Ian Penman: “Don’t Do That On Stage Anymore”

Did Mr Penman get it right back in 1995, when FZ’s back catalog was being re-issued by Ryko? Let’s have a look…

For the pop life of me, I cannot see why anyone past the age of 17 would want to listen to Frank Zappa again, never mind revere him as a deep and important artist, never mind worship at the tottering edifice of his recollected, remastered and repackaged works. Surely the only pertinent use for Zappa was as an interim stage for young lads ‹ scared witless by what they suddenly perceive as the transience or hollowness of popular culture ‹ for whom Zappa represents a gi-normous prefab sneer of self-importance behind which they can shelter for a while. (And, lest we forget: in the pre-Viz, pre-Mayall and Edmondson 1970s, he was the only legitimate supplier of fart and bum and willy jokes).

I beg, as they say, to differ.

41 Responses to “Ian Penman: “Don’t Do That On Stage Anymore””

  1. Sharleena says:

    Between one solitary song by Brian Wilson or the entire Zappa back catalogue I’d choose the latter if I were stuck on the proverbial desert island.

  2. disciple of "Bob" says:

    Oh, look. It’s a journalist in love with the smell of his own farts, devoting pages and pages and pages to the majesty of his opinion.

    As someone once said, nobody has ever built a monument to a critic.

  3. urbangraffito says:

    from Ian Penman:

    “The only way Zappa could ever wow anyone, finally, was through quantity not quality. He was a jack-off of all trades, and master of none.”

    Shit. This fucker doesn’t even make an attempt at objectivity. He just uses every negative aspect of Zappa’s music, lyrics, and catalogue and life as an excuse to piss on everything Zappa. I knew their was a very good reason I never read the Wire or Rolling Stone. Pompous asses that they are…

  4. clarkgwent says:

    Buried in this piece are not a few valid opinions about FZ, but by and large Penman negates these by commiting exactly the sin of “blanket cynicism” that he accusues Zappa of.

    But what else to expect from The Wire? That dismal magazine is so stuffy and humorless that I find myself struggling to read an interview with an artist I like eg Robert Wyatt. Anyone taking music less than seriously is immediately disparaged, and they don’t seem to even know the meaning of the word “satire”. I daresay even their positive FZ reviews fail to mention that aspect of his work.

  5. Grimpo says:

    lets not ask Pierre Boulez or Nicolas Slominisky what they think. What compositions dis this “Ian Penman” write?

  6. Tjodolf says:

    It’s English humour; it’s hard to detect as such because English humour isn’t funny, nor is it meant to be. I don’t know if Ian Penman likes Frank Zappa or not; this rambling nonsense isn’t intended to express an opinion either way. It’s an English thing – if you don’t understand, good for you.

  7. clarkgwent says:

    Yeah!! I’m Welsh and I live next door to the English and I don’t grok this “humor”:- what chance the greater universe?

  8. Andrew Bean says:

    Penman used to write for the NME in the early-mid 80s, and was intensely annoying then too….more concerned with impenetrable & self-obsessed cultural commentary than music journalism. At least the above is relatively intelligible…ill-informed nonsense though it be….

  9. Fabienne Shine says:

    Warren said it best … “They don’t realise that there’s notes involved”

  10. gooey miles says:

    Why give this ahole any ink…….what music did he release?

  11. DAVE says:

    Another case of a music writer unwillingly letting us know in capital letters that the problem with music journalism is the fact that most of these guys/gals *believe* what they read in the media. Theses fools buy the hype! I thought they would be the first to know that it’s ALL about PR. But in my first-hand experience (I run a label), music journalists obviously don’t know how the music industry works. And anyone who thinks he can make a line in the sand that divides what is a genius and breakthrough with a 2 page article is an idiot. It’s impossible to resume such complex things so simply and with assurance. You have to wait a hundred years at least!

    It’s obvious that Ian Penman is a very self-conscious man who trained his brain to make sure that *music* that does not fit some checklists of ‘arbitrary things’ remains incompatible with the thing he used to listen to during adolescence to impress his mates. It’s certainly more complex than that, but it did scar him for life, like many people who are into music journalism and music geekery.

    Music speaks to our inner self, and since our inner self is in constant change, I don’t understand how a supposedly intelligent person would prefer to have only one song by Brian Wilson (a composer I like as well) over an entire catalog of hundreds of songs which, seriously now, are NOT ALL about parodies and cynicism. There are a few dozen in the Zappa repertoire which can give me chills, and more than a few dozen in Brian Wilson’s oeuvre which I find utterly boring. And vice versa.

    In the end, this Penman guy isn’t writing about Zappa, he’s writing about himself.

  12. plotDevice says:

    “For the pop life of me”

    I’m an American. Now more than ever, we have a lot of people in the public eye that make daily statements that would seem like hilarious satire, except that they REALLY MEAN IT. I am exposed to this sort of thing all the time. It’s come to the point where it is extremely difficult to tell whether someone is joking or not, because for every person who spouts a ridiculous claim in jest, you can find two others who spout the same, or a similarly ridiculous claim. in all sincerity. For example, if a prominent member of Congress went on TV today and claimed, “I believe that the current President is part of an invasion force from the recently-discovered socialist planet Xort, and True Americans must unite against his evil plans,” it would be very difficult for me to tell whether or not this was meant as a joke.

    So, I read this entire article, unable to tell whether it REALLY IS several pages of utter idiocy, or if it’s just a sort of satirical, sarcastic joke. I honestly can’t tell.

  13. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from DAVE:

    In the end, this Penman guy isn’t writing about Zappa, he’s writing about himself.

    Indeed, Dave. Any fan of Frank Zappa’s music is already well acquainted with the man’s persian flaws. They are as varied and as necessary to FZ’s music as the notes themselves. The only people that Penman’s article will reach are those with only a passing notion of Zappa, or none at all (given how entirely out of context many of his Zappa references are in the article). If all you hear is the scatological humor of “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”, “Dirty Love”, “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Magdalena” – of course, you’ll be deaf to entire albums like Hot Rats, Waka/Jawaka, and The Grand Wazoo.

    One of the greatest things about being a fan of Zappa’s music was never knowing when the trip you were on would suddenly take a sudden wide left turn into unknown musical territory. Nightmare territory to the likes of Penman (i.e. Rolling Stone, robots).

  14. Thinman says:

    There are four groups of Zappa-ignorants:
    - the first one thinks, the only thing he did was being photographed on the toilet
    - the second one thinks, he was a one-hit wonder (Bobby Brown) from the eighties, came out of nowhere, did just this one single and disappeared into nothingness and eternity immediately thereafter
    - the third one hasn’t heard of him at all
    - the forth one are so called music-journalists

  15. brett says:

    Horrible, annoying writing. Why do people like this exist?

  16. jonnybutter says:

    He really needs to squat on the cosmic utensil.

    What i’ve never understood about people like Penman is, given that they a.) know nothing about music (hardly the same thing as ‘pop culture’), and b.) aren’t interested in/don’t like, music, why do they write about it? And why does anyone pay them to do it? It would be like someone who hates ballet writing reviews of it. Unthinkable…unless it’s Pop Music.

    The word is ‘insufferable’. Would that people like Penman were merely redundant. Alas, no.

    BTW, this sort of thing *is* an example of a kind of ‘British Humour’. Hard to believe that a mixture of bleating ignorance and self-loathing – pretending to be criticism – could amuse anyone, but I guess it takes all kinds. Some people like cock fights.

  17. mtiberio says:

    interesting, a few valid points, a lot of bullsh*t. frank on the other hand had a lot of valid points, and some bullsh*t. check one off for frank…

    you can’t approach franks discography from the outside. you either were hooked after the first (or first few) listen, or you’ll always be on the outside trying to figure it out…

  18. exile says:

    Not funny – not witty.

    It’s polemic. And it’s largely bullshit (by which I mean he doesn’t care whether what he is writing is true or not so long as it advances his agenda).

    Mr Penman is not concerned in the least with examining the musical worth of Frank Zappa, one way or another. He made up his mind a long time ago where he stood, and like any good reactionary he’s not going to test his position. To use his own words, he is, “a reactionary force, vilifying anything that didn’t fit his cynical worldview”.

    A quote from exile:

    In the end, this Penman guy isn’t writing about Zappa, he’s writing about himself.

    Absolutely.
    Some might call him onanistic for airing his bloated pomosity in public.

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    a.) know nothing about music (hardly the same thing as ‘pop culture’), and b.) aren’t interested in/don’t like, music

    Apparently so.

    I feel kinda grubby for having read the whole article.

  19. exile says:

    The first quote above is from Dave. Sorry I don’t understand how this quotey thing works.

  20. DAVE says:

    A quote from DAVE:

    you can’t approach franks discography from the outside. …

    Good point.

    Even within the fanbase it’s impossible to have everyone come together. The output is just too varied. Artists like that are pretty rare when you think about it. The darlings of the alternative press (Reed, Bowie, Beefheart, Patty Smith, etc) don’t come close to FZ when it comes the “stature” of the oeuvre, which even extends to interviews on youtube which are getting to a whole new generation.

    I mean, FZ was ‘more’ than just a trendy album cover at the right cultural time. He was ‘more’ that just one or two classic songs (which only become classic after mafia-esque strategies make millions of people hear them millions of times on AM/FM/TV). Even today, he is ‘more’ that just a name to drop during music geekery discussions. He is on his own plane. It’s fascinatingly impossible to describe in a few sentences what he was, what he did. You have to a totally ignorant fool and have already decided you hated him to not be in awe by the uniqueness of FZ.

    And we can’t even begin to imagine what he would’ve done today with the web, audio technology etc.

    PS: Pardon my English i’m from Montreal….

  21. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from mtiberio:

    you can’t approach franks discography from the outside. you either were hooked after the first (or first few) listen, or you’ll always be on the outside trying to figure it out…

    so very, very true. FZ was and is the voice of the outsider, the outcast in our culture. he spoke to an entire generation profoundly alienated by the social structures around them (I know, I certainly was, and still am). The hilarious irony is Penman (and his ilk) just traded one social structure (universities) for another (mass media) and allowing that to dictate his thinking and world view.

    Unfortunately, Big Swifty and Associates, Trend Mongers, are alive and well in the 21st century, and FZ is as much a needed antidote for it now as he was when he first started.

  22. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    Unfortunately, Big Swifty and Associates, Trend Mongers, are alive and well in the 21st century, and FZ is as much a needed antidote for it now as he was when he first started.

    Or more. Quite a bit of his nightmare has come true, I hate to say.

  23. Dani Boy says:

    A few of you seem to think that Penman’s article suggests a sneering ‘British’ sense of humour. As an Englishman, I can assure you that Penman does NOT represent my country’s funnybone. He is simply a Grade-A prick, nothing more, nothing less. It seems to me that this guy is scared of Zappa because he has no understanding with or connection to the music. I find it quite interesting that not a lot of actual ‘music’ was discussed in the article.

  24. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    As an Englishman, I can assure you that Penman does NOT represent my country’s funnybone.

    Apologies for my part in adding to that impression. Of course Penman types don’t represent an essential British Humour. I’m an American, and I LOVED a lot of British humor while growing up, e.g. Goon Show, Cook and Moore, Python. In fact, one of my favorite formative years bands was Bonzo (Doo Dah) Dog Band, and I love them still.

    But there does seem to be a strain of snottiness and sneering-for-its own-sake in British entertainment in recent years. That of course doesn’t mean that The English as a whole are sneering and snotty, but..*somebody* is amused enough by that sort of stuff that it has become some kind of industry. Maybe calling it ‘humor’ is a mistake, but it’s..something.

    Please don’t draw the conclusion that I believe American entertainment is relatively superior. We simply aren’t as *good* at doing Sneering and Snotty – but it’s not for lack of trying. Obviously, the US is a major chunk of the market for this sort of thing.

  25. clarkgwent says:

    To take issue with some of the above postings, I think it possible not to be in awe of Zappa, not to have grasped the awesomeness of his oeuvre, and to still derive immense pleasure from some of it. I for instance am only inordinately fond of the Mothers Of Invention stuff, I think he was patchy thereafter. I know someone who gets great kicks just from the “comedy” numbers such as Titties and Beer, and yet another who only likes Ruben and the Jets.

    I could defend my position on preferring MOI to Zappa, and (anticipating objections) them being not the same thing. My two pals likewise. Penman’s position is indefensible because it is merely the polar opposite of the squawking imbecile fanboyism of his Wire colleague, Ben “overeducated shithead” Watson.
    It is blanket cynicism rather than blanket acceptance.
    Both, in their own way, are uncritical positions.

  26. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    I think it possible not to be in awe of Zappa, not to have grasped the awesomeness of his oeuvre, and to still derive immense pleasure from some of it.

    Can’t argue with this.

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    Penman’s position is indefensible because it is merely the polar opposite of the squawking imbecile fanboyism of his Wire colleague, Ben “overeducated shithead” Watson.
    It is blanket cynicism rather than blanket acceptance.
    Both, in their own way, are uncritical positions.

    Can argue with this, though. In what sense is Watson ‘uncritical’? Watson is not only critical, but flat out doesn’t like some of Zappa’s work. However, his overall point is that the whole of Zappa’s work is best appreciated *as* a whole, as ‘one piece’, and that the ‘game is worth the candle’ (although sometimes just barely). I think any really dedicated Zappa fan would more/less agree with that. You can agree or not, but it isn’t an uncritical point of view.

    BTW, thanks for another rasher of modern British (and American) Charm: You don’t simply disagree with Watson (and incidentally, don’t say anything substantive about what you disagree with); instead it’s ‘..squawking imbecile fanboyism of…Ben “overeducated shithead” Watson.’. I mean, there are lots of squawking imbecilic shitheads in the world who deserve invective like that. But, however much he may merely annoy you, for whatever reasons, has BEN WATSON really reached the critical mass of awfulness to belong somewhere towards the top end of that list?

    The problem with most pop music critics – not just Penman – is that they usually don’t care or know anything about music, aren’t even slightly interested in learning, and are even a bit proud of their ignorance. They care about lyrics. They care about clothing/poses. And they care about stringing adjectives together to make themselves seem superior or ‘witty’.

    I can think of few things more boring and pointless than reading ‘music criticism’ in The Wire or Rolling Stone.

  27. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from clarkgwent:

    To take issue with some of the above postings, I think it possible not to be in awe of Zappa, not to have grasped the awesomeness of his oeuvre, and to still derive immense pleasure from some of it. I for instance am only inordinately fond of the Mothers Of Invention stuff, I think he was patchy thereafter. I know someone who gets great kicks just from the “comedy” numbers such as Titties and Beer, and yet another who only likes Ruben and the Jets.

    I could defend my position on preferring MOI to Zappa, and (anticipating objections) them being not the same thing. My two pals likewise. Penman’s position is indefensible because it is merely the polar opposite of the squawking imbecile fanboyism of his Wire colleague, Ben “overeducated shithead” Watson.
    It is blanket cynicism rather than blanket acceptance.
    Both, in their own way, are uncritical positions.

    No need to defend yourself. I well appreciate your position. I left my own “awe” of Zappa along with my teenage years and instead embraced the musician and his music with a critical, adult respect for his unique and varied oeuvre. Myself, I have a special fondness for the original Mothers of Invention, too – though this didn’t stop me from enjoying the Zappa’s future music and band incarnations, just as it didn’t stop me from enjoying the MOI alumni, too, as solo musicians and members of other acts (Geronimo Black, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Lowell George & The Factory, Fraternity of Man, Little Feat, etc.).

    The long term influence of the music of the original MOI, and by association, the musical influence of Frank Zappa, is there to be heard (and enjoyed) by the investigative, experimental, avant garde, and progressive listener. Music criticism in The Wire, Rolling Stone, Spin are little more than empty cultural noise people read so that they can be the first Robot in their social group to know which band or act is considered the “hip” new thing that changes week to week like fashion.

    True, both Penman and Watson are uncritical positions. Watson, though, does not apologize for this. He admits that his work – at least Poodle Play – is a literary work, not a scholarly one. It is Penman who disguises his character assassination of Frank Zappa as cultural criticism. We can forgive the former, not the latter.

    Time and time again I have said that mass media isn’t the place for honest criticism of Zappa and the Mothers. First, you’ve got to love Zappa/Mother’s music enough to set aside your affection for it, and see the flaws (however small or minor) in the man and his overall oeuvre. It is possible to love something and still be critical. Music criticism has long since forgotten this.

  28. clarkgwent says:

    I guess what really irks about Watson must be that he is an overeducated shithead )see the “Montana” section of his stupid book for an example) about all the stuff I like (Zappa Beefheart Bailey etc). If he was like that about football or Jane Austen it just wouldn’t affect me!

  29. Dark Clothes says:

    I read Penman’s article some years ago and have no urge to read it again. I read your comments here, clarkgwent, and find it very frustrating that you can’t distinguish between someone who is interpreting the work with knowledge and passion (Watson) and an archetypal shallow music journalist who’s just trying to define a flattering position for himself (Penman). The term overeducated shithead is stupid in itself and that’s surely why Zappa used it in Thing-Fish, but it’s even more stupid to use it at as a sweeping condemnation of a serious (albeit idiosyncratic) critic. If you really want to take issue with Watson, I suggest that you write a systematic critique of one of his arguments, rather than just spewing out useless invectives. You can save those for Penman, the pope of the post-punk, quasi-postmodern NME/Wire school of rawk journalism.

  30. the effervescing elephant says:

    to be honest : i don’t give a flying fuck what anyone thinks about the music i like.
    I like FZ and that’s it. A lot of my friends don’t like him , and that’s that. Penman doesn’t like him, so what…
    Just don’t try to convince me in changing my ideas and i’m fine with that.
    (actually i don’t even care what you KUR-friends think about my musical taste)

  31. Dark Clothes says:

    A quote from the effervescing elephant:

    to be honest : i don’t give a flying fuck what anyone thinks about the music i like.
    I like FZ and that’s it. A lot of my friends don’t like him , and that’s that. Penman doesn’t like him, so what…
    Just don’t try to convince me in changing my ideas and i’m fine with that.
    (actually i don’t even care what you KUR-friends think about my musical taste)

    I think your attitude is cool, but I’m a little curious about how your ideas develop. Do they change at all? If so, how? Or don’t you ever change them? In that case, when did you stop?

    As a KUR friend I can tell you that I’m cool with your taste in music!

  32. the effervescing elephant says:

    of course my ideas develop. maybe i was a little too rigid in my writing.
    the thing is : i listen to other opinions and people can listen to mine. then one should judge by himself what’s best. I change my opinion often on things, except when people try to push me. Then I become a rabid defender of mine (even though sometimes i’m already convinced i’m wrong)

    I have my opinion, you have yours, other people still have other opinions. Well, just listen to each other but don’t try to convince or condemn other people.

    and now i’m gonna listen to some Cannibal Corpse!

  33. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    The term overeducated shithead is stupid in itself and that’s surely why Zappa used it in Thing-Fish,

    With respect Dark, I think Zappa used the term in TF because he thinks that’s what Harry actually is. Stupid term or not. See ‘Evelyn, a Modified Dog’, ‘Wind Up Workin”, ‘Dummy Up’, et. al.

    Agree with you otherwise. The idea that Penman and Watson are polar opposites is forced.

  34. Dark Clothes says:

    A quote from the effervescing elephant:

    now i’m gonna listen to some Cannibal Corpse!

    Good for you and well said! :-)

    And, Johnny, you may be right about the intent of the expression in Thing-Fish, but it’s still a condemnation I would reserve for very few people, who misunderstand the idea of education completely. If you’re a shithead to begin with, I guess there’s a chance that you may become an overeducated shithead, but even if Frank Zappa used the expression to describe a character in his satire, I don’t think it’s very useful outside of that fictional universe.

  35. Olfactor says:

    Penman assumes GOOD MUSIC has to say something. His attacks on Zappa come down to what did this Zappa piece have to do with culture: what was FZ saying about the world by over-rehearsing the 88 band OR opting for the synclavier?

    Music can be intricate and signify nothing, Varese said as much. I mean, cant you just like something because you find it beautiful? Cant a joke just be funny?

    Or do we have to have some sort of hard on for the culture and make dissonant jarring noises (Sun Ra, who has a lot to answer for re:his ’64 – 79) purely to prove some non-musical point?

    Tho I guess if you were to find the literary equivalent of what Zappa did, it would probably be Thomas Pynchon.

    But I do like the idea of Zappa as a joyless mutant Wagner though, wouldnt that be wonderful?

  36. exile says:

    There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I think applies equally to music criticism (and particularly the article in question). “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

  37. urbangraffito says:

    I knew this fellow in my 20s who was very much like Penman, and had a monthly subscription to Rolling Stones. At parties, he was a complete and utter bore who had an opinion concerning every musical act under the sun. He just didn’t know when to shut up. He sucked the life out of even music I liked. I think we all know the type. Really, were the Pretenders, the Knack, or Elvis Costello really ever that socially relevant? I used to drive him nuts by playing Alice Cooper’s 1981 Special Forces album whenever he came around my basement flat. I loved how that album made him squirm. To this day, I enjoy that album not because it’s good or band, but because it’s fun – the satire of Cooper ridiculing his own media created image: something that many music critics – then or now – cannot get their inflated heads around.

  38. jonnybutter says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    even if Frank Zappa used the expression to describe a character in his satire, I don’t think it’s very useful outside of that fictional universe.

    Well, I think it’s unmistakable that he has a critique of higher education going throughout his work. You can disagree with it or argue about it, but I don’t think we do Frank any favors pretending he didn’t mean what he meant.

  39. jonnybutter says:

    I should have typed it ‘Higher Education’ (with caps). I think his problem was with institutionalized learning as it usually is, not with learning itself. He’s hardly the first artist to have problems with institutionalized learning.

  40. Dark Clothes says:

    Don Van Vliet said: “If you want to be a different sort of fish, jump out of school,” and of course I know Zappa had a similar opinion. But he did get himself an education in the library, and was in favour of enlightenment in general. He also relied on highly educated musicians to have his music performed, some of whom (for instance the LSO trumpet section) he may have described as “overeducated shitheads” on a gloomy day. My point is that the term is sort of stupid in itself, and that it’s useless in most serious discussions. If you want to come to terms with Ben Watson or any other serious critic of Zappa that you happen to disagree with, it’s just not good enough to quote some punishing line from Zappa. Phrases like “overeducated shithead” or “broken hearts are for assholes” are poetry more than anything else, I feel. Zappa’s lyrical invectives are mostly ineffective as a theoretical vocabulary. And that was my concern in the reply to clarkgwent, more than Zappa’s view on education.

  41. Johnny B says:

    Nothing to add to this, just wanted to shout out to Mike Tiberio, who I haven’t seen since the Loudon Classic almost 20 years ago!

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