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

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