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


Anonymous said...

"one of the most accomplished electric guitar players in rock music"

er, Keaggy, Carlton, Zappa? You jest... and don't call me shirley. Talent, undoubtedly. One of the "Most"? Not even in the right orbit. (Moon Unit not withstanding.)

Arf arf, he said... respectfully.

Richard Harrold said...

I guess it all depends on how you define "talent." Zappa himself said there were plenty of teenagers who could play the guitar better than he could ... in terms of picking technique or speed and clarity. But such "talented" players are merely monkeys who learned a song from tablatures. In terms of composition, thematic interpretation, and timbre variation, I believe Mr. Zappa belongs in a different league.

BTW, are you a player?

Adrian said...

I would say that the only "accomplishment" by a guitarist that interests me is whether they establish a voice and a musical vocabulary of their own. That's why players like Zappa, Scofield, Garcia, Abercrombie, Kaiser, Frisell, Haynes and Anastasio are interesting. Virtuosity is a different "accomplishment" and for listeners like me, it's not so vital.

Delta said...

just heard the album it was ok somehow didn't make me want to re-listen to the songs over and over, saying that would still recommend to others to listen once at least!!!