Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Burnt Weeny Sandwich

I have my brother John to thank for much of my early exposure to Frank Zappa. It was his copy of “Absolutely Free” that I listened to back in 1968 when I was 10 years old that first opened my ears to Zappa’s music (That album was released in 1967, so I might have been 9, but my “memory” suggests I was 10 at the time). Another album among the earlier ones I was exposed to was “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” which was released in 1970, but which I probably hadn’t listened to for the first time until about 1972.

There is always a story behind a name, whether it’s the name of a band or a song or an album. The story regarding “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” isn’t a story per se, but more of a deduction, and the best explanation I’ve found is in the Wikipedia entry for this album.

The two songs providing the “bread” in this tasty treat are the doo-wop singles “WPLJ” and “Valarie.” Zappa was significantly influenced by the doo-wop sound he grew up with in the 1950s, but not in a manner many might think. Others who may be influenced by a particular genre or sound will strive to emulate that “sound,” and the style as well, with an homage to it, a respectful homage. Zappa’s frequent inclusion of doo-wop songs in his catalog is such an homage, but one that is not entirely respectful. It’s more like how Mozart would expertly be able to play the music of his contemporaries, but because he recognized his own compositions to be superior, he would add a bit of his own personality to these pieces (yes, it is a bit self-absorbed). These additions did two things: made the original composition more interesting and made fun of it at the same time. The only way you can really do this successfully is to clearly know the genre you are about to satirize. Zappa clearly knew and understood doo-wop, so he was able to expertly eviscerate it musically in a very successful and entertaining manner.

That’s why, to me, the inclusion of the two doo-wop songs on this album are necessary; they provide the context for the more involved and complex pieces in between. It’s like he’s saying, “This is where music has been going, and this is where it can go.”

As to the rest of the album, I think the review on Amazon.com written by John Stodder covers the album pretty well, if you get past the first two paragraphs. But be sure to take a look at this post by Crimhead420 as well. All that’s left, then, are my own memories of this album. And these memories are profound.

There were many times when I was in my early teens I would don the headphones and listen to this album, mesmerized by Ian Underwood’s brilliant piano playing. I was particularly enthralled by his closing of “Aybe Sea.” It was so haunting, it pulled at me as the piano faded into the background, as though I was departing, leaving the notes of the music behind me as a rocket would leave the Earth. I know, it sounds pretty odd, but as a young teen, this music really did provide an intellectual escape that I couldn’t get enough of. And every time I listened to “Holiday In Berlin,” both the overture and “Full-Blown,” the music inspired my imagination to dream of things like a holiday in Berlin, or anywhere. I can’t forget, of course, when Sugarcane Harris enters on “Little House I Used to Live In.” To fail to mention that would be inexcusable.

This album may be like the Hebrew sausage that comprised the “burnt weeny sandwich” that Zappa used to eat in that it includes a conglomeration of melodies, set pieces and other musical intrigues that may have been “left over,” but his tying them all together into the dramatic progression of tunes that he did remains one of my favorites of the Zappa catalogue. It is a tasty sucker.

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

New content was added to this post on Jan. 10, 2009.

Album release date: Feb. 9, 1970, on the Bizarre/Reprise label.

Track listings:

1. WPLJ (2:52)
2. Igor’s Boogie, Phase One (0:36)
3. Overture To A Holiday In Berlin (1:27)
4. Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich (4:32)
5. Igor’s Boogie, Phase Two (0:36)
6. Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown (6:24)
7. Aybe Sea (2:46)
8. The Little House I Used to Live In (18:41)
9. Valarie (3:15)

Frank Zappa – organ, guitar, vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – percussion, drums
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals
Gabby Furggy – vocals
Bunk Gardner – horn, wind
Lowell George – guitar
Don “Sugarcane” Harris – violin, vocals
Don Preston – bass, piano, keyboards
Jim Sherwood – guitar, vocals, wind
Art Tripp – drums
Ian Underwood – guitar, piano, keyboards, wind

Related links:
An interesting, but not quite complete, site regarding Don “Sugarcane” Harris
Lyrics to WPLJ
A Frank Zappa cover band that goes by the album’s name

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