Saturday, March 14, 2009

Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Frank Zappa, when speaking about music critics in his autobiography, makes the perspicuous comment that, “There are several reasons why my music has never really been ‘explained’ in the press. For one thing, the people who write the articles don’t really care how it works or why it works.”

This brings to mind the comments by the self-titled “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau in reviewing several of Zappa’s releases. In particular, Christgau’s review of “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” which, ironically, and with some pretense, Christgau denotes with the grade of B+ while at the same time offering an apology for liking the recording. Just as Zappa had indicated, Christgau can’t explain why he likes the album, so he dismisses its accomplishment. I give you his terse “review” in its entirety:

“Talk about ‘montage’--the construction here is all juxtaposition, the composition all interruption. Together with some relatively straightforward instrumentals and ‘My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,’ the album’s two finest strokes--a metal remake of Little Richard’s ‘Directly From My Heart to You’ and ‘Oh No’ a devastating reply to ‘All You Need Is Love’--would make for a highly enjoyable album. But if Brecht considered pure enjoyment counterrevolutionary, Zappa considers it dumb—that’s why he breaks in constantly with dialogue and vocal or electronic sounds whose musical interest/value is essentially theoretical. I find most of these engaging enough to think I might want to listen again some day. But all that means is that I enjoy it, quite moderately, in spite of itself.”

I like “Weasels,” and I liked it from the first listen. And I have to admit, with what some may view as pretense of my own, that liking this album from the start sets me apart from a great many other Zappa fans who, while they like the album, had to let the compositions grow on them before they could call it a favorite. If I sound like a snob, I apologize, because that’s not my intent. It’s just that “Weasels” captured me from the first spin.

What’s not to like?

Right from its frenetic start with “Didja Get Any Onya?”, “Weasels” grabbed my attention. The free-flow, avant-garde style filled with time changes and wailing voices is magnificently intense with a clear structure beneath its seeming chaos. Interestingly, while this album was released after Zappa had hooked up with drummer Aynsely Dunbar, percussion on “Weasels” is accomplished by both Jimmy Carl Black and Art Tripp, who do an excellent job of not only maintaining sanity throughout all of Zappa’s instantaneous time signature switches, but of injecting a musical quality to the pieces as well that gives them personality and character.

Not surprisingly, a favorite among fans of this album is Zappa’s cover of the R.W. Penniman classic “Directly From My Heart to You.” I would be redundant in calling Sugar Cane Harris’ amazing violin on this song “searing” or “electrifying,” as practically everyone else who has written anything about this song has done the same. All I can add is that his playing not only makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, but makes it dance around my neck and back too. I dare say that Harris’ playing on this surpasses his amazing work on “Hot Rats.”

While some get put off by the vocalizations in “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask,” it’s all good to me. It’s worth pointing out that the subject of this most likely comes from Zappa’s childhood, as his father, then working for the military at a base where mustard gas was stored, had these devices at home in case of emergency.

I love the abrupt transition in “Toads of the Short Forest” from the introduction to the pounding drums and frenetic saxophone squawks. I have read comments by some who are annoyed by Zappa’s explanation of what’s going on, but unless you really are aware of what is happening, and most people’s musical “ear” is poorly trained, you wouldn’t necessarily know that all these time signatures are melding into one sound.

With “Get A Little,” we get Zappa’s signature guitar playing, beautifully intense and restrained at the same time, as only he could do. More superb avant-garde jazz comes with “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue,” followed by the somewhat manic, even Baroque sounding “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula,” which recalls recording and sound techniques that Zappa used in “We’re Only In It For the Money.”

Zappa returns to more familiar rock-n-roll techniques with “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” but even that has some wacky transitions that include electronic sounds ala Don Preston and flamenco-style acoustic guitar. And if “Oh No” sounds familiar, that’s because it the same melody that appeared on “Lumpy Gravy,” but now adorned with lyrics. It seamlessly transitions into the similarly sounding “The Orange County Lumber Truck,” easily leading some to think they are still hearing “Oh No.”

Zappa closes the album with the title track, a wall of overpowering noise and feedback, calling forth the violent image in the album cover art, which was inspired by an image of equal violence, at least for that era.

There is a string at ARF that provides information on a 1956 magazine article titled “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” Of all things, the story was about a Connecticut duck farmer who fights a swarm of weasels that have been eating his ducks. The magazine cover grabbed Zappa’s attention, who took it to artist Neon Park, allegedly saying to him, “This is it. What can you do that is worse than this?” Park has done album art for many musicians and groups, ranging from Little Feat to David Bowie.

There was a 1979 movie titled “Weasels Rip My Flesh,” about which a reviewer at the Internet Movie Database wrote that it was probably the worst movie ever made. But Joseph Ziemba at Bleeding Skull calls the movie “a chance discovery of the greatest home movie ever made.” I have no opinion as I have not seen the movie.

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

A new link was added to this post on April 4, 2009.

Released: Aug. 10, 1970, Bizarre/Reprise

Track listing:

Side one
"Didja Get Any Onya?" (live) – 3:42 (6:51 on the CD version)
Includes 'Charles Ives', and only on the compact disc re-issue, 'The Jelly'
"Directly from My Heart to You" (Richard Wayne Penniman) – 5:16
"Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask" (live) – 3:47
"Toads of the Short Forest" – 4:47
"Get a Little" (live) – 2:31

Side two
"The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" – 6:52
"Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula" – 2:12
"My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" – 3:32
"Oh No" – 1:45
"The Orange County Lumber Truck" (live) – 3:21
"Weasels Ripped My Flesh" (live) – 2:08


Frank Zappa – lead guitar, vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – drums
Ray Collins – vocals
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals
Bunk Gardner – tenor sax
Lowell George – rhythm guitar, vocals
Don "Sugarcane" Harris – vocals, electric violin
Don Preston – organ, electronic effects
Buzz Gardner – trumpet and flugel horn
Motorhead Sherwood – baritone saxophone, snorks
Art Tripp – drums
Ian Underwood – alto saxophone

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Cruising with Ruben and the Jets

It’s no secret that Frank Zappa was a fan of doo-wop. Almost every album has at the least one song dedicated to this genre. Early in his career, Zappa dedicated an entire album to this musical style, the LP that came to be known as “Cruising with Ruben and the Jets.”

I resisted for years buying this album. While I have enjoyed Frank’s occasional forays into this 1950’s musical take on rock and rhythm and blues, I had significant doubts about dedicating an entire album to the over-the-top crooning and love hyperbole that Zappa’s take on the music would include. But if I really wanted to consider myself a serious Zappa aficionado, I would need to add “Ruben” to my collection.

Oh well. I have it and I’ve listened to it once. Alright, so I listened to it again just for this post. But to say the least, it is not among my favorites. I listen to it even less than “Fillmore East.” However, because I waited so long to purchase this, I bought the CD release, which may have something to do with my dislike for this album (more later).

It’s really amazing what people will say about this recording. For example, someone wrote for the Wikipedia entry on the album that it “touched off the rock-and-roll revival movement,” giving the allusion that the album could be credited with inspiring the formation of Sha-Na-Na, and assisting with Bo Diddley’s comeback.

Yet, despite all the accolades by posters at Kill Ugly Radio, good reviews by folks like Mark Prindle, and other laudatory comments by those praising the album, “Ruben” gets just three stars in the All Music Guide and 5.38 stars out of 10 from the 42 folks who rated the recording for KUR. So it appears that people like to say they love this album, but when it’s stacked up against all of Zappa’s other releases, all that praise just turns out to be murmurs in the wind.

That’s not to say there aren’t any noteworthy points of interest contained within “Ruben.” The song “Love of My Life” became a standard during Zappa live shows, an outstanding rendition of which shows up on “Tinsel Town Rebellion.” And then with “I’m Not Satisfied,” Zappa takes doo-wop’s dolorous sound and matches with it hopeless lyrics about suicide. “Later That Night” contains a quote from “Glory of Love” by The Velvetones. “You Didn’t Try to Call Me” also became a concert staple.

But what really has a lot of Zappaphiles in a dither is the fact that Frank re-worked the original tapes in 1984 and re-released a different version from the vinyl on CD. Frank reportedly stated that all he did was re-record the bass and drum sections, but this article found on the Internet seems to dispute that assertion. And this link is to another article in which Zappa explains his reasoning for re-doing the tapes: his most significant rationale being that the original tapes had oxidized so bad that you could see through them. Take the time to read the information in the two aforementioned links; it’s worth the time.

What ever his reason for doing so, Zappa’s re-recording the “Ruben” tapes, as well as “We’re Only In It For The Money,” irked a lot of Zappa fans. It’s more evidence, in my opinion, that despite Zappa’s musical genius, his word as the final word is not always the right word. This notion that whatever he said about his music is sacrosanct is really a bit timid in my view. The bottom line is he made some bad decisions on his own, that it wasn’t always the record companies or musicians, or some other factor. Sometimes it was just him.

I rate this recording three out of five stars. Add your own rating below. By the way, don’t forget to read “The Story of Ruben and the Jets.”

Released: Dec. 2, 1968, Verve/Bizarre.


Side one
"Cheap Thrills" (Zappa) - (2:20)
"Love of My Life" (Zappa) - (3:17)
"How Could I Be Such a Fool" (Zappa) - (3:33)
"Deseri" (Buff, Collins) - (2:04)
"I'm Not Satisfied" (Zappa) - (3:59)
"Jelly Roll Gum Drop" (Collins) - (2:17)
"Anything" (Collins,Zappa) - (3:00)

Side two
"Later That Night" (Zappa) - (3:04)
"You Didn't Try to Call Me" (Zappa) - (3:53)
"Fountain of Love" (Zappa) - (2:57)
"No. No. No." (Zappa) - (2:27)
"Anyway The Wind Blows" (Zappa) - (2:26)
"Stuff Up The Cracks" (Zappa) - (4:29)


"Cheap Thrills" (Zappa) – 2:39
"Love of My Life" (Zappa) – 3:08
"How Could I Be Such a Fool?" (Zappa) – 3:34
"Deseri" (Buff, Collins) – 2:08
"I'm Not Satisfied" (Zappa) – 4:08
"Jelly Roll Gum Drop" (Zappa) – 2:24
"Anything" (Collins) – 3:05
"Later That Night" (Zappa) – 3:00
"You Didn't Try to Call Me" (Zappa) – 3:57
"Fountain of Love" (Collins, Zappa) – 3:22
"No. No. No." (Zappa) – 2:15
"Any Way the Wind Blows" (Zappa) – 3:01
"Stuff Up the Cracks" (Zappa) – 4:36


Frank Zappa – guitar, keyboards, sound effects, vocals, bass, drums
Jimmy Carl Black – guitar, percussion, drums, rhythm guitar
Ray Collins – guitar, vocals
Roy Estrada – bass, electric bass, sound effects, vocals, voices
Bunk Gardner – alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
Don Preston – bass, piano, keyboards
Jim Sherwood – guitar, vocals, wind
Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood – baritone saxophone, tambourine
Art Tripp – guitar, rhythm guitar
Ian Underwood – guitar, piano, keyboards, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, wind
Arthur Barrow – bass on Old Masters and compact disc versions (uncredited on CD)
Chad Wackerman – drums on Old Masters and compact disc version (uncredited on CD)
Jay Anderson - string bass on Old Masters and compact disc version (uncredited)