Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar

There is little doubt that Frank Zappa was one of the most accomplished electric guitar players in rock music; anyone who knows anything about guitar playing, or is a guitar player him or herself, knows about Frank Zappa. Appropriate words fail to materialize when attempts are made to describe his brilliant playing ability and his mastery of the form in terms of composition and timbre, which is all the more amazing in light of the fact he was self-taught. His influence on guitar playing in rock music is significant as well, an influence that many casual listeners of guitar-oriented rock may be unaware of. Because it is not hyperbole to assert that Zappa influenced the nature and direction of the guitar solo, largely introducing it to the listening public as an integral part of any rock song.

“I waited for records that had guitar solos on them, but they were always too short,” says Zappa 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.”

In terms of his own style, Zappa pointed to three primary influences on his guitar playing: Guitar Slim, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. I would strongly recommend to anyone who thinks him or herself a Zappa fan to go out and listen to these legends.

With the guitar commanding such a significant role in Zappa’s music, it was unsurprising that he should eventually release something in which his guitar playing held the starring role. What an extraordinary idea, when you think about it: an album made up entirely of guitar solos. Clearly, the concept of such an album is exciting, but what about in its actual execution?

And that’s my dilemma with “Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar.” The idea of an album composed entirely of guitar solos, particularly Frank Zappa guitar solos, strikes me as a no-brainer. Of course it’s a great idea, right? But when I sit down and listen to SUNPYG, this sense that something is missing overwhelms me, and what is missing is context.

The idea that a guitar solo can be a self-contained composition is beguiling; we all have our favorite solos and love to listen to them over and over again. But these solos are always placed within the context of the larger composition surrounding them. Even songs that were primarily written as vehicles to deliver a guitar solo, like “City of Tiny Lites,” provide very important musical structure in which the solo exists. Remove the solo from that structure and what do you have? Add to this the fact that on SUNPYG, many of the solo titles have nothing to do with the song from which they were taken.

I should explain myself before I go any further. I am not a guitar player. While I dabbled with the instrument for a few years in the early 1990s, I would never classify myself as a real guitar player. Real guitar players – musicians who perform professionally – might very well have a completely different reaction to SUNPYG than I do, or for that matter, with Zappa’s other guitar-solo albums, like “Guitar” or “Trance-Fusion.” While my interest in music can be esoteric at times, I am more like the general listener than the musician listener.

As an example, the first solo on Disc 1, “Five-Five-Five” is truly an amazing solo, and a great way to start the CD, but there’s no way I would ever be able to identify it as a solo from a performance of “Conehead.” By contrast, I can recognize the title track on the first disc as being a solo from a performance of “Inca Roads.” Incidentally, four solos on the three-disc box set are extracted from “Inca Roads”: “Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar” from Disc 1; “Gee, I Like Your Pants” and “Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar Some More,” both from Disc 2; and “The Return of Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar,” from Disc 3. (I know a lot of folks rank “Watermelon in Easter Hay” as Zappa’s best guitar work, but “Inca Roads” is top for me)

And yet, with the song “City of Tiny Lites,” which is structured to accommodate a lengthy guitar solo, I would never recognize it as being the source for the solo titled “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression” from Disc 2. Even after looking that up, I am unable to mentally provide the context to attach to the solo.

Reviews of this release vary widely, from those who call it “musician wankery” to others who classify it as the best Zappa release ever. There is no doubt that these solos are extraordinary; taken individually, they are magnificent examples of Zappa’s ability. But, frankly, packaged together one after the other, lacking the full context of the composition of origin, I easily become bored listening to it. And I find that very exasperating: How can I become bored with Zappa’s guitar solos?

I know I will upset some with my three-star rating, but I cannot honestly rate it any higher. This should in no way be taken as an indication that I dislike this recording. In fact, I listen to this release far more often than any of the other three-star albums I’ve written about, and more often than some with four-star ratings. But I seldom listen to it all the way through. After a while, the solos all start to sound the same to me. I find that rather disappointing.

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

Released May 11, 1981, Barking Pumpkin Records.

Track listing on original vinyl release:

Disc 1 (Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar)

Side one
“Five-Five-Five” – 2:35 (1979-02-19)
“Hog Heaven” – 2:46 (1980-10-18)
“Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar” – 5:35 (1979-02-18)
“While You Were Out” – 6:09 (1979)

Side two
“Treacherous Cretins” – 5:29 (1979-02-17)
“Heavy Duty Judy” – 4:39 (1980-12-05)
“Soup 'n Old Clothes” – 7:53 (1980-12-11)

Disc 2 (Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More)

Side one
“Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression” – 3:56 (1980-12-11)
“Gee, I Like Your Pants” – 2:32 (1979-02-18)
“Canarsie” – 6:06 (1979-02-19)
“Ship Ahoy” – 5:26 (1976-02-03)

Side two
“The Deathless Horsie” – 6:18 (1979-02-19)
“Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More” – 6:52 (1979-02-17)
“Pink Napkins” – 4:41 (1977-02-17)

Disc 3 (Return of the Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar)

Side one
“Beat It With Your Fist” – 1:39 (1980-10-30)
“Return of the Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar” – 8:45 (1979-02-19)
“Pinocchio's Furniture” – 2:04 (1980-12-05)
“Why Johnny Can't Read” – 4:04 (1979-02-17)

Side two
“Stucco Homes” – 8:56 (1979)
“Canard Du Jour” – 10:12 (1972)


Tommy Mars – Keyboards, Vocals
Kerry McNabb – Engineer
Steve Nye – Engineer
Patrick O'Hearn – Wind, Bass
Denny Walley – Guitar (Rhythm), Guitar
Ray White – Guitar (Rhythm), Guitar
Jo Hansch – Mastering
John Swenson – Liner Notes
Bob Harris – Keyboards
Peter Wolf – Keyboards
John Livzey – Photography
John Vince – Graphic Design
Ed Mann – Percussion
Ike Willis – Guitar (Rhythm), Guitar
Bob Stone – Remixing
Arthur Barrow – Bass
Terry Bozzio – Drums
Joe Chiccarelli – Engineer, Mixing, Recording
Vinnie Colaiuta – Drums, Percussion
Warren Cuccurullo – Guitar (Rhythm), Electric Sitar, Guitar
George Douglas – Engineer
Roy Estrada – Vocals, Bass
Frank Zappa – Arranger, Composer, Conductor, Keyboards, Vocals, Producer, Main Performer, Bouzouki, Guitar
Tom Flye – Engineer
Mick Glossop – Engineer
Bob Harris – Keyboards
Andre Lewis – Keyboards
Eddie Jobson – Keyboards, Vocals, Violin
Steve Vai – Guitar (Rhythm), Guitar
Jean-Luc Ponty – Keyboards, Baritone Violin, Violin

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Orchestral Favorites

Among the broken up parts to “Lather” that were released as individual recordings was “Orchestral Favorites,” a nice addition to anyone’s Zappa collection, although not necessarily essential. Zappa had several orchestral releases, all of which are good. But if you’re looking for an essential orchestral recording, go for “The Yellow Shark.”

All but the first and second tracks on this release appear on “Lather.” Both “Strictly Genteel” and “Bogus Pomp” are compositions carried from “200 Motels,” with the latter being an instrumental interpretation of the themes from “This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich.” These tunes, omitted from “Lather,” again form the musical bread for this particular recording, a technique that Zappa had used in the past, most pointedly with “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.”

If there is a flaw with “Strictly Genteel,” it is in the fact that it was originally composed as a lyrical piece. It was the closing composition to the movie “200 Motels,” when the entire cast gathers on the set with the orchestra; indeed, it is a very genteel salutation to the audience, just before Howard Kaylan rips into his guttural finale. As an instrumental piece, it doesn’t quite work; its structure reveals the fact that something is missing – the vocals.

The fourth track, however, does work as an instrumental. “The Duke of Orchestral Prunes” is a good interpretation, sans lyrics, of the song “The Duke of Prunes,” which first appeared on “Absolutely Free.” Zappa’s guitar solo on this piece also adds a nice touch.

“Pedro’s Dowry” is a really interesting composition. It’s atonal and complex rhythmic structure draws you in and demands your attention. It has a soundtrack quality to it, in that it is easy to envision the music accompanying a series of movie scenes. But it doesn’t require a visual element; the music tells its own story, allowing the listener to create his or her own visual representations of what is heard.

And with “Naval Aviation in Art?” we have a very brief, but intense interlude, a sort of abbreviated tone poem. It could easily be mistaken for an extension of “Pedro’s Dowry,” it is that similar.

As a package, the compositions within “Orchestral Favorites” work out alright. But spread out as they are, mixed in with other songs of different genres and structure, on “Lather,” they work much better. Still, the fact that not all of these pieces appear on “Lather” is reason enough to have both.

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

Released May 4, 1979, DiscReet Records; Recorded at Royce Hall, UCLA, Sept. 19, 1975.

Track listing:

1. Strictly Genteel (7:04)
2. Pedro’s Dowry (7:41)
3. Naval Aviation In Art (1:22)
4. The Duke Of Orchestral Prunes (4:20) (titled “The Duke Of Prunes”)
5. Bogus Pomp (13:28)


Frank Zappa (guitar)
Terry Bozzio (drums)
Dave Parlato (bass)
Mike Lang (keyboards)
Emil Richards (percussion)
Pamela Goldsmith (viola)
John Wittenberg (violin)
Bobby Dubow (violin)
Jerry Kessler (cello)
Bruce Fowler (trombone)
Earle Dumler (oboe)
Mike Altschul (flute, trumpet)
Malcolm McNabb (trumpet)
David Duke (french horn)
Dana Hughes (bass trombone)
Ray Reed (flute)
David Shostak (flute)
Tommy Morgan (harmonica)
Marty Perellis (?)
Captain Beefheart (dancing)

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Weasel Music

Perhaps the most mysterious item I have encountered in my review of Frank Zappa’s recordings – both official and bootleg – is the item known as “The Weasel Music.” This recording’s provenance has not been well documented on the Web, at least as far as I am able to determine. And the few sites where downloads are still available all seem to repeat verbatim the same “history” of the recording. Below is what these various sites inevitably post as information regarding the recording:

Here it is:

1/24th of “The History and Collected Improvisations of the MOI.”

THE STORY OF THE ACQUISITION: A firsthand account from my source ...

So I get a call from the widow of the great artist, Neon Park. She says, “I’ve been going through Marty’s stuff (Neon’s real name was Marty) and I have a lot of records of his. I was talking to (mutual friend) Betzy and she said you like records. Do you want them?” and, being the vinyl hound I am, I said, “You bet! I’ll take ‘em all sight unseen.” She said, “Okay, I’ll go pull the can back in from the street.” She had had them all in a trash can waiting for the Sanitation Engineers to pick them up.

Now I know Neon worked for many years doing album art for Warner Brothers (best known for Zappa’s WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH and his string of covers for LITTLE FEAT) and was on their mailing list for new releases. Upon going through the LPs from the trash bin I found the usual assortment of product, some good, some not to my liking.

But then...

In an envelope addressed to Mr. Frank Zappa at his Laurel Canyon address, I found three studio acetate test recordings: a early ELO LP, a copy of Jean-Luc Ponty’s Zappa tribute LP, KING KONG, and a curious disc labeled “The Weasel Music”. Suspecting that this might indeed BE SOMETHING, I cautiously played it once. It seemed to be a live recording of the Mothers goofing around on stage doing what I guessed to be a mock-ballet. While light pseudo-classical piano arpeggios play (Ian Underwood?) you can hear the shuffling of feet and various antics while the crowd respond with laughter and amusement. I would imagine that it was mostly a visual presentation as opposed to an essential Zappa musical composition.

I kept this relic in good condition, still in its original envelope and cardboards. I lent it to my new friend and Zappaphile, Krel, when I moved to Little Rock. He has played it only twice, recording it both times.

So there you go.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I have been unable to precisely identify the author of the above. I believe he or she was identified in the post where I first found this FLAC file, but the original post has been removed since that time, and none of the other sites I have found that post this identify the author.

The current owner of this one-sided disc may know who received that serendipitous call from Neon Park’s widow; the original recording sold in an eBay auction in August, 2008, for $2,125. However, it is possible that the true provenance of the recording remains unknown.

A Rolling Stone article from Oct. 18, 1969, identified “The Weasel Music” as part of a 12-LP project Zappa had in mind for something called the Mothers of Invention Record Club. Neil Slaven briefly mentions this same information in his Zappa biography, “Electric Don Quixote.” So it seems that “The Weasel Music” was among those of Zappa’s projects that never saw the light of day, or if they did come to fruition, fell short of his original vision (think Lather).

So what is on “The Weasel Music”? It’s a live recording apparently from a performance by the Mothers of Invention at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It begins with Zappa addressing the audience. He tells them they are about to hear some chamber music, as well as some “zany Mothers of Invention bullshit.” He also introduces Noel Redding, guitarist from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who is to perform some dancing during the “ballet” portion of the concert.

“Chamber Music Piece 1” is very representative of the style of music Zappa was recording for “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.” Hardly the melodic chamber music one associates with the genre, this piece is a complex avant-garde mixture of unusual time signatures and woodwinds that move from dolorous tones to soaring notes that remind me of a frenetic humming bird.

It is clear with the next track, “Mozart Ballet,” that this performance had visual elements to it, which makes one wonder; if Zappa took the time to record this concert for a future project, and there were visual elements, it would seem logical that there is film out there as well. Anyone out there who was at this performance? If so, did you see anyone filming it? This “performance art” is set to Ian Underwood’s playing fragments from Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in B Flat” while other members of the band are “hopping around” on stage. Judging by the audience’s audible reaction, it was a delightful and amusing performance.

This blends into the next track, “Some Zany MOI Bullshit,” after the Mozart piece breaks down into some cacophony reminiscent of “Weasels Rip My Flesh.” The vocals have a feel of some of the choral bits from the “2001: A Space Odyssey” soundtrack, which, incidentally, was released the year before. The recording finishes with a brief track titled “Chamber Music Piece 2,” which to my ear sounds like a studio track, rather than something from the Albert Hall performance.

Overall, a very interesting, albeit arcane, recording of slightly more than 19 minutes representative of the musical styles and head space Zappa was exploring at the time.

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

Unreleased recording allegedly made in 1969; only one vinyl copy apparently in existence.

Track listing:

1. Albert Hall Spoken Introduction (2:05)
2. Chamber Music Piece 1 (4:04)
3. Mozart Ballet (9:47)
4. Some Zany MOI Bullshit (2:41)
5. Chamber Music Piece 2 (0:40)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Falkoner Theater, March 1979

It was at the Falkoner Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark, where Ian Underwood’s saxophone solo during “King Kong,” following his explanation of how he met Frank Zappa found within the track “Ian Underwood Whips It Out” on Uncle Meat, was recorded. That event occurred on Oct. 1, 1967. This bootleg, however, is a recording from a show at the same venue from March 5, 1979.

Frank has some outstanding guitar solos on this boot, so don’t be misled by my rating. It’s the sound quality of this alleged soundboard recording that brings it down to the four-star level, not the material. In general, I have vowed not to award five stars to a boot, simply because of the diminished sound quality with boots. However, this concert boot is one that I could easily give five stars to had the sound quality been better.

A picture LP bootleg was apparently released of this concert, with the Falkoner show on one side, and on the other side, a February show from Gothenburg, Sweden, from a year earlier. I’ve read in a few spots, such as here, that the 1979 tour was very erratic, with some outstanding shows like at the Falkoner, as well as some very mediocre performances. This should come as no surprise, really. When you’re touring and performing that many shows, it’s difficult to call up every night the same inspiration to play equally well as the night before. It’s like the NBA; there are so many games scheduled in the NBA season that if you were a season ticket holder, you’re inevitably going to watch some very boring games during which the home team gets its ass whupped. You follow any rock band’s tour, you’re bound to hit a few bummer shows.

The Falkoner show begins with “The Deathless Horsie,” which was a common opener during the 1978-79 tours. Frank puts his guitar through the wringer on this number, cranking out an amazing solo as he tests his axe from one extreme to the other. Many bands would avoid this type of solo as the first number in a set, as the opening number is usually a fairly routine item used to make sure everyone’s instruments are functioning properly and are in tune. The next tune, “Dead Girls of London,” never showed up on an official, Zappa “studio” release, the closest official recording it was released on being YCDTONA Vol. 5. However, Zappa recorded it with Lakshminarayana Shankar for the latter’s 1979 release of “Touch Me There,” an album that Zappa produced and on which he appeared, along with Ike Willis.

After a quick “I Ain’t Got No Heart,” we get a decent, full-blown performance of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” one of my favorite Zappa compositions. There’s a brief, but searing, guitar solo on “Cosmik Debris,” (I suspect by Warren Cuccurullo), followed by “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin,” with competent vocals turned in by Denny Walley. But there’s a special treat coming up next with “City of Tiny Lites,” a song constructed with a guitar solo in mind, and with this performance we get two good solos, one each from Frank and Denny Walley. Denny starts first with a furious slide guitar, followed by a demented Frank, who is almost vicious with the way he takes his playing to the high end of the neck. Arthur Barrow and Vinnie Colaiuta provide a rhythm line in the background on bass and drums respectively that sends this song into the stratosphere of kick-ass arena rock. It’s tracks like this one that I would normally give a recording 4.5 or five stars, but the recording isn’t that clear or mixed well, so alas, I can’t give it a higher rating than I did.

The band zips through “Dancin’ Fool,” followed by “Easy Meat,” featuring another of Frank’s amazing solos. And again, Colaiuta’s pounding on the drums really turns this song into an intense, heavy-metal of a head-banger. Good god, those Danes were treated to a musical miracle that night. And we’re not even half way into this more-than two-hour show.

Things slow down a bit with “Jumbo Go Away,” but the heavy intensity remains (the sound quality is very muddled through this as well). Following is one of the few live performances of “Andy” that I’ve heard, followed by “Inca Roads,” a song of such rhythmic complexity that it frustrated George Duke to no end. One of the few times I saw Zappa in concert, the band played “Inca Roads,” but the solo he played in that show was nothing like on this boot. This is certainly one of Zappa’s more cerebral, yet still accessible, works.

Another song from “One Size Fits All” comes along with a tune about a cookie, “Florentine Pogen.” This brings the band into a period of the show when they sweep through a series of songs from, at the time, yet-to-be-released albums, including “Tinseltown Rebellion,” (which wasn’t released for another two years) “Joe’s Garage,” (released later in 1979) and “You Are What You Is” (released two years later). This is followed by one of Zappa’s most recognizable melodies, “Peaches En Regalia.” Better sound quality would have made this version much more enjoyable, as there are some very interesting rhythmic interpretations going on here. The song is the concert’s closer, but there is an encore!

That encore begins with “The Yellow Snow Suite,” which includes the first four songs from “Apostrophe(‘).” You can hear the crowd digging this performance. “St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Father O’Blivion” are normally fast-paced songs, but the tempos of these two numbers during this concert are amazingly frenetic; the band is spot-on.

Next comes “A Pound For a Brown (On the Bus),” which demonstrates again the band’s tight playing on some very complex rhythms. Ed Mann on the vibes is fantastic, as are Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf, who play some brilliant keyboards (normally, Tommy Mars’ keyboard playing bores me). And Vinnie Colaiuta provides a rare and outstanding drum solo.

The concert closes with the dark “Treacherous Cretins,” a very grand piece featuring Frank’s virtuoso guitar. This is a more-than eight-minute song with Zappa’s guitar front and center. It is a beautiful piece, one that rivals “Watermelon in Easter Hay.”

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

Recorded live at the Falkoner Theater, Copenhagen, Denmark, March 5, 1979

Set list:

The Deathless Horsie
Dead Girls Of London
I Ain't Got No Heart
Brown Shoes Don't Make It
Cosmik Debris
Tryin' To Grow A Chin
City Of Tiny Lites
Dancin' Fool
Easy Meat
Jumbo Go Away
Inca Roads
Florentine Pogen
Honey Don't You Want A Man Like Me
Keep It Greasy
The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing
For The Young Sophisticate
Fembot in A Wet T-Shirt Nite
Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?
Peaches En Regalia
The Yellow Snow Suite
A Pound For A Brown (On The Bus)
Treacherous Cretins


FZ (guitar, lead vocals)
Arthur Barrow (bass)
Vinnie Colaiuta (drums)
Warren Cuccurullo (guitar)
Ed Mann (percussion)
Tommy Mars (keyboards)
Denny Walley (slide guitar, vocals)
Ike Willis (vocals, guitar)
Peter Wolf (keyboards)