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