dental floss." And while his lyrics and impromptu monologues exhibit a quirky idiosyncrasy with regard to vocabulary and syntax, the engaging element in Zappa's work is often the story line, for his music frequently depicts situations within a larger narrative context: groupie stories (Live at the Fillmore East, 200 Motels), a "Nanook of the North" narrative (first five songs of Apostrophe), the Biblical epic (The Grand Wazoo), and narratives that participate in speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction) such as "Billy the Mountain”, Joe's Garage, and Thing-Fish. He presents these narratives in a genre Zappa is credited with creating, “the concept album”, the first one being Freak Out!, an album he released in 1966 (Muhlhern, 1983).

This paper traces a progression towards more intense social satire in the heavily plotted albums, and, as Zappa's critique expands to comment on real or potential abuses of authority in American society, he comes more and more to employ science fiction (SF) poetics and tropes, what I term here "science fiction protocols”. This embrace of SF follows two distinct trajectories. First, Zappa's work has always included SF references as a part of a bigger repertoire of American icons. For it is American references that interest Zappa. As I will discuss in "Billy the Mountain”,  SF iconic situations, like the disaster plots inherent in Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, are apparently adapted as parody, yet the satirical force they can contain is still present, and in the later works, all the more charged. This parody loaning may extend to other SF elements: the total surveillance in the society depicted in Joe's Garage and the mad scientist figure—not to mention the potato headed mutants—that haunt Thing-Fish.  In rehearsing a new assembly of musicians, Zappa is given to using "shorthand description[s]", such as "Quaalude Thunder”, to inspire a particular genre-based musical behavior. "Those are Archetypal American Musical Icons, and their presence in an arrangement puts a spin on any lyric in their vicinity" (Zappa, 1989, 166). On another level, the SF icons Zappa incorporates, as well as the overarching SF plot framing, serve in an analogous fashion. While I don't believe that “Archetypal” should be taken here in the sense that Northrop Frye uses the term in The Anatomy of Criticism,  it does reveal that Zappa thinks in terms of culturally contingent references to music, television and film, and that he employs American culture icons throughout his work. SF dominates much of his heavily plotted works; its inclusion supports an agenda of alerting us to an extant or looming government conspiracy.

That may account for the presence of SF references, but that his works should ultimately come to be science fiction in terms of their structural characteristics may say as much about the character of the SF genre as it does about Zappa's works. This addresses the role of SF in the English speaking world as a privileged province of what can broadly termed political satire. Before outlining and discussing how this gradual progression toward compelling social satire drove Frank Zappa into the arms of science fiction, some working definition of the science fiction genre, and its satirical aspect, must be laid forth for examination.

We may start by pointing out that SF is a “branch of . . . speculative fiction, which includes horror and fantasy”, but that, unlike horror and fantasy, it has "some connection to the world as we know it" (Francl, 2004). Adopting the terminology of science fiction scholar Darko Suvin, we say that SF is cognitive, whatever goes on can be explained rationally without recourse to supernatural explanations. In addition, SF portrays a world markedly different from our own, and this difference, even though rationally explicable, defamiliarizes some aspect or aspects of that world. This is the characteristic of fiction Viktor Shklovsky calls estrangement, hence Suvin's eminently useful definition of science fiction as the literature of "cognitive estrangement" (Suvin, 1979, 4). Some scientifically explainable change or device—referred to as a novum—has altered reality (alternative or future) such that the reader sees the present world in a new light, and speculates upon it. Estrangement is quite important for satire in the paradigm of Russian Formalism, and it is no less so here. While much of SF is romance of the escapist space-opera variety, much of it is deliberately satirical. "The satirical approach . . .  sees SF as intended primarily to comment on our own world . . . estrangement is an important device for concentrating the reader's mind on differences between the fictional and real worlds" (James, 1994, 111).

The term "[s]atire" characterizes an "ironic literary creation detailing the defeat of decency and virtue and the triumph of folly or vice" that relies "heavily upon parody, paradox, and anti-climax." The frustration of catharsis, generally with a pessimistic conclusion is also a prominent characteristic (LitMUSE, 2004). The reader familiar with Zappa's concept albums will readily recognize the features of satire in practically all of them. So, while (almost) all Frank Zappa is satire, not all of that satire is science fiction. Furthermore, even the less plotted works (and especially at the musical levels of timbre, tonality, and motifs) are rich in the use of parody and a general attitude of ironic detachment, even in the midst of the artistic act. So much so, that one scholar has suggested that Zappa's opus is not so much satire, as "irony" (Wragg, 2001, 217). Viewing the instrumental works together with his more heavily plotted ones, and considering his entire production under the broader aegis of the "project-object”, I do not dispute David Wragg's claim that there is a kernel of optimism in Zappa's works that drift towards a resolution (which would thereby disqualify it as satire); in fact the first extended work to be examined in this paper, "Billy the Mountain," exhibits just this quality. My claim is narrower, though it ultimately qualifies Wragg's contention: that, by focussing on the works recognized as narrative in character, one can trace an ontogenesis toward a particular type of satire aimed against state apparatuses that enforce conformity, and that elements of SF poetics have been employed to achieve this intent.

These works are by no means the only ones to exhibit some SF elements. Many Zappa projects partake of an SF plot structure, including at least one SF play, several film projects, and the original plan for the movie/album Uncle Meat. My selection is not exhaustive, but relevant since these products came to fruition for a mass market while others have not; and these selections contain more than a germ of SF.

For example, the first album,  Freak Out! Here "[each] tune had a function within an overall satirical concept" (Zappa, 1989, 77). The "overall satirical concept" revolves around the popular music scene cast in the colors of a generational conflict. And it is here, in Frank Zappa's first major release, that the SF protocols first rear their heads, though slightly. The titles of two songs suggest an inkling of SF: "Who are the Brain Police?" and "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”. If SF is to be considered a tool for Zappa's satire of America, it is here, at the beginning of his career, only available in a nascent state, as background noise. Referring back to his modus operandi for composing, the SF references in some manner simply came to him. In this sense, the presence of SF would be just one part in a pastiching of popular cultural elements - the culture icons mentioned above - something Zappa's music does both musically and textually. Intertextuality abounds with references, tropes, and musical allusions from television, film, 1950s and early 1960s pop music, commercials, and trendy life-style elements such as California slang. SF could easily hitch a ride along with this other cultural flotsam. The agenda of his satire, and the obviously implicit criticism of U.S. society, include government control of culture and the music industry, the Vietnam War, attempted censorship of popular music by an ad hoc Senate committee in 1983, and the deliberate fetishizing of commodity culture. This critique spans three longer works— "Billy the Mountain”,  Joe's Garage, and Thing-Fish - and as the focus of Zappa’s critique sharpens, the satirical elements come to the fore. As Zappa’s agenda shifts to what I may broadly call "political satire," he relies more and more on science fiction poetics to carry his message. This study traces the increasing urgency of the satirical content through these three works and his adoption of genre elements of SF.


"Billy the Mountain"


If science fiction is characterized as the literature of cognitive estrangement, "Billy the Mountain" is not, strictly speaking, a work of science fiction (SF). Due to its broadly mythological plot and, especially, to an absence of science or technology at the center, it must be placed rather closer to the folk tale. While "Billy the Mountain" is clearly speculative fiction, Darko Suvin's schematic poetics establishes a border that this work transgresses. Nevertheless, the touchstone of SF, according to Edward James, is its treatment at the broadest possible level of "the possibilities of the human species and its place in the universe" (1994, 96), and the estrangement factor in this work recommends it as a worthy precursor to the more specifically SF oriented opuses in Zappa's production. Similarly, "Billy the Mountain" is not, in the strictest sense, a satire, but it does have satirical elements. It is poised with irony to a current political and social situation, and the vagaries of its plot, if not the ending, would recommend it as satire. As with SF, we can say that "Billy the Mountain" participates in satire even though it may not fulfill all criteria for satire. Most importantly, the discussion of this work establishes a speculative fiction base for Zappa's production, and in establishing this, provides an excellent opportunity to fine-tune the genre criteria to be employed throughout this paper.

"Billy the Mountain" was part of a concert tour that played several venues in the U.S. The band's live performances at this time were marked by a cabaret-like quality; the albums Just Another Band from L.A. and Live at the Fillmore East demonstrate a unique blend of rehearsed opera-buffo with spontaneous humor and a series of topical jokes relating to current events or inside band jokes. The lyrics of "Billy the Mountain" were adjusted for local color, particularly with the UCLA Pauley Pavilion concert on 7 August, 1971. The plot is essentially non-realistic, or in Suvin's terminology, non-cognitive: Billy the Mountain receives a royalty check for the postcards he has appeared in and decides to take his wife Ethel (who is a tree) on a vacation to New York. Unfortunately, while they are trudging across America, Billy is called up for the draft and must go to his induction physical. Ethel refuses to allow him. And, detecting a path of destruction in the wake of the walking mountain, as well as draft-dodging intransigence, the U.S. Federal Government decides to enlist the services of free-lance super-hero Studebacher Hoch (pronounced Studebaker Hawk). Hoch tries to convince Billy to report for duty and ends up suffering extreme injury from Billy's jaw when Billy laughs at the notion of being drafted. Several different performance registers are used throughout this twenty-five minute piece. The story is related in lyrics to musical accompaniment, and in several recitative sections that integrate music in them: newscasts, explanatory narration interspersed with a host of cues from film and television.

"Billy the Mountain" is not science fiction, though the satire is dependent on some SF elements within it. The notion of a conscious, talking mountain might have been taken from Fu Hsi, the mythical first emperor of China (and originator of the I Ching); and some of the antics of Studebacher Hoch may find their non-burlesque analogues in Greek mythology (I'm thinking here of the use of flies to become airborne). And, to be sure, the notion of a walking, talking, mountain is fanciful in the extreme. To try and draft him, though, takes this work a significant step into both the realm of speculative, estranged literature, and that of satire.

As mentioned above, science fiction is cognitive and it is estranged. A closer look at what this means will illuminate the position of "Billy the Mountain" in relation to the SF genre. Suvin operates with a clarifying schematic comparison with other genres that determines the SF genre border (Figure 1). The rubrics cognitive/non-cognitive are determined by whether or not elements in the fiction can be reasonably accounted for, the criteria for this being empirically reasoned common sense. As Suvin points out, deus ex machina endings, such as mark a certain species of Hollywood film and mar the work to the status  of a "sub-literature” and wholly "metaphysical" tales, where, inexplicably, carpets do fly and succubae haunt the unwary, are non-cognitive. A realistic novel, occurring in real time and more or less accurately reflecting the way things are in "reality”, and science fiction, wherein the differences from present-day reality can be logically accounted for, usually by extrapolating on the basis of a current scientific trend, are cognitive (Suvin, 1979, 8 and 19).

  Naturalistic Estranged
Cognitive "realistic" literature science fiction (& pastoral)
Non-Cognitive sub-literature of "realism" (ie romance) metaphysical: myth, folktale, fantasy

Figure 1. Schematic for literary genres (Suvin, 1979, 20).

Naturalistic fiction "faithfully reproduces" environment and human interactions "vouched for by human senses and common sense" in order to "illuminate" a person's relationship to others and their surroundings. "If, on the contrary, an endeavor is made to illuminate such relations by creating a  . . . significantly different formal framework," it is estranged (Suvin, 1979, 18). The naturalistic/estranged rubric is concerned with the work presenting an altered face of reality in order for us to evaluate an aspect of the system under which we live.

So, Billy, the walking-talking mountain, Ethel, his animated-tree wife, and the fly-borne superhero, Studebacher Hoch all drag the story of "Billy the Mountain" out of the cognitive rubric to the non-cognitive. Suvin would consider this piece as a folk tale, "indifferent," but not "inimical" to "the world and its [natural] laws" (ibid, 8). Nevertheless, this work is clearly under the speculative fiction rubric, by virtue of estrangement, "confronting a set normative system . . . with a point of view . . . implying a new set of norms" (ibid, 6). During the historical period contemporary with the performance and initial distribution of this work, it was normal to draft an individual, actively coerce him to acquiesce and perform his duty, and if this person did not, to persecute him as a social heretic (in this case, as a Communist drug-fiend). By making the person into a mountain, another set of norms comes into play. It is not just the attitude of parody in the narrative and the "newscast" sections of this work that puts this in a satirical register.

There are also elements that indicate participation in the SF genre more specifically. This occurs in the military technology settings involved in the plot, and a small episode based on the spread of chemical weapons materials. Once Billy begins trudging across America to his vacation destination some fairly crisp outlines from low budget SF movies come to the fore. Since Zappa's second son's middle name is Rodan, more than whimsical preoccupation with this film genre may be inferred (Slaven, 2003, 202):


The first noteworthy piece of real estate they destroyed was Edwards Air Force Base. And to this very day, wing-nuts and data reduction clerks alike speak in reverent whispers about that fateful night when Test Stand Number One and the rocket sled itself got LUNCHED, I said LUNCHED, by a famous mountain and his small wooden wife ...


And a few miles right outside of town Billy caused a 'Oh mine/my(?) papa' in the earth's crust, right over the secret underground dumps, right near the Jack In The Box on Glenoaks where they keep the pools of old poison gas and obsolete germs bombs, just as a freak tornado cruised through ... [2]


The trappings of a science fiction catastrophe movie, not far removed from those coming from Japan in the late 50s, set up the intercession of "the hero of the current economic slump" Studebacher Hoch. An obvious anti-war element is evident in this name. The first name conjures up a respectable sedan from the Eisenhower era, the Studebaker. The last name—as "hawk"—represents someone adamantly in favor of the Vietnam War; these, it will be recalled, were opposed to peace-loving "doves" in the tropes that haunted that era. The character of the satire of "Billy the Mountain", to the degree that it may be said to participate in that mode, is decidedly Horatian. There is a lightness, both musically and textually, in the absurdity of the fable and the figures therein. Hoch's method of transport—flies in the underpants—and the four repetitions of Johnny Carson's trademark whine "New York!" (two by a narrator, one by Billy, and one by Hoch), accompanied by strains of the Tonight Show theme, balance whimsy and innocuous topical humor in a satirical tableau that cajoles more than attacks the repression of dissident elements in society, environmental hazards of chemical and biological weapons, the draft, and by association, the Vietnam War. [3]  

Yet here also lies serious social criticism. What are "pools of poisonous gas" doing so close to a fast food outlet, and how is it that they are "untimely [distributed] over . . .[the predominantly African-American ghetto] Watts"? Zappa's father worked for military weapons research, and chemical and biological weapons mark this piece and Thing-Fish. Zappa's SF protocols are selected to expose this permeation of the military-governmental complex down to the most fundamental levels of society, indeed, even in the ground. Likewise, Edwards Air Force Base is first of all "real estate” (i.e. land). And the activities on this land can be seen as a blot on nature. But that an entire installation should be crushed, and in particular the propulsion laboratory be confounded by a mobile mountain, implies the natural intruding to compensate for the unnatural; a mystically mobile landmass takes revenge against the military-industrial-governmental complex. And the unnatural is made all the more ugly first by references to Billy's photogenic qualities as the subject of postcards, and by the foreboding tones surrounding the recitation of "old poison gas and obsolete germ bombs”. The triumphant chorus after Studebacher Hoch falls to his doom from Billy's jaw, "A mountain is something you don't want to fuck with”, is celebratory. A fairly clear comparison can be made between the quandary from which Billy the Mountain escaped and the fate of hundreds of thousands of American young men at that time. Looked at from one thematic level, the entire nation down to its subterranean roots is being saturated by the ugliness that the military-industrial complex generates. The mountain, not yet affected perhaps due to its height, remains as yet untainted and affects a brief victory.

        From a critical perspective, Billy's "victory" is problematic. As David Wragg points out, a Zappa work is a project/object of such nature that it engages the audience in thinking of performance qua performance and their role as audience qua audience (2001, 216-17). "Billy the Mountain" was performed live at UCLA where the portion of the audience enrolled at the university was deferred from the draft as long as they attended university. Zappa's music here taps into a redolent, anti-war vein for the thematics of this piece. Again, critical discourse holds a much more stringent criteria for the composer's intentions; the idea of making a sizable piece of scenic geography itself into the picaroon (a rather neat inversion, that) and the subsequent battle between the forces of good and evil are really the stuff of comic books. Indeed, according to the album cover, at one point the plot was story-boarded out. Yet, because the main agenda of his work is parody and satire, what initially may have come as whimsy carries a much stronger charge once it is released into the popular culture sphere.

        It is ironic that when this piece was released on album it was regarded by one reviewer as "[having] no real content—presumably because Zappa has absolutely nothing to say and was therefore content to experiment with style" (Murray quoted in Slaven, 2003, 184). Also, in the wake of the Just Another Band from L.A., the album on which "Billy the Mountain" appears, Zappa was asked if he would ever "return to satire" (Slaven, 2003, 185). This may be simply the consequences of releasing a record which relies so heavily on local politics and humor, though, as with SF, this work plays with satirical elements while not, in the strictest sense, being a satire.

The main characteristics of satire are mentioned above, and based upon the criteria of the "frustrated catharsis”, "Billy the Mountain" does not pass muster. Studebacher Hoch fails in his effort to bring Billy in, and the celebratory musical mood that concludes the piece indicates that the threat of using the mountain "for fill dirt in some impending New Jersey marsh reclamation" is not going to be realized. "Decency and virtue" are not, in this instance, going to be defeated. My claim is, however, that many other characteristics of satire are present. It shows the folly of humanity, its plot certainly "eschews probability", and is "episodic”. Furthermore, the aim of satire and the reception of "Billy the Mountain" strike me as similar: "Satire's goal is to amuse and vex its audience, setting it to thinking about justice and injustice, goading it to ponder the accepted ideas and popular standards of literary content and form, language and style" (LitMUSE, 2004). As an anti-Vietnam War and pro-ecology tract, "Billy the Mountain" may be light, but it is not off target—and its target is the reigning state apparatus that here befouls the environment and uses extreme means of coercion to send its youth off to fight in an unpopular war.

 Joe's Garage


Frank Zappa's satirical agenda is expressed in a more strictly defined science fiction genre in two albums released in 1979, Joe's Garage Act I, and Joe's Garage Acts II & III. This paper will treat them as one work. In Joe's Garage, and even more so in the 1984 album Thing-Fish, the character of the satire has abandoned the Horatian and gone to the Juvenalian. The Horatian, as in "Billy the Mountain", tries to "laugh us into truth" whereas the Juvenalian "provoke[s] our indignation." "[It] is indignation and anger that drives [one] to write satire" (LitEncyc, 2004). This more "savage" variety may have arisen for a number of reasons in Zappa's work. From the biographical perspective, those who worked with him during this transitional period of the early 1970s detected a palpable change of mood. As keyboard player George Duke comments:


The only change I saw in Frank Zappa over those years was that he went from being funny/sarcastic to being almost serious sarcastic. The latter part of the time I was in the band, his sense of humour became kind of vindictive

                                                                 (Doerschuk in Slaven, 2003, 268-69)


Serious sarcasm and vindictiveness may certainly affect how one views the world, and perceptually highlight certain problems. Zappa himself dismisses the story line to Joe's Garage as simply as "a story that would hold [a bunch of songs] together" that turned out, in his judgment, to make "a good continuous story" (Slaven, 2003, 272).

While it is difficult, then, to track down with precision what concrete events triggered the plot of this work, Zappa's risqué-to-obscene lyrics assured fairly constant run-ins with censorship, from his renowned lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall to individual radio stations' labeling certain tracks as unsuitable for airplay, even instrumentals (Slaven, 2003, 167; 237). And while the chronology is reversed, this work can be seen as an early salvo in the coming conflict with an ad hoc Senate committee on "voluntary" record labeling. Even though this work, too, rambles from one implausible event to the other, and like Thing-Fish, integrates material originally intended for other projects, it does mark the most prolonged and focussed social critique that Zappa had ever leveled against American society up to that point.

In Joe's Garage the Zappa's social critique is achieved by showing how the powers-that-be seduce us into apathy, replacing the genuine with the ersatz. The ersatz is geared to cause one to become a politically apathetic consumer, grist for the mill of fascist-totalitarian capitalism. Essentially, this is a theme of both Joe's Garage and Thing Fish, Zappa's true SF works. The genuine and the ersatz represent liberation and entrapment on two levels: music and sex. Genuine music is produced at the level closest to the consumer, and usually exhibits novelty, or, at least signs of originality. And this music can have a liberating influence on the consumer (as well as the producer). The ersatz is like canned music, disco and MTV-videos, formulaic, and catering to the lowest common denominator.

Sex, as would be expected, is more problematical. There is to my knowledge absolutely no reference to a healthy, "normal" sexual act—heterosexual or homosexual—in all of Zappa's massive production; nor is there anything even remotely resembling romantic love, and it is not only in bourgeois culture that these two are, after all, sometimes connected. At this level—since Zappa does not portray romantic love—the genuine pole on the sexual spectrum depicts the act as relieving loneliness and frustration, something that it indeed often does, but the individual is not transformed, and especially not in a negative direction. The ersatz element here is forced sex, mechanical sex or cross-species sex, again, both heterosexual and homosexual. The ersatz in both music and sex are represented by centrally controlled technological intrusions designed to break down the individual and generate complacent consumers. It is here that the kernel of Frank Zappa's science fiction protocols lies, and it is this that he wishes to satirize in Joe's Garage.

        Before pursuing this, a brief summary is necessary. The voiceover that drives the plot is the mechanical being called the Central Scrutinizer. The following play, we are told, is an object lesson in how music can ruin one's life. Joe is a naïve teenager who practices with his band in the family garage. Mary, Joe's girlfriend, forsakes him by sexually gratifying the road crew of a big name rock star in order to get into the concert for free and eventually be introduced to the star. She is taken along on the crew bus and is abandoned, broke, in Miami where she must perform in a wet t-shirt contest to earn bus fare home. Joe is inconsolable—almost—and has sexual relations with a girl at a fast food stand, Lucille, who gives him a venereal disease. Ultimately, this woman, too, dumps Joe, triggering his joining "L. Ron Hoover's First Church of Appliantology." Joe's new spiritual advisor informs Joe that his real problem is a "latent appliance [fetish] . . . " and "[that] sexual gratification can only be achieved through the use of machines." Following the advice of the Appliantology guru, Joe has sexual relations with a "model XQJ-37 nuclear-powered Pan-Sexual Roto-Plooker named Sy Borg”. In a sexual frenzy, Joe inadvertently destroys the device and must go to prison, where he is sodomized by recording executives. After a bout of depression, Joe gives up music, cleans up his act and gets a job squirting icing on pastry at a "Research Kitchen." The Central Scrutinizer lays the blame on music; as will be shown, the circumstances in the Zappa piece would rather indict the totalitarian-governmental system. [4]

        Given this summary, the composer and author may have devoted less than obsessive attention to dramatic unity, though it must be remembered that this is in fact a characteristic of much satire. And while the SF elements and other aspects of the satirical mode may not readily recommend themselves, Joe, like his Orwellian counterpart, Winston Smith, does eventually learn to "love Big Brother”. Once the full range of cues and music come into play, the SF protocols are used to achieve satirical effect; these include plot elements, tropes, references, allusions, and more or less recognizable quotations from SF texts, be they print or film. Two elements in particular contribute to Zappa's satire: the Central Scrutinizer and the encounter with L. Ron Hoover and The First Church of Appliantology, itself a faint masking of SF publisher and author L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology.

        While it has never been staged or filmed, the "libretto" of Joe's Garage sets up this particular concept album as a "sort of . . . cheap kind of high school play. . . . [reminiscent of] those lectures that the local narks used to give. . . ". As such, the Central Scrutinizer has a visual as well as audio identity. The audio manifestation is none other than Frank Zappa speaking sotto voce, like whispering through a megaphone. The hushed, almost intimate, tone, plus the mechanical aspect are ideal for characterizing a master snoop out to dominate us one and all. The visual manifestation is, however, even more unnerving: "a cheap sort of flying saucer about five feet across with a snout-like megaphone apparatus in the front with two big eyes.". This description of the Central Scrutinizer's appearance first disarms the threat that the content of his dialogue represents. Yet, ultimately, what this means is that domestic surveillance and bureaucratic meddling with civil rights is left to machines. Automated surveillance on the scale described in Joe's Garage may be beyond the pale suggested by Orwell, for behind that screen there was a person. Not so here. What is more, the Central Scrutinizer not only collects information, he processes and distributes it. As the intrusive voice-over for the whole piece, he links the action, suggests cause and effect, and even becomes part of the law enforcement apparatus within the plot of the play. In effect, Joe's Garage is his story to tell: an example of how rock music ruined a young man's life. The prime mover in this saga is firmly from the ersatz camp, while the victim is genuine.

        There are two religions present in this concept album, Roman Catholicism and Appliantology, and both are depicted as insincere and in cahoots with the malevolent totalitarian regime. "Appliantology" is analogous to Scientology, a religion derived from science fiction, and it offers a novel solution to Joe's problem, though the problem and the solution are extremely contrived: Joe is simply suffering from an appliance fetish (i.e. he is told he actually craves the ersatz). In a sense, Appliantology and the attendant sexual deviancy is the ultimate ersatz, with the Sy Borg robot and ersatz lover, bearing a doubly stigmatizing signification in Zappa's symbol vocabulary of being both gay and mechanical. In addition, in the coercive regime of the Central Scrutinizer in league with Appliantology, genuine music as played by Joe and his garage band is replaced by the leitmotif of industrialized totalitarian consumerism, a catchy little series of organ chord bleeps to the Central Scrutinizer's:


The WHITE ZONE is for loading and unloading only…if you have to load or unload, go to the WHITE ZONE.


This represents airport parking instructions broadcast over a loudspeaker, even in 1979 clearly a symbol for centralized authoritarian conformity. This tune and phrase links the Central Scrutinizer with the First Church of Appliantology; it is the second sentence L. Ron Hoover says after welcoming Joe to the church. The setting of the "church" is appropriately futuristic, and, again, true to the Orwellian strains in this work, L. Ron Hoover addresses Joe from a large television screen. The similarities between L. Ron Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover are also deliberate, and the former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, itself sometimes a master snoop organization brings the satire closer to the U.S. homeland.

        On the face of it, it would appear that Zappa's use of SF is no more than pastiche borrowings from the American cultural icon repertoire in order to reinforce the satire present in Joe's Garage. My question is, then, do the comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four (with echoes from the sexual gratification paradigms of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World) indicate successful and purposeful manipulations of the poetics of the SF genre to achieve a meaningful satire on America? I believe to the degree that Zappa pored over the lyrical content of this album, he intended Joe's Garage to be a cautionary tale of the Orwell and Huxley ilk. But as anyone who has deconstructed a bit of Zappa can attest, any reference has a way of folding back upon itself, satirizing the satire in a multivalent presentation where the gravitas of the satire teeters uneasily. [5] With the successive heaping on of absurdity upon absurdity, the "humor" in the work threatens to cancel the weight of the critique. One could even argue that such a presentation only pretends to be criticism; at another level it participates in the very conspiracy it warns about. Real skepticism to the powers-that-be are harmlessly channeled to high school sophomores, and there, before they graduate, it will be safely trivialized in the inanity of the work, and thereby diffused.

Joe's Garage stands up surprisingly well to the criteria for SF. There is no flight into implausible fantasy once one accepts the Central Scrutinizer, so it is cognitive. Talking surveillance devices and sexually attractive vacuum cleaners are sufficiently defamiliarizing to invoke prolonged consideration about possible analogs in mundane reality. And the Central Scrutinizer qualifies as a novum, if one include the entire power apparatus behind him. The Central Scrutinizer is an unreliable narrator, and both explanatory and moral discourse issuing from this source is intended with the highest level of irony, enabling social satire. The entire notion of the Central Scrutinizer fits soundly into the worldview of Big Brother in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Big Brother in this case, while being mechanical in essence and appearance, is intimate in audio presentation. He uses slang, he cautions, cajoles, and taken at his own word, is out to save people from a heinous fate. What Zappa is doing with the Central Scrutinizer is giving cues that make Joe's Garage analogous to Orwell's dystopian novel: there is some malevolent force that is trying to utterly control our souls under the guise of caring for us.

While the cues for political satire are clear, other elements that participate in the SF genre may be less so. Two further aspects bear mentioning.  The Sy Borg figure plays off of a She-bot icon present in American SF since the 1930s of the perfect mechanical wife, though in Zappa's rendition this goes much further than generic household chores (Disch, 1998, 10-11). In Sy Borg, one can see the vestiges of "Helen O'Loy”, Lester del Rey's perfect robot wife featured in a 1938 short story of the same name. But the Joe + Sy dynamism is reversed: Joe is domesticated, dressed in housemaid finery, Sy Borg is the one who wears the pants during their brief relationship. As Thomas M. Disch points out, this female figure has an annoying cultural persistence, even up to Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives (ibid, 11). Joe is here literally seduced by the ersatz, and then emasculated. While it can not be totally ruled out that Zappa is here only incorporating a redolent American folk-myth (sex with a vacuum cleaner, often with severe consequences), this aspect does play off of that She-bot idea in our culture.

L. Ron Hoover is a combination of the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the founder of Scientology, SF author L. Ron Hubbard. As mentioned above, the main SF protocol of Frank Zappa here is to have the semantic content of the piece warn of the conspiracy of mediocrity, and its pending results. That is the good that SF can achieve. When descending to the details of the First Church of Appliantology, however, Zappa is mocking the more gullible of the SF readership, those who became adherents of L. Ron Hubbard's science-based religion, Scientology. Hubbard is briefly mocked in "Billy the Mountain”, as well. Joe pays his money, and his deep-seated problem is improbably diagnosed. This is a striking analogue to the modus operandi of Dianetics and later Scientology (Disch, 1998, 146-52).

        In the pot-boiler plot that characterizes Zappa's longer concept albums, the "message" can be obfuscated by the wealth of other details. In Joe's Garage, he takes no such chances. The thrust of the satire is spelled out at the end of Act I in "The Scrutinizer's Postlude”:


Eventually it was discovered
That God
Did not want us to be
All the same

This was
Bad News
For the Governments of The World
As it seemed contrary
To the doctrine of
Portion Controlled Servings

Mankind must be made more uniformly

The future
Was going to work

Compare this to a quotation from the Emmanuel Goldstein's book in Nineteen-Eighty-Four: "The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought" (Orwell, 1983, 857). On the other hand, the totalitarian aspect may serve merely as a cautionary projection of what could occur if Americans do not undergo a change in their own unbridled hedonistic practices. This attitude is in some ways "radical," but it is also highly conservative. Either way, there are no heroes at the end of Joe's Garage; true to the satirical mode, humankind's folly leaves us either where we were or worse off.

Frank Zappa chooses the SF genre frame to provide plot-structure and the register for defamiliarization for his satire. In a nutshell, Zappa's artistic integrity required a genre particularly American. He has said as much when it comes to the musical qualities of his compositions, and it is reasonable to transfer this to the plot elements as well. SF fits this bill better than any other narrative genre. A second consideration is that Zappa required a genre that would bear the considerable political satire his entire opus stands for. The denser and more acerbic the satire, the more Zappa comes into SF. Joe's Garage plays with the SF genre, with a Big Brother figure, and the defamiliarization of technology (portrayed, it must be stressed, in an extremely negative light) when it comes to sexual gratification, and finally, the thinly masked references to L. Ron Hubbard. At the level that Joe's Garage plays with SF, one is hard pressed not to see the excesses as deliberate parody of the genre. Still, all satire and defamiliarization aside, SF is the only genre which is flexible enough to accommodate such swings of plot we see in Joe's Garage and Thing-Fish.



Thing Fish


While some parts of Joe's Garage are annoyingly sophomoric, as far as plot goes, the 1984 album Thing-Fish is far and away Zappa's most complex and piece ever. In spite of the accusation that the " idea that inspires it . . . has far more potential for controversy that the tawdry little drama that follows" (Slaven, 2003, 339), this piece is rich, functioning on the level of dialect, multi-intertextual references, and even second person dialectical formulations. Using one of Brian McHale's criteria for the post-modern aesthetic, "the parallax of discourses”, Thing-Fish is the most post-modern of any of Zappa's plotted works (McHale, 1992, 48-55). With frequent and unpredictable pastiching, portrayal of a violation of audience position (where consumers of entertainment become unwillingly absorbed into the show), and asynchronous simultaneous twinning of these persons, Zappa is going some places this article cannot follow. It is worth mentioning, however, that several SF novels by Philip K. Dick perform similar textual feats, and though this is hardly a characteristic of the science fiction genre, SF is the only genre where this would be at home, as it were. Oddly enough, even though the plot is far-fetched and offensive, this work is plausible due to numerous current events references and a vestige of explanatory didactic; the satire is sharper and more focussed than in Joe's Garage. The album is broad in its scope of its dystopian critique, essentially positing a plot to totally dominate America by the introduction of a hateful, race and sexual-orientation specific disease. More than anything else, Thing Fish is about AIDS.

        Thing-Fish is about an opening night Broadway play. The album cover even promises that it is an "Original Cast Recording" in red over-stamped print. The master of ceremonies is a genetically corrupted mutant who goes by the name of Thing-Fish. Both name and textual references suggest that this character may be based on the Amos & Andy character Kingfish. This Broadway opening night frame is going to be employed to play back to modern bourgeois musical sensibilities, a paean against the desensitizing mediocrity of homogenous, brain-numbing "entertainment”. Against this frame of denied expectations, Thing-Fish promises to deliver something quite else.

        Instead of the Central Scrutinizer, the narrator was once a Black inmate at San Quentin who has been poisoned in a bio-social engineering experiment with the AIDS virus. This is Thing-Fish. Whatever did not kill them (several of the surviving "Mammy-Nuns" are in the cast) made them stronger. In Ike Willis' dense over-played dialect, the story unfolds. In Thing-Fish, AIDS is a government sponsored experiment toward a policy to kill the gay and black population. Before unleashing this on the nation at large, however, it is tested at San Quentin by being mixed into some mashed potatoes. The tubers somehow attenuated the toxins and mutated the creatures instead of killing them outright. Once the disease is distributed in a fictitious soft-drink, "Galoot co-log-nuh," "Next thing y'know, fagnits be drippin' off like flies…'long wit large number of severely-tanned individj'lls, pre-zumnably of HAY'CHEN EXTRAKMENT!" (4). [6] This album by and large weaves the then unfolding consequences of the AIDS epidemic into the plot of the play. Enter into this dark scenario Harry and Rhonda, archetypal yuppies of the "dink" variety (double income, no kids), and a vital cultural stereotype in 1980s America. In the first of many structural transgressions, these two audience members are involved in the play as characters, against their will, where they witness and participate in the sexual escapades of a tele-evangelist and his faithless wife, torture conducted by an Evil Prince, and finally onstage coitus with a Mammy Nun (Harry) and various business stationary accessories (Rhonda).

        The SF protocols Zappa draws on here are essential for the plot - he has left the technological enforcement of homogeneity of Joe's Garage and drifted into the sphere of what is human and what is real, both biologically and ontologically, while still maintaining his ethical positioning with regard to the genuine vs. the ersatz. This brief examination will touch on three features: the Harry-as-a-Boy sequence, a discussion of cross-species/cross-materia sexual congress, but first the overall frame that couches this improbable tale, government-sponsored genocide against its own population on the basis of race or sexual persuasion.

        In her 1975 article "Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction”, Joanna Russ points out that an essential feature of "science fiction . . . is [that it is] didactic" (1975, 113). This feature is often overlooked as discussions of the science in an SF work tend to be reductive and unexciting. Nevertheless, it is a feature of the genre, and a highly relevant one when discussing Thing-Fish. The first track, "Prologue”, sets the historical context for the unfolding of the plot.

Once upon a time, musta been 'round October, few years back, in one o' dose TOP SECRET LABMO-TORIES de gubbnint keep stashed away underneath Virginia, an EVIL PRINCE, occasion'ly employed as a part-time THEATRICAL CRITICIZER set to woikin' on a plot fo de systematic GENOCIDICAL REMOVE'LANCE of all unwanted highly-rhythmic individj'lls an' sissy-boys!

De cocksucker done whiffed up a secret POTIUM . . . an' right 'long wid it, de ATROCIOUS IDEA dat what he been boilin' up down deahhhh jes' mights be de FINAL SOLUTIUM to DE WHITE MAIN'S 'BOIDENNN', ef yo' acquire my drift …


The claims of this conspiracy scenario are immense, directly implicating the United States government in genocide. References to the "final solution" and "the white man's burden" invoke the Holocaust and the excesses of Western colonialism, respectively. This is monstrous enough as a mere hypothesis, but there is evidence that Zappa was presenting what he believed may well have been the case. Lest we dismiss this merely as the ranting of a paranoid cynic, it must be mentioned that the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr. Wangari Maathai, has also espoused a similar theory. On the very last page of The Real Frank Zappa Book,  he claims that Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman's book, A Higher Form of Killing, contains evidence that a project on race-specific biological weapons and those directed at the immune system has been initiated (Zappa, 1989, 352). That AIDS's initial profile filled this bill, and that it was sexually transmitted may have given Zappa inspiration for other aspects of Thing-Fish.

        Harry-as-a-boy appears as the future mate for an inflatable sexual partner originally used by a tele-evangelist in the track "Clowns on Velvet”. While the adult Harry is watching/participating in the play, his younger self "appears at the left and walks to center stage in a lonely spotlight . . .". There is an ontological clash here: How can the adult Harry and the boy Harry occupy the same stage? Zappa's xenochronicity technique with music is transferred to plot: he is known for taking background or a solo recorded at one concert and integrating it into a later studio piece. Indeed, much of this album involves this technique. In this way, the younger Harry's antics are presents contemporaneously with the older Harry. This type of temporal manipulation positions the piece within SF.

This over-layering of elements also extends to the conspiratorial core of the work. In the following track, "Harry-as-a-boy," presents the explanatory didactic for a conspiracy of emasculation and population control. When the young Harry expresses his desire to turn gay as a positive career and life-style option, Thing-Fish asks whether the "WOMENS' LIBROMATION MOVENINT" drove him to it. He replies

To a degree . . . I mean . . . look, I'm not stupid! I know it's all a thoroughly workable government-sponsored program to control the Population Explosion, and, just like every other AMERICAN, I'm too concerned with MY OWN personal health and well being to think of devoting any of MY precious time to something as boring as 'REPRODUCTION'!

The perceptive listener would detect the conspiratorial strains of the American extreme right in this explanation; this passage participates in the overarching premise of social engineering to control population that drives the entire piece. Yet, in line with the function of SF, this also illustrates the discussion of possible causes and consequences of various contemporary social phenomena.  Where it falls short-  and this is a major defect with Thing-Fish - is in its inconsistency: if the government is trying to kill off the gay population with a biological weapon today, why has it promoted policies in the past where men would chose to become gay? One possibility is that the American population is prey to multiple conspiracies from distinct agencies that are not coordinated, but that is less than satisfying as it is not borne out in the rest of the piece. While one would like to agree with Ben Watson's contention that "Zappa proposes the use of . . . taboos by the underdog [as a] revenge of the oppressed" (1995, 436), outside of the Mammy Nuns, other Others (women and gays) get short shrift. Indeed, following these inferences to their logical conclusion would posit that the group that has the most to fear from the various government machinations is white males.

        While trans-species sex occurs in the adult Harry's intercourse with a diminutive Mammy Nun, it is sex on the trans-materia level that results in issue: the tele-evangelist's tryst with the plastic doll, "Artificial Rhonda," that is to become Harry-as-a-boy's concubine results in the "Crab-Grass Baby”. This child is revealed as part of a lawn nativity scene with Harry-as-a-boy as Joseph, the inflatable Artificial Rhonda as Mary, and the digital-voiced infant, Crab-Grass Baby, as Jesus. The dialogue is at times difficult to discern, but the synthesized voice of this new savior of the Western World is heavily laden with satire. As son to father, the Baby complains of problems with girls, his car (and asks for a Volvo), and bemoans "the white man's burden". Again, a tonal expression is manifest in the plot: Zappa has metamorphosed the soulless pseudo-musical expression of mechanized "The White Zone" riff from Joe's Garage to the soulless pseudo-biological expression of the Crab-Grass Baby. The computer generated white-bread blandness exhibited in this nativity does more than poke fun at yuppie sensibilities; it suggests their corrupt origins—the baby is the son of a tele-evangelist—and ultimate demise. If Western society once worshipped the child, the manifestation of the Crab-Grass Baby insures it will do so no more. With this avenue for the continuance of the species and society closed off, the adult Harry's attraction for the mutants and the genuine Rhonda's attraction to her briefcase and pen are but pathetic displays of misplaced procreative energy, though she claims that women can reproduce that way. The government-sponsored cultural and evolutionary war of the sexes has cancelled out the future for men. As Rhonda declaims "MAN-KIND is SHIT, HARRY! OUR KIND will get rid of YOUR KIND". This is clearly not a cause for celebration. By the end of Thing-Fish¸ there is none of the genuine left, only compound levels of the ersatz.

Concluding Remarks


Following the Orwellian strains from Joe's Garage, the scope of conspiracy in Thing-Fish is grotesquely immense. And there is discernable a development along several lines to match the ever sharper character of Zappa's conspiracy worldview. All three works discussed in this essay are SF/fantasy plays, and since all three resolve in an uneasy marriage of sorts, they are technically comedies, at least at the level of strict plot. But while "Billy the Mountain" is the lightest in terms of its comedic quality (Studebacher Hoch: "Oh shit! I'm gonna need a truss!"), the latter two can only be understood as black comedies. Joe, erstwhile guitar hero, ends up squirting frosting on muffins, forsaking and forsaken by what in Zappa's universe is about the only thing worth living for—music. And the ending of Thing-Fish features Rhonda humping her briefcase, relishing the onanistic ecstasies of her participation in the quintessence of liberal America's notion of a liberated woman, while Harry is spent and self-realized as a gay leatherette boy with tit-rings and a fixation with a midget potato-headed mutant. These comedies are dead-ends; there can never be any issue from these endings. Joe's Garage represents the death of the individual; Thing-Fish, the death of the species.

        Frank Zappa employed poetics and references from the SF genre due to his requirements for plot, estrangement and satire in many of the longer plotted works. "Billy the Mountain" is, strictly speaking, outside the SF pale. Joe's Garage is soundly within it, with the Central Scrutinizer's coercive apparatus and technology. And Thing-Fish employs didactic explanations within a story on the fate of the human species, the principal focus of the SF genre. At the level that these works plays with, and play off of, science fiction may well presume that Zappa has no respect for the genre. Be that as it may, the plot, any plot, in a Frank Zappa opus is there first and foremost in a liminal function, to holding the discreet musical pieces together. SF is the pot-boiler genre par excellence, and since Zappa's compositional focus is always on the music, only SF allows for the latitude and plot gyrations that Zappa's concept albums require.

        It is challenging to arrive at a positive evaluation of these later works, yet both Joe's Garage and Thing-Fish are not without artistic and topical merit. While I claim that Thing-Fish has some serious problems with consistency, Zappa does achieve an interesting artistic effect in the his transference of music compositional elements to the creation of plot, the xenochronicity of Harry-as-a-Boy and the treatment of the Crab-Grass Baby in an analogous fashion to the "White Zone" riff. But the real value of these works is clearly not in the confused scenarios they portray. Anyone coming to Zappa's plotted works looking for answers is bound to leave either disappointed or hopelessly confused. Rather, the true value in Zappa's satire is in the questions he raises, encouraging those of his listeners who hear the call to be ever vigilant of the dangers inherent in political power aligned with any and all ideologies.


Disch, Thomas M. 1998. The Dreams our Stuff is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: The Free Press.

Doerschuk, Robert L. 1994. "The Zappa Legacy" Keyboard, April 1994. Cited in Slaven 2003, pp. 268-69, 415.

Francl, Luke. "Political and Social-Themed Science Fiction". Accessed August 2004 at " ".

James, Edward. 1994. Science Fiction in the 20th Century. Oxford: Oxford UP.

LitEncyc ( 2004. "Satire, 400 BCE –". Accessed December 2004 at

LitMUSE. "Satire: A Definition" Accessed December 2004 at "".

McHale, Brian. 1992. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge.

Muhlhern, Tom. 1983. "Frank Zappa" in Guitar Player, February 1983. Accessed August 2004 at "".

Murray, Charles Shaar. 1974. "How to complete the subbing and layout of a very long Frank Zappa Lookin' Back", "An atonal extravagonzo" in NME [New Music Express] 30 November, 1974. Cited in Slaven 2003, pp. 184, 411.

Orwell, George. 1983. Nineteen-Eighty-Four in George Orwell: The Complete Novels, London: Penguin.

Russ, Joanna. 1975. "Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction". Science-Fiction Studies 2, pt. 2 (July 1975): 112-119.

Slaven, Neil. 2003 [1996]. Electric Don Quixote: The Definitive Story of Frank Zappa. London: Omnibus Press.

Suvin, Darko. 1979. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979

Watson, Ben. 1995 [1993]. Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Wragg, David. 2001. "'Or any art at all?': Frank Zappa meets critical theory". Popular Music 20:2 (2001), 205-222.



Zappa, Frank. 1965. Freak Out! ZAPPA Records: 1965, CD ZAP 1.


--- . 1972. "Billy the Mountain" from Just Another Band From L.A., ZAPPA Records, CDZAP 25. All quotations from "Billy the Mountain" are based upon transcriptions at WowLyrics.Com accessed August 2004 at "".


--- . 1979. Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III, ZAPPA Records: 1979, CDZAP 20


--- . 1984. Thing-Fish, Barking Pumpkin Records: 1984, CDS 7 900081 2


Zappa, Frank with Peter Ochiogrosso. 1989. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York: Poseidon Press.


[1] "The present-day composer refuses to die!" attributed to Edgar Varese in 1921 appears in both places.

[2] All texts for "Billy the Mountain" are based on transcriptions at WowLyrics.Com: accessed 23 August, 2004 at "".

[3] The theme for the Pauley Pavilion concert was in a similarly lighter tone. "The theme for tonight's show, boys and girls, is that it is fucking great to be alive" is intoned by Zappa in a musical transition in "Call Any Vegetable", reinforcing the "let's laugh at them," gentler invective of Horatian satire.

[4] All references to text from liner notes pamphlet in Frank Zappa, Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III, ZAPPA Records: 1979, CDZAP 20.

[5] See David Wragg for a discussion of this quality in Zappa's tonal production.

[6] All quotations from libretto for Frank Zappa, Thing-Fish, Barking Pumpkin Records: 1984, CDS 7 900081 2.

Michael J. Prince
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