The late composer/guitarist Frank Zappa’s role as a spiritual godfather of punk has been largely obscured by the genre-vaulting scope of his voluminous output. His predilection for uber-fusion, avant-garde classicism, pornographic fandangos and what he called “jazz from hell” helped make the very mention of Zappa’s name anathema to large segments of the rock audience. Nonetheless, Zappa, who died of cancer in 1993, was a punk of the first order, and a singularly nasty one at that. Dragging highbrow musical concepts through the gutter (and vice versa), Zappa filled his oeuvre with scathing satire, puerile scatology, annoying noise and enough general misanthropy to make John Lydon seem like a choirboy.
The Baltimore-born, California-bred autocrat’s entire catalogue of officially released albums (except for the currently unavailable 200 Motels movie soundtrack) was reissued in a massive 1995 undertaking after years of sporadic availability. With many albums baited with bonus tracks and other goodies, they constitute an impressive argument for the man’s generally acknowledged (though rarely investigated) reputation as the quintessential musical maverick/genius of his era. Parsing Zappa’s vaunted “conceptual continuity” (the arcane system of cross- references that links his albums) is daunting even for adepts, but diving into his catalogue is invariably a true listening adventure. His subversive influence can still be felt throughout the underground music scene; everything from the Butthole Surfers’ jeering burlesques to Steve Albini’s uncompromising iconoclasm is to some extent in debt to Zappa’s original aesthetic. He also presaged the indie label boom, forming his own record companies years before the DIY aesthetic came into vogue.
The early Mothers of Invention albums — Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and We’re Only in It for the Money — form the triad that cemented Zappa’s reputation as the ultimate freak, an outsider repulsed by both the straight world and the burgeoning hippie movement. Mixing ’50/’60s R&B sendups with crude attempts at jazz-rock fusion and elaborate (for the time) rock operettas (e.g., Absolutely Free‘s “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”), the Mothers — signed to a jazz label — posited themselves as a highly individual alternative at a time when such rebellion earned no credit in the straight world. Looking back, it’s impossible to overestimate just how devastating the anti-hippie jabs (“Flower Punk,” “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”) of We’re Only in It for the Money must have been to nouveau longhairs.
Zappa’s first “solo” effort, Lumpy Gravy (originally conceived as a second disc to be paired with We’re Only in It for the Money and ultimately issued on a single CD with it), is a spotty combination of nonsensical dialogue and ambitious orchestral maneuvers in the vein of classical experimentalist (and Zappa icon) Edgard Varèse. Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, a collection of doo-wop/R&B pastiches, comes off as both sincere and sardonic, a snotty homage to the music of Zappa’s youth.
The double-LP Uncle Meat, identified as “most of the music from the Mothers’ movie of the same name which we haven’t got enough money to finish yet” (the film was completed years later and released on video), finds Zappa coming into his own as a composer and the Mothers maturing as improvisers, particularly on the free-form workouts of the six-part “King Kong” suite that fills most of the second disc. The mostly instrumental Burnt Weeny Sandwich is even better, and includes the panoramic, nineteen-minute “Little House I Used to Live In,” complete with a high-flying violin solo by Don “Sugar Cane” Harris.
By almost any yardstick, Hot Rats, Zappa’s second solo album, is a masterpiece. With sparkling melodies and stellar musicianship, it’s every bit the “movie for your ears” that Zappa envisioned. Opening with the lush “Peaches en Regalia,” a staple of Zappa’s live set, Hot Rats also includes “Willie the Pimp,” notable for both its inclusion of an ace Captain Beefheart vocal and Zappa’s first extended guitar solo. The smokin’ sax and violin workouts on “The Gumbo Variations” still sound up-to-the- minute.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh, a fascinating hodgepodge of live and studio recordings, represents the last gasp of the Mothers’ ’60s lineup; faux free-jazz numbers such as “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue” indicate just how far outside the mainstream the band was operating. With a rocking electric violin-drenched version of Little Richard’s “Directly From My Heart to You” sitting alongside such ineffable weirdness as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” and “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a truly distinctive last will and testament for the group. (Historical footnote: Mothers Lowell George and Roy Estrada went on to form Little Feat, while other members of the group later became the ill-fated Grandmothers.)
Along with the rest of a mostly new batch of Mothers-to- be, ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (the vocalists dubbed themselves the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie) made their debut on Zappa’s solo Chunga’s Revenge. Concurrent with their arrival came a nose-dive into the crass sexual humor of 200 Motels, Fillmore East — June 1971 and Just Another Band From LA.
Following the demise of the Flo and Eddie-period Mothers, Zappa began a tradition of hiring top-shelf musicians — sometimes identified as Mothers, sometimes not — to play his increasingly complex music. (He retired the Mothers’ name for good in 1976.) Waka/Jawaka, conceived as a sequel to Hot Rats, features trumpeter Sal Marquez on “Big Swifty,” an impressive Miles Davis parody/homage. The Grand Wazoo, however, ranks as the superior Hot Rats‘ follow-up, with a battery of more than 20 musicians and vocalists contributing to this oft-overlooked fusion masterpiece.
Though heavy on mean-spirited sex songs, Over-nite Sensation includes the memorable “Montana,” a silly-but- enjoyable ditty about a “dental floss tycoon” (with uncredited backing vocals by Tina Turner and the Ikettes!). Apostrophe (‘), the title track of which features Jack Bruce on bass, yielded Zappa’s first “hit” single, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” The live two-disc Roxy & Elsewhere finds Zappa in top form as both ringleader and conductor, shepherding the Mothers though mind-spinningly complex number like “Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen’s Church).”
One Size Fits All continues in the vein of Over-nite Sensation, albeit with less vulgarity. The mostly live-in-Austin Bongo Fury reunites Zappa with his old crony Captain Beefheart (whose Trout Mask Replica Zappa produced); Beefheart’s psycho-blues vocalizing and dada poesy — and the inclusion of the catchy “Muffin Man” — help make it one of Zappa’s most enjoyable efforts.
Zoot Allures is a fairly straightforward (for Zappa) rock jam album, with Beefheart adding harmonica to “Find Her Finer.” Zappa then ran into a conflict with his record label; withdrawing four new albums he had created — Zappa in New York, Studio Tan, Orchestral Favorites and another sequel to Hot Rats — Zappa designed an ambitious multi-disc set from them and deemed it Läther. That didn’t come out either (until 1996), but the individual albums did. Zappa in New York is live from ’76, Studio Tan is something of a grab-bag and Sleep Dirt consists of instrumentals subsequently augmented with vocals. Sheik Yerbouti contains both the disco parody “Dancin’ Fool” (a turntable hit) and the notorious “Jewish Princess,” which drew the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League.
Orchestral Favorites is a mostly instrumental effort that pairs a 37-piece orchestra with a rock combo, offering a taste of the full-fledged classical recordings Zappa would essay in the ’80s. Joe’s Garage Act I, a concept album about a hapless rock band, features the likable title track and the hilarious “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” (a tragically ironic title for a man who would ultimately die of prostate cancer). The sprawling Joe’s Garage Acts II & III offers “Catholic Girls” as a sort of follow-up to “Jewish Princess.” (All three albums were later consolidated into a double CD.)
The ’80s saw Zappa’s workaholism in full bloom; some years he spewed forth as many as four new albums. With the formation of the Barking Pumpkin label, he was able to operate entirely outside the realm of the majors, and he reveled in the total artistic freedom he had always sought. Tinseltown Rebellion is a live album (with the exception of the studio single “Fine Girl”) that features a young Steve Vai on rhythm guitar. The title track finds Zappa weighing in (with predictable disdain) on the subject of punk.
Offering blessed relief from the dense verbal overload of prior albums, the three-disc Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar (and its 1988 sequel, Guitar) showcases Zappa’s snaky six-string solos, often grafted onto totally unrelated rhythm tracks. A wanker’s delight.
The short, snappy songs that make up You Are What You Is — which Zappa considered to be a sequel to Joe’s Garage — operate much like a long suite; there are several gems here, notably the country-western parody “Harder Than Your Husband” and the merciless poseur denunciation of “Mudd Club.”
While Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch is one of Zappa’s lesser albums, it contains his biggest hit, “Valley Girl,” in which his then-fourteen-year- old daughter Moon Unit does a delicious — and mass culture-influencing — demonstration of Southern California speech pathology. The Man From Utopia (which credits Steve Vai with “impossible guitar parts”) offers a glib sampling of Zappa’s perennial obsessions, containing more porno pap (“The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”), doo-wop parodies (“Luigi & the Wise Guys”) and tinker toy instrumentals (“Moggio”), every song clocking in at under five minutes.
There is little to recommend Baby Snakes, a movie soundtrack consisting primarily of rehashed versions of old songs (“Disco Boy,” “Dinah-Moe Humm”). The next two albums put Zappa back on classical terrain: London Symphony Orchestra (and its 1987 sequel, both now available in a two-disc package) turns the 102-piece LSO, conducted by Kent Nagano, loose on Zappa’s slippery compositions, while The Perfect Stranger puts Pierre Boulez in the conductor’s seat with similar results. Those who truly can’t hack modern classical music are advised to avoid these albums, as well as the later Francesco Zappa.
Them or Us begins with a straightforward cover of the Channels’ 1956 single “The Closer You Are” and ends with a walloping rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post,” sandwiching a hefty helping of the usual mischief between those two poles. One of Zappa’s sons, Dweezil, contributes guitar to several tracks, including the Vai showcase, “Stevie’s Spanking.”
The obnoxious Thing-Fish (originally a three- record set, now on two CDs) may well be brilliant, but the album’s insufferable mixture of Amos & Andy– inspired double-talk (courtesy of vocalist Ike Willis) and sexual fetishism renders it nearly impenetrable to all but hardcore Zappaphiles. For masochists only.
Snippets of Zappa’s testimony before the PMRC-inspired 1985 Senate hearings on record-rating can be heard on “Porn Wars,” a twelve-minute musical collage from the otherwise unremarkable Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention. Does Humor Belong in Music?, yet another live album (from 1984), was originally released only in the United Kingdom.
The claustrophobic-sounding, all-instrumental Jazz From Hell was composed and played entirely on Synclavier sampling synthesizer and holds the distinction of being Zappa’s only Grammy-winning album.
Documenting the abortive 1988 tour of Zappa’s horn- enhanced big band, the next three albums — Broadway the Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life and Make a Jazz Noise Here — are brashly inventive affairs brimming with humor, political satire and amazing chops. The first features almost all-new material, including brutal excoriations of Elvis Presley (“Elvis Has Just Left the Building”), Jesse Jackson (“Rhymin’ Man”) and Michael Jackson (“Why Don’t You Like Me?”). Best Band reprises old favorites (“Cosmik Debris,” “Zomby Woof”) and includes goofy covers of “Purple Haze” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” culminating with an infamous nine-minute version of “Stairway to Heaven” that serves notice Zappa’s sense of humor remains as perverse as ever. Make a Jazz Noise Here highlights the band’s tightly controlled approach to improvisation on tracks like the sprawling “When Yuppies Go to Hell” and a retooled “King Kong.”
Both Playground Psychotics and Ahead of Their Time are, if not essential, of definite archival interest. The two-CD former collects live music and backstage banter from the comedic Flo and Eddie-period Mothers and includes several tracks recorded in 1971 with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Fillmore East. Ahead of Their Time is a 1968 recording of the Mothers live at London’s Royal Festival Hall, on which the group is heard working out material that would later appear on Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
The challenging Civilization Phase III is a sprawling mess that mixes smut and Synclavier sounds in equal measure.
The six double-CDs that constitute the all-live You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series draw material in chronological order from all stages of Zappa’s career, offering a kaleidoscopic view of the great man’s many musical incarnations. True diehards may want to also investigate the Beat the Boots series (the only releases on the Foo-eee/Rhino consortium), fifteen unauthorized concert albums that Zappa came across and co- opted with his own authorized releases in 1991 and 1992. As might be expected, the albums — also repackaged as two vinyl and cassette boxes — boast bootleg quality sound, tape hiss and all.
The Yellow Shark, another classical effort, was recorded live by Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern under Zappa’s direction and production and released posthumously. Made without the composer’s participation, Zappa’s Universe is a live recording of his music performed in late 1991 as a tribute by various associates, relatives and fans.
Strictly Commercial, a choice nineteen-song selection of Zappa’s most accessible material, makes a dandy primer for the uninitiated, covering as it does a gamut of eras, from Hot Rats‘ “Peaches en Regalia” and Apostrophe‘s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” through “Dancin’ Fool,” “Valley Girl” and Them or Us‘ “Be in My Video.”
Personally compiled by Zappa near the end of his life, The Lost Episodes is a richly annotated collection of 30 rare studio recordings, outtakes and other curiosities from the great man’s long and windy career. A treasure trove for devoted fans, it includes several Zappa/Beefheart collaborations (“Lost in a Whirlpool” dates from the late ’50s). Among the other goodies: “Lil’ Clanton Shuffle,” a swell jam originally intended for inclusion on Hot Rats, a twelve-minute “Sharleena” sung by Sugar Cane Harris and the original mix of the controversial 1980 single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted.” In the words of Edgard Varèse, the present day composer refuses to die.