Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Studio Tan

“Studio Tan” is a studio album that Frank Zappa released that largely features leftovers from other releases that were either withheld because Zappa had second thoughts, or because he faced resistance from the record companies. The latter issue largely concerns Zappa’s original vision for “Lather.” But even that is open to debate. However, my blog is not to sort through, nor clarify, the legal issues, obstacles, problems and shenanigans that Zappa faced during the mid- to late-1970s when his recording and production efforts were gradually morphing into a completely independent company and publishing firm.

It’s about the music. And the most important observation that can be made about “Studio Tan” can be summed up in one song title: “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary.” There’s a lot going on in this piece, and its sheer brilliance makes purchasing “Studio Tan” worth the price.

To begin with, “Greggery Peccary” is an immense musical piece, filled with complexity that calls forth images within the listener to match the comedic story line. It’s literally like a cartoon, but unlike any cartoon you have likely seen. And to liken this opus to a cartoon in no way besmirches its brilliance. This is no child’s cartoon; this ain’t Bugs Bunny. I find it rather amazing that this item was initially created with the thought that it would be performed as a ballet. Unsurprisingly, however, the piece is filled with classic “project/object” references from Zappa’s catalog, including “Billy the Mountain” and “Big Swifty.” There’s also a reference to the “short forest,” which alludes to “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”

Despite the cartoonish nature of the composition, the seriousness is not lost, particularly with the “fourth movement,” which introduces the “New Brown Clouds” theme in all its gloriousness. This particular track appears also on the bootleg “Great Wazoo EP,” as well as the official release of “Wazoo!” covering the Grand Wazoo form of the touring band (The bootleg has only this fourth movement, while “Wazoo!” has the entire “Greggery Peccary.”)

After all this musical brilliance comes the rest of the album, which unfortunately launches into the inane “Let Me Take You to the Beach.” I mean, gee, after the sublime “Gregerry Peccary,” we get a cheesy song with lyrics like, “Eat a candy!/You are dandy!/Can I kiss you?/Maybe I’ll just hold your hand-dee!” Not one of Frank’s better compositions. “Wowie Zowie” from “Freak Out!” had more class than this.

Next comes “Revised Music for Guitar and Low Budget Orchestra” (which is in reverse order on the CD release). This has a very nice piano set piece early on by George Duke, but the piece is largely guitar-centric, despite a brief march-style segue about two minutes into the song. This is followed by a guitar theme that is very reminiscent of “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.” Just before the five-minute mark on this song, the sound takes on a very large feel, with a big band style in the likeness of “The Grand Wazoo.” This is good stuff. Interestingly, the composition also goes by the title “Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra,” with uncredited strings coming in toward the end.

“RDNZL” comes in to finish the album, a piece that has also appeared as “Redunzel” on the Beat the Boots release of “Piquantique,” and as “RDUNZL” on the LP release of this recording. This has a pretty decent guitar solo reminiscent of the style found on “One Size Fits All,” although it was written in 1972. Incidentally, RDNZL is a constellation in the “universe” of “One Size Fits All.” Check the original album cover. There’s been wide speculation as to what the title means or implies. Zappa allegedly has said it had something to do with the sequence of gears on an automatic. I think he was joking and nobody got it, especially Warner Bros., which changed the title to “Redunzel.”

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

Released Sept. 15, 1978; DiscReet Records.

LP release:

Side One
Greggery Peccary (20:40)

Side Two
Let Me Take You To The Beach (2:44)
Revised Music For Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra (7:36)
REDUNZL (8:12)

CD release:

The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary (20:35)
Revised Music For Guitar And Low Budget Orchestra (7:37)
Lemme Take You To The Beach (2:45)
RDNZL (8:14)


Frank Zappa – guitar, vocals, percussion
George Duke – keyboards
John Berkman – piano
Michael Zearott – conductor
Pamela Goldsmith – viola
Murray Adler – violin
Sheldon Sanov – violin
Jerry Kessler – cello
Edward Meares – bass guitar
Bruce Fowler – trombone
Don Waldrop – trombone
Jock Ellis – trombone
Dana Hughes – bass trombone
Earle Dumler – oboe
JoAnn Caldwell – McNab bassoon
Mike Altschul – flute
Graham Young – trumpet
Jay Daversa – trumpet
Malcolm McNab – trumpet
Ray Reed – flute
Victor Morosco – saxophone
John Rotella – woodwind instruments
Alan Estes – percussion
Emil Richards – percussion
Tom Fowler – bass guitar
Chester Thompson – drums
Davey Moire – vocals
Eddie Jobson – keyboards, yodeling
Max Bennett – bass guitar
Paul Humphrey – drums
Don Brewer – bongos
James "Bird Legs" Youmans – bass guitar

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Ahoy, Rotterdam, May 24, 1980

This little gem I recently stumbled upon and was delighted at the sound quality, given that it is a bootleg. This was taken from a Dutch FM radio program, and, as it is with many bootlegs, appeared on the market in a variety of forms, often with erroneous information.

This site identifies the variety of bootleg incarnations – “Boot the Beats” being just one – the concert showed up as, including an item that incorrectly lists this concert as occurring on June 24, 1980. Even the “Boot the Beats” item contains misleading information, suggesting it was recorded in New York. Several sites note that the guitar solo during “The Illinois Enema Bandit” was interrupted on many of these boots; however, the one I listened to has a full guitar solo as far as I can tell, because the recording ends with the radio show outtake. After reviewing all these sites and the set lists put together by others, I’ve concluded that the concert recorded for the radio show was from May 24, 1980.

Zappa writes in his autobiography about working in The Ahoy, although not necessarily about this particular concert. He identifies this experience he writes about in “The Real Frank Zappa Book” as his “orchestral stupidity #2.” It was 1980 and he states that he was in Amsterdam at the time when he was propositioned on working with a few Dutch ensembles to perform his orchestral work.

Knowing the complexity of his work, Zappa demurred, saying that he didn’t want to have anything to do with the project unless he would be guaranteed a minimum of three weeks of rehearsal time. He got that commitment, as well as assurances that he wouldn’t have to spend any of his own money to pull it off.

On page 148, Zappa describes The Ahoy as “a charming sort of Dutch indoor bicycle racing arena with a concrete floor and a banked wooden track all around the room.” On page 149 he gives a timeline of the rehearsals, which were mixed in with a rock tour he would plan for the summer throughout Europe to raise money to pay the American musicians involved in the project. The final rehearsals were to occur in the final weeks of May just before the performance.

This site shows that Zappa played in Rotterdam on May 24, 1980, the only identified show in The Netherlands in May that year (note also that on June 24, 1980, he was traveling between shows in Germany, and would have no opportunity to do a live show in New York City as referenced on the boot cover I have posted). That was the rock concert recorded for Dutch radio and which was pressed into boots. The day before he performed in Brussels, Belgium; two days after the gig at The Ahoy, he was in Germany where he gave three concerts for three days in a row in three different locations. He was pretty busy until early July with the rock tour he put together, so it’s difficult to determine precisely when this meeting in Amsterdam occurred (he was very busy touring through the U.S. during April). But all that is moot because the orchestral project completely fell apart and Zappa writes in his autobiography that he pulled the plug on it.

The show at The Ahoy was performed by a relatively small band by Zappa standards, and has some really good guitar solos by the master. That is evident with the concert starting off with the guitar-centric “Chunga’s Revenge.” Zappa’s solo is – using a word frequently cited to describe his playing – blistering. There is a bit of angry energy in it, and given the circumstances outlined above, I must wonder how much of that he transferred into his playing. After some brief introductions, he quickly launches into a couple songs from “Joe’s Garage,” including the dreamy guitar piece “Outside Now.” In fact, not surprisingly, the concert pulls material from several albums released at the time, including “Tinsel Town Rebellion,” to be released the following year, “Sheik Yerbouti,” and “You Are What You Is.” The performance of “City of Tiny Lights” on this boot is just OK to me, except for the guitar solo, which pulls it out of mediocrity. I don’t care much for Tommy Mars’ keyboards on this one; very uninspired. Of course, one must consider the fact that Mars is compensating for the lack of a horn section on this particular tour.

Following a perfunctory performance of “Teenage Wind,” we get the heavy, boogie-ish “Bamboozled by Love,” which had plenty of potential, but again gets marred by Mars’ keyboards. Makes me wonder why the song was included in the set because it would have sounded so much better backed by a strong horn section. Thank god for Zappa’s guitar coming in and re-inserting the heavy rock feel into this. He pulls off a bit of outside, atonal playing that grinds power into the song. Ike Willis, however, sounds a bit anemic. After “Pick Me I’m Clean” comes “Society Pages”, which quickly segues into “I’m A Beautiful Guy,” and then “Beauty Knows No Pain.” This “suite” from “You Are What You Is” is concluded with “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth.”

Zappa goes a bit retro with his next group of songs, reaching slightly into the past with “Cosmik Debris,” (which really suffers from the lack of Ruth Underwood) from “Apostrophe(‘),” but going way back to “Freak Out!” for “You Didn’t Try to Call Me” and “I Ain’t Got No Heart.” Not sure who’s playing the guitar solo on this performance of “Cosmik Debris.” It’s an excellent soaring blues interpretation of the song that lacks Zappa’s signature style, which leads me to think it was either Willis or Ray White. Disc One is completed with “Love of My Life,” from “Cruising with Ruben and the Jets.”

Disc Two returns the show to more contemporary selections from Zappa’s catalog, starting with the title track from “You Are What You Is.” There’s nothing remarkable about this performance; in fact, the musicians sound like they’re just going through the motions. Things perk up when the group launches into “Joe’s Garage.” The concert appears to end after “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee,” but an encore quickly develops with “Dancin’ Fool.” Something to note: When Zappa at the end of the show is re-introducing band members, he repeats Ray White’s name several times as though he was being introduced again and again as different individuals. Was Zappa playing with the fact that the band he was touring with was considerably smaller than what he normally travels with?

With “Dancin Fool,” the band manages to use its small size to its advantage. That song is followed by “Bobby Brown,” also from “Sheik Yerbouti.” In both songs, Zappa delivers well with his vocals. Even “Ms. Pinky” comes off well despite it’s missing the extraordinarily fuzzed and heavy guitar and bass from “Zoot Allures.” This boot also has one of the few pre-release recordings of a live performance of “I Don’t Want To Get Drafted.” The show finishes with “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” in a great performance with Ray White’s vocals and with Zappa’s guitar work. Zappa’s solo is searing in its precision. He gave the crowd at The Ahoy that night a real gift with that solo.

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

I did some light editing on this post on May 26, 2009.
Frank Zappa: The Ahoy, Rotterdam NL, May 24, 1980

Disc One
01. Chunga's Revenge
02. Keep It Greasey
03. Outside Now
04. City Of Tiny Lights
05. Teenage Wind
06. Bamboozled By Love
07. Pick Me I'm Clean
08. Society Pages
09. I'm A Beautiful Guy
10. Beauty Knows No Pain
11. Charlie's Enormous Mouth
12. Cosmik Debris
13. You Didn't Try To Call Me
14. I Ain't Got No Heart
15. Love Of My Life

Disc Two
01. You Are What You Is
02. Easy Meat
03. Joe's Garage
04. Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?
05. (crowd)
06. Dancin' Fool
07. Bobby Brown
08. Ms. Pinky
09. (crowd)
10. I Don’t Want to Get Drafted
11. The Illinois Enema Bandit
12. (radio outro)


Frank Zappa, lead guitar, vocals
Ike Willis, guitar, vocals
Tommy Mars, keyboards and vocals
Arthur “Tink” Barrow, bass
Ray White, guitar and vocals
David Logeman, drums

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Zappa in New York

Frank Zappa was well-known for inserting enigmatic references to all types of “relevant” musical and lyrical material into his music. These arcane references could be lyrics that either recall previously released material, or even foreshadow material that was yet to be produced. It can be references to other works by other composers; references to current events; historical figures; places and people from his personal past.

The 1978 live recording “Zappa in New York” is a good example of how Zappa wove outside influences into his music, as well as a prime example of how easy it can be to over-read inferences into his material. Case in point: the first track on the release, “Titties & Beer.”

The discussion on this song at the Web site Arf alludes to a connection between “Titties & Beer” and “L'histoire du Soldat,” an old Russian folk tale that Igor Stravinsky had set to music. While the connection is plausible, perhaps it is more likely that Zappa just took the libretto from “L'histoire du Soldat” and altered it in his own twisted way. The song is among his better comedic material, showing much more imagination musically than much of the previous comedic material he composed with Flo & Eddie (see “Fillmore East: June 1971” and “Just Another Band From L.A.”) While the Flo & Eddie material became quite tiresome at times, “Titties & Beer” has an engaging, albeit old-as-the-hills, story line that is carried by truly astounding music.

When I bought the LP the year it was released, the next track was “I Promise Not To Come in Your Mouth.” However, the CD version of this release gives us a much broader experience of the concerts it was taken from, a series of shows between Christmas and New Year’s in 1976 at the Palladium in New York City. On the CD, the second track is an instrumental version of “Cruising for Burgers,” which first appeared on “Uncle Meat.”

The LP release I purchased in 1978 didn’t have “Punky’s Whips,” but this is a great addition to the CD release. First you’ve got Don Pardo introducing the song. Pardo was gigging with “Saturday Night Live,” and Zappa had guest-hosted the show in 1976, as well as appeared as its musical guest. It was a brilliant show because he played “The Slime,” a superb coup to the inanity of broadcast television. Zappa re-wrote a portion of the song for Pardo to be performed on the show, and apparently a musical relationship was struck, leading to Pardo joining Zappa at the Palladium.

Let’s recall the era. In 1976, the sexual revolution in America was reaching its, err, climax, as was the gay movement. Sexual freedom was so prevalent – as was the androgyny of the time exemplified by such musical artists as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Brian Eno – that it was not uncommon for straight guys to take a walk on the wild side from time to time. So the story line in “Punky’s Whips” is quite plausible: a self-professed straight man develops a sexual obsession for glam rock star famous for his pouty lips. Not that Terry Bozzio (Zappa’s drummer at the time and the target of the song) himself had a true yen for a sexual liaison with Punky Meadows of the glam band Angel; rather, Frank was using as his story-telling vehicle that element of bisexuality that briefly showed its face before the advent of AIDS. After all, Bozzio sings quite plainly that “I ain’t really queer.” Zappa’s intent for the song was strictly to zing Meadows for his outrageous pout.

The Washington City Paper in 2002 reported that most of Angel’s members didn’t like Zappa’s song so much, temporarily blocking its release on the original vinyl version that was pressed. But Punky Meadows told the reporter that he was flattered by the song. “I thought it was cool. Frank is very satirical, so you can’t have a thin skin. I found it kind of flattering.”

Good for you Punky.

Next comes “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?”, but let’s move on to the last song on the first CD; “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Reality makes its way into the Zappa catalog, as Don Pardo sets the story line. I like how this is set to a traditional blues style, as this makes the song. And I also really like the lyric, “The Illinois enema bandit/I heard he’s on the loose!” While the rest of the song is explicit in its content, the double entendre in this lyric is beautiful. Zappa, also, takes the traditional blues style to exciting new extremes with his guitar solo, coupled with seamless time changes managed expertly by Bozzio’s drumming.

The true Illinois enema bandit was a man named Michael Kenyon, who, for approximately 10 years, had committed a series of robberies during which he also gave his female victims enemas. According to Neil Slaven’s book, “Electric Don Quixote,” Zappa reveals that he first heard about the enema bandit from a radio news report while travelling after a gig that was in Normal, Ill.

The end of the song is filled with several “project/object” references, such as when Ray White sings that he “ain’t talkin’ bout Fontana,” an allusion to Potato-headed Bobby, a character who first appeared on the album “One Size Fits All” in the song “San Ber’dino.” And just before the finish, Zappa brings in a reference from the “Freak Out!” album with a bit from the “It Can’t Happen Here” section of the song “Help, I’m A Rock.”

By the time I heard the album “Apostrophe(‘)” I was recognizing how Zappa continually referenced other material from his catalog. While I knew the references were intentional, I didn’t know the reason behind them. Consider what he says in his autobiography:

“Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’”

There are many other good songs on this recording. When first released on vinyl, this was the recording that debuted “Big Leg Emma,” a song originally recorded to appear on “Absolutely Free,” and which appeared later in the CD release of that album. Personally, I’m glad it was not released with “Absolutely Free.” The song works well on the New York album, but is really out of place on the former.

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

Album release date: March 1978, Warner/Discreet Records.

Original vinyl release:

Side One
Titties & Beer (5:31)
I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth (3:31)
Big Leg Emma (2:09)

Side Two
Sofa (3:15)
Manx Needs Women (1:39)
The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1 (4:06)
Black Page #2 (5:25)

Side Three
Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me? (4:18)
The Illinois Enema Bandit (12:09)

Side Four
The Purple Lagoon (16:20)

CD release:

Disc One
Titties & Beer (7:36)
Cruisin' For Burgers (9:12) - bonus track
I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth (3:32)
Punky's Whips (10:50)
Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me? (4:12)
The Illinois Enema Bandit (12:42)

Disc Two
I'm The Slime (4:24) - bonus track
Pound For A Brown (3:41) - bonus track
Manx Needs Women (1:50)
The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1 (3:50)
Big Leg Emma (2:17)
Sofa (2:56)
Black Page #2 (5:36)
The Torture Never Stops (12:35) - bonus track
The Purple Lagoon/Approximate (16:41)


Frank Zappa (conductor, lead guitar, vocals)
John Bergamo (percussion overdubs)
Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals)
Mike Brecker (tenor sax, flute)
Randy Brecker (trumpet)
Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax, clarinet)
Eddie Jobson (keyboards, violin, vocals)
Tom Malone (trombone, trumpet, piccolo)
Ed Mann (percussion overdubs)
Lou Marini (alto sax, flute)
Lou Anne Neill (osmotic harp overdubs)
Patrick O'Hearn (bass, vocals)
Don Pardo (sophisticaded narration)
David Samuels (timpani, vibes)
Ruth Underwood (percussion, synthesizer)
Ray White (rhythm guitar, vocals)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Great Wazoo EP

Both the Grand and Petit Wazoo tours in the fall of 1972 went without any official releases of any of the shows until January 2006 when “Imaginary Diseases” was released representing the Petit Wazoo, and November 2007 when “Wazoo!” was released to represent the Grand Wazoo tour. So for 34 years, Zappaphiles had to rely on bootleg releases to get anything on the tour, which covered mostly the U.S., but had three gigs in Europe. And the price tag on the “official” releases proved to be a shocker for more than just a few fans: $30 for the latter release ($26.99 at Amazon.com).

One of those bootlegs is the “Great Wazoo EP”, which appears to be a recording from the Sept. 15, 1972, show at Deutschlandhalle in Berlin. That conclusion is based on a number of somewhat conflicting factors. The cover art of the EP explicitly states it was recorded at this show. The only other European venues on the tour were in London and the Netherlands. The Grand Wazoo tour schedule here indicates that there was a stop on this date at the identified venue, as does this site. This information seems to outweigh the text on the EP cover, which identifies it as a recording of the Petit Wazoo tour (the EP’s title is “Frank Zappa & the Petit Wazoo Orchestra”) rather than the Grand Wazoo, as well as the inconsistencies in the set list established for that date and the songs that are identified on the bootleg.

The EP has three songs identified as “Berlin Blues,” “Variant Processional March (Regyption Strut),” and “Die Neuen Braunen Wolken.” That seems to fit with the set lists for the Sept. 15, 1972, concert as identified by the Zappateers site as well as this one, which were listed as follows: New Brown Clouds, Big Swifty, Approximate, For Calvin And His Next Two Hitch-hikers, Think It Over (The Grand Wazoo), The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary, Dog Meat, improvisations, Blues For A Minute, Penis Dimension, Variant Processional March (Regyptian Strut), Chunga’s Revenge.

“Die Neuen Braunen Wolken” translates into “New Brown Clouds,” and the “Variant Processional March” is clearly identified. The only dubious song left is “Berlin Blues,” as it is identified on the bootleg, which might be “Blues for A Minute.” If I am in error, I hope someone will correct me.

Enough of all that, let’s get to the music!

“Berlin Blues” is likely a representation of one of the few times Zappa bothered to play a solo during the Grand Wazoo tour. Conducting and managing a 20-piece band didn’t necessarily leave a lot of time for Frank to cut loose on his axe. This song is a very laid back blues piece that has minimal accompaniment and could possibly have been something he would do to give the larger band a rest. It may also have been something Zappa would play to give his audience a rest too, by providing some more “accessible” and listenable music between the more demanding pieces.

Next is “Variant Processional March,” more commonly known as “Regyptian Strut,” which has the full band playing. Nothing particularly interesting in this, given the quality of the bootleg. The orchestration of the number sounds impressive, but its depth just doesn’t get carried through the bootleg.

The final song on the EP is “Die Neuen Braunen Wolken,” which is also listed on “Wazoo!” as the fourth movement to “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary.” Despite the poor sound quality, the impeccable playing of the musicians during this complex and undoubtedly difficult piece comes through beautifully.

This is a very simple EP bootleg that provided for many years one of the few glimpses of what the Grand Wazoo touring band sounded like. Obviously, it’s not for everyone, particularly in light of the subsequent release of “Wazoo!”

I give this recording three of five stars. Provide your own rating below.

The twenty musicians in the Grand Wazoo band were:

Jay Migliori--flute, saxophone, clarinet
Mike Altschul--piccolo, bass clarinet
Ray Reed--saxophone, clarinet
Charles Owens--saxophone, clarinet
Joann Caldwell McNab--bassoon
Earle Dumler--oboe
Jerry Kessler--cello
Malcolm McNab--trumpet
Sal Marquez--trumpet
Tom Malone--tuba
Bruce Fowler--trombone
Glenn Ferris--trombone
Ken Shroyer--trombone
Ian Underwood--synthesizer
Jim Gordon--drums
Dave Parlato--bass
Tony Duran--slide guitar
Tom Raney--percussion
Ruth Underwood--percussion
Frank Zappa--guitar

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Zoot Allures

One of the few Zappa albums I purchased at the time of its release was “Zoot Allures,” which was released in October of 1976 while I was a freshman at Western Michigan University. The opening track, “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station,” was welcomed by my “ready ears,” so to speak. As a college freshman, I had some ideas about what I might want to do with my life, but I honestly had no burning ambition. To me, it was all pointless, and to a large degree today it remains all pointless. Zappa’s lyrics, to some degree, undoubtedly influenced me while growing up, revealing in some way the chimeras of the world. But I think my mind in many ways was already seeing significant contradictions between how I was being told the world worked and how it actually worked well before I heard “Plastic People” for the first time while listening to “Absolutely Free” when I was 10.

Many of the rules of society are, indeed, there to help us all get along, to keep the peace. But I was quickly learning as a child that perhaps most of society’s rules were there to protect a minority of well-established powers. So by the time I was in high school, I was already doubting the point of seeking a career, of finding my “place in the world.” Don’t confuse this with any high-minded values here. I was also extraordinarily lazy. I had fantasies of becoming an important social leader, but I lacked the discipline necessary to follow through on this dream.

However, I did recognize how the world worked, whether I liked it or not. So I have always striven to do my best in whatever I’ve done professionally, not just because the world expects it, but also so that I may achieve some personal satisfaction.

Nonetheless, when I first heard “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station,” I believed that my feelings were being validated.

“Zoot Allures” contains three outstanding guitar pieces; the title track, “Friendly Little Finger,” and “Black Napkins.” The latter also sets the tone for the majority of the album. In a fashion similar to “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” – which had avant-garde jazz pieces sandwiched between two doo-wop numbers – “Zoot Allures” is largely a group of somber, yet still excellent pieces, sandwiched between opening and closing tracks that tend to be musically anachronistic. The strictly instrumental “Black Napkins” smoothly transitions into the prescient “The Torture Never Stops,” a song that more than likely referred to Augusto Pinochet and his dictatorial regime in Chile, but which has uncanny relevance in 2009.

With this number, Zappa brilliantly blends the horrors of torture when used as an interrogation technique with the bizarre attraction it has for some sexual fetishists. The screaming and wailing woman accompanying the song expresses both arduous pain and sexual bliss, linking within the song the well-documented notion that those who employ torture against prisoners are not only attempting to extract information, but are also fulfilling a deep sexual perversion.

As if intending to more succinctly make that connection, the song swiftly moves from the female’s final orgasmic wailing to the funky “Ms. Pinky,” a song about sex with a blow-up doll. Captain Beefheart, appearing as Donnie Vliet, plays some ripping great harmonica here.

Sticking with the sexual theme, the B side of the album release opens with “Find Her Finer,” an OK piece that brings the tempo back down from the prior track. It’s a song that I can take or leave. The next piece, however, has Zappa returning with an awesome guitar solo-centered piece, “Friendly Little Finger.” Behind this soaring guitar work is the frenetic drumming of Terry Bozzio (who debuted with Zappa on “Bongo Fury”) and Zappa pulling double duty on bass. His bass playing on this jam is just as chillingly delicious as his guitar riffs, which come so close to an absolute loss of control, yet stick within the realms of human over-achievement.

The transition from “Friendly Little Finger” into “Wonderful Wino” is brilliant, a combination of bombastic orchestration with in-your-face heavy metal. While the fade out on “Wonderful Wino” works, the fade out at the end of the title track is soooo frustrating!

With “Zoot Allures,” Zappa gives his guitar an ethereal sound centered by superb use of distortion and a whammy bar. It almost strikes me as an ode to Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” albeit a more laid-back nod. The song moves into stinging, staccato plucking at the strings that almost sound vicious, followed with some picking and finger-floating across the neck that zings right up scale to fall like a floating feather back down to earth. I want to hear more of this, but the damn song fades out while Zappa continues to play, a frustrating taunt that equally infuriates me and leaves me exhausted.

The advent of disco music was nearing a zenith at the time of the release of “Zoot Allures,” and there was no way someone like Zappa was going to let this phenomenon go by without comment. The last track of the album, “Disco Boy,” is a sardonic reflection of the disco lifestyle, but unlike the later “Dancin Fool,” is set to a hip beat with a rockin’ guitar riff.

As many have noted elsewhere, the album’s title is an allusion to a French phrase, “Zut alors!” It’s an idiom that is difficult to translate, but seems to be one of those utterances of mild surprise, such as a muttering of, “Well, I’ll be damned!” An interesting tidbit, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the recording’s overall musical theme. Interestingly, the recording was originally conceived as a double album, according to a variety of sources. The additional tracks of “Sleep Dirt,” “Filthy Habits,” and “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution” were omitted and later released on the album “Sleep Dirt.”

I rate this with 4.5 out of 5 stars. Add your own rating below.

Released: Oct. 20, 1976, Warner Bros.

Track listings:

Vinyl release:

Side One
Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station (2:35)
Black Napkins (4:18)
The Torture Never Stops (9:52)
Ms. Pinky (3:49)

Side Two
Find Her Finer (4:22)
Friendly Little Finger (4:19)
Wonderful Wino (3:05)
Zoot Allures (4:15)
Disco Boy (5:28)

CD release:

Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station (2:30)
Black Napkins (4:15)
The Torture Never Stops (9:46)
Ms. Pinky (3:40)
Find Her Finer (4:07)
Friendly Little Finger (4:17)
Wonderful Wino (3:38)
Zoot Allures (4:13)
Disco Boy (5:10)


Frank Zappa (guitar, bass, synth, vocals, keyboards)
Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals)
Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, vocals)
Ruben Ladron de Guevara (vocals)
Roy Estrada (bass, vocals)
Andre Lewis (organ, vocals)
Davey Moire (vocals)
Lu Ann Neill (harp)
Sparkie Parker as Sharkie Barker (vocals)
Dave Parlato (bass)
Ruth Underwood (synth, marimba)
Captain Beefheart as Donnie Vliet (harmonica)