Deep Music Criticism #6 – Frank Zappa’s “Wind up Workin’ in a Gas Station”

Cool cats like Frank Zappa, but like even more advertising to the world that they like Frank Zappa, because liking him is what makes a cat cool.

I like Zappa – not obsessed though. I don’t like too much humor in my music. My first released album contains much sick and sarcastic humor,
but I still don’t consider my music in the Comedy Rock genre. I need some anger and angst in there. Frank’s music is often too happy and goofy for me.

But today’s song, though tongue-in-cheek, is hard-hitting punk/prog Zappa at his best. Its why I love Zappa.

Verse

The verse is awesome – its soft-core punk – before punk was even mainstream (Zoot Allures was released in 1976). The chord progression is straight up simple punk (I-VI-I). Even here Frank the composer brings a nuanced touch – accompanying his low-pitched goofy voice in the 1st and 3rd line of each verse with buzzy guitar, then dropping to just drums and bass when his upwardly-tuned fake falsetto voice enters in 2nd and 4th lines of each verse.

Speaking of that falsetto – its brilliant. Frank was always a bit of a mad scientist in the studio – experimenting with advanced technology and generally using the studio gear as just another set of widgets in his compositional tool box. The high-pitched voices are autotune two decades before autotune existed. He probably recorded the vocal parts at half speed, so that the key remained the same, then carefully sped the tape up by the same amount to get that top register. This high-pitched voice even comes across as an annoying, condescending know-it-all persona when you consider the lines its delivering: “If it does, its because you’re dumb“. A perfect theatrical device, considering the subject of the song. I can imagine a hen-pecking jewish mother berrating and warning her son that the gas station awaits if he doesn’t shape up his school work.

Bridge/Interlude

This isn’t even a bridge really – its a masterfully conceived interlude. Frank takes the last line of the verse, cuts the tempo in half, initiates a call/response between his goofy baritone persona and his now-harmonized falsetto persona, and hangs on the VII chord all the way through this section. It creates an awesome, funky tension (VII chords in rock always want to resolve to the I chord/tonic). The repetition of the line “Let me see your thumb” is just vaguely disgusting – classic Frank.

The guitar solo then ensues, which is all about one note – sol, or the 5th note in the . He noodles, wails, trills, bends around that one note for about 15 seconds. Doing this is so startlingly odd, that I’m sure Frank had sarcastic intent in doing it. Regardless, its an awesome solo.

We exit this section with the terrific shriek “Show me your thumb if you’re really dumb“.

Chorus

This is my favorite section. Frank, without knowing it, really takes after Harry Partch in his approach to setting words to music. The title line “Wind up workin’ in a gas station” is so long for a refrain (9 syllables) that he both slows down the tempo for it, and extends the meter to 5 beats (5/4) to accomodate the entire phrase in a way that swings and is repeatable.

He also gives himself space to add new orchestration – including the synthesizer and trumpets playing that swinging lick in counterpoint to the main melody.

The final touch that makes this song a true composition is the harmonic change in this last section. Only a composer could understand how harmonized melody and counter-melody, diatonic harmony and new timbres like synth and horn could add interest even a little epic excitement to what started as a straight-up punk/prog song.