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Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play Hardcover – January, 1995


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Amazon.com Review

There is probably no figure of modern popular music who so deserves the sort of scholarly exercise undertaken by Ben Watson in this book, and I am personally convinced that Zappa will be regaled by 21st Century music historians as a "crux of the biscuit" of 20th Century music.

And this 700 page tome will certainly be cited by our music historian descendants. In fairness, it may confound today's Zappa fans with it's copious references to Adorno, Freud, and Marx, but is likely to delight the erudite with its excerpts of the playfully situationist lyrics of Zappa, completely deconstructed by Watson. There is no doubt that Zappa was a genius--albeit a peculiarly American sort--and there is no doubt that no book has yet attempted such a thorough (albeit peculiar) analysis of his genius. Highly Recommended.

From Publishers Weekly

Frank Zappa's manic energy and weird lyrics may make him seem like a rock-cult eccentric, but to British journalist Watson, Zappa (1940-1993), founder of the Mothers of Invention (which disbanded in 1969), was a pioneering composer who forged a third stream between classical and rock music, a radical visionary whose works attack class oppression, the conformity of mass culture and the hypocrisy of conventional morality. Fusing musical analysis, cultural criticism and biography, this overblown, provocative study discusses Zappa's music in the context of avant-garde art, William Blake, Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist prose, punk rock and the Marxist politics of the French leftist group Situationist International. Watson unravels Zappa's formative influences as he discusses the ex-Mother's film 200 Motels, Broadway-musical parody Thing-Fish, sonic experiments conducted by Pierre Boulez, freewheeling orchestral scores, electronic synthesizer compositions and recent iconoclastic songs. Including a 1993 interview with Zappa and a discography, this is the ultimate book for serious Zappa fans.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 597 pages
  • Publisher: St Martins Pr; 1st U.S. ed edition (January 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312119186
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312119188
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #202,227 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Sir Charles Panther VINE VOICE on February 22, 2007
Format: Paperback
This is the "tweezed" 2005 update to the original 1998 publication. It comes with the addition of a section on 1998-2005 releases, called "Posthumous Existence."

This book is a very serious, crowded work of Zappa deconstruction and analysis, definitely not for someone looking for an introduction into the Zappa cosmology. Watson certainly knows his stuff, whether it comes to the music, its construct and content, band membership, the history and context, but his overwrought analysis, increasingly haughty tone, and his curt dismissal of virtually all other Zappa writers and historians comes off as nothing but intolerant ego.

I got this book as a work-up to Watson's Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Being a solid FZ fan and prophet for a good 30 years now, I'm just a few releases short of the complete library, and have been reading up. And in reading about FZ, you can't miss the references to the massive, intimidating Ben Watson magnum opus, his Mother of all Zappa biographies/interpretations. At the same time, while these references make it clear that it's no Ulysses, one has to have a certain level of background and knowledge of FZ's work and larger issues of music and its criticism to be able to access it. This was my seventh Frank Zappa book, having read the FZ/Occhiogrosso autobiography, and the Walley, Courier, Kostelanetz, James and Lowe works. I figured I was ready to get into Watson, at least at the introductory level. But, reading this book has changed my plans; I don't think I'll be reading Negative Dialectics.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By S. M Marson on April 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read the following books by or about Frank Zappa. In addition, this list constitutes a ranking of my assessment of the quality of these books.
1. THE REAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK by Frank Zappa and Peter Occhioigrosso
2. MOTHER! THE FRANK ZAPPA STORY by Michael Gray
3. FRANK ZAPPA: THE NEGATIVE DIALECTICS OF POODLE PLAY
4. ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE: THE DEFINITIVE STORY OF FRANK ZAPPA by Neil Slaven
5. NECESSITY IS... THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION by Billy James
6. COSMIK DEBRIS: THE COLLECTIVE HISTORY AND IMPROVISATIONS OF FRANK ZAPPA by Greg Russo
7. NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL: THE SAGA OF FRANK ZAPPA by David Walley
8. THEM OR US by Frank Zappa
9. UNDER THE SAME MOON by Suzannah Thana Harris
10. BEING FRANK: MY TIME WITH FRANK ZAPPA by Nigery Lennon
When I started reading FRANK ZAPPA: THE NEGATIVE DIALECTICS OF POODLE PLAY, I found myself having flashbacks to the days of my doctoral studies and to the philosophical debates emerging from the 60's liberation movement. While a Ph.D. student I studied Postmodernism, Feminism, Liberation Philosophers, etc. You know, all the stuff you'd think would have no application outside of graduate study. As a result, I was fascinated because reading this book was the first time I had to actually reflect back to the philosophies I studied. I actually found myself reading POODLE PLAY in the manner that I read my required readings as a Ph.D student. I checked and read some of the citations; I searched for more information on topics for which I was unfamiliar (i.e.," Situational International"); I discussed major themes and ideas with colleagues who were professors of economics, philosophy, sociology and political science.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By x on March 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have enjoyed reading (and re-reading) Watson's book since it first came out years ago. His passion for the music of Frank Zappa makes this book a wonderful read. I especially like the way in which Watson draws upon a wide array of musical and literary sources that help place Zappa's work in a broader artistic and intellectual context. Any Zappa fan who appreciates the relationship between theory and culture will find much value in this densely researched book, even if you find yourself (as I do) disagreeing with Watson's conclusions and the premises of much of his analysis.
In general Watson's assertions, while cogently argued and often compelling, serve to espouse theory--especially Freudianism and Marxism--at the expense of the subject, Zappa's art. This creates the unfortunate problem of teaching the reader a lot about theory but little about Zappa's music. Watson, despite a very noble attempt, is unsuccessful at demonstrating a strong link between his chosen theoretical approach and the complexities of Zappa's art which tend to resist mere reduction to Marxist and Freudian interpretations. But, as a reader, it is enjoyable to see Watson try. In fact, Watson demonstrates a lot of courage in his attempt to do so, and that in itself makes this book a worthwile purchase.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 29, 2001
Format: Paperback
Alternately ludicrous, entertaining, informative and pretentious, Ben Watson's book on Zappa is nothing if not different. The clue is in the title: "Negative Dialectics", Theodore Adorno is mentioned almost as often as Zappa himself is (but could he play guitar like him?). The thing about Zappa is that he may be probably the most intelligent man ever to strap on a guitar in rock 'n' roll history but (like Beefheart), he ain't no intellectual. Mr Watson however is, and he has uncovered a whole barrel-load of entertaining, but frankly ludicrous, philosophical, literary, political and psychoanalyical allusion and meanings in various Zappa songs and albums. The thing that makes me most suspicious of Mr Watson is the way the lamer an album is the more time he spends expounding on it's "actual" meaning - thus Apostrophe is compared to King Lear, I could go on - no wonder Frank and his missus were in stitches.
The fact that Watson has to spend so much time and hard work on Zappa's oeuvre post-1970 perhaps tells it's own story - the fact is Zappa stopped saying anything very interesting in his songs throughout the entirety of the 1970's, only the intervention of the PMRC into his increasing smug and self-refential universe helped reignite the kind of indignation and passion Zappa had displayed in the 60's.
Watson goes thru all sorts of ingenious and amusing contortions trying to defend or explain away his hero's often rancid social and sexual politics. He does at least nail Zappa's hopelessly petit bourgeois hatred of unions but struggles to convince on such gems of Zappa's back catalogue as "The Illionis Enema Bandit" (a glorification of a convicted sex offender) and gives up altogether on the truly repulsive "Jumbo Go Away".
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