Watts, California

Trouble Every Day by Frank Zappa

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In any state if any clown,
Decides that now's the time to fight
For some ideal he thinks is right Read full Lyrics
Doesn't this song sound like it belongs to a movie? From perhaps the late '60s or early '70s? Some B-list grindhouse tough-guy flick with lots of car chases and crashes? There's something very definite about its style, with a distinct electric blues-style and prominent harmonicas, and it's also so different from the rest of Zappa's work.

Watts RiotsWatts Riots
The Mothers of Invention released "Trouble Every Day" on their album Freak Out! And you should know that it's about the Watts riots of Watts, California, in August of 1965. But you might not know that it was this song which MGM Records producer Tom Wilson heard, and on the strength of this alone signed the Mothers to a record contract, believing them to be just a blues band. Though MGM began to have cold feet midway through the production when they got a look at the price tag, they quickly realized it was worth it when the album started selling like firewater. Freak Out! is the concept album that influenced The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was also honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award and Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

We must digress to make a point about how diverse Frank Zappa's band was. It was for the album Freak Out! that Zappa talked with Hit Parader magazine in June of 1968. There, he laid down what he thought of as the ideal instrumentation set-up, and proceeds to outline a list that would stagger a full symphony orchestra. It's just notable because at this time, other bands were about two guitars, a drummer, and a keyboard - if they felt up to it. Freak Out! had one song from every genre they knew and a few they'd invented.

Few today appreciate the significance of the events which "Trouble Every Day" is describing. In 6 days, 34 people were killed, 1,032 injured, and 3,952 arrested. Estimates of cost of damages ran to $40 million. And LAPD Police Chief William Parker learned that, when faced with a rioting population, the thing not to do is release a press statement calling the rioters "monkeys in the zoo." Wrong answer!

Burning Buildings during Watts RiotsBurning Buildings during Watts Riots
Throughout this event, Americans got a very telling example of the effects of media on riots. The TV news showed up and covered the story, sensationalized it, and rioters saw themselves on TV and were inspired to ever greater acts of violence, which fed back to the TV news anchors who gleefully pounced on the story to drive their ratings up even further. It was not until the 1992 Los Angeles riots (known as the Rodney King riots) that news media outlets would finally get the hint and start toning down their coverage of events, presenting them in a calmer, less sensationalistic view. So this is the focus of part of Zappa's lyrics.

It was neither the first time nor the last that a song was sung about racial tensions and violence. But it had certainly never been done with such grit and flare. Consider the line, "I'm not black, but there's a whole lots-a times I wish I could say I'm not white." That's a gutsy thing to say even today. This was 1965.

"Penguin" Pete Trbovich
April 7, 2012
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Comments: 2

  • Malc from Oslo NorwayWhen i figured this song was about the riots it hit me. Still relevant today!

    Zappa was very underrated, people always focused on him being weird and all, instead of listening to what he is saying. RIP Frank. We miss you..
  • Richard Puhl from Philadelphia This is probably my favorite Zappa song, and it's amazing how true the subject matter of this song remains today, not only the racial aspects, but how the news media operates today, almost 50 years since this song was written. A lot of songs from the 60's seem so dated, but this could have been written yesterday. As Frank noted then, it's still more about the ratings than on reporting a news story. It's more important to get the story first, than to be accurate.
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