The stories behind your favourite songs
Way back when I was wrapping up the Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History countdown, I sent out a request for some songs that my readers liked and/or that had meaning to them but had not made the Top 500 list. My friend, Linda Spoelstra sent me a long list of songs to choose from, with a story to go along with each selection. One of the nine songs she nominated was “Billy The Mountain” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Her story that accompanied this selection went something like, “You haven’t lived until you have spent the afternoon drinking beer in the hot sun and singing the entire way through “Billy The Mountain”. I guess I will have to take Linda’s word for it because this was a song that was new to me when she nominated it. In fact, as it turned out, even though I knew who Frank Zappa was, I knew very little about him in actual fact. So, because I like to learn and grow as a person, I thank Linda for pointing me in the direction of one of modern music’s most creative, comedic and combative personalities…Mr. Frank Zappa. “Billy The Mountain” is certainly a song like no other I have heard, and, as such, I can imagine the addition of alcohol and heat would make the singing of it quite the experience for sure!
Let’s talk first about Frank Zappa. Like so many of us, Zappa’s adult life was shaped in large part because of how he spent his childhood. There are many examples to back this up. Here are but a few…Frank Zappa passed away in the 1990s from prostate cancer. That would not be the footnote that it is without knowing that, as a child, his father worked as a chemical engineer for the US military. His father would often bring experimental materials home to work on in his basement. For a while, some of those materials involved mercury. Because Frank had an insatiable sense of curiosity, he would often be allowed to join his father in his basement laboratory. One famous example of this comes from an incident where Frank took some of the samples of mercury to his bedroom, where he proceeded to hit them with a hammer. Each time he did so, mercury sprayed across his room. In time, scientists would discover the cancer causing link between mercury and prostate cancer. Frank Zappa was only 53 when he died.
A second way in which Frank Zappa’s childhood influenced his adult life can be seen in the fact that he and his family moved a lot because of his father’s job with the military. As a result, young Frank Zappa rarely attended any school for more than a year before moving on. This caused Frank to develop a greater sense of independence and self-reliance than most teenagers develop. Not surprisingly, he often felt that the other kids were very different than he was. At first, he felt badly about this, but as he went through his high school years he began to view his differences as making him special, and furthermore, he saw that those who were happily going along with the rules of society were sheep-like. Consequently, Frank Zappa developed a terrific anti-establishment sense about himself. In his adult life, Zappa would become widely known as someone who had little time for organized religion, political parties or the national education system.
The final link between childhood and adulthood for Zappa was seen in his approach to his music. Being a social outsider allowed Zappa to view life from a non-conforming perspective. Right from the very first moments that he became interested in music, Zappa never felt the need to produce “hits”. He viewed the music industry with the same disdain that he did all other organized industries and movements. He was very much an individualist, and as such, he sought out other like-minded people as role models for his young self. One of those who became a big influence on his musicianship was an avant garde composer named Edgard Varèse. Varèse was known for releasing albums built upon a foundation of percussion. However, this percussion was not drumming in the style of a Buddy Rich or any of the modern rock n’ roll drummers such as Keith Moon or John Bonham. Instead, Varèse’s music used percussion in experimental ways that Frank Zappa had never heard before. Music critics labeled Varèse’s albums as “unpleasant noise”. To Frank Zappa’s ears, listening to sound being used in a completely original manner was a revolutionary concept. Young Frank was so enthralled by what he was hearing that he actually wrote a fan letter to Varèse, thanking him for his approach to musical composition. To Frank Zappa’s delight, Varèse replied with a kind and complimentary letter. Zappa would later frame Varèse’s letter, hanging it in a place of honour in his studio, where it stayed until the day Frank Zappa died.
Because of his childhood experiences, Frank Zappa became an adult-aged musician with a firm idea of what style of music he wanted to make, and, just as importantly, what style of music he wished to avoid at all costs. So, over the course his career, Frank Zappa produced over 100 albums under the banner of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Frank Zappa (as a solo artist) or as producer for other highly original musicians such as Captain Beefheart and John Cale. In all cases, Zappa tackled each album in a highly ego-centric manner, with him being responsible for as many aspects of the production as possible. With regard to his own albums, Zappa became known as someone who combined elements of Jazz, Rock and Classical music together in ways that had never been attempted before. He also became known for interjecting political commentary into his lyrics. The final characteristic for which Zappa became known was for writing songs that contained humour. When he was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame after his death, he was lauded for being one of the first and only great “Rock Comedians”. But, as is the case with much social comedy, there was always a basis of observational truth ingrained within lines that, at first, come across as funny or as jokes. Such is true of today’s song, “Billy The Mountain”.
“Billy The Mountain” is a song that takes a full thirty minutes to play live. It concerns a mountain named Billy and his wife, Ethel (who is a tree growing off of his shoulder). He has caves for eyes. The impetus for the song is that Billy and Ethel decide to go on vacation from where they are in the southwest of the US, all the way across America to New York. Needless to say, such a journey allows for much commentary on the state of things in America, as well as the destructive nature of a mountain making such a trip, if such a trip were possible. “Billy The Mountain” was created at a time when the rock n’ roll establishment was becoming bloated on self-importance that saw a rash of rock operas, prog rock albums and psychedelic bands rise to prominence. “Billy The Mountain” was created as satire of those who felt that prog rock was finally getting to the heart of the human soul via music. As for the song itself…you, dear reader, will either like it a lot or you won’t like it at all. If you like it right off the hop, then by all means, enjoy all thirty minutes of it and revel in the witty social commentary and original musicality by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that are on full display here. If you do not enjoy this song, then may I suggest as my pal Linda does that you listen to it with a cold drink in hand under a yellow sun on a blue sky kind of day. “Billy The Mountain” is truly unlike any song I have profiled before. It is unique and that is O.K. If you give it your best shot and end up still not liking it, well, even Frank Zappa would say that it is O.K. because, after all, having the individual right to make decisions for yourself is the height of true freedom. So, enjoy “Billy The Mountain” or not…whatever. You decide.
Thanks, once again Linda, for introducing us all to the life and music of a very interesting man. I feel richer for having learned what I have.
The link to the video for the song “Billy The Mountain” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention can be found here. ***I cannot find a “lyrics” video so, instead, here is a link to the entire set of lyrics. You can click here and follow along as the song plays in a different, open tab.
The link to the official website for Frank Zappa can be found here.