Friday, December 26, 2008

Freak Out!

Sometimes I wonder if even some Zappa fans get it.

Clearly, someone in the record industry believed that a new band called The Mothers had potential. And indeed, that person was correct. But right from the beginning with Zappa’s release of “Freak Out!” it became clear he was not entirely in control of the message.

For starters, the record company insisted on the band changing its name to The Mothers of Invention. Although it may be viewed as minor in the long run, it was nonetheless a significant request at the time. And then there were the efforts by members of the Mothers to oust Zappa from the group, all because he didn’t do drugs! But as chance would have it, Frank and the Mothers had found someone who would give them a chance, that man being Tom Wilson. Wilson, in fact, went on to produce Zappa’s next two releases as well: “Absolutely Free” and “We’re Only in it For the Money.” These three releases, in my view, represent Zappa’s finest work until “Over-nite Sensation.”

But what is truly amazing about this double album (in his autobiography, Zappa suggests that “Freak Out!” was the first rock double album ever released, an assertion supported to some extent by the album’s Wikipedia entry; however, ample evidence suggests that it was not) is the irony present not only in its content, but in the history surrounding the album’s production and post-production.

In terms of its content, “Freak Out!” describes a messed-up America in which people find solace and meaning in meaningless things. The country’s youth is rebelling against this, spawning the hippie culture. Yet, Zappa clearly portrays the hippies as being just as shallow and self-centered as the adult society they are rebelling against. Much of this was lost not only on listeners, but on the music industry as well, as evidenced by the album’s review by Pete Johnson, which Zappa quotes in his autobiography. This theme of deriding the hippie counterculture was carried on with intensity for the next two releases: “Absolutely Free” and “We’re Only In It For The Money.”

Even more incredible is the fact that after “Freak Out!” was released, the band members tried to oust Zappa from the band because he didn’t do drugs. As he explains in “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:

“Listeners at the time were convinced that I was up to my eyebrows in chemical refreshment. No way. As a matter of fact, I had several arguments with the guys in the band who were into ‘consciousness-altering entertainment products.’ The whole thing blew up at a band meeting when Herb Cohen wanted to get rid of Mark Cheka… ‘Well, as long as we’re cleaning house here,’ some of the guys thought, ‘let’s get rid of that Zappa asshole too.’ Yes, folks, some of the members of the band wanted me to go away and leave them alone because (don’t’ laugh) I wasn’t using drugs.”

Musically, “Freak Out!” is as diverse as anything Zappa has recorded; it includes everything from pop to blues to extraordinarily bizarre avant-garde. Concert favorites like “I Ain’t Got No Heart” debuted on this album, but one tune that has shown amazing staying power is “Trouble Every Day,” which is actually the song the band was performing when Tom Wilson heard them and became interested. Virtually every pop gimmick was brought out on this album and played with loving sarcasm, like the bright and melodic “Any Way the Wind Blows,” and the slightly Beatles-like “I’m Not Satisfied.”

The more experimental pieces are at the end of the album, leading with “Help I’m a Rock,” a really infectious song despite its repetitive rhythmic structure. The song is really a collage of material that includes “It Can’t Happen Here” despite the fact that on the CD release, the songs appear as separate, which is why “Help I’m a Rock” is listed on the album release as being 8:37 rather than the 4:42 on the CD.

The last track, the truly experimental "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableaux), has me wondering if it provided any creative stimulus to groups like Sonic Youth.

Check out Chris Goes Rock, an interesting music blog that includes entries about Zappa, including this page regarding “Freak Out!” Also on this blog, I found an entry to a 1968 psycehedelic group called Brain Police. The group didn't officially release a recording, but the album "San Diego's Only Psychedelic Cops" is pretty good despite being a bit dirty (the recording that is, not the content). Finding this item had me wondering if the name came from Zappa's song on "Freak Out," "Who Are The Brain Police."

I rate this recording four out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

New content was added to this entry on Jan. 3, 2009.

Album release date: June 27, 1966, Verve/MGM records.

Track listings:

Double-album release:
Side one
"Hungry Freaks, Daddy" – 3:32
"I Ain't Got No Heart" – 2:34
"Who Are the Brain Police?" – 3:25
"Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder" – 3:43
"Motherly Love" – 2:50
"How Could I Be Such a Fool?" – 2:16

Side two
"Wowie Zowie" – 2:55
"You Didn't Try to Call Me" – 3:21
"Any Way the Wind Blows" – 2:55
"I'm Not Satisfied" – 2:41
"You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" – 3:41

Side three
"Trouble Every Day" – 5:53
"Help I'm a Rock" – 8:37
Okay To Tap Dance
In Memoriam, Edgar Varèse
It Can't Happen Here

Side four
"The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableaux) – 12:22
Ritual Dance of the Child-Killer
Nullis Pretii (No commercial potential)

CD release:
"Hungry Freaks, Daddy" – 3:32
"I Ain't Got No Heart" – 2:34
"Who Are the Brain Police?" – 3:25
"Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder" – 3:43
"Motherly Love" – 2:50
"How Could I Be Such a Fool?" – 2:16
"Wowie Zowie" – 2:55
"You Didn't Try to Call Me" – 3:21
"Any Way the Wind Blows" – 2:55
"I'm Not Satisfied" – 2:41
"You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" – 3:41
"Trouble Every Day" – 5:53
"Help, I'm a Rock" – 4:42
"It Can't Happen Here" - 3:59
"The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" – 12:22


Frank Zappa – guitar, conductor, vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – percussion, drums, vocals
Ray Collins – harmonica, cymbals, sound effects, tambourine, vocals, finger cymbals
Elliot Ingber – Alternate lead & rhythm guitar
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals, guitarron, soprano vocals
Gene Estes – percussion
Eugene Di Novi – piano
Neil Le Vang – guitar
John Rotella – clarinet, sax
Kurt Reher – cello
Raymond Kelley – cello
Paul Bergstrom – cello
Emmet Sargeant – cello
Joseph Saxon – cello
Edwin V. Beach – cello
Arthur Maebe – French horn, tuba
George Price – French horn
John Johnson – tuba
Carol Kaye – 12-string guitar
Virgil Evans – trumpet
David Wells – trombone
Kenneth Watson – percussion
Plas Johnson – sax, flute
Roy Caton – copyist
Carl Franzoni – freak
Vito – freak
Kim Fowley – (featured on hypophone)
Benjamin Barrett – contractor
David Anderle
Motorhead Sherwood – noises
Mac Rebennack – piano
Paul Butterfield
Les McCann – piano
Jeannie Vassoir – (the voice of Cheese)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Joe's Garage

When listening to the epic “Joe’s Garage” today, I am struck by its prescience. With the recording’s introduction of the Central Scrutinizer, it’s easy for our minds to begin thinking in terms of the George W. Bush administration, particularly when the Central Scrutinizer, voiced by Zappa, proclaims that his duty is to “enforce the laws that haven’t been passed yet.” But this opera was released in 1979 on the eve of the Reagan administration. Foreshadowing what was to come during the Reagan years, the theme presented in “Joe’s Garage” is just as relevant, if not more so, today as it was at the time of its release.

I’m going out of my intended (although perhaps seemingly random) order of presenting Zappa’s recordings to write about this one primarily because of somewhat recent events involving the opera, and that is a stage production of the work that premiered in September 2008 at the Open Fist Theater in Los Angeles, all with the blessings of the Zappa Family Trust. The production has received rave reviews and its run has been extended. This review presents the details of the work’s story line, as well as information about the production for the stage, so I have no need to delve into that.

Reviews of “Joe’s Garage” are mixed, which is often the case with Zappa’s work. In giving it three out of five stars, reviewer William Ruhlmann points out that after Zappa was freed from his contractual obligations with Warner Bros., he was free to produce as much and as often as he liked. Mark Prindle also notes this flurry of activity, commenting that, in his opinion, this created “quality control issues” and led to Zappa releasing unrefined material using sterile techniques.

Comments left regarding the album at Kill Ugly Radio are interesting in that people who visit the page often give it a high rating (8.69 out of 10 stars), as well as glowing praise. Yet the first comment indicates that a mixed reaction is retained by others when one opines that “you can find masterpieces beside dull tunes.” Perhaps ironically, Rolling Stone raved on the recording: “Joe's Garage ties the dual extremes of Frank Zappa’s sensibility closer together than ever. An attack on authoritarianism in which fascist governments, self-help pseudoreligions and the music industry are inextricably linked….” It’s surprising because Zappa often lambasted music critics, particularly those from Rolling Stone. I must point out that Rolling Stone reviewer Don Shewey states that “As a stage musical, ‘Joe’s Garage’ is unproducible.” I wonder if he went to the show at the Open Fist Theater.

I really like the opera. Besides its brilliant prescience, the variety of the guitar work is refreshing because Zappa, in my opinion, can get into these ruts with his solos, pushing out a repetitive sound that shows little distinction from one to another. Through my joining two Facebook Zappa pages ( Frank Zappa and The Real Frank Zappa Group) I have learned that the solo “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is a favorite among fans. Indeed, Zappa infuses this beautiful solo with real emotion, a sense of sorrow and wistfulness that is neither condescending, nor a form of parody.

See this blog for additional information.

I rate this recording four out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Additional content was added to this post on Jan. 4, 2009.

Album release date: Sept. 17, 1979 for Act I, Nov. 19, 1979 for Acts II and III, Zappa Records.

Track listings:

Act I
Side one
“The Central Scrutinizer” – 3:28
“Joe's Garage” – 6:10
“Catholic Girls” – 4:26
“Crew Slut” – 6:31

Side two
“Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” (aka “Wet T-Shirt Nite”) – 4:45
“On the Bus” (aka “Toad-O Line”) – 4:19
“Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” – 2:36
“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” – 5:43
“Scrutinizer Postlude” – 1:35
On vinyl, “Lucille” and “Scrutinizer Postlude” were indexed as one track.

Act II
Side one
“A Token of My Extreme” – 5:30
“Stick It Out” – 4:34
“Sy Borg” – 8:56

Side two
“Dong Work for Yuda” – 5:03
“Keep It Greasey” – 8:22
“Outside Now” – 5:50

Side three
“He Used to Cut the Grass” – 8:35
“Packard Goose” – 11:34

Side four
“Watermelon in Easter Hay” – 9:09
“A Little Green Rosetta” – 8:15


Frank Zappa – Vocals, guitar
Warren Cuccurullo – Rhythm Guitar, Vocals, Choir, Chorus, Organ, Guitar
Denny Walley – Vocals, Slide Guitar, Guitar
Craig Twister Steward – Harmonica
Jeff – Sax (Tenor)
Marginal Chagrin – Sax (Baritone)
Patrick O'Hearn – Wind, Bass
Peter Wolf – Keyboards
Stumuk – Sax (Baritone), Sax (Bass)
Tommy Mars – Keyboards
Vinnie Colaiuta – Drums, Percussion
Arthur Barrow – Vocals, Bass
Ed Mann – Vocals, Percussion
Dale Bozzio – Vocals
Al Malkin – Vocals
Ike Willis – Vocals
Barbara Isaak – Choir, Chorus, Assistant
Geordie Hormel – Choir, Chorus
Terry Bozzio – Guest Vocals
Ferenc Dobronyi – Cover Design
Steve Alsberg – Project Coordinator
Joe Chiccarelli – Engineer, Mixing, Recording
Norman Seeff – Photography, Cover Photo
John Williams – Artwork
Steve Nye – Remixing
Mick Glossop – Remixing
Stan Ricker – Mastering
Jack Hunt – Mastering
Thomas Nordegg – Assistant
Tom Cummings – Assistant

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chunga's Revenge

You know right away with the opening guitar riffs of “Transylvania Boogie” that “Chunga’s Revenge” is gonna be a keeper! The first of the Flo & Eddie recordings featuring former Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Chunga’s Revenge is by far the best of the group, both in terms of its down and dirty, nitty gritty style and its compositional excellence. While the remaining releases of the series – “Fillmore East – June 1971,” “200 Motels,” and “Just Another Band From L.A.” – are worthy in their own right, only “200 Motels” can be counted as truly exceptional. And despite that, “200 Motels” isn’t nearly as accessible as “Chunga’s Revenge.”

Yet, like so many other Zappa releases, the “experts” didn’t like it. In his 1970 review of the album for Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs writes: “Zappa can go on putting out dull records like these indefinitely and always find somebody who’ll buy them, out of respect for his name if nothing else…But these diddlings are not only insignificant, not only do they suggest that one genius is not at present working towards anything in particular, but they also smack of a rather cynical condescending attitude towards a public that may be getting ready to pass Zappa by.” Bangs even dismisses in the same review another Zappa recording that is often voted by fans to be among Zappa’s best – “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”

Was Frank copping an attitude toward his listeners? Was he being condescending as suggested by Bangs? Or do we take to heart Zappa’s own words regarding his perception of the fallibility of record reviewers, that most in fact didn’t know a lot about music to begin with, despite the fact that they made their living writing about music, and frequently dismissed as garbage music they didn’t grasp?

The two reviews at Ground and Sky are positive, but in different ways: The one penned by Bob Eichler is warm, but not quite glowing, while the one by Matt P is tersely succinct in its mention that “Chunga’s Revenge” is “perhaps the most underrated album in the Zappa catalog.” That review was posted in 2005.

Regardless, “Chunga’s Revenge” tickles my musical ear from start to finish. And as I state at the beginning here, what a start it has!

What strikes me most about “Transylvania Boogie” is that the guitar solo, to me, marks a point in Zappa’s evolution where his playing makes a quantum leap in both style and execution. It’s just really damn good and while it holds his essential style, he’s introducing new playing techniques and a new sound that takes more traditional rock guitar to great places. Zappa can play avant garde with his axe, but he can brilliantly play hard core rock with it as well. This is much more evident in “Road Ladies,” a kick-ass blues tune that has Frank playing in a more traditional electric blues style that must surely be the envy of every blues guitar player to have emerged out of Texas and the Mississippi Delta. His style is point on, the riffs are classic, and hold a ragged razor edge that thrills me. Not sure why some reviewers have called “Road Ladies” a soul style tune, because it is plain as day a basic 12-bar blues piece.

Road Ladies” also has other historical significance for Zappa in that the road theme is introduced for the first time with Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, a theme that was carried on throughout the Flo & Eddie years with the following recordings: “Fillmore East - June 1971,” “200 Motels,” and “Just Another Band From L.A.” An interesting side note is that Nazareth was one of the few bands to cover this tune.

For most people who have taken the time to comment on this album, “Twenty Small Cigars” routinely comes out as a favorite. A jazzy instrumental built around a distorted guitar and harpsichord, it has a very “Hot Rats” feel.

Then comes “The Nancy & Mary Music,” another tune that gets mixed reviews. Some label this live instrumental track as filler. It opens with a cacophony of seemingly chaos with Ian Underwood’s saxophone shrieking atonally and Aynsley Dunbar’s frenetic, jazz style drumming, which introduces another Zappa guitar solo. The abrupt transition to more percussion is punctuated with some shrieking by Kaylan and Volman, which, in my opinion, fits perfectly in a musical sense with the impassioned drumming that is followed by a “big finish” that includes some great electric piano work by George Duke, who joined with Frank for the first time, a musical relationship that would last for years. George does some great scatting in the song as well that is somewhat reminiscent of the vocal style found in the song “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. However, “Moving Waves” was recorded and released by Focus a full year after “Chunga’s Revenge.”

“Tell Me You Love Me” eventually became a concert favorite, particularly during the 1980s tours. In many ways, the later live versions of this song are tighter, such as the one on “Tinsel Town Rebellion.” “Would You Go All The Way” is a silly, but enjoyable, interlude leading into the title track.

With “Chunga’s Revenge,” we get hard core guitar rock and seemingly anomalous jazz segues. Ian Underwood’s opening saxophone solo, performed with pedal volume, is tortuous and chilling, and I mean that in a good way (that’s right folks, the opening solo instrument is an alto saxophone, not a guitar with a fuzzed wah-wah). Here’s a video of a 1973 recording of the song from an Austin, Texas, concert.

The video below is a live performance of the song from 1980 in Paris.

I don’t like the transition much on the album into “The Clap,” as it is clumsy and technically flawed; the piece itself is fine, I just don’t care for the way it was brought into the album.

A musical and lyrical theme found in “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez a Drink” is repeated again in “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” on “200 Motels.” And the closer, “Sharleena,” was another song that got frequent live play, particularly by Dweezil.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: Oct. 23, 1970, Bizarre/Reprise

Track listings:

Album release:

Side one
"Transylvania Boogie" - 5:01
"Road Ladies" - 4:11
"Twenty Small Cigars" - 2:17
"The Nancy & Mary Music" - 9:30
part 1 - 2:42
part 2 - 4:11
part 3 - 2:37

Side two
"Tell Me You Love Me" - 2:43
"Would You Go All the Way?" - 2:30
"Chunga's Revenge" - 6:16
"The Clap" - 1:24
"Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" - 2:45
"Sharleena" - 4:07

Compact Disc:
"Transylvania Boogie" – 5:01
"Road Ladies" – 4:10
"Twenty Small Cigars" – 2:17
"The Nancy and Mary Music" – 9:27
"Tell Me You Love Me" – 2:33
"Would You Go All the Way?" – 2:29
"Chunga's Revenge" – 6:15
"The Clap" – 1:23
"Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" – 2:44
"Sharleena" – 4:04


Frank Zappa – guitar, harpsichord, percussions, drums, vocals, Condor
Max Bennett – bass
George Duke – organ, trombone, electric piano, sound effects, vocals
Aynsley Dunbar – drums, tambourine
John Guerin – drums (only on Twenty Small Cigars)
Don "Sugarcane" Harris – organ
Howard Kaylan – vocals
Mark Volman – vocals
Jeff Simmons – bass, vocals
Ian Underwood – organ, guitar, piano, rhythm guitar, electric piano, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, pipe organ

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just Another Band From L.A.

Much of the material released during the Flo & Eddie years was criticized for being juvenile toilet humor. Some refer to many of the compositions as “stupid stories.” And others proclaim that it just isn’t funny. Zappa was well aware of this and his response was, “So what?”

“I don’t have any pretensions about being a poet,” Zappa said in his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book.”

“My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only – not to be taken internally. Some of them are truly stupid, some are slightly less stupid and a few of them are sort of funny. Apart from the snide political stuff, which I enjoy writing, the rest of the lyrics wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the fact that we live in a society where instrumental music is irrelevant….”

The last of the Flo & Eddie recordings was “Just Another Band from L.A.,” which Zappa put together while recuperating from severe injury sustained during an encore performance at the Rainbow in London. Zappa succinctly describes the winter of 1971 in his autobiography.

“(Excluding an experience in Stockholm), the 1971 European winter tour gets the award for being the most disastrous,” Zappa wrote. The was the Dec. 4 show at the Casino de Montreux in Geneva, Switzerland, during which a fire started during “King Kong” that burned the casino to the ground and destroyed all of the band’s equipment. Perhaps to Zappa’s chagrin, the event was immortalized in Deep Purple’s hit, “Smoke on the Water.” But alas, perhaps it was due to the fact that Deep Purple had arrived that day to record “Machine Head” using the Rolling Stone’s mobile studio.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Zappa’s group found itself in the “middle of a sold-out tour with ten more dates to go,” he writes in his autobiography. A week’s worth of shows was canceled and the band prepared for a London gig, rehearsing with new equipment. The band made it through one show; as they returned to the stage for an encore, a man from the audience attacked Frank, pulling him off the stage to the concrete floor of the orchestra pit 15 feet below. “…(M)y head was over on my shoulder, and my neck was bent like it was broken,” he writes in his autobiography about the incident. “I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed.” His larynx was also crushed, causing his voice to drop a third.

Wheelchair-bound, Zappa put together the last of the Flo & Eddie recordings (until “Playground Psychotics”) taken from a show at the Pauley Pavillion at UCLA, recorded Aug. 7, 1971. Side A of the recording consists solely of the epic “Billy the Mountain,” viewed by many as a parody of the rock opera genre that had become common at the time, most notably with the Who’s “Tommy.” Other than perhaps “Dinah Mo Humm,” “Billy the Mountain” was probably Zappa’s most widely known and famous composition. It was, and remains, legend. Zappa’s son, Dweezil, performed the opus with the entourage Zappa Plays Zappa during three shows at the Morse Theater in Chicago on Oct. 17, 18, and 19, 2008. Sadly, I was unable to attend any of these shows.

Like the other recordings of this era, it was met with mixed reaction. As Mark Prindle points out in his review of the album, what “promising” musical themes the piece has are quickly supplanted by the narrative, the tale of a draft-dodging mountain sought by a geeky superhero. It’s worth turning, once again, to Zappa’s autobiography for his explanation on how lyrics play a role in his compositions.

“Some of the stuff I write is in the ‘musically uncompromising boy-is-this-ever-hard-to-play’ category. Then there’s the other category – songs in which the ‘intrigue’ resides in the lyrics, rather than the music,” he writes. “If a piece intends to actually tell a story, I don’t build an elaborate accompaniment because it gets in the way of the words.”

This, however, has led to Frank performing various pieces at times with his, I must admit, annoying sing-sing presentation style, exemplified by “The Dangerous Kitchen,” which I endured during the show I saw in Tucson in 1980. It was enjoyable and amusing at the time, but doesn’t bear up well under repeated listens. But I digress.

“Billy the Mountain” is filled with not only local lore referencing real places in the Los Angeles area, but also references to Zappa’s personal life (such as the “pools of old poison gas,” which is a reference to his father’s work with the military as well as his father having agreed in the past to volunteer in nerve gas tests, not just a real military dump). There are some really cool set pieces in the larger work, such as the bit when Studebaker Hoch is introduced or when the nerdy superhero goes through his preparations to fly. And you can find here some rather amusing discussion on the “origins” of Billy the Mountain (not the song, that’s why it’s not in quotes).

As memorable as “Billy the Mountain” is, the B side of the release has the real gems. The version of “Call Any Vegetable” here is wonderful. A brief transcription is below.

That’s followed by “Eddie Are You Kidding,” and “Magdalena,” the latter of which has an intense and prurient climax leading into the awesome rendering of “Dog Breath.” A brief transcription of “Magdalena” is below as well.

Check out this site for some musical analysis of some of the songs on this album.

As was common with many of Zappa’s recordings, there are references to other recordings notated on the album cover, particularly in reference to “Uncle Meat.”

Some other sites you might want to look at regarding this recording and other Zappa releases include this one by Robert Chrisgau, although I’m not sure how someone can call himself, as Chrisgau does, the “Dean of American Rock Critics” when he rates “Hot Rats” with a C. At the History of Rock Music, the reviews are written in Italian. And despite the fact this site has nothing on Zappa, Reason to Rock is a really fascinating site.

I rate this recording four out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: March 26, 1972, Bizarre/Reprise.

Track listings:

Side one
"Billy the Mountain" (Zappa) – 24:47

Side two
"Call Any Vegetable" (Zappa) – 7:22
"Eddie, Are You Kidding?" (Kaylan, Seiler, Volman, Zappa) – 3:10
"Magdalena" (Kaylan, Zappa) – 6:24
"Dog Breath" (Zappa) – 3:39


Frank Zappa – guitar, vocals
Mark Volman – lead vocals
Howard Kaylan – lead vocals
Ian Underwood – woodwinds, keyboards, vocals
Aynsley Dunbar – drums
Don Preston – keyboards
Jim Pons – bass guitar, vocals

Thursday, November 27, 2008

200 Motels

The double album “200 Motels” and the movie of the same name present a challenge to anyone who listens to or views either, particularly for Zappa fans. Is “200 Motels” genius or is it crap? Offer that question to any group after listening to the soundtrack (because that is what it is, a soundtrack) or viewing the movie, and then get the heck out of the way. The opinions will surely start flying like venomous darts spewed by some Stone Age jungle tribe from the Pacific. And as you can see, I am probably spending more time on this recording than on any other in Zappa’s catalogue, the significance of which should become as plain as the “Dance of the Just Plain Folks.”

Mark Prindle starts his review of the double album thus: “Because he was a dirty old man masturbating at the thought of his bandmates having sex with girls, Frank Zappa decided it would be a just hilarious idea to make a movie about the trials and good times of a touring rock and roll band.” Reviewer Richie Unterberger, writing for the All Music Guide, gave the recording four out of five stars, compared to Prindle’s six out of 10. But despite Prindle’s disgust with the prurient portions of the recording, he agrees there are some gems tucked into all the other oddness.

Others, like me, may merely shrug because we are not necessarily as “knowledgeable” about music theory and composition to judge the recording like an “expert,” nor are we overly put off by the crude humor in the story line and lyrics. I can agree with both Prindle and Unterberger; I can hear both sides. But I am more inclined to side with comments like this one by “marco J” expressed on the album’s review page at Kill Ugly Radio:

“Zappologist Ben Watson has devoted TONS of print analyzing “200 Motels” and praising it as a perfect example of Frank forcing us to embrace trash and “low” art that really is just as complex, challenging and valid as “high” or lofty pieces. That may be true, but does it all “work”, considering that Frank was under an unbelievably tight budget, and openly admits that equal amounts of script story as well as pieces of important music never got recorded or filmed. Is “200 Motels” just the best of a “work in progress” that Frank could SALVAGE at the time, or is it EXACTLY produced the way he conceived it?”

Jerry McCulley’s review at is also very telling. “As always, the Zappa of 200 Motels sometimes confuses the profound with the obscene, but with every passing year, he seems more likely to take his place alongside the great American modernist Charles Ives, another composer whose work was every bit as commercially troubled and artistically misunderstood.”

Composing and producing “200 Motels” was certainly a major life event for Zappa as well; some may argue it was a milestone in his career for negative reasons. Relaying the experience takes up a significant chunk of his autobiography. His experience dealing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in large degree contributed to his cynical and skeptical opinion of musicians in general, orchestra musicians in particular. His testimony reprinted in the autobiography, the transcript taken from his obscenity trial over the work’s content, is particularly revealing. Many scenes were omitted, and personnel fled the production while in progress.

I would have to say that the recording holds up better than the movie. I only saw the movie once, almost while in college at Western Michigan University in either 1976 or 1977, the real time within the last few years when I rented the DVD. My experience with the movie while at Western was just as disjointed as the composition. Zappa had been scheduled to play a concert at Miller Auditorium at WMU in Kalamazoo, Mich. I bought tickets to the show, knowing the acoustics at Miller would make the experience outstanding. However, for some reason (and there were plenty of rumors to explain) the show was moved to the field house. Word got out that Zappa was pissed and canceled the show. He apparently re-booked for Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo and played a show there, but I missed it. On campus, flyers went up noticing that the movie “200 Motels” would be shown on the night the concert would have taken place on campus. Some friends of mine, as did close to a hundred others, showed up in the classroom designated for the show, but there was no movie. It was just another sick joke.

When I did see the movie a few years back, I was glad I rented it rather than bought it. I’m not sure if the low quality production was intentional or necessary because of budget restraints. The film was reportedly shot in five days (seven days according to Wiki) with a budget of $679,000. But the “film” made Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” look like a major Hollywood production.

The music is something entirely different. The Overture begins with a theme closely resembling “Holiday in Berlin” from “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.” This complex opener is followed by a basic rock-n-roll number, “Mystery Roach,” with a solid bass line that leaves you wanting more. As it fades away, the more complex orchestral themes come back as an interlude into the set pieces that comprise “This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich.” The movie is, after all, about touring and how it can drive you crazy. The soundtrack is filled with these types of transitions, which both from a narrative and musical perspective, can be difficult to follow on the first listen. In fact, they can strike the listener as a bit schizoid. Not being able to get beyond that, I think, is why the album turns some off. Once the listener gets beyond these apparent incongruities and has the “whole” in mind, it really all fits.

There are some really great and interesting pieces on this opus. “Dance of the Just Plain Folks” is one, although the actual dance was apparently edited from the movie. Probably the most “popular” track, and one of my favorites, is “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” which has a bit of interesting irony in that Jimmy Carl Black, who sings and portrays Burt in the movie, is an Indian playing a redneck cowboy. And “Centerville” in its brief existence showcases the duplicitous nature of the alleged “values” of small town America.

Granted, this is not a recording I pull out very often for a listen. But it is one that will get played more frequently than either “Fillmore East” or “Just Another Band From L.A.More info.

I rate this recording four out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

New content was added to this entry on Jan. 4, 2009.

Album/Movie release date: November 10, 1971, United Artists.

LP release:

Side One
Semi-Fraudulent/Direct-From-Hollywood Overture (1:59)
Mystery Roach (2:33)
Dance Of The Rock & Roll Interviewers (0:48)
This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (prologue) (0:56)
Tuna Fish Promenade (2:30)
Dance Of The Just Plain Folks (4:39)
This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (reprise) (0:59)
The Sealed Tuna Bolero (1:40)
Lonesome Cowboy Burt (3:51)

Side Two
Touring Can Make You Crazy (2:53)
Would You Like A Snack? (1:23)
Redneck Eats (3:03)
Centerville (2:31)
She Painted Up Her Face (1:42)
Janet's Big Dance Number (1:18)
Half A Dozen Provocative Squats (1:57)
Mysterioso (0:48)
Shove It Right In (2:32)
Lucy's Seduction Of A Bored Violinist & Postlude (4:00)

Side Three
I'm Stealing The Towels (2:14)
Dental Hygiene Dilemma (5:12)
Does This Kind Of Life Look Interesting To You? (3:00)
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy (3:11)
Penis Dimension (4:35)
What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning (3:27)

Side Four
A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes (1:09)
Magic Fingers (3:55)
Motorhead's Midnight Ranch (1:30)
Dew On The Newts We Got (1:10)
The Lad Searches The Night For His Newts (0:41)
The Girl Wants To Fix Him Some Broth (1:10)
The Girl's Dream (0:55)
Little Green Scratchy Sweaters & Courduroy Ponce (1:01)
Strictly Genteel (The Finale) (11:09) - related to Strictly Genteel

CD release:

Disc One
Semi-Fraudulent/Direct-From-Hollywood Overture (1:59)
Mystery Roach (2:32)
Dance Of The Rock & Roll Interviewers (0:48)
This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (prologue) (0:56)
Tuna Fish Promenade (2:30)
Dance Of The Just Plain Folks (4:40)
This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (reprise) (0:59)
The Sealed Tuna Bolero (1:41)
Lonesome Cowboy Burt (3:57)
Touring Can Make You Crazy (2:52)
Would You Like A Snack? (1:23)
Redneck Eats (3:02)
Centerville (2:31)
She Painted Up Her Face (1:42)
Janet's Big Dance Number (1:18)
Half A Dozen Provocative Squats (1:58)
Mysterioso (0:48)
Shove It Right In (2:33)
Lucy's Seduction Of A Bored Violinist & Postlude (4:02)

Disc Two
I'm Stealing The Towels (2:14)
Dental Hygiene Dilemma (5:11)
Does This Kind Of Life Look Interesting To You? (2:59)
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy (3:12)
Penis Dimension (4:37)
What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning (3:32)
A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes (1:09)
Magic Fingers (3:53)
Motorhead's Midnight Ranch (1:29)
Dew On The Newts We Got (1:09)
The Lad Searches The Night For His Newts (0:41)
The Girl Wants To Fix Him Some Broth (1:10)
The Girl's Dream (0:54)
Little Green Scratchy Sweaters & Courduroy Ponce (1:00)
Strictly Genteel (The Finale) (11:11) - related to Strictly Genteel
Bonus Tracks

CUT 1 "Coming Soon!..." (0:55)
CUT 2 "The Wide Screen Erupts..." (0:58)
CUT 3 "Coming Soon!..." (0:31)
CUT 4 "Frank Zappa's 200 Motels..." (0:13)
Magic Fingers (Single Edit) (2:56)
ENHANCED TRACK: Original Theatrical Trailer (31.3MB MPG file )

Frank Zappa (bass, guitar, producer, orchestration)
Mark Volman (vocals)
Howard Kaylan (vocals)
Jimmy Carl Black (vocals)
Jim Pons (vocals)
George Duke (trombone, keyboards)
Ian Underwood (keyboards, woodwind)
Ruth Underwood (percussion)
Aynsley Dunbar (drums)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fillmore East: June 1971

The musical relationships Frank Zappa had with other artists of his era were as varied as the rhythmic changes that occurred in many of his compositions. Eventually, I may touch on most of these connections when appropriate (such as I did with the “collaboration” Zappa had with Jack Bruce of Cream that I mention in my entry on the album “Apostrophe(‘)”). For now, one is very relevant, and that is the collaboration Zappa had with former members of The Turtles, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. Four significant recordings came out of this relationship (not in order): “Just Another Band From L.A.,” “200 Motels,” “Chunga’s Revenge,” and “Fillmore East: June 1971.”

Although the first Zappa album (or more accurately the first Mothers album) I listened to was “Absolutely Free,” it was “Fillmore East” that probably sealed my fate as a Zappa fan. Granted, this and the other Volman/Kaylan (who called themselves the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie) recordings have been relegated by most Zappaphiles to the bin of the overtly comedic enterprises Zappa was involved with, as well as labeled by many as juvenile and prurient in terms of their content, let’s face it: I was in junior high school when I first heard this album. It was content I was ready for. As the lyric states in “What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?”: You came to the right place/This is it/This is the swingingest place in New York City/No shit.

At the time, I was gleefully shocked by the explicit lyrics, as were probably many others. But there was a lot going on with these recordings musically, and that intrigued me as well. As simplistic and puerile as many of the pieces are, there are some outstanding live performances of Zappa’s work, such as “Willie the Pimp,” in which I think Zappa gets down so dirty and low with his guitar solo that it electrifies your skin. And the opening number, “Little House I Used to Live In,” is another showcase piece that Zappa includes in the show, perhaps, for members of the audience whose sole reason for attending may have been the comedic element presented by Flo and Eddie.

Their performance of “Happy Together” is classic, and a perfect segue into the final numbers that include “Lonesome Electric Turkey,” “Peaches en Regalia,” and “Tears Begin to Fall.” Interestingly, there is a bit of flash back to this song on the Buffalo CD.

Worthy of note here is the very contrary opinion expressed by Mark Prindle in his blog, who makes no pretense about how he feels regarding this and the other Flo & Eddie recordings. I provide the link for your edification

The Fillmore shows of 1971 were noted for another “appearance” that FZ did not press onto vinyl until “Playground Psychotics” was released in 1992, and that was when John Lennon and Yoko Ono joined Frank on stage during one of the shows. A reference to the event can be found at the blog Kill Ugly Radio. Photographic evidence of the event can be found here. Lennon released the live version of “Scumbag” he did with Frank on the later release “Sometime in New York City,” which is slightly different from the version from “Playground Psychotics.” You know Frank and the way he likes to mix things. Here is also an interesting transaction from an interview during which FZ explains what happened that night and subsequent developments. Below is a video from YouTube that shows a short, edited version of the appearance. A complete video of the appearance had been posted here, but was removed at the source because of a copyright infringement. Yoko was in perfect atonal screaming form.

A significant problem with the CD release of this recording is the fact that “Willie the Pimp Part 2” was omitted. With the album, sides 1 and 2 were transitioned by “Willie the Pimp” with Part 1 finishing side A and Part 2 picking up the transition on side 2. Why it was omitted with the CD release is inexplicable.

More information about Flo & Eddie can be found here, here, here and here.

Check out this blog about The Turtles.

I rate this recording three out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: Aug. 2, 1971, Bizarre/Reprise.

Album track listings:

Side one
"Little House I Used to Live In" - 4:58
"The Mud Shark" - 5:16
"What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?" - 4:51
"Bwana Dik" - 2:27
"Latex Solar Beef" - 4:22
"Willie the Pimp Part One" - 2:50
Side two
"Willie the Pimp Part Two" - 1:54
"Do You Like My New Car?" - 7:08
"Happy Together" (2:57)
"Lonesome Electric Turkey" - 2:34
"Peaches en Regalia" - 3:22
"Tears Began to Fall" - 2:46

Compact Disc

"Little House I Used to Live In" – 4:41
"The Mud Shark" – 5:22
"What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?" – 4:17
"Bwana Dik" – 2:21
"Latex Solar Beef" – 2:38
"Willie the Pimp, Pt. 1" – 4:03
"Do You Like My New Car?" – 7:08
"Happy Together" (Gary Bonner, Alan Gordon) – 2:57
"Lonesome Electric Turkey" – 2:32
"Peaches en Regalia" – 3:22
"Tears Began to Fall" – 2:45


Frank Zappa – guitar, vocals, dialogue
Aynsley Dunbar – drums
Bob Harris – keyboards, vocals
Howard Kaylan – vocals, dialogue
Jim Pons – bass, vocals, dialogue
Don Preston – Moog synthesizer
Ian Underwood – keyboards, vocals, woodwind
Mark Volman – vocals, dialogue

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Zappa followed “Over-nite Sensation” relatively quickly with “Apostrophe(‘),” an album that probably got the most radio play of his entire catalog. It went gold and sold more copies than the previous “Over-nite Sensation,” perhaps largely because the humor in the compositions was subtler than with previous material, as exemplified by the suite that opens the album.

Yes, suite. Despite being listed separately without any overt indication that they are connected, the first four tracks of the album are, indeed, one continuous piece. As Francois Couture explains in his review of the first song of the suite, “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow,” in the All Music Guide, the four-song suite (the other compositions include “Nanook Rubs It,” “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,” and “Father O’Blivion”) was always performed in its entirety whenever the group played live. Daniel Durchholz also identifies the four-song set as a suit in his review of the album in “Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide” published in 1996 and excerpted here.

I find interesting the hyperbole used to describe the album when it was released, particularly the Rolling Stone review by Gordon Fletcher published in the June 6, 1974, issue. “Songs like ‘Stink-Foot’ and ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’ again attest to Zappa’s abilities at contorting song forms to serve his distorted purposes: They’re a welcome reminder that comic lunacy is still alive and well.” The high praise the album received was, over time, gradually perceived with scorn by Zappaphiles, who again rejected the commercial success of the recording. Also, over time, the reviews of the album became more realistic in their assessment as the recording became compared with the rest of Zappa’s catalogue. The reviews that can be found in Prog show the wide variety of praise it received, from wildly positive to more muted respect.

Something unique with this album is the title track, “Apostrophe’.” This instrumental jam is both powerful in its performance and significant in the fact that the personnel involved were non-Mothers. This ad-hoc group of players included former Cream bassist Jack Bruce along with drummer Jim Gordon. One individual that does show up on other recordings with Zappa was rhythm guitarist Tony Duran. The song has an intense fuzz bass solo by Bruce that sears its way into your brain, leaving you in bewilderment. Contrasted with Zappa’s amazingly clean guitar work, the song leaves an indelible impression on the listener: its style is unique from anything else Zappa composed. And as far as I can tell, the recording found on this album is the only example of it you can find. Unless someone can provide some evidence to the contrary, I don’t think Zappa ever performed the song live. These facts lend meaning to the song’s title.

But there’s more to the story too. According to the Wikipedia entry on the album, while the collaboration may have been serendipitous, the experience was not mutually satisfying for either Zappa or Bruce. In fact, Bruce appears to deny he played the bass part on the track, despite him receiving credit on the album liner notes.

When we examine the definition of apostrophe – which includes the use as an indication of the omission of letters – the song of the same title can take on some explanation. It is a song that when placed within the context of the rest of the album shows a clear omission of both personnel normally associated with Zappa as well as a diversion from the album’s overall feel.

The song “Apostrophe’” is one of my all-time Zappa favorites. Another favorite on this album include “Uncle Remus,” a really beautiful bluesy ballad with George Duke’s extraordinary piano work. While “Cosmik Debris” is not considered officially part of the “Yellow Snow” suite, it does act as a thematic close to pieces composing the suite. It became a concert favorite on subsequent tours. “Stink-Foot,” however, despite its radio play and popularity, is to me the weakest composition on the album. Weakness, though, is relative.

I rate this recording with five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: April 22, 1974, DiscReet Records.

Track listings:

“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow" – 2:07
“Nanook Rubs It” – 4:38
“St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” – 1:50
“Father O’Blivion” – 2:18
“Cosmik Debris” – 4:14
“Excentrifugal Forz” – 1:33
“Apostrophe'” – 5:50
“Uncle Remus” – 2:44
“Stink-Foot” – 6:33


Frank Zappa – vocals, guitar, bass, bouzouki
Lynn – vocals, backing vocals
Kerry McNabb – backing vocals, engineer, remixing
Ian Underwood – saxophone
Ruth Underwood – percussion
Sal Marquez – trumpet
Sue Glover – backing vocals
Jim Gordon – drums
Aynsley Dunbar – drums
Tom Fowler – bass guitar
Napoleon Murphy Brock – saxophone, backing vocals
Robert “Frog” Camarena – vocals, backing vocals
Ruben Ladron de Guevara – vocals, backing vocals
Debbie – vocals, backing vocals
Tony Duran – rhythm guitar
Erroneous – bass guitar
Johnny Guerin – drums
Don “Sugarcane” Harris – violin
Ralph Humphrey – drums
Bob Ludwig – Technician
Jack Bruce – bass on “Apostrophe’” (see controversy presented above)
George Duke – keyboards, backing vocals
Bruce Fowler – trombone
Jean-Luc Ponty – violin
Cal Schenkel – artwork, graphic design
Barry Keene – engineer
Ferenc Dobronyl – cover design
Paul Hof – technician
Oscar Kergaives – technician
Brian Krokus – technician
Mark Aalyson – photography
Bob Stone – transfers, digital remastering
Steve Desper – engineer
Terry Dunavan – engineer
Zach Glickman – marketing
Bob Hughes – engineer

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

One Size Fits All

What on earth is a Florentine Pogen?

This is a conundrum that faces every listener of Zappa’s “One Size Fits All” as soon as the song titled as such begins. There is the initial, albeit superficial, conclusion that the subject of the song is connected somehow with the lore of Italy. After all, a Pogen is a member of the aristocratic class of Florence. But as this Web site reveals, a Florentine Pogen is also a cookie. And given Zappa’s quirkiness, we cannot ignore that possible influence in the song’s origin.

“One Size Fits All” is one of a series of albums released in the years after “The Grand Wazoo” that represent Zappa’s finest work. Zappa, having honed his compositional, recording and playing techniques during the fantastic jazz fusion period he went through during the late 60s and early 70s, took all that he had learned and brought together the brashness of rock music and the story-telling capabilities inherent in a Broadway musical. It kicked off with “Over-nite Sensation” to be followed with “Apostrophe,” and then “One Size Fits All.” This latter album was recorded over a period of five months from December 1974 to April 1975, but many of its songs were already in development. When I saw Zappa play at the field house at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich., on April 28, 1974, he played “Inca Roads.” In fact, I think he opened the show with that tune. I’m pretty sure he played “Titties and Beer” during that show as well, which would be contrary to what is posted about this song at the All Music Guide.

I still prefer the guitar solos on “Over-nite Sensation” primarily because of their sheer energy. But Zappa’s guitar work is brilliant on “One Size Fits All” as well, although I believe in a much more esoteric way than “Over-nite Sensation,” or even “Apostrophe” for that matter; in both those recordings, the guitar work was more mainstream, albeit brilliantly mainstream.

However, I would set myself up a fool if I were to ignore Zappa’s work on “One Size Fits All.” Let’s begin with the beginning and the solo on “Inca Roads.” Apparently, there are others, in addition to me, who think that solo is remarkable on many levels, including Steve Vai. Rhythmically, “Inca Roads” is extraordinarily complex with many abrupt interruptions that apparently frustrated band members like George Duke. But Zappa’s solo, recorded during a Helsinki concert, begins with an ethereal quality that musically combines the emotional opposites of suppression and expression. By the end, his guitar work sends the listener into the ether on a journey that comes very close to religious epiphany punctuated with staccato notes reaching to the quasars. And then there’s George Duke’s frenetic electric piano solo that captures so well the essence of a song that conjures cosmological imagery. The pace is captured vocally as well, juxtaposed with Ruth Underwood’s amazing marimba work. The song closes with an acknowledgement to Underwood’s performance with an “On Ruth, On Ruth, That’s Ruth!”

Initial releases of the album reportedly had a flaw within "Inca Roads" with a barely noticeable skip in the track. Once it was identified, those albums in circulation but unsold were recalled and replaced with corrected versions.

We next jump into “Can’t Afford No Shoes,” one of two rollicking numbers on the record that also includes “Andy.” This is great rock-n-roll with Zappa’s unmistakable flair. And, of course, this song has its own brilliant guitar playing, a bit of Delta blues that sounds like Frank is literally bending the neck on his axe. And there is the “big finish!”

“Sofa No. 1” is simply beautiful. So melodic and still so FZ. Full of bombastic Germanic structure that it almost drips Wagner, but pulled off with such smooth panache, it can bring me near to tears.

Then there’s “Po-Jama People,” which begins with a guitar riff that teases you, foreshadowing another solo that is destined to rip your ears off, ironic considering the song is about people who are boring and soporific.

I already covered the debutante daisy with the color note organ, although there is another inside joke within the song regarding Perellis, who is not a figure from Florentine legend but was Zappa’s manager at the time of the recording.

“Evelyn, A Modified Dog” remains one of my favorite Zappa songs because of its poetic brilliance. But then comes a song that contains a bit of personal arcana right out of Zappa’s life. That reference goes with the verse “Well there’s forty-four men stashed away in Tank C/And there’s only one shower/And it don’t apply to Bob-bee!” Zappa spent time in the San Bernardino County Jail after being convicted of a trumped up indecency charge in 1962.

I mentioned that “Andy” was another fun rollicking tune, although it starts a bit more grandiose than your basic rock-n-roll song. But after the initial question is asked of whether there is anything good inside of you, the guitar gets gritty. I really like this song because it goes to the heart of a belief that is very Buddhist, and that is there is nothing good inside of us. We are neutral. People, of course, misinterpret this notion and twist its expression to mean, well, if there’s nothing good inside of us, then what’s inside of us must be evil. But that is not at all what is being implied in the lyrics. It just means we are what we is, nothing else. By nature, we are very selfish creatures. It is through socialization that we are supposed to learn that by being nice to each other, we get along much better.

“Do you know what I’m really telling you? Is it something that you can understand?”

You have to love Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s vocals at the end of this tune as well, so visceral, so hair-raising, it’s delicious.

Then we have “Sofa No. 2,” with lyrics this time taking the notion that god is everything to its absurd conclusion, that god is the chrome dinette as well. And by the way, we are god’s sofa.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

This post was edited and new content added on Jan. 4, 2009.

Album release date: June 25, 1975, Warner DiscReet Records.

Song tracks:
Inca Roads - 8:45
Can't Afford No Shoes - 2:38
Sofa No. 1 - 2:39
Po-Jama People - 7:43
Florentine Pogen - 5:27
Evelyn, A Modified Dog - 1:04
San Ber'dino - 5:57
Andy - 6:03
Sofa No. 2 - 2:47

Frank Zappa - guitars, vocals
George Duke - keyboards, synthesizers, vocals
Napoleon Murphy Brock - flute, tenor sax, vocals
Chester Thompson - drums
Tom Fowler - bass
Ruth Underwood - percussion
James Youman - bass
Johnny "Guitar" Watson - flambe vocals
Bloodshot Rollin' Red (Captain Beefheart) – harmonica

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Over-nite Sensation

Despite what many Zappaphiles may say (and I know many will vehemently disagree with me), “Over-nite Sensation” is the best recording of his entire catalog. Period. And that says a lot because Zappa’s catalog is filled with great albums (check out was this blogger writes). But “Over-nite Sensation” succeeds in so many ways that the others do not.

For one thing, I believe this album has a secure spot among the greatest rock-n-roll albums ever recorded, at least of those I think ought to make that list. It is the epitome of his work in the same way “Who’s Next?” represents the epitome of a Who album, “Diesels and Dust” represents Midnight Oil, or “Nevermind” does for Nirvana. When you think of Carlos Santana, what album comes to mind? For me it’s “Abraxas.” These are albums that very few bands have, an album that pulls together everything about the artist that exists into one package that when you listen to it, no matter how many times, you still say “Wow!” at the end. There are artists that have plenty of great albums, but how many can say that there is one that fully captures the gut of who they are? Lou Reed had many superb albums, but for me, I can’t say that “Transformer” is definitively better than “Magic & Loss” or the Velvet Underground’s first album.

I do not fear the label “hyperbole” when I designate “Over-nite Sensation” to such a category. It truly stands far above anything else Zappa has produced. Consider its irony. The song “The Slime” takes a searing stab at television programming, yet he succeeded in playing the song on “Saturday Night Live.” I can remember watching the show when it aired in 1976, thrilled at the green slime oozing out of the monitors on stage while the song was performed.

Zappa in his autobiography endeavored to portray himself as an unexceptional guitar player, yet his solo on “Montana” is musically, structurally, technically and tonally the best recorded guitar solo I think I’ve ever heard. Better than Keith Richards during “Sympathy for the Devil” on “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!,” better than the guitar battle during “Oh Jim” on “Lou Reed Live,” better, I dare say, than Eric Clapton’s live performance of “Crossroads” on “Wheels of Fire.” And then there’s “Fifty-Fifty,” a song that many discount as being superfluous to the album’s other pieces. Yet again, the irony in the lyrics is palpable. If Alanis Morrisette wants to know what irony is, she needs to pay attention to this album!

Can I get back to the issue of guitar solos? “Zomby Wolf” is another example of Zappa’s god-like guitar work. As of this writing, I am 50 years old. And when I play both “Zomby Woof” and “Montana,” I have to crank the volume to levels that drive my neighbors to call the police. There are just a handful of songs that I do this with: “Sympathy for the Devil” from the Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!,” “Oh Jim” from “Lou Reed Live,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” from Humble Pie’s “Rockin’ the Fillmore,” (notice how many of these are from live recordings?) “Black Magic Woman,” from Santana’s “Abraxas,” and, believe it or not, the Edge’s guitar solo on “Exit” from U2’s “The Joshua Tree.”

OK, let me settle down. There are a lot of recorded guitar solos that get me cranked. But make no mistake, the Zappa solos on “Over-nite Sensation” are truly in a class among themselves.

There is another reason I consider this album to be the best among Zappa’s releases: it was musically accessible in a way that none of Zappa’s prior releases had been. From many Zappaphiles, accessibility is the kiss of death. This type of musical chauvinism really strikes me as not only ridiculous, but contrary to Zappa’s own professed thoughts. He wanted albums to be commercially successful. The fact that he expressed disappointment at how poorly “Hot Rats” did upon its release is a clear indication of this. His issue was with how the music industry tended to foster musical mediocrity. In no way did Zappa compromise his musical integrity and genius by producing “Over-nite Sensation.” He just happened to hit upon the right moment for his music to be heard. And heard it was.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

New content was added to this post on Jan. 4, 2009; the entry was edited with a video removed on May 31, 2009.

Album release date: Sept. 7, 1973, DiscReet Records.

Track listings:

"Camarillo Brillo" – 3:59
"I'm The Slime" – 3:34
"Dirty Love" – 2:58
"Fifty-Fifty" – 6:09
"Zomby Woof" – 5:10
"Dinah-Moe Humm" – 6:01
"Montana" – 6:35


Frank Zappa – guitar, vocals on all tracks except "Fifty-Fifty"
George Duke – synthesizer, keyboards
Bruce Fowler – trombone
Tom Fowler – bass
Ralph Humphrey – drums
Ricky Lancelotti – vocals on "Fifty-Fifty" and "Zomby Woof"
Sal Marquez – trumpet, vocals on "Dinah-Moe-Humm"
Jean-Luc Ponty – violin, baritone violin
Ian Underwood– clarinet, flute, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
Ruth Underwood – percussion, marimba, vibraphone
Kin Vassy – vocals on "I'm the Slime", "Dinah-Moe-Humm" and "Montana"
Tina Turner and the Ikettes - Backing vocals (uncredited)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hot Rats

Considering the variety, depth, complexity and originality of the music in Frank Zappa’s catalog, it can be very difficult to say with any certainty that this album or that album represents the best of his material. But certainly, in my view, the recordings released post “Uncle Meat” up to and through at least “Sheik Yerbouti” represent a period when Zappa was completing his best work. And this period of uncompromised and brilliant composing began with a burst upon the music scene: “Hot Rats,” released Oct. 10, 1969.

Ironically, Zappa considered “Hot Rats” to be a flop at the time of its release. In his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” Zappa explains, “The album, which I happened to like a lot, sneaked onto the Billboard charts somewhere around 99 and vanished immediately. In the United States, at least, I had produced another flop.” However, Zappa also notes that “Hot Rats” over time came to be considered among his best works. In his autobiography, he continues; “As it turned out, that album, as a catalog item, has outlived just about everything else released in 1970, and, for our beloved friends in the British Isles, stands out as the only ‘good’ Zappa album ever released….”

It also came at a time when Zappa was feeling very ambivalent about what kind of future a musician and composer could have with jazz. There’s another revealing snippet in his autobiography that he subtitles, “Jazz: The Music of Unemployment.” It briefly describes a short-lived jazz tour Zappa went on with Duke Ellington that was already ill-fated because of the dearth of adequate equipment and cash flow. “Before we went on, I saw Duke Ellington begging – pleading – for a ten-dollar advance.” That was enough for Zappa to drop out of the tour.

There is no doubt that a jazz influence, particularly that of the avant-garde, remained strong in Zappa’s subsequent works. But what is exceptional about “Hot Rats” is that was among the first (perhaps even the first) successful melding of jazz and rock. It is a searing recording and brought forward a new genre of music, simply called jazz-rock. “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny,” Zappa famously said during a lengthy performance of “Be-Bop Tango” in 1974.

Unsurprisingly, many have written about what makes “Hot Rats” hot. Was it the fantastic and almost spastic saxophone playing by Ian Underwood on “The Gumbo Variations”? The soaring electric violin by Sugarcane Harris? Captain Beefheart’s seemingly mentally deranged vocals (reminds me of a Howlin’ Wolf having a nervous breakdown) on “Willie the Pimp”? Zappa’s maniacal guitar solos? It’s really all of those items combined, and when you say that, it comes down to Zappa and his brilliant composing. Frank Zappa’s idea, brought to perfect fruition, is what makes this recording hot.

Reviews of the specific tracks on this recording frequently repeat each other’s praises. The one at Pigs & Sheeps is good. And a common accolade rightfully goes to Zappa’s guitar solo on “Willie the Pimp.” As one reviewer on puts it: “… the guitar solo that follows (Beefheart’s vocals) will take the roof off your head every time you hear it.”

Can Zappa be credited as being among the musical pioneers that made the “guitar solo” the ubiquitous feature of rock music that it is today? I think he can be, because at the time of this recording – the late 1960s – there weren’t a lot of extended guitar solos being made part of popular rock tunes. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton with Cream were doing it, as were others like Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac. But for the most part, guitar solos were more like punctuation marks in a song, rather than the thematic center of a song.

“I waited for records that had guitar solos on them, but they were always too short,” Zappa writes in his autobiography. “I wanted to play my own solos – long ones – so I taught myself how to play the guitar. I didn’t bother to learn any chords – just blues licks.” And the blues players that influenced his playing style were notably Guitar Slim, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Zappa gave the guitar solo a prominent position in most of his work, and despite his self-deprecating description of his own skill (“I still have to look down at the neck to see where my hand is when I’m playing,” he said in his autobiography), became a revered guitar player among many serious players of all skill-level (at least among those I met).

Worth noting about this recording: it is significantly different from the original vinyl release. It’s the same songs, but with the CD, Zappa was able to put together a lengthier version of “The Gumbo Variations,” using material that was cut from the vinyl. There are other, subtler differences as well that those thoroughly familiar with the original release will hear.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: Oct. 10, 1969, on the Bizarre/Reprise label.

Track listings:

LP version
Side one
Peaches en Regalia - 3:58
Willie the Pimp - 9:25
Son of Mr. Green Genes - 8:58

Side two
Little Umbrellas - 3:09
The Gumbo Variations - 12:55
It Must Be a Camel - 5:15

CD version
"Peaches en Regalia" – 3:38 (song sample, 670Kb)
"Willie the Pimp" – 9:16
"Son of Mr. Green Genes" – 9:00
"Little Umbrellas" – 3:04
"The Gumbo Variations" – 16:56
"It Must Be a Camel" – 5:15


Frank Zappa – Guitar, percussion, octave bass
Ian Underwood – organ, clarinet, flute, piano, saxophone

also featuring

Max Bennett – bass on all tracks except "Peaches en Regalia"
Captain Beefheart – vocals on "Willie the Pimp"
John Guerin – drums on "Willie the Pimp", "Little Umbrellas" and "It Must Be a Camel"
Don "Sugarcane" Harris – violin on "Willie the Pimp" and "The Gumbo Variations"
Paul Humphrey – drums on "Son of Mr. Green Genes" and "The Gumbo Variations"
Shuggie Otis – bass on "Peaches en Regalia"
Jean-Luc Ponty – violin on "It Must Be a Camel"
Ron Selico – drums on "Peaches en Regalia"
Lowell George - guitar (uncredited)
Harvey Shantz – Snorks

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Grand Wazoo

As I mentioned when I wrote about “Waka/Jawaka,” it was decades before I ever listened to “The Grand Wazoo,” despite the fact I saw it in stores at the time of its release. I admit my failing, that it was foolish and childish to let myself be influenced by such a banal reaction as what my friend displayed for me when I played “Waka/Jawaka” for him. In fact, I really didn’t give the recording a serious listen until about six years ago.

I know, you all want to flog me. There’s an appropriate cliché for such a situation, because my lateness to hearing this recording provided for me a breakthrough in how I viewed Zappa’s music. Ironic, isn’t it? Because I see “The Grand Wazoo” as a similar watershed moment in Zappa’s catalog, a moment when the musical instrumentation, themes and compositions he had been developing, starting perhaps with “Uncle Meat,” but definitely by the time of “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” and which exploded like a birthing star with “Hot Rats,” began to take shape with “Waka/Jawaka,” leading to a musical template that, in my opinion, mapped out the rest of Zappa’s compositions – excluding, perhaps, his more “classical” works. It’s as if “The Grand Wazoo” is Zappa’s own “Birth of the Cool.”

Let me explain.

The general concept of “The Grand Wazoo” to me is an awakening. And I don’t mean that thematically. I’m speaking metaphorically here. In the first song, the title track, we get a clear glimpse into Zappa’s future as he lays out a sound that will largely dominate the remainder of his recordings. Right away I hear glimpses into the future, including “Over-nite Sensation,” and “One Size Fits All.” The guitar solo is searing, yet rich in texture. We even get a little hint at how he would continue to use percussion instruments like the xylophone, particularly in “Apostrophe.” The instrumentation is more “musical,” yet still retains the playfulness that Zappa always had. His music was aurally and intellectually challenging, always throwing sounds and set pieces at you in such a way your listening reverie was suddenly disrupted and you had to ask, "Wait! What was that?" Zappa demanded engagement from his listeners – sometimes literally during his concerts when he encouraged “audience participation.” But it was always there in his musical presentation.

The second track, “For Calvin,” clearly appears to be a precursor to the later “Inca Roads,” with lyrics that seem to foreshadow the story line in the later release.

Zappa’s playfulness is fully apparent with the third track “Cletus Awreetus Awrightus.” Zappa uses his voice as an instrument, which is not so outlandish to think of “voice” as just another instrument. It’s a concept that Zappa remarks on in his autobiography. And I think too he may be testing out his vocal range following the assault in London when his larynx was damaged. He mentions in his autobiography that following the incident, his voice dropped two registers.

Then look out for “Eat That Question.” This heavy song reminds me initially of Deep Purple with the key boards during the opening, but when the theme comes in, it’s much more like Ten Years After from “Cricklewood Green.” But the soaring guitar solo is nothing that Alvin Lee would have done; it’s airiness is a perfect compliment to the heavy beat established when the song begins. Yet it concludes with, what I believe, to be a slight nod to Jimi Hendrix (not the song’s end, but the guitar solo’s end) from “Electric Ladyland” and “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently, Gently Away.”

An appropriate set up for the closure, “Blessed Relief,” which has set pieces that would repeatedly show up in variations in Zappa’s future recordings. It has a very Weather Report feel to it, though it will take me some time to nail down the recording I’m thinking of.

Be sure to read Crimhead420's post on this recording as well. I agree with his comments regarding Aynsley Dunbar's drumming on this album; Zappa comments in his autobiography on how difficult it has been to find a drummer who could keep up with his abrupt time changes, and Dunbar was among the best to play with Zappa.

It may have taken me decades to eventually listen to this recording, although I had heard bits and pieces of it in many of Zappa’s live recordings, but when I did, “The Grand Wazoo” proved for me to be the critical link between his recordings of the 1960s and those that followed.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your rating below.

This entry was edited and new content added on Jan. 10, 2009.

Album release date: December, 1972 on the Bizarre/Reprise label.

Song tracks:
1. The Grand Wazoo – 13:20
2. For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers) – 6:06
3. Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus – 2:57
4. Eat That Question – 6:42
5. Blessed Relief – 8:00

Frank Zappa – guitar, percussion, vocals
Mike Altschul – woodwind
Billy Byers – trombone
Chunky (Lauren Wood)– vocals
Lee Clement – percussion
George Duke – keyboards, vocals
Earl Dumler – woodwind
Aynsley Dunbar – drums
Tony Duran – guitar, bottleneck guitar
Erroneous (Alex Dmochowski) – bass
Alan Estes – percussion
Janet Neville-Ferguson – vocals
Fred Jackson, Jr. – woodwind
Sal Marquez – bass, trumpet, vocals, brass
Joanne Caldwell McNabb – vocals, brass, woodwind
Malcolm McNabb – trombone, horn, trumpet in D
Janet Neville-Ferguson – vocals
Tony Ortega – woodwind
Joel Peskin – saxophone, woodwind
Don Preston – Mini Moog
Johnny Rotella – woodwind
Ken Shroyer – trombone, brass, contractor and spiritual guidance
Ernie Tack – brass
Ernie Watts – tenor saxophone, C Melody Saxophone (the "Mystery Horn") solo on "Cleetus Awreetus Awritus", woodwinds
Robert Zimmitti – percussion

Related links:
Blind Janitor review of “The Grand Wazoo” Web site written in Israeli
The Legend of Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus & The Grand Wazoo, article by Frank Zappa