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