2:42 p.m. - December 30, 2006
He let me borrow Sheik Yerbouti while he was in the service, and well, that record changed my life.
I had heard “Dancing Fool” on Dr. Demento and I chuckled, you know, tee hee. But then I listened to the whole record, and sure there was a lot of ‘tee hee’ there. But even as a teenager, I was drawn to the music, and not just the funny words.
I later got a tape copy of Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation, saw the musical performances on Saturday Night Live, and became a fan.
Who am I talking about?
Frank Zappa, of course.
When they finally released his catalog on CD, I set out to collect them all. And, except from some later compilations, I did. I certainly have everything he authorized for release while he was alive, and that’s about 70 CDs.
That’s a lot of material to sort through. There’s a lot of live stuff from his various incarnations of the Mothers Of Inventions and other touring bands (featuring well-known players like Steve Vai, Adrian Belew, George Duke, Jean Luc-Ponty, Flo and Eddie, Terry and Dale Bozzio, among others…), purely experimental records, records of just guitar solos, electronic music, symphonies, and other stuff ranging from a doo-wop tribute to base, puerile, sexist songs designed to ‘shock.’
But the remarkable thing is the music. It’s difficult, challenging, rewarding and invigorating. Even if you think the words are lame, you can concentrate on the music. Zappa was a master guitar player (even if he couldn’t play a solo without looking at the fret board), a brilliant arranger, and great writer.
So, what is a novice to buy? I don’t recommend compilations, because they tend to mix together music from different eras, and each album has some contextual continuity. So, may I suggest these 20, in order of MY preference?
20. Uncle Meat - A soundtrack to a film that was never completed, unlike 200 Motels, this has a lot of found sounds, tomfoolery, and some brilliant works such as “King Kong”. It’s difficult to slog through but it’s brilliant at times.
19. The Grand Wazoo - This is a mostly instrumental jazz fusion album that highlights Zappa’s work in writing and arranging. The playing is stellar and the long songs do hold your attention.
18. Freak Out - The debut record of the Mothers Of Invention, this sounds dated at times, but some cuts (“Trouble Every Day”, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”) are outstanding, and “Help, I’m A Rock” must be heard to be believed. I can’t believe the record company released it, but I’m happy they did. Suzie….Suzie Creamcheese?
17. The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life - This is a treat, as it’s recordings from his last tour. The band self-destructed in a power play, but not before leaving a great recorded legacy with three live albums springing from it. There are versions of “Ring Of Fire” and, yes, “Stairway To Heaven” that are compelling to listen to, and Zappa reaches back into his vast catalog and re-imagines some old songs of his.
16. Chunga’s Revenge - A transitional album between incarnations of the Mothers Of Invention, this record introduced Flo and Eddie to the band, for better or worse. There’s some fabulous stuff here, like “Sharleena” and “Twenty Small Cigars”.
15. Sheik Yerbouti - Some of this, yes, would be offensive to most sane people (“Bobby Brown” and “Jewish Princess” for one) and some of the cuts aren’t that strong at all, but the playing is tight and remarkable and some of the satire works, as in “Dancing Fool” and “Flakes”.
14. Make A Jazz Noise Here - More stuff from his last touring band – Zappa highlights their (and his) chops. It’s a fascinating listen, and they did this stuff all live, which is incredible.
13. One Size Fits All - “Inca Roads” kicks off this record, the last of a very fertile period of Zappa’s mid-70’s career before he had legal issues that slowed his momentum. That is one of Zappa’s all time classic songs, and the rest of the stuff is fairly strong, with “Sofa No.2” and “San Ber’dino” especially strong.
12. You Are What You Is - The late 70’s and early 80’s had many things that deserved to be lampooned, and Zappa was up to the task, taking on religion, politics, groupies, and the music industry.
11. Waka / Jawaka - While recuperating from an accident, Zappa recorded this and The Grand Wazoo. The brilliant opener, “Big Swifty” is well worth the price of admission.
10. Joe’s Garage - A triple record set that is a morality play about a world without music, this is heavy handed at times, offensive at times, and goes on too long. But when it hits, it’s stellar. And even when it’s offensive, it’s superbly funny, such as “Stick It Out”.
9. Overnite Sensation - Some outstanding work here, with “I’m The Slime” and “Camarillo Brillo”, all capped off by the masterpiece “Montana”. Tina Turner and the Ikettes sing on the album, and they do the impossibly difficult singing on “Montana”, uncredited of course, because Ike didn’t want them to get credit. Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?
8. The Yellow Shark - The Ensemble Modern orchestra teams with Zappa for an album of his latest classical compositions and some reworked favorites. This is brilliant, and it will captivate all listeners, even ones not necessarily drawn to classical music.
7. Apostrophe - Best known for its four-part opus, a tale of Nanook of the North (among others) in “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”, this also has some just brilliant playing, and concludes with “Uncle Remus” and “Stinkfoot”, a couple of my favorites. The poodle bites – the poodle chews it.
6. Burnt Weeny Sandwich - This is Zappa and the Mothers stretching out and recording complex themes and structures. “The Little House I Used To Live In” and “Holiday In Berlin” are stunning.
5. We’re Only In It For The Money - Someone had to take the zing out of the hippy dippy psychedelic movement, and Zappa and the Mothers were just the band to do it. All in all, this is a great parody, with stinging social commentary that takes no prisoners with hippies and the squares who hated them.
4. Weasles Ripped My Flesh - Yes, that’s the title. Yes, this is a difficult album, as it showcases the avant garde side of the Mothers. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but if you don’t mind the weird polyrhythms and the sonic and tonal experiments that abounded on this record, then by all means pick it up.
3. Lather - Part of a big ol’ mess of a lawsuit, Zappa wound up releasing this material (mostly) over four subsequent albums, but it’s presented here in a triple CD set just as Zappa originally (allegedly) wanted it presented. He, in fact, played it on the radio one time, and one time only. It was to be a four-record set. The quantity and quality of this stuff is staggering, as it moves from the scatological and smarmy, to the serious, to the avant garde and complex.
2. Absolutely Free - Side one, with “The Duke Of Prunes” and “Call Any Vegetable”, could be Zappa’s peak (it’s his second album, but it’s hard to top that stuff). Brilliant and complicated, much like the rest of his career, Zappa and the Mothers recorded a record that’s hard to top.
1. Hot Rats - The only vocal is on “Willie The Pimp”, and its courtesy of Captain Beefheart. However, that song has a classic Zappa guitar solo, and the rest of the instrumental material is stately, ornate, complicated and brilliant. Zappa shows those jazz fusion punks how it’s supposed to be done here.
There you go. I hope that you’ll allow yourself a little indulgence with your Christmas cash, and go seek out a couple of Zappa albums. You’ll be glad you did.