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"Wow man, it's a drag being a rock"

Class C

Main Category: Meta-Rock
Also applicable: Jazz Rock, Avantgarde, Guitar Heroes
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years,

The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day




Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Frank Zappa fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Frank Zappa fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Frank Zappa is the most predictable of all the rock'n'roll dudes on Earth - in that he's always unpredictable. Independent of what kind of music he'd been writing lately, you could never foretell the next style he was going to turn to - doo-wop, boogie-woogie, blues, jazz, classical, everything seemed to satisfy him as long as he was able to baffle the critics and the general public for one more time. He could record 'freaked out' psycho jams with the Mothers of Invention and suddenly insert a perfectly normal album of doo-wop records among them; produce mock concept albums that were serious and idiotic at once; envelop himself in jazz and then suddenly direct a classical orchestra, anything, you name it. His endless musical output - even in the Eighties, when most of the 'dinosaurs' were content of releasing one record in two or three years, he managed to spit out two or three records per year - always bears his brand of experimentalism, and practically every album, even some of the worst ones, has something to offer whether you want it or not. On the other hand, Frank's main virtue is probably his consistency: most of his records have one basic idea running through them, that of absolute and unlimited freedom of creativity. Zappa's main goal in life was to prove that art was free, independent, self-sustained and unboundaried; people who keep complaining about the boredom of some of his jams, unimaginativeness of his jazz improvisations, smuttiness of his lyrics and frivolousness of his image should foremost bear in mind that all of these things were not just due to a crazy mind of a crazy, talentless persons. On the contrary, Frank Zappa had a lot of talent - and spent it on pushing 'art' (as he understood it, of course) to the limits. He liked teasing censorship organisations and the simple-minded public and hated the music industry and pop business in general - as far as I know, he was the only (or at least, the most well-known) rock musician who declined the offer of a Grammy saying that all Grammies are fake. Such an approach can only be lauded with the highest praise, of course, and indeed, Frank's work during his almost thirty-year period of activity probably did the world a much more bigger service than one would normally imagine. All these years, Frank was like the ultimate test - just by glancing at a few of his albums you could tell what could be considered art and what couldn't. His untimely death in 1993 was a really big, big blow to all freedom-lovers in the world, and since then MTV has ruled the world without any hinderance...

But there's one problem - Zappa's social status has unquestionably obscured his real artistic merits. People usually know him by his social activities and weird shocking moves, like, 'you know, the one with that moustache and goatee who always keeps fuckin' up'. The actual music that the man wrote (and I guess that he wrote a lot more than the Beatles and the Stones put together) somehow goes mostly unnoticed - even when somebody goes around praising the merits of We're Only In It For The Money, the accent is usually placed on how it was innovative for its time and how damn well it condemned the hippie culture, etc., etc., without actually mentioning a single song from the album. This is certainly not right - yet this is understandable. Unlike, say, the Beatles, Zappa's music always served a practical aim - most of the time, he was recording not the kind of stuff he thought to be good, but the kind of stuff he thought to be useful, or more exactly, the kind of stuff he thought was controversial and contradicted every kind of currently dominating cultural patterns. This, in my opinion, makes Zappa more of a philosopher and culturologist than a musician - even if he did play the guitar quite well and wrote a fair share of decent, sometimes even great melodies. Sometimes he would even drop all of his pretentions and proceed to record a one hundred percent 'musical' album that was so totally free of any 'conutercultural' content you wouldn't believe it was Zappa at all (Cruising With Ruben And The Jets or Shut Up 'n' Play Your Guitar are among the most obvious examples). But the exceptions only further confirm the rule: these albums are never taken as serious art statements, rather like some more in an endless series of mystifications and cultural puzzles.

The statement being made, I proudly award Frank Zappa a rating of 'three' - not too bad, in my opinion, seeing as, like I said, Zappa is more of an ideological guru than a musician. The Beatles and the Stones, for example, had all of Zappa's ideology, but added to it some real artistic creativity without looking back at the 'obsolete' patterns they needed to replace - they just worked on and created real, truly independent and timeless art. Unfortunately, Frank's art is, to a rather large extent, dated - just because it was all directed at that current day's needs and nothing else. That said, Zappa is still quite good. He's diverse (more diverse than the Beatles, in fact), he's intelligent, he has an unmatched sense of humor, a talent in selecting backup bands and musicians, and a skilled guitar playing style. What else would you want?

I must warn everybody, though, that my Zappa collection is far from complete (which is not a serious crime, though - it took seven reviewers on the Mark Prindle page to put together a decent Zappa page that still looks a horrible mess due to major contradictions in people's opinions, and even so it is not thoroughly complete: I have a whole twelve Zappa records, for instance, that still aren't reviewed there). Currently I already possess forty-two Zappa albums, but I'm still missing many high (and even more low) points. But be ensured that I'm trying to lay my hands on any Zappa album I can find, and the page is bound to grow! Meanwhile, mail your comments, everybody!

P.S. The page is now split in two halves for downloading convenience; 'frank.htm' includes reviews of Zappa's albums up to 1976, 'frank1.htm' deals with his later work. You can get access to the later parts of the catalog by following links from the table of contents or by following the link at the bottom of this page.



Year Of Release: 1966
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

Want to define 'genius'? Well, you could build up a good case around this album.


Track listing: 1) Hungry Freaks, Daddy; 2) I Ain't Got No Heart; 3) Who Are The Brain Police?; 4) Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder; 5) Motherly Love; 6) How Could I Be Such A Fool; 7) Wowie Zowie; 8) You Didn't Try To Call Me; 9) Any Way The Wind Blows; 10) I'm Not Satisfied; 11) You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here; 12) Trouble Every Day; 13) Help I'm A Rock; 14) It Can't Happen Here; 15) The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet.

It seems that before Frank Zappa first stepped on the threshold of a recording studio, he was already well-decided that his first album would be better than anything previously recorded - more intelligent, more innovative and explorative, more spaced out, more professional and more catchy. And, well, even if I can't really say that he achieved all these goals completely, he came really really close. Freak Out! is an album that preceded its time - were it recorded somewhere in 1967, it would have passed just as another groovy record of the Summer of Love (although it really has nothing to do with the Summer of Love), but in July 1966 nobody was prepared for anything like this - not even the Beatles or Bob Dylan dared to venture that far into studio tricks and musical/sonic exploration.

Now before I start raving and rambling all over the place like some bad-flavoured generic critic, let me just state this album's main weakness. No, it is not the boringness of the 'psychedelic' part, as one might think - I'll deal with this later. It is the fact that Zappa isn't really a great songwriter, at least wasn't at this point in his career. The melodies on this album are for the most part generic, usually following some pattern or other, be it overabused blues riffs or cliched pop harmonies: no new ground is broken in that sense of the word. (If you don't get my drift, compare 'It Can't Happen Here' with 'Tomorrow Never Knows': where Zappa never went before sound collages, the Beatles invented a new musical genre). But that doesn't mean they aren't enjoyable - they are, and oh how...

Frank's strong points lie in totally different parts o' the world. So the first part of the record might seem disposable at first listen, if you don't listen too closely: eleven short pop songs, most of them love ones with rather simple titles like 'How Could I Be Such A Fool' or 'You Didn't Try To Call' or, well, 'I'm Not Satisfied'. But hey, is this really your average pop music? Not at all, kind sir. See, the album wasn't called Freak Out! for nothing. All of these numbers have got something groovey going - be it hilarious, parodic lyrics, weird screamfests or almost ridiculously strained, horrendous vocal stunts (just listen to these 'YEEEEEEEAH's in 'You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here'!) But that's not all. Don't think that you've got Frank Zappa by the tail if you really think the album's about freaking out. No, he takes you on another level of intelligence: the album is, in fact, a grand parody on everything. The weirdness that Zappa achieves is all sarcastic, ironic weirdness - he ridicules the very existence of pop music by songs like 'Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulders'. Now you see why I'm not so distressed by Frank's lack of melodical innovations: he borrows classic melodies and makes fools of their composers as well as of everybody and everything else. I find myself so caught up in this grooviness and his flashy signs of wit and intelligence that I almost do not notice the bad sides. Personal favourites include 'Wowie Zowie', a super-stupid (anti)-pop anthem (with lyrics like 'I don't even care if your dad's the heat') and 'Motherly Love' where Frank cleverly uses his band's name ('forget about the brotherly and otherly love'). People usually prefer the somewhat spooky tunes that lead off the album, like the famous 'Who Are The Brain Police?', but to me they sound a little clumsy - this is where Frank actually tried to write some original melodies and failed. (Yet 'Hungry Freaks, Daddy' gotta be one of the most menacing and hard-hitting counter-culture anthems ever recorded).

The first part ends, and then comes the best track - the song that links the first part with the second, the bluesy, growling 'Trouble Every Day' where Frank showcases every side of him and the band that's good: he comes up with an endless set of society-bashing, 'freaked-out' lyrics that he shoots off at lightning speed over a magnificent harmonica/stinging guitar backing, and the amount of energy he puts into the recording is unequalled by any other tracks. It's very Dylanish, in some respects, and yet it has a kind of hard-rock aggressiveness that Dylan never possessed. Putting real brains into hard rock - well, that's a treat rarely done by any other performers.

Now the second part of the album is what causes most controversy. Certainly unparalleled at the time of recording, this twenty-minute sound collage is the first experiment with 'psychedelic grooving' that was later taken on by hundreds and hundreds of bands. What it consists of is a monotonous wank-a-thon called 'Help I'm A Rock' where they basically just don't do nothing but sing help I'm a rock, a bunch of a capella noises called 'It Can Happen Here' and a spacey, totally 'freaked out' instrumental jam ('The Return Of The Son Of The Monster Magnet', which can be seen as a blueprint for the Stones' 'Sing This All Together'). Well, it sure does sound dated now, that's natural. But still, I can't resist saying that it's a lot of good fun. That jam does tend to get overlong, but not very much, and Frank and the band tend to enliven it with goofy, ridiculous noises, patches of dialogue, conversations with an invented female character called Suzy Creamcheese, and occasionally there's a silly joke or two that will get into your head for all eternity (my favourite is 'America's wonderful! Wonderfulwonderfulwonderfulwonderful...', you know what I mean). So, even if there's absolutely no need to listen to this every now and then, it can make a good laugh from time to time, and this is just what you may need at certain points in your life.

In all, the one thing I might state about Frank Zappa in 1966 is that he started his artistic career being already fully grown-up. Yes, it already is the nihilistic, sarcastic, ridiculous, and nastily fucked-up Frank Zappa that everybody knows, and what he does is make a very loud and memorable statement about this. This is the image he had ever since. Everything else was just minor variations on the main subject. Oh, and by the way - I checked out the All-Music Guide for band credits (they aren't listed on my CD) and it said this line-up of The Mothers of Invention featured Adrian Belew!! I was so glad! Then, of course, Dan Watkins was kind enough to send in his comments and correct me. Well, I just say: never trust the All-Music Guide!!! DON'T YOU EVEN TRY!!!



Year Of Release: 1967
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Tons of historical importance here, but too much melody sacrificed in favour of nonsense and parody.


Track listing: 1) Plastic People; 2) The Duke Of Prunes; 3) Amnesia Vivace; 4) The Duke Regains His Chops; 5) Call Any Vegetable; 6) Invocation & Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin; 7) Soft-Sell Conclusion; 8) Big Leg Emma; 9) Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?; 10) America Drinks; 11) Status Back Baby; 12) Uncle Bernie's Farm; 13) Son Of Suzy Creamcheese; 14) Brown Shoes Don't Make It; 15) America Drinks & Goes Home.

From what I've read, I s'ppose I'm one of the few, really few Zappa listeners who aren't willing to rate this album above its immediate predecessor, Freak Out!, that is. The usual argument in this case is that the former was just a wee bit too much doo-woppy and derivative to be a true masterpiece, while Absolutely Free justifies its title by pushing that 'freaked out' type of sound that Zappa initiated in 1966 to its absolute limits.

The argument is perfectly valid. The problem, though, is whether your tastes make you prefer derivative doo-wop or the trademark Mothers of Invention freaking out. No, wait, don't answer that. Of course nobody would (at least, nobody should) prefer Doo-Wop to Freak-Out. But the thing that I loved so much about Freak Out! was that Frank never separated these two 'genres' - except for the 'psychedelic' jams at the end of the record, all the other songs are a fruitful mess where it is sometimes hard to distinguish parody from sincerity which makes it all the more fun.

However, on Absolutely Free Frank definitely went overboard with the 'freak-out' groove. The album actually consists of two so-called 'oratorios' - one depicting the life of vegetables and the other depicting the life of an average member of the American society (some kind of analogy, eh?) Both are exceedingly funny and entertaining, but only at certain moments. Basically, when I heard this for the first time I hated it. When I heard this for the second time I loved it. When I heard this for the third time, I just felt kinda disappointed, like 'all right, so what of it?'

To be more precise, at first one really loses one's way through this mess - the vegetable suite is so ridiculously clumsy, with stretches of good melody running throughout all of it but often falling apart to reveal 'horrendous' screamfeasts and other excesses, until suddenly the totally stupid combination of doo-wop and hysteria ('The Duke Of Prunes') gives way to an even more stupid guitar jam ('Invocation & Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin', with Frank adding generic fast R'n'B/jazzy soloing a la Ten Years After). The second 'mess' is even messier, culminating in the multi-part, all-genre-synthesizing 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It' that looks like Frank taking half a dozen doo-wop tunes, ripping them to shreds and gluing some of these shreds to one another in no special order.

Take a deeper insight, however, and you'll see that, like Freak Out!, this mess boasts at least one redeeming quality - it's an entertaining mess. The lyrics are undeniably great throughout, ranging from pure, undiluted nonsense ('call any vegetable and the chances are good that it'll respond'), to witty social commentary a little in the vein of Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues': fast, incoherent remarks that usually hit the nail on the head ('be a loyal plastic robot/for a world that doesn't care', 'TV dinner by the pool/I'm so glad I've finished school/Life is such a ball/I run the world/From City Hall', all from 'Brown Shoes'). The noises are funny, and there is even a comical return of an old imagined character ('Son Of Suzy Creamcheese'). And when the melodies are solid, they are solid - like on the groovy shuffle 'Status Back Baby' or the 'normal' part of 'Plastic People' (that opens the album on a high and certainly unprecedented note - 'Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States! (drumroll)'). Not to mention such things as the album cover, liner notes and track names, the proper absorption of which could take you hours - after all, nobody but Frank paid such a great lot of attention to conceptuality at the time (down with Sgt Pepper again!!!)

Some people stop right here, at this second impression. However, I couldn't really have followed their examples - after all, I put this record on searching for music, and what I find isn't able to satisfy my quest. No way. I do admit the record's greatness in the way that it snapped up the whole music thing and cracked this kind of art's possibilities open in a way that few other records could at the time. But, to my opinion, this is not the kind of album that ages well. Yeah, it ain't no 'hippie crap music' like Jefferson Airplane (whose contemporary albums thrill me much more, by the way), but it shares the same flaw: it relies on experimentation and spontaneous 'illumination' rather than well-thought out melodies. It's even more sad that Frank was really capable of much, much more than that (as demonstrated amply by Freak Out!), but he preferred (to my mind) the easier way - yeah, I'm one hundred percent sure that recording this album was a much less difficult process (at least, creatively) than recording Freak Out!. As it is, I wouldn't really want this album on my turntable any time of day, though sometimes it might make a good listen (especially if you want to shock your best friend without showing signs of bad taste like in the case of a late Seventies' Alice Cooper record. Hey, wasn't Alice Cooper an alumnus of Zappa too? Talk about bad manners!).

But never mind my critiques if you're a Zappa freak and are about to flame me for blasphemy - I probably love the record as much as you do, only I'm willing to take an unbiased look at it. To soften the blow, I'll say that the two 'bonus tracks' inserted in between the 'oratorios' are some of the best (although derivative as hell, too) material Zappa'd committed to tape by that time: 'Big Leg Emma' is that kind of grooviest parody on... hell, I don't even know what kind of genre it is he's parodying? Country? Ragtime? Who cares? 'There's a big dilemma about my big leg Emma', in fact. And my favourite is the gritty, heavy R'n'B number 'Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?', highlights including a monstruous heavy bass riff that drives the song forward (let us make Frank the father of heavy metal, too!) and Frank's vocals that are just downright scary. Also, closing the album with the loungy 'America Drinks & Goes Home' was a brilliant move - the song is (a) the epithomy of parody, (b) the epithomy of drunken chaos and mad orgy, (c) downright funny and relaxing. Not to mention that it inspired the Stones for 'On With The Show', without any doubt.

Oh! And I almost forgot to mention that 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It' mark the beginnings of Frank's dirty sexual jokes - just listen to that passage about the 'dream of a girl about thirteen' who 'tickles his fancy all night long'. If you're a collectioner of Frank's Revolutionary Lyrical moments, this is your first buy!!!



Year Of Release: 1968

Maybe even more historical importance here... but this ain't music, and it can't be subject to more than a couple listens in your whole life.

Best song: well, LUMPY GRAVY (????!!!!)

Track listing: 1) Lumpy Gravy Part 1; 2) Lumpy Gravy Part 2.

I refuse to give a rating to this record (like I did with George Harrison's Electronic Sound), simply because I rate albums with musical compositions, while this is definitely not qualified to pretend to be a musical composition - I mean, there are bits and pieces of music on here, but they only act as one of the many diverse components of the whole 'experience'. Apparently, Frank was getting more and more ambitious in the studio - he'd ventured into unlimited experimentalism on Freak Out!, beat his own record on Absolutely Free and decided that the limits were still far from being transgressed. On Lumpy Gravy, a rather short (mercifully) album credited exclusively to Frank and not to the Mothers of Invention (guess he didn't want to spoil the band's reputation that much), there are certainly no limits. Basically, the record consists of two 15-minute 'suites' filled to the brim with (a) short musical fragments, ranging from one and a half/two minutes long to tiny snippets that swap each other at lightning speed; (b) loads of noises produced by every object capable of noise-making on this planet, and probably on several others as well; (c) short snatches of dialog between Frank's pals and colleagues, usually on completely esoteric or nonsensic topics.

If you're that kind of freak who adores listening to crazyass dated experimental albums, you might just as well get your kicks out of listening to this mess. The aim of the record is obvious, of course: testing the limits of the studio and trying to baffle all the musical society as much as possible, nothing else. Don't go telling me that this is a serious work of art - it has no overall message; instead, let me tell you that it has at least a couple of redeeming qualities. First, quite unlike the above-mentioned Electronic Sound, the album is actually listenable - the first several spins you give it are quite rewarding, just because the 'suites' are divided into numerous tiny sections that have totally nothing to do with each other, and it's a little intriguing to see what happens next - a funny bit of doo-wop goes into somebody named 'Motorhead' telling about his automobile problems before going off into an atonal jam section before re-emerging to inform you about 'white ugliness' and how it bites you before giving you some headache by means of distorted violins, etc., etc. - Zappa was clearly a master of making an experimental album sound inviting, without giving you 20-minute symphonies of synthesizer feedback or 20-minute calls-and-answers of 'John!' and 'Yoko!' or something like that. And if you're patient enough to sit through to the very end, you'll be awarded the prize purse: a short, but thoroughly beautiful instrumental version of 'Take Off Your Clothes' that would soon be released on We're Only In It... - the only serious musical composition on the album. To be quite honest, some other musical bits here are quite pretty as well (the 'Oh No' part, for instance), but they're much more densely shoved into the background, if you know what I mean.

Some of the dialogs are also quite trippy: Zappa is trying to ape every notorious Dadaist in existence, and he often succeeds, especially with the 'living in a drum' part and the 'white ugliness' parts. At least they sound provoking and involving, quite unlike the kind of intolerable crap that clogs the CD version of Uncle Meat (see below). Not that they mean much, but then, it's surrealism we're dealing with, ain't it?

Of course, all of these redeeming qualities can't help the fact that unless you're a special type of guy, you won't find yourself wanting to put this on again any time soon. It was an important stage in Zappa's career, of course - he'd never venture that far out again, either because he found complete satisfaction in the album or, vice versa, because he understood its pointlessness and stupidity (I'd rather he'd taken the second way, but how can I penetrate the dark realms of Mr Frank's conscience?) So in a certain sense the album is the peak of the 1966-68 epoch - yeah, really! I mean it! The bad thing is that this was the album that probably inspired Lennon for his nasty fuck-ups at the tail end of the Sixties, and who knows how many more innumerable talentless rip-offs it has caused.

But I don't mind!! Time has gone and set all the wrongdoings right, so I just sit here and listen to this crap and think, 'hey man, whatever they say, it was way cool in the Sixties!' And one more thing - I got this album tacked on as a BONUS TRACK (no, make that TWO BONUS TRACKS) to my We're Only In It For The Money CD! Now that's what I call good luck - I get the best and the worst of Zappa's experimental work on one disc! I could say I just got it for free!! I didn't have to pay for Lumpy Gravy at all, you understand? Not one friggin' cent! Under these circumstances, I'm definitely not offended, and if you think that I don't rate this album because I hate it, please reconsider. As an 'avant-garde' art piece, this might get something like a 7/10 or 8/10 from me, that is, if I actually knew enough about avant-garde art to be able to rate it. Man I'm a really boring dude.

Of course, if you can find it for the same amount of money like I did, you're welcome to enjoy this record, one of the greatest chef-d'oeuvres in man's history. Otherwise - please pass. Greatest chef-d'ouevres lose their greatness when they are paid for with real money, now don't they?



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

More balanced and carefully crafted - but again, a little too much social-oriented. Certainly not Zappa's 'Sgt Pepper'.


Track listing: 1) Are You Hung Up?; 2) Who Needs The Peace Corps?; 3) Concentration Moon; 4) Mom & Dad; 5) Telephone Conversation; 6) Bow Tie Daddy; 7) Harry You're A Beast; 8) What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body; 9) Absolutely Free; 10) Flower Punk; 11) Hot Poop; 12) Nasal Retentive Calliope Music; 13) Let's Make The Water Turn Black; 14) The Idiot Bastard Son; 15) Lonely Little Girl; 16) Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance; 17) What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body (reprise); 18) Mother People; 19) The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny.

Considered to be Zappa's masterpiece and his peak with the Mothers - so if you're the kind of type that reads my reviews for fun and doesn't bother in the least about my opinion, you might as well start here; if you care for me a little more, I'd say Freak Out! is still a slightly more reasonable first buy.

What really makes the difference between this and all the previous releases is lyrics, of course - lyrics, lyrics and again lyrics. Where Freak Out! was a parody on mainstream musical fashion and Absolutely Free just a collection of incoherent noises with bits of social critique mixed in, WOIIFTM has one basic lyrical topic running through it: an uncompromised, total despise and denunciation of Flower Power. One of the two alternatively met album covers itself ridiculed Sgt Pepper (I must say, though, that the similarities start and end here; the only other thing reminiscent of Sgt Pepper is the mellow piano chord that concludes the album and is certainly supposed to remind you of the climax to 'A Day In The Life'), and about half of the tracks deal with the hippie movement, basically ripping it to pieces with lines like 'psychedelic dungeons popping out on every street' and 'hey Punk where you're going with those beads around your neck?/I'm going to the shrink so he can help me be a nervous wreck'. I'll be very honest here and say that most of the time the lyrics are nothing short of brilliant - Frank manages to hit the bullseye, ridiculing all the wretched excesses of the hipsters and exposing most of the movement's weaknesses. I do not suppose that a lot of people were buying the record at the time (I suppose a lot of people were blasphemizing it, though), but time has shown that no other artistic anti-hip statement was ever expressed with such force, conviction and sincerity as Money (well, one could argue that Pete Townshend did likewise in Tommy, but that was in a more oblique, veiled way, and anyway, Pete was always an idealist whereas Frank was always a nihilist - that's the main difference).

DISCLAIMER, people! While I say that the lyrics and the ideology of the record are brilliant, I certainly do NOT share the idea that all of Flower Power was a load of bullshit, and I believe that you shouldn't share it as well. Even if we do not mention the fact that hippies and hippism really made a massive positive effect in this world of ours (and they did), they at least made a lot of good music - damn it, I love all that Woodstock - Jefferson Airplane - Mamas & Papas - Janis Joplin - John Sebastian crap! There's good and bad music there, good and bad influences, but only a complete dork would throw all that enormous layer of cultural heritage away. There is no such thing as 'hippie crap' - there is good hippie stuff and bad hippie stuff, get it? And deep down in my bones, I hope that Frank was mostly ridiculing the bad hippie stuff - primarily drugs and 'freaking out', all those myriads of stoned kids for whom the hippie movement was just a pretext to drop out, not bother about working and being free to behave like pigs. (Not to mention that he actually does put at least part of the blame on the kids' parents that drove their children to such life, in 'Mom & Dad'). But this was not what the hippie ideology was really about - at least, not all of it. Forget that, though, we're not gonna start a discussion here. What I was really discussing were the ups and downs of We're Only In It For The Money, right? Well, I said that the lyrics are great; let's discuss the problems now.

The main problem is that the lyrics and the concept tend to overshadow everything else on the album. Whenever you read a general review of this album, you mostly get vague, but very 'important' descriptions of the record's status and innovations and how important it was for somebody like Zappa to pronounce a death sentence to the hippie movement, etc., etc. - and they never tell you about the music, forgetting about that in the process of raving. Well, this is where my critique steps in, and it's about the same as in the case of Absolutely Free - too many potentially good melodies abandoned in favour of 'originality' and, well, the shock factor, p'raps? There's one good thing about it, though: most of the tracks are really really short, ranging from three minutes to short half-minute snippets (there's a whole lot of nineteen tracks on the record!) In this way, whenever you fall upon a bad melody or an idiotic piece of noise ('Nasal Retentive Calliope Music', for instance), you may be sure it will not torture you for very long - quite soon it'll pass away and present you with something completely different. But the melodies themselves just don't have the appeal of tunes from Freak Out!. When they're good, they're generally better: 'Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance', a mock-hippie anthem features an amazing dance rhythm and is almost childish, with its hilarious falsetto vocals; the complex 'Mother People' has a groovy way of alternating fast jazzy parts with soft balladeering; 'Flower Punk' is an excellent parody on blues (apparently, the lines are imitating 'Hey Joe', but there's not much of a Hendrix feel to it in any case); and 'Who Needs The Peace Corps?' combines brutal anti-Frisco sneers with a really catchy pop melody. Some of the songs are still based on doo-wop: for instance, 'What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?' (don't worry, it's your mind), reprised twice throughout the album, that will make you laugh off your bellybutton.

Unfortunately, about quite as much tunes are forgettable - the boring waltz 'Absolutely Free', for instance, does nothing for me, despite providing us with the climactic moment of the record when somebody exclaims 'Flower power sucks!' 'The Idiot Bastard Son', 'Lonely Little Girl' and 'Harry You're A Beast' are also not among Frank's best - the lyrics are always good, but the melodies are either much too generic or non-existent. Another problem is that with all the humor and irony going on, one can simply get a headache. The only moment that at least partly approaches sincerity is Frank's nearly-sentimental rendition of 'Mom & Dad' where he paints a horrid picture of hip kids shot by cops in the park and blames the parents for their death: a slow, sad ballad underpinned by some pretty guitar lines and Frank's grand, almost pompous manner of singing. The rest is all, well, 'laughable'. Even though the laugh element here is overwhelming: from the very starting point, when the recording engineer starts whispering that he's going to erase all the Frank Zappa masters and leave 'blank empty spaces' and up to song names like 'Hot Poop' (Geez! Frank, really!!!), you're sure to be thoroughly entertained.

Actually, the only serious mess arrives at the very end, when Frank just cannot resist the temptation to end the album with the longest and, let's admit it, most unnecessary track on record, a lengthy psychedelic noise called 'The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny' that's much worse than 'The Return Of The Son Of The Monster Magnet' simply because it has none of these cool voices that made the 'jams' on Freak Out! tolerable. At six minutes length, it's excruciating, considering that none of the other songs run longer than three. It may be avantgarde and 'experimental', but... ????!!! Some kind of 'avantgarde'! For this, and also the fact that much of the short selections don't particularly interest me either, I deprived the album of about two or three points... but I gave it an extra one for the 'ooh, how cool-'ness and historical importance. Oh, and the lyrics! What lyrics! If you hate Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & The Fish, this should be the first record in your collection!

P. S. Here's a technical note for this album, presented in the form of Dan Watkins' response to my proud statement that I got both WOIIFTM and Lumpy Gravy on a single CD: "Ohhh, you got the remix and redubbed We're Only In It For The Money. You see, In '84 Frank had two band members redub the bass and drums on that album and Cruising With Ruben & The Jets. The two-fer CD is the redubbed and remixed version. The current CD restores the original mix. The two versions sound like two entirely different albums. The original mix sounds much older and a few lines of dialog and lyrics were censored (but appeared on the remixed CD). Actually, you were pretty lucky to get the two-fer. It's out of print and not too easy to find. You might want to check out the original mix though." Thanks, Dan!



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Zappa's desperate tribute to doo-wop that's actually the flip side to his noisy experimental albums.

Best song: Jesus, where do I start??..

Track listing: 1) Cheap Thrills; 2) Love Of My Life; 3) How Could I Be Such A Fool; 4) Deseri; 5) I'm Not Satisfied; 6) Jerry Roll Gum Drop; 7) Anything; 8) Later That Night; 9) You Didn't Try To Call Me; 10) Fountain Of Love; 11) No No No; 12) Anyway The Wind Blows; 13) Stuff Up The Cracks.

I usually hate reviewing albums like this one - transitional records, made exclusively on occasion and for the occasion, some kind of 'musical newspapers' to be listened to on the spur of the moment and be forgotten the next day. By no means is this an essential Zappa record, and the fact that I got it way before We're Only In It For The Money, the really substantial Frank product of 1968, only showcazes the crazyness of Russian record industry. And yet, this is such a hilariously strange record that I do find certain redeeming qualities here - not to mention the fact that it's eminently listenable.

The story in brief is as follows: 'Is this the Mothers of Invention recording under a different name in a last diten attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio?' asks a comically-looking, big-nosed Frank on the album cover, and that pretty much sums up everything. No, of course he never really wanted to get his songs played on the radio, or at least, not on the radio - the epithome of the commercial monster. This is yet another parody album, of course: a record that presents us a 'mainstream' (heh heh) Zappa, in fact, he's so blatantly, defiantly mainstream here that he almost makes us believe in it. You just need to take a look at Frank's photo on the back cover (hair cut and combed, no goatbeard, and a tie!!) to understand that there's just something not right about this record.

This is actually the main problem. There are thirteen songs on this record, and ALL are generic Fifties-style doo-wop and bop-pop in the finest traditions of Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon, whoever. The lyrics take banal love balladeering to the extreme, the melodies are derivative as hell, and Frank does not even sing here, contributing only 'low grumbles, oo-wah and lead guitar', leaving the singing to Ray Collins. Were this record to belong to somebody else, in fact, if it were a real Fifties record, we the 'intelligent' music lovers would probably spit on it and s*it on it. But to witness such a record come out from under the hands of Zappa is such a devastating shock that you can't but get interested. Kinda like, you know, as if Geri Haliwell would record her version of 'Thick As A Brick'.

Yes, Frank had been doing doo-wop before, as we all know. But that doo-wop was all fake, and you knew it from the start: you knew that it's actually a sardonic parody on the real thing and you loved it exactly for that. Here, though, it's totally different. If you're not told that this is Zappa from the start, you'll never guess it except for the fact that they re-record some songs off Freak Out!. Even so, Frank takes particular care that all the sharp, sarcastic moments be taken out from the songs: 'How Could I Be Such A Fool', 'I'm Not Satisfied', and 'You Didn't Try To Call Me' are all changed almost beyond recognition, with Frank's goatey vocals replaced by Collins' crystal clear, professional singing and all the background vocals perfectly 'normal'. My personal feeling is that only 'Any Way The Wind Blows' gains something from such a treat (especially in the vocal department), but you might hate this version, I just don't know.

As for the other songs, they are ultimately generic and yet catchy. Since I'm not a big specialist in Fifties music that ain't rock'n'roll, I wouldn't know whether Frank equals or betters his mainstream predecessors, but whatever be, I quite enjoy some of the material. There are some fine pop rockers, like the opening 'Cheap Thrills' and 'No No No', a couple of groovey Beach Boys-like ditties ('Deseri', 'Anything'), and only the slow ballads ('Love Of My Life', 'Fountain Of Love') suck mercilessly. Yet aren't they destined to suck? Read on to find this out... Actually, the only moment of revelation comes in the final number, 'Stuff Up The Cracks': first, the black humour in the lyrics suggest the presence of Frank at long last, and next, the song finishes with a two-minute furious wah-wah solo that has nothing to do with doo-wop at all: Frank gives it his all as if he's hoping to redeem himself for the whole album by putting as much of his soul as he can muster into these two minutes of music. A totally unexpected ending for the record, it again demonstrates mr Zappa in all of his splendid unpredictability.

The burning question that still haunts me can be formulated this way: is this really a sincere tribute to doo-wop, or is it one of these silly little mystifications that Frank was playing over and over throughout all of his life? Usually I incline to believe the latter, of course; yet these songs are so immaculate in their pseudo-nostalgic recreation of that atmosphere that each time I listen to the record, I tend to think that the former is more correct. Even the liner notes don't help much: phrases like 'this is an album of greasy love songs & cretin simplicity' certainly shows that Frank wasn't of a very high opinion about the songs and the genre as a whole, but they don't contradict the idea that he was still playing them out of a nostalgic passion for such music. We all have our little nostalgic child sitting deep within us, now don't we? Anyway, I'm stumped. If you know something about the true nature of this record, please E-mail me - let's sort it out together.

And one last thing: if I'm correct, the newer (post-1984) releases of this album all have re-recorded rhythm tracks imposed on them by Frank in the Eighties. Why he had to do this is beyond me, and since I haven't heard the original, I can't say which version's the better. Luckily, he didn't use drum machines: these would have sounded rather odd on pseudo-Fifties material, I guess.



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

A truly fascinating historic document, although kinda dated and useless without the visual side.


Track listing: 1) Prologue; 2) Progress?; 3) Like It Or Not; 4) The Jimmy Carl Black Philosophy Lesson; 5) Holding The Group Back; 6) Holiday In Berlin; 7) The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves The Stage; 8) Undaunted, The Band Plays On; 9) Agency Man; 10) Epilogue; 11) King Kong; 12) Help I'm A Rock; 13) Transylvania Boogie; 14) Pound For A Brown; 15) Sleeping In A Jar; 16) Let's Make The Water Turn Black; 17) Harry You're A Beast; 18) The Orange County Lumber Truck (part I); 19) Oh No; 20) The Orange County Lumber Truck (part II).

Hah! Now you know that Ruben & The Jets was just a big put-on - right at the same time when Frank was recording that tongue-in-cheek doo-wop tribute, they were playing this shit with the Mothers of Invention live? Holy Mother!... Even if the record was only released twenty-five years after the show actually took place, it's still not less interesting than it would be back then. Come to think of it, maybe more interesting, now that we might take a look back at Frank Zappa's scandalistic past and pat his friendly ghost on the shoulder... man, now I'm getting sentimental, don't let me go on like that! This is all taken from a single show that Frank Vincent Zappa and the Stepmothers Of Invention played somewhere in the fall of 1968 (I'm not sure if it includes the complete show, but it might as well do that, especially since Frank hints at the fact that they were playing fewer songs that evening because the subway closed early). The sound quality is fairly decent for an untrained ear like mine, at least, the actual 'musical part' is brilliantly recorded considering the early stages of recording techniques, and at least the audience doesn't seem to be willing to fix Zappa's mug with a rotten tomato or something (yeah, buddy, those were the times when he could just make a bunch of fart noises and safely pass it off as art).

The show itself is divided in two parts. The first part is generally more entertaining to my ears, even if it's also the one that's more avant-garde. It consists of a half-improvised 'play' with a plot where several members of the Mothers, disappointed with the band's totally 'freaky' and 'progressive' style, leave to form a new group and get transformed into robots; meanwhile, Don Preston and Ian Underwood hold audition for several other members to see whether they can easily fit into their 'progressive' combo. As for Frank himself, he acts the role of God the Father, standing in a corner and commenting on various actions of the band. It's all exceedingly funny, with a brilliant remark let out now and then ('how are you gonna get laid if you don't play rock'n'roll and drink beer?' is my favourite). And what's more important, it almost justifies the murky avant-garde 'classical' passages, where the Mothers are aided by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I'd probably hate this stuff otherwise, just like I wasn't all that pleased with the excessive noise on Lumpy Gravy; however, in the context of the 'play' it suddenly makes sense and mostly adds to the general fun.

The letdown is that all of these things aren't really music - they're essentially just show elements, and do you really need to listen to this show again and again when you don't even see what's happening onstage (like Frank dressing drummer Jimmy Carl Black in a Jimi Hendrix wig etc.)? The only thing at least vaguely reminiscent of 'music' is the silly childish tune 'Agency Man' where Frank puts up an ad for a president, but it's also disjointed and quite loose most of the time.

So the second part, starting with an eight-minute version of 'King Kong', one of Frank's then-favourite stage numbers, is pure music - so pure, in fact, that there are almost no vocals at all. Instead, the band just ploughs on through their standards and improvisations, ripping the standards to shreds ('Help I'm A Rock' is just one and a half minute long; 'Let's Make The Water Turn Black' is less than two minutes and seems speeded up) and reveling in their jammy, improvised splendour. This is the Mothers at their peak - and, while the playing skills of the individual members are in no way comparable with those of some of Frank's later bands (the Roxy ensemble, for instance, makes this particular one sound like a nursery room rehearsal), they compensate for it with a certain ease and improvisatory fury that's completely lacking on the same later releases.

Frankly speaking, quite a few of these lengthy passages suck; of course, it's mostly jazz, a genre that I was never an expert in, but I do not think it is exceedingly good jazz: 'King Kong', like all of its subsequent versions, is deadly overlong, and, while 'Transylvania Boogie' starts as a 'boogie' indeed, it is soon 'bogged' down. So, actually, the place where it all comes together is 'Let's Make The Water Turn Black': the tune sets a stable, fast and steady rhythm that gets transferred on to the following tunes and reaches a climax on the second part of 'The Orange Country Lumber Truck'. This is the moment where Frank quits all the crap and lets loose with a furious, exorcisizing solo that's currently my bet for one of his best ever - speedy, heavy, dazzling and driving on. Funny how the show starts so 'progressive' and then gets so 'mainstream', eh? Frank was really a master of genre-combining: while the album begins as a paradise for avant-garde freakouts, it ends like an Eldorado for blues-rock aficionados.

My question is: how come it's Peter Gabriel that's usually considered as the father of 'rock theatre'? Isn't this an early incarnation of 'rock theatre'? Oh, okay, this is probably an early incarnation of 'jazz theatre'. But it still rocks. Not one of Frank's best, of course, because all the noise and improv stuff can really mess up one's nerves, but a perfect document of the original Mothers' freaky live charm. And don't forget the hilarious album cover, too!



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Nifty pot of jazzy ideas here, even if I miss the guitar. The movie stuff is prime hogwash, though.


Track listing: CD I: 1) Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme; 2) The Voice Of Cheese; 3) Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution; 4) Zolar Czakl; 5) Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague; 6) The Legend Of The Golden Arches; 7) Louie Louie; 8) The Dog Breath Variations; 9) Sleeping In A Jar; 10) Our Bizarre Relationship; 11) The Uncle Meat Variations; 12) Electric Aunt Jemima; 13) Prelude To King Kong; 14) God Bless America (Live At The Whisky A Go Go); 15) A Pound For A Brown On The Bus; 16) Ian Underwood Whips It Out; 17) Mr Green Genes; 18) We Can Shoot You; 19) "If We'd All Been Living In California..."; 20) The Air; 21) Project X; 22) Cruising For Burgers;

CD II: 1) Uncle Meat Film Excerpt Part I; 2) Tengo Na Minchia Tanta; 3) Uncle Meat Film Excerpt Part II; 4) King Kong Itself; 5) King Kong II; 6) King Kong III; 7) King Kong IV; 8) King Kong V; 9) King Kong VI.

A seven for the CD version; the original vinyl edition deserves a high eight or low nine, whatever. See, the record sports the subtitle "(Most Of The Music From The Mothers' Movie Of The Same Name Which We Haven't Got Enough Money To Finish Yet)". Now it's not exactly well-known if Frank actually did plan to release a movie as early as 1969; some action and bizarre scenery were shot indeed, but the work was never completed. Until the Eighties, that is - when Frank found some free time on his hands and actually got around to putting the final touches on the product. I haven't seen the movie, but most fans condemn it as something really outrageous, and if even diehards twirl their noses at it, I suppose I'd better steer clear. The only good thing that's being said about it (as voiced by Dan Watkins in a reader comment above) is that it features the entire 'play' released on Ahead Of Their Time.

Where I'm actually heading to is to say that the new Rykodisc CD edition of the album is far more movie-based than the original vinyl release, and therefore it sucks. I'm not the kind of person to condemn Frank for re-recording the bass and drums parts on We're Only In It For The Money and stuff like that: after all, songs are songs, and I don't give a damn. But this, this is intolerable. The second CD begins with an interminable section of idiotic dialogue that goes absolutely nowhere. It's not funny, it's not provocative, it's repetitive, it's more than half an hour long, and for the most part it's dedicated to... you guessed it... bizarre sex. Okay, they do talk about the movie, too, sometimes, but mostly it's just a girl called Phyllis (groupie?) falling in love with Don Preston who keeps transforming into a monster. The phrase that gets repeated most of the time is 'I'm using the chicken to measure it', and you don't have to guess what is meant by 'it'. Then, after you can't take any more, you get a dose of sheer stupidity in 'Tengo Na Minchia Tanta' ('I've Got A Bunch Of Dick' in the Naples dialect of Italian), sung, or, more exactly, muttered by an Italian journalist. It's just about four or five lines of gross Italian text repeated over and over again, and what the hell, the number's not even 'ancient' - it was recorded around 1980 or 1981, with cheesy synths and an atmosphere completely uncompatible with the rest of the album. And to top it off, you get a second snippet of dialogue. Altogether, that makes up for about forty-five minutes of untolerable crap; I only sat through this once and refuse to listen to it again - hell, Lumpy Gravy looks like a lost extract from Schopenhauer after this stuff. And after making a few simplistic calculations, I realized that having thrown out all this shit, they could have simply taken the rest of the second CD ('King Kong') and put it on the first one, which would result in a cute little 77-minute delight for the ears. Instead, you have to pay twice. It's like buying a Pentium-II and having to throw in additional money for a rusty 8088... Crap. Buy the tape instead of the CD; as far as I know, there's no movie stuff on that one. Luckily, I didn't have to puy more than five bucks for the double CD.

Well, never mind. The rest of the album is quite solid. If you leave out the archive release of Ahead Of Their Time, Uncle Meat is the first Zappa CD to indicate the radical change of direction the Mothers would take for this and much of the following year. By now, Frank is mainly concentrating on the instrumental avantgarde jazz stuff, either leaving the lyrics out completely or just making them completely meaningless. It almost seems that, after reaching the peak of his satirical spirit on Money, Frank decided not to repeat himself and, moreover, distance himself from the tag of 'tongue-in-cheek sardonic geek'. Back then, this meant that Uncle Meat had alienated quite a few fans from good old Frank; many simply convicted him as a tripped-out old geezer who had abandoned his true vocation to pursue a pointless experimental trail. The most dedicated, however, remained, and you should, too.

Because a lot of this stuff is very interesting. No, even after throwing out every damn soundtrack bit I'm still not head over heels with the finished project. Even on the first CD, there's way too much fillerish dialogue - some of it autobiographical ("If We'd All Been Living In California..."), some 'nostalgic' ('The Voice Of Cheese', once again reintroducing the favourite female character Suzy Creamcheese), all of it not very necessary. And maybe I'm sacrilegious, but I've never been a great fan of 'King Kong', one of Frank's most notorious magna opera, that fills all of the space on Disc 2 which isn't already filled up with the soundtrack garbage. It is, of course, funny how Frank separated the tune into six different, separately indexed tracks, and it also makes it easier to sit through the entire thing; but I still think that there's no real coherency to the number, and for the most part it's just a solid launchpad for some of the Mothers' jamming. That said, it's certainly not bad; I just can't see the reason for the outstanding reverence that fans pay it. There's not even a single memorable theme on here, dammit.

The song material on disc 1, however, is an entirely different matter; and once you've shelled it out and laid it on, say, 45 minutes of tape, this can certainly qualify as a perfect ten for Frank. Few of these performances are self-indulgent, none are too lengthy, and most are rhythmic, lightweight and lighthearted. The main theme to 'Uncle Meat', opening the album, is my bet for the best of these: terrific vibes, cool martial rhythms and a pretty childish atmosphere that's really inviting - ah, if only the entire album would match that atmosphere. ('Peaches En Regalia' off the following album is more or less in the same vein). 'Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution' at first seems pretty dissonant, but, like Mike DeFabio actually pointed out on the Prindle site, it actually isn't - it's in 4/4. Heh heh. It also gives you a nice insight into Frank playing acoustic (or, at least, acoustic-imitating electric); he's got a nice technique, and he sometimes inserts very Claptonesque bluesy licks that are plain awesome. 'Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague' is something special, too: spooky and hilarious at the same time, with a slight Spanish tinge about it and gracious saxophones lifting up the main theme and sending it into the open air. The funny vocal melodies make the tune one of the most important links to Zappa's past, yet at the same time the mighty brass section throws it into the future - that's how I judge it, at least.

After a couple throwaways, you get more of the same in 'Dog Breath Variations' which are even more pleasant than the 'main' composition. More tasty acoustic, a relaxing organ, and that trademark 'kindness' that's oh so evident in Zappa's best works. 'Sleeping In A Jar' is fifty seconds long, but during its fifty seconds it has somehow managed to transform into one of my favourite 'lullabies' - not that anybody could really fall asleep while listening to it, of course. 'The Uncle Meat Variations' is Ian Underwood's show all the way, with a magnificent harpsichord part; a streak of medievalism is evident here, working all too well on an album that ranges among Frank's most diverse ones musically - did I mention that yet? The variety of styles on here is immense... evidenced by the doo-wop sendup 'Electric Aunt Jemima', which again ties the record to the past; the song seems to come straight out of the Freak Out! vibe, except that it's a bit more experimental; 'electric' indeed. Then the band plays the jazzy 'Prelude To King Kong', before switching off to a sloppy, drunken version of 'God Bless America', said to be recorded live at the Whisky A Go Go. Hmm, indeed, what a better place could there be for recording the tune? Back to 'child jazz' on 'A Pound For A Brown On The Bus', and tap it off with the only moment of (deserved) self-indulgence, 'Ian Underwood Whips It Out' (live on stage in Copenhagen), where said Ian really whips it out on the sax. Go, Ian, go! Show those jazzy snobs a trick or two! Yeehaw!

Ahem. Sorry. 'Mr Green Genes' is shorter and less impressive than its 'Son' on Hot Rats, but quite a soothing tune nevertheless. 'The Air' is another doo-wop masterpiece; 'Project X' is five minutes of tolerable dissonance; and 'Cruising For Burgers' is, well, a good enough conclusion for Disc 1, though I'd be hard pressed to come up with something more intelligent to say about it.

In any case, Uncle Meat is a solid project if only because of its span. It's like a Mother Panorama, you see? I don't know if the movie was actually designed as a "Mothers" documentary (maybe it was, but Zappa was far too weird to confess it), but the album, or, at least, Disc 1 of the current CD edition, works fine as a sort of mini-encyclopaedia of the band at the time. The only thing I sorely miss is the lack of one or two electric thunderstorms from Frank himself; but it's plain to see that on Uncle Meat the man is trying to be as democratic as possible. I mean, if there is one album in among Frank's entire catalogue that would have to just sport 'The Mothers Of Invention' on it, no 'Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention', it would have to be Uncle Meat, right? That's why the liner notes are so keen on telling us everything about every band member.

As it is, you still get a lot - serious jazz, lightweight jazz, doo-wop, dissonant classical, acoustic shuffles, medieval stylizations, whatever. Heck, I think I don't even mind the short dialogue bits on the first CD that seriously; they do add a bit to the impression, once you've really concentrated on the 'learning' rather than the 'enjoying' process ('Our Bizarre Relationship' sure can raise an eyebrow or two, though). However, the crap-filled Disc 2 is a completely different matter. Find the tape or the old vinyl disc, people. Please. You'll be lucky if you can find a CD edition of this stuff for five bucks, like I did.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Frank blowing the fuse. Or was it 'the fusion'? Heh heh. A bunch of crappy, boring, amazing, genial tunes.


Track listing: 1) Peaches En Regalia; 2) Willie The Pimp; 3) Son Of Mr Green Genes; 4) Little Umbrellas; 5) The Gumbo Variations; 6) It Must Be A Camel.

First of all, that's not Frank on the front cover. That's some chick. Do you think good old Frank could really have resisted the chance to warm our hearts One More Time with the sight of his goatee? No, no, that's a groupie or somebody else - don't bug me, I'm no trivia provider.

Now what was I talking about? Oh, yeah. This album's very good, indeed. It ain't as great as many people often put it - 'breathtaking' and 'groundbreaking' and 'mindshaking' and all that. Leave these epithets for the Beatles. It does break some new ground, of course; but you'd be surprised to hear me say that, indeed, I like the record so much because it is NOT as experimental as it is always hailed. Weasels Ripped My Flesh is experimental, and much of it is shit. Lumpy Gravy... you get my drift. No, on Hot Rats Frank proved again that when he wanted, he could find that perfect balance between 'experiment' and 'enjoyability' that's often lost in his more avantgarde and 'crazyass' work.

The record is mostly instrumental - the only vocals come on 'Willie The Pimp', courtesy of Captain Beefheart - but, believe it or not, it does have melodies, and is perfectly enjoyable as solid background music. It's also rather hard to classify it in any way. Many fans describe it as 'jazzy', but it doesn't seem all that jazzy to me - after all, extensive use of brass instruments doesn't exactly guarantee you're in jazz. And 'Willie The Pimp' doesn't even have any brass at all. I'd say that, while the arrangements do seem a bit jazzy from time to time, the harmonies and beats are more in the rock territory - in this way, we have to deal with one of the first significant ventures into what is called 'fusion' territory. Or, maybe, 'jazz-rock' territory (I still can't quite figure the difference between the two).

Note, also, that the album is not credited to the Mothers - this is Frank's official solo project, and maybe the record's compactness and - howdja say it? - 'non-tunelessness' have a lot to do with the fact that he wasn't just fooling around with his regular team of jackasses (no offense). For those who can easily stand forty-five minutes of boooorrring fusion, Hot Rats might even serve as a perfect introduction to Frank's musical versatility: you can easily buy this record and not be disgusted with the man's main flaws (i.e. unlimited whackery and obscene lyrics).

Not that I really want to say everything on here is boring - if that were the case, the album would never receive such a high rating. It's just that there are but six tunes on the record, and three of them go over eight minutes, a slight trouble that can eventually let you down. On the other hand, Frank never puts you off with his most nasty trick - that is, flish-flashing bits and snippets of a zillion musical themes before your eyes while you can hardly concentrate on what's playing. Each of the themes is given enough time, space and will to be developed and carried out to its natural conclusion. And even when that is not so, he structures all the 'multi-part' experiences in a clever way. The album opener, 'Peaches En Regalia', which is one of his trademark tunes to this day, brilliantly showcases that: it's like a short, four-minute overture to the rest, alternating about a dozen different themes that range from pure jazz (brass-dominated) to folk (flute and steel guitar-dominated). There's even some artificially sped up drumming going on, for Chrissake! And the main theme is very much in that same 'childish-jazz' style that was so prominent on all the early Mothers' albums, so I can't help but like the song.

'Willie The Pimp', then, is my second favourite song on here. Frank bases the song on a gruff hard rock riff which he plays in unison with Sugar Cane Harris' violin and Captain Beefheart singing the hilarious lyrics in a schizophrenic, yet funny voice (it'd get worse from then on - check my Bongo Fury review). After a couple minutes of vocals, though, the song is transformed into a guitar fiesta - Frank just throttles his guitar and refuses to let go for about six or seven minutes. I don't really mind - it's one of these solos that really grab me, and the song should be listened to loud and preferrably in headphones: Frank grabs you and refuses to give you even a tiny second of rest as he pours down his flurry of angry, pissed-off notes at the listener, never even changing the key (I guess). At times, I feel like I'm going to sleep, but every now and then the solo still gets me out of my slumber and soars and soars... truly impressive.

I do not suppose, though, that I could describe the other four tunes equally well. I think that the two shorter compositions, 'Little Umbrellas' and 'It Must Be A Camel', are really the weakest on here: they're too short (in relativity, of course - 'Camel' drags on for five minutes) to really be understood and assimilated, and rather scant on musical ideas. On the other hand, 'Son Of Mr Green Genes' returns us to the pleasant 'childish jazz' atmospheres, and 'The Gumbo Variations' are, well, might I say 'danceable'? That bassline, it's almost a disco one... hee hee. Plus, 'Son Of Mr Green Genes' has more stunning guitar workouts from Frank, and 'Variations' have more stunning violin workouts from Sugar Cane, although I certainly could do without the lengthy sax solo.

Some people will probably complain about the solos, but my personal opinion is that the solos actually save the record. I mean, I'd rather hear an intense, electrifying solo than have the band drag through half a dozen so-so rhythm sections. Not that the rhythm sections suck on here, of course: they don't. And the band is good - the music sounds fresh and invigorating, and overall, more interesting and definitely more groundbreaking than Frank's conceptual jazz-rock albums of 1972 like The Grand Wazoo. And, of course, more rocking. Rock on, Frank!



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

And he blows it (the fuse, that is) once again. Modern classical at its most convincing.


Track listing: 1) WPLJ; 2) Igor's Boogie, Phase 1; 2) Overture To A Holiday In Berlin; 3) Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich; 4) Igor's Boogie, Phase 2; 5) Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown; 6) Aybe Sea; 7) The Little House We Used To Live In; 8) Valerie.

Now this is the kind of record that really makes me understand why so many fans are absolutely devoted to Zappa - lock, stock, and barrel. For me, Sandwich is an even more attractive piece of music than Hot Rats (no kidding - I do realise I'm alone on that one, though). If you're looking for the Mothers in full flight and in all their bliss, demonstrating why their music was indeed so important, innovative and exciting, this is definitely the place to start.

Chronologically, Burnt Weeny Sandwich was supposed to initiate a certain 'Zappa/Mothers retrospective' that Zappa planned to put together already after the original Mothers dispersed and were no more (and Flo and Eddie were forthcoming). He never got further than the second volume, though - the infamous Weasels Ripped My Flesh; but the project itself was highly laudable, considering that the Mothers had played tons of shows all across the States and had left behind kilometers of tape with all kinds of improvisations, jams, and gimmicks. And now it also seems to me that the cream of the cream of these shows was put by Frank on the very first tape - if Weasels wasn't an intentional nasty groove designed to freak out the fans, of course.

The record is somewhat deceptive, being framed by two 'generic' doo-wop numbers ('WPLJ' and 'Valarie'); both are great fun, though, especially 'WPLJ' with its hilarious alcoholic lyrics and crazy Spanish monolog at the end, while 'Valarie' is supposed to put us in a romantic mood, and succeeds at that. (Both songs are covers of doo-wop bands the Four Deuces and Jackie and the Starlites, if you're really interested). But in between the two you'll hardly find any vocals at all, not to mention doo-wop: all the material there is devoted to Frank and the band exercising themselves at some inspired work in the jazz-fusion and modern classical genres. And as much as I'm usually scared of Zappa instrumental records, there's not a single bad tune on here - this time. Everything works out smooth and fine.

For starters, there is just a teeny-weeny bit of dissonance, on the two parts of 'Igor's Boogie', a title that's again as funny as it is deceiving: 'Igor' might, of course, be a reference to Stravinsky, but as for 'boogie', well... Basically, it's just thirty seconds of prime dissonance, reprised twice; but who cares if it's so short? It can qualify as a special introduction to the actual tunes, which aren't dissonant at all: they flow on steady and self-assuredly, practically never falling apart.

'Overture To A Holiday In Berlin' is first, and it's very much in the 'Peaches En Regalia' style: soft, relaxing, welcome jazzy sound, made tender and slightly eighteenth-centuriesque by Ian Underwood's superb harpsichord. The sound, then, is immediately diversified by throwing us into the 'Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich', a somewhat more earthy jam with Frank flashing his chops for several minutes. It is, however, enlivened very much by all the percussion noises around it, which transform it from an ordinary rocking piece into a bizarre rocking piece (way to go, Jimmy Carl Black!) 'Holiday In Berlin' itself isn't one of my favourites, but I have nothing against it; beginning as an improvisation around the main theme of 'Let's Make The Water Turn Black', it then proceeds to become an almost cabaret-style jazz salutation - not too surprising, considering the title.

The next two numbers, though, are the ones that really make the record worth acuqiring. 'Aybe Sea' is certainly a rare pearl in Frank's catalog. It's but three minutes long, and very easy to miss in the context of the album: I myself often have trouble with assimilating all Zappa's compositions on a certain record separately, but hey, if ye happen to browse through this here review, heed my reminding: listen to this tune seriously. The main star here is Ian Underwood with his piano and harpsichord improvisations (mostly just 'covered' with an acoustic guitar and a bass). What I wish to say is that this is a rare case of modern classical actually sounding emotional - my main problem with 20th century classical music is that far too often, it sounds just like a composer is trying to find some new, previously unexploited chord progressions, completely neglecting the golden rule - music is good music as long as it means something to the listener. And 'Aybe Sea' manages to exploit these new sounds without Frank's usual self-indulgence: it's really pretty, gentle and somewhat melancholic, with not even a trace of the usual sarcasm and sneering that - and I do mean it - is evident in at least ninety-nine percent of everything Frank ever wrote. And what a cool title.

Almost seamlessly, 'Aybe Sea' then flows into 'The Little House I Used To Live In', the magnum opus of the record. A multi-part suite, it is so diverse, energetic, full of ingenious ideas and, at long last, rocking (yeah, jazz-fusion can rock, too!), that its eighteen minutes can pass almost unnoticed. A minute of Ian's piano improvs - and off we go, full blast into the fire: trumpets and guitars blazing from every corner, with Frank flashing his wah-wah pedal, and then comes perhaps the best part: Sugar Cane Harris with arguably his best violin solo ever. If people tell you violins can't rock out, don't believe them; just put on your trusty Sandwich and dig in to the most energetic, vicious tearing apart of an electric violin the world has ever heard. Afterwards, a lot of things keep happening - they speed up and slow down, pass the baton to the harpsichord, to the violin again, to the vibes and guitars, etc., etc.; at the last notes, you're left exhausted, only to witness somebody shout to Frank 'Take that uniform off!' and Frank replying 'Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, don't kid yourself!' And 'Valarie'.

Of course, when you're dealing with somebody as complex, weird and unpredictable as Frank, it's practically impossible to tell your favourites - currently, Burnt Weeny Sandwich amazes me more than Hot Rats ever could. It can change, of course; but I still think that judging by the level of energy, diversity and the number of sheer 'curiosities' (the 'doo-wop frame', the solemn seriousness of 'Aybe Sea', the funny onstage replicas, etc.), Sandwich is a more satisfying record. It really gives one tremendous insight into Zappa's genius, if he ever had one. I do hate the album cover, though - ugly, disgusting and thoroughly incomparable with any of the moods on the record. That bloody hand with cut-off fingers makes me sick! Yeeeoouw!



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Some more live stuff, but without an edge this time, more for the experienced fan.


Track listing: 1) Didja Get Any Onya?; 2) Directly From My Heart To You; 3) Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask; 4) Toads Of The Short Forest; 5) Get A Little; 6) The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue; 7) Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula; 8) My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama; 9) Oh No; 10) The Orange County Lumber Truck; 11) Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

Yet another in a large series of live performances/studio outtakes collections assembled and released by Frank around 1970, Weasels Ripped My Flesh isn't really a heck of a great album, apart from the groovy album cover, of course. This one has eleven tracks, all recorded around 1967-69 with the original Mothers, and out of these eleven tracks, only about a half are worth any bother at all.

For the most part, the band members just stand around and play their usual atonal jazz jams - and when I say 'atonal', I don't mean half-measures: it's easier to discern a melody in an 'N Sync tune than on any of the more daring tracks here (that's not to denigrate Zappa, of course). From time to time, however, they dilute them with a funny rock song or an 'experimental' blues cover. The good word is that most of this stuff is definitely more listenable than the worst stuff on Ahead Of Their Time: apart from the final title track and a couple of other moments, they mostly do music, not just bunches of cacophonous noise like in their famous 'play'. So I can easily play this record throughout, all forty minutes of it, without getting too much of a headache. That, however, does not mean that I have to enjoy all of it likewise. Out of the five main 'jazz' compositions, only the bizarre 'Toads Of The Short Forest' really attracts my attention, with its interesting structure and a title that matches the song essence (Frank keeps abusing his froggy wah-wah pedal on that one), plus, somewhere in the middle Frank proudly declares all the time signatures in which the band members are playing simultaneously, combining practics with theory, so to speak. And well, maybe I could tolerate a few more listens to 'Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask', a song that also matches its title perfectly because the band members simulate a strange laughing fit from time to time. That's it, though - the other songs may sport hilarious titles for as much as I care, they don't do jack for me. After all, a seven minutes running time is a wee bit high for 'songs' like 'Didja Get Any Onya?' or 'The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue', don't you think? Not to mention that avantgarde jazzmen had already done this before and better, I simply can't see any point in this kind of music - and nobody has ever been able to express it to me, as of yet.

Fortunately, the album's, and Frank's, butt is saved by the inclusion of some really worthy material as well. There's the cover of R. W. Penniman's (aka Little Richard's, of course) 'Directly From My Heart To You', a spotlight for Don Harris, who both sings and plays electric violin on it. Now as for his singing, I could care less, but that violin is impressive - I don't really know if somebody sometimes does that, but have you ever heard a generic blues song with a violin as the lead instrument? Not me! Moreover, as an incredibly witty lead instrument, imitating both guitar and harmonica at times, ooh, that one's really cool. Then there's also the short, but exciting 'Get A Little', a tune that distinguishes itself in my memory as the one where Frank does a little Hendrix-job - picking up a wah-wah and playing some tasty bluesy licks exactly a la Jimi (no, I don't want to say I'm a great fan of Jimi's blues playing - but a little bit of it won't hurt on any record, certainly not on a Zappa one). And, of course, the only well-known Zappa classic you'll find here is the anti-social jabbery of 'My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama', a brassy, catchy and mean rocker that, regardless of all its advantages, nevertheless would be considered filler on a truly classic Zappa record: heck, I think it's worse than 'Penguin In Bondage', for goddamn sake. Here, though, it stands out as the album's high point.

Now, the second half of the record is really more worthwhile - apart from 'My Guitar', there's a lyrics-complete version of 'Oh No', sung by Ray Collins in an overblown, operatic manner, and a three-minute (hah!) version of that terrific band & Frank-guitar showcase, 'The Orange County Lumber Truck'. Here, of course, it's not as noticeable as on the ferocious version off of Ahead Of Their Time: Frank does play some interesting guitar, but nowhere near as fast, aggressive or energetic as on that one. I do suppose the variant here is an abbreviated one, though, but if you happen to like it, be sure to check out Ahead. The number still rumbles and grumbles along as expected, as if you were trudging down along the road doing a hundred and twenty. But, of course, this is bound to get you in the wrong place - and the track (un)predictably ends abruptly and launches into a few wild laughs and the most defiant track - one and a half minute of pure, essential, unadulterated noise making (title track), before Frank says 'good night' and everybody quits. Fascinating, isn't it?

Maybe not too much. I can't really give this one anything higher than a six, because all the atonal jazz filler does one job: much as I like some of the tracks on here, I almost never listen to the record because I hate blundering through Frank's user-unfriendly ambitions. Well, come to think of it, I still like this one more than Grand Wazoo, I'll admit. For one thing, the Mothers were indeed an interesting band to listen to - you never know which direction they will turn to next. Completely unpredictable. One minute they're playing a jazz shuffle in 7/8 and the next minute they start to rock out in 4/4. And these titles? 'Dwarf Nebula Processional March?' Imagine that!



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Rock fans could start here - this is fairly accessible stuff, and extremely guitar-heavy, too.


Track listing: 1) Transylvania Boogie; 2) Road Ladies; 3) Twenty Small Cigars; 4) The Nancy & Mary Music; 5) Tell Me You Love Me; 6) Would You Go All The Way?; 7) Chunga's Revenge; 8) The Clap; 9) Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink; 10) Sharleena.

This album marks Frank's transition into the Flo and Eddie period - a period which the fans mostly have a love-or-hate relation with. At this point, Frank's trusty Mothers were joined by Mark Vollman and Howard Kaylan of the Turtles' fame, better known as The Phlorescent Leech (Flo for short) and Eddie. What the hell did Frank really need these guys for is just one of these little mysteries that follows the man. They didn't play no instruments and weren't supreme vocalists, either - in fact, quite often they sing out of tune (no kidding). For the most part, Flo and Eddie just play the role of stunt-performers, adding bits of silly (read: obscene) comedy and blatantly stupid tricks to Frank's usual performance job. This has enraged many of Frank's lovers to death, for what reason, I'm not sure: I suspect it's a matter of jealousy, as Flo and Eddie's sense of perverted humor was overshadowing Frank's own sense of perverted humor, and the fact that he was deliberately hiding himself behind these dudes' backs from time to time simply annoys those who - quite justly - believe that the man was a million times more clever and professional at 'pulling stunts' than these two leechy poseurs. On the positive side, Flo and Eddie never messed with the music, and even if their behaviour pisses the hell out of you, you can just pretend you don't know English and be off with it.

Not that Flo and Eddie are able to spoil much of Chunga's Revenge. The album is, to a large point, instrumental, and even when the ex-Turtles do sing lead vocals on here, they do it with verve and dedication, so that it's hardly possible to blame them at all. Moreover, for those who are more of a 'blues-rock' constitution than a 'jazz-fusion' one, the album will be a real treat, maybe even more so than Hot Rats: the tunes on here are far more rocking, with quite a few songs featuring no brass instruments at all and the emphasis being primarily on Frank's guitar. Even when Ian Underwood gets a mighty sax solo on the title track, he is adding a wah-wah pedal to the instrument so that it sounds more like something you pinch than something you blow.

A couple of the tracks do degenerate into show-offs at times, with Frank's guitar playing professional and immaculate as usual, but not at his technical best - I could, for instance, cut off a large chunk of 'The Nancy & Mary Music' and not feel much difference. Not to mention that Aunsely Dunbar's drum solo on that one is surprisingly uneffective - he's a skilled drummer, no doubt about that, but he thrashes the cymbals so much it sounds more like a mess than a demonstration of talents. I actually like Flo and Eddie's 'scat drum solo' at the end of the track far better - it's about the only time that the dudes really get to do something 'stunt-like' on the record, and it's so silly and funny that it actually works. And, while the sax solo on the title track is effective, it's again followed by uninspired guitar passages that apparently catch a very relaxed and absent state of Frank's mind.

Much better is the version of 'Transylvania Boogie' captured on here - especially considering the slick way in which the band suddenly changes tempo midway through and passes from the paranoid jazzy beat to a relaxed bluesy shuffle. 'Twenty Small Cigars' is a bit too short to make head or tails of it, but the guitar/harpsichord interplay is quite cute. And 'The Clap'? 'The Clap' is a parody on a drum solo! (Not Aunsley Dunbar's drum solo, just about any drum solo). Frank records a minute-and-a-half pastiche where he shows that, well, he can play drums too, overdubbing some silly wooden block tapping over a regular drum pattern. Note that the composition bears no similarity to Steve Howe's acoustic showcase 'The Clap', recorded a year later, although the obvious interest that both gentlemen shared towards sexually transmitted diseases might be worth noting.

As for the vocal tracks, most are swell - it's blues, baby, basic hot blues-rock it is, with a bit of doo-wop thrown in now and then to diversify the proceedings. 'Tell Me You Love Me' virtually burns the house down, more so than 'My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama' - the leaden, brontosauric riff and the wah-wah staccato soloing, intertwined with Flo and Eddie's roaring intonations, rock harder than practically anything Frank had recorded in that epoch. 'Road Ladies' is an unveiled attack on groupies, as is obvious from the title, with an incredibly silly and captivating groove going on; 'Would You Go All The Way?' sounds dangerous, but I'm a bit pressed as to what the song's message really is - regardless, I'm quite surprised at how the song manages to be so sing-along and catchy at one moment and so complex and weird-tempoed in another during its two and a half minutes; 'Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink' is Frank attacking unions; and 'Sharleena' finishes the record on a beautiful, simplistic note with one more tribute to Frank's beloved doo-wop idols. Actually, the song is a hybrid between traditional R'n'B and doo-wop, and now that I think of it, the melody is actually not so simplistic at all. It's strange, though, that at times the number really sweeps aside all parodic connotations and starts looking like a sincere love song - when Frank and the ex-Turtles guys blurt out the lines 'CRYING... for Sharleena... don't you kno-o-ow?', I almost catch a faint sniff of genuine emotion. (No kidding). Three cheers for old Zappa here, although in the long run I still prefer the lengthy version on Lost Episodes - on there, 'Sharleena' was really transformed into an anthemic, majestic showcase of everything that I so love about Frank.

As a whole, though, it's easy to see why this period was starting to spook off fans: Frank was obviously flirting with stripped-down rock music at the time, diminishing the role of the Mothers and emphasizing guitars and more simple, accessible melodies. In this respect, Chunga's Revenge is nowhere near as innovative or groundbreaking as Hot Rats or Uncle Meat (not to mention Lumpy Gravy), but it's still Zappa, and it's as far from 'conventional rock'n'roll' as can only be imaginable. And I, for one, dig that sound: besides the fact that it's rarely dull due to its parodic nature, it's full and engaging. Sometimes I even get the sacrilegious thought that Frank was actually far better at doing blues-rock stuff than doing fusion stuff, but hey, that's me, and I have my own perverse musical tastes...



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

The musical chaos of the second side is pretty confusing - the first side chaos isn't even truly musical!


Track listing: 1) Billy The Mountain; 2) Call Any Vegetable; 3) Eddie Are You Kidding?; 4) Magdalena; 5) Dog Breath.

Cue on in. The last appearance of Flo and Eddie on a Zappa record, a marking-time record at that, the one that separates "Zappa and the Mothers" from "Zappa", essentially, even if the "Mothers" would make apparition on selected later albums. Anyway, this is a second entirely live album of the Flo and Eddie lineup, and one that tends to confuse fans quite often. True enough, I don't know if it's really possible to appreciate the record from a purely musical standpoint. Heck, the front cover alone says it all. We're getting more goofy, man.

Let's start from side two, as the record itself provokes pretty antipodal reactions. Is it any good at all? I frankly don't know. This is not what you'd expect from the "normal" Mothers - all of the four tracks on this side contain no lengthy instrumental passages and are clearly intent on showcasing Flo and Eddie rather than the actual musicians in question. 'Call Any Vegetable' is significantly reworked just to let the two goofballs and ol' Frank exchange some more snappy nonsensic lines, although, granted, at times they fall upon truly hilarious ideas. For instance, when one of them starts singing 'Ca-a-a-all any vegetable, call it by na-a-a-ame' in an almost Jim Morrison-like intonation. Or something like that. But I do wish that maniac wah-wah solo that Frank lets off in the middle of the song would go on for just a little longer than it does. Exactly the same goes for 'Dog Breath' - the "new" lyrics are dubious, and the instrumental passage is way too short. So short, in fact, it's over before you can say 'DOG BREATH!'.

Of course, the major point of controversy on the second side is 'Magdalena', a breathtaking tale of incest told in stunning psychological details. In fact, you may laugh or you may scoff, but at some point I realized that Flo and Eddie actually picture the father being tormented over his daughter's tits in such a vivid way it's almost frightening - hey, no offense given, ever wondered how many fathers actually do drool over the charms of their daughters? Plus, how can one resist lyrics like 'My daughter dear/Do not be concerned when your Canadian daddy comes near/I work so hard/Don't you understand/Making maple syrup/For the pancakes of our land'? I sure can't. Heck, if I can tolerate Zappa's tales of anal sex with robots (see Joe's Garage), it's perfectly easy to tolerate such a Shiver Sendingly Realistic Tale of incest! Which doesn't mean that it's anything special in terms of music - but haven't you noticed yet that Just Another Band From L.A. is about anything but the music? And is that a Janis Joplin sendup on the 'soulful' part of 'Magdalena'? Something almost 'Ball And Chain'-like? Eh?

And speaking about the non-musical aspects, this is where we get to the first side, all of it occupied by the twenty-four minute 'musical comedy' of 'Billy The Mountain'. To be fair, Frank rarely engaged in this kind of lengthy "show" compositions - the only other thing that comes close as far as I can remember (unless you take all of Frank's "rock operas" into account) would be 'The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary" off Studio Tan, six years later. But this one's definitely better. I take it as a musical show, indeed, not something that needs to be particularly memorable or stunning, just a funny little performance. Not that the "plot" itself is all that funny. Ya wanna know the plot? Don't say I didn't warn you. Billy the Mountain is a real mountain that used to pose for postcards, and then one day he gets all his royalties and together with his wife, Ethell the tree, goes on a vacation across the country, destroying real estate and airbases and what-not. In order to save the country, the government accuses Ethell of communist sympathies, issues a draft order for Billy and sends a guy called Studebaker Hoch to carry the order into effect. The guy arrives at the foot of Billy The Mountain by a certain unusual means (hey, I'm not giving everything away), but gets laughed at by the Mountain and falls into a precipice. And the resulting moral is: "A Mountain is something you don't wanna fuck with!".

Now, of course, the plot is stupid, and the plot is supposed to be stupid. It's not the plot that matters - it's everything that happens on the way. It's perhaps one of the most wonderful places to witness Zappa's total penetration of contemporary mass culture and mass consumption practices. Not being an American, I maybe understand only about a third of all the cultural references along the way, and I'm pretty sure most Americans out there today that weren't born long before 1972 won't understand more than a half. But instead of making the whole work sound tremendously dated, it gives it a certain weird mystical crust... Extracts like "Within the week, Jerry Lewis had hosted a Telethon ("Wah wah wah, nice lady!") to raise funds for the injured and homeless in Glendale, as BILLY had just levelled it, and, a few miles right outside of town, BILLY caused a 'Oh Mein Papa' in the Earth's crust, right over the SECRET UNDERGROUND DUMPS (right near the 'Jack-In-The-Box' on Glenoaks) where they keep the POOLS OF OLD POISON GAS, and OBSOLETE GERM BOMBS, just as a freak tornado cruised through..." will soon have to go accompanied with extensive comments, but isn't that kinda fun?

Plus, lots of hilarious happenings and musical quotations along the way, of course. My personal favourite is the 'Suite Judy Blue Eyes' sendup, of course - be sure to pay special attention to the CSNY/Joni Mitchell mocking on there. But I'm sure anyone can find something of interest in the 'play', and that alone is enough to compensate for the really uneven second side. In all, if you're looking into Zappa for the MUSIC, you know, skip this one together with all the other Flo & Eddie records. But if you're looking for Zappa the goofball and Zappa the contemporary culture mocker, this one's for you! Dated or not, I don't really care - if it ain't dated, you'll be laughing your pants off, and if it IS dated, well... just give it another spin anyway. And hold on to your pants, just in case.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

More jazz? Artsy jazz? Conceptual jazz? What the hell, we'll just have to take it.

Best song: YOUR MOUTH

Track listing: 1) Big Swifty; 2) Your Mouth; 3) It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal; 4) Waka/Jawaka.

Sometime in December 1971 Frank had an infamous stage incident when some demented fan threw him off the stage and caused him severe injuries resulting in a relatively long (for Frank, at least) period of inactivity. Now I'm by no means a Qualified Patented Frank Zappa expert, and even the idea of becoming one would horrify me to the state of total paranoia, but from what I've read, heard and deduced, the line between the early, exuberant Mothers Of Invention' Zappa and the late solo dirty parodist Zappa (rough definitions, but you know what I mean, anyway) passes somewhere in here. In that way, the incident might be easily associated with the not-less-famous Dylan motorcycle accident: both had a serious impact on the artists' lives and, more important, the directions of their creativity. A lesson to all you 'young rockers' in desperate need of diversity: go bash your head against the wall. Either you'll die and the world will get rid of your nuisance or, at least, you'll have a chance of becoming different from what you are. (Hey, in case you haven't really understood, that last phrase was fifty percent tongue-in-cheek).

Anyway, somewhere in between Hot Rats and Overnite Sensation lie Frank's two 1972 projects which he mostly wrote while staying in bed: Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. Some fans deify these two records more than the New Testament, and it's easy to see why: both are very serious, very complex and very intriguing composing projects, among the most ambitious Frank ever had. Now I don't usually count Frank as a 'progressive' artist, as he really would never fit into the same slot with Yes or Genesis, but these two records can really only be qualified as 'progressive jazz', as the level of complexity and musical professionalism displayed on these records outmatches almost everything else Zappa wrote in the 'jazz' genre.

Not that 'complexity' and 'professionalism' equals 'enjoyability', mind you. Waka/Jawaka basically consists of two short vocal tracks and two lengthy instrumental suites, and it's up to your tastes whether you can really digest them or not. On first listen, I was really impressed: the multiple-layered musical textures on the title track and 'Big Swifty' sometimes seem nearly impossible to be provided by a mortal man, and more or less everything works. Frank has assembled a great backing band, with loads of professional players I won't really be go a-namin' as it would take quite a long time, and whether it be the immaculate brass, the impressive organ swirls, or Frank's own fluid guitar playing, there ain't a single complaint to be directed against 'em. And a few parts of both 'tunes' are downright luvly, although you have to really fish them out from the stuff that's completely non-resonant emotionally. The synth solo that comes early on in 'Waka/Jawaka', for instance, is really something, as is the magnificent brass intro. But none of the stuff is really memorable (my worst problem with Frank in general), and that kills all the excitement for me as soon as the album's over. Well, count me in a good mood today, and moreover, I'm listening to the title track right now and I'm liking it which I won't be in about five minutes, so I take the opportunity to give the album an overall rating of ten which it really deserves.

Oh, it probably also has something to do with the fact that, unlike Wazoo, this particular record also has the two short vocal tracks. 'Your Mouth' is a terrific little jazz number in the more 'traditional' style, sung with great conviction by some of Frank's pals from the brass section, and it totally reinstates my faith in Zappa as a qualified composer of catchy ditties after the long 'intellectual torture' of 'Big Swifty'. And 'It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal' is quite a strange one: it's one of these rare occasions when Frank does something completely different - here he goes for creating a weird jazz-country stylization, bringing in the famous country player Sneaky Pete Kleinow to deliver a beautiful pedal steel solo. The vocals are quite hilarious, too, and the tune is a great 'hold-your-breath' intro for the excruciating masochistic pleasures of the title track.

Now don't get me wrong: I actually enjoy the title track, together with 'Big Swifty'. It's definitely bigger than simple background music, but it's just that I couldn't really describe this kind of music even if I really wanted to. It completely lacks any emotional resonance - and I do mean it - and, while the playing is as professional as can only be, the only bits of true virtuosity are hidden somewhere in the depths of Frank's guitar solos. It's less catchy than Hot Rats: at least, Hot Rats really rocked, and there was a lot of funny, energetic, invigorating activity going on; Waka/Jawaka might be more perfect in that 'technical' sense, but it's rather soulless in comparison to Rats. The big news is that this ain't no avant-garde: well, from a certain sense of the word, it is, but not in the meaning 'stupid dissonant chord sequences and bunches of incoherent noises' like the stuff you can hear on Lumpy Gravy or that performance on Ahead Of Their Time. All the time, the musicians actually play melodies, complicated as they can be, and sometimes quite interesting ones at that. Which means that you can easily put it on any time o' day and night and not be afraid of your friends calling you a stupid freak.

Definitely not among Frank's best, but certainly among one of his most important marking-time albums, together with the far more pompous but even less interesting Grand Wazoo.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 8

A parody on a concept album or a series of mind-numbing jazz improvisations? Or both?...


Track listing: 1) For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers); 2) The Grand Wazoo; 3) Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus; 4) Eat That Question; 5) Blessed Relief.

I actually got Wazoo before I had a chance to listen to Waka/Jawaka, and didn't like it all - long-winded, boring and musically unentertaining, that's what it was for me. Below you'll find a warning from Dan Watkins that if you don't like Wazoo, you're bound to dislike W/J, and that seems to be the more or less general opinion of the fans - that Waka/Jawaka was only a half-assed taster of things to come, while Wazoo displays Frank's prog-jazz ambitions with far more efficiency. Well, I finally got W/J, and, much to my surprise, I found out that I rather, err, favoured it. So here I go, like, 'hey, maybe my musical taste has improved? Where was that Wazoo CD again?' And here I goes and I grabs that CD and I plops it onto the deck and so what? It still stinks.

I really like this far less than W/J. I guess it has something to do with my not favouring these crucial moments when a musician's ambitions finally get the best of him and overwhelm the true artistic creativity. I like Yes' Fragile and dislike Close To The Edge; like Genesis' Selling England By The Pound and dislike The Lamb; like Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick and dislike Passion Play, etc., etc. In the same row I place the opposition of Waka and Wazoo. The first album was pretty, funny, tuneful and often catchy. Wazoo is far too pompous, dissonant, overstuffed with zillions of instruments and sound effects that don't do anything and has far too few really interesting musical themes. Yeah, the pomp of 'Cleetus Awreetus' still makes me feel glad all over, but that's it. There's a clear disbalance on this album - too many ideas, but too few musical ones. What follows now is my old review of Wazoo, the one that was written before I got Waka/Jawaka: please keep the short intro in mind when you browse through it.

No Mothers of Invention here, and not a hint at their mind-bogging, sloppy, paranoid albums of the earliest Seventies - this is a perfectly normal album, at least, audio-wise. Visually, it's a 'rock opera'... yeah, right. Not that concept albums were exceedingly popular around 1973: people were already getting sick of long-winded, 'intellectual' records, but apparently Frank wasn't yet aware of the fact. So he made up this parody album... er, well, sorry, not entirely true. See, the 'parody' element is limited to the album sleeve and liner notes that tell the story of the Roman general Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus who chased away some Babylonian bastards with the use of a magical horn called The Grand Wazoo... all that shit, anyway. The album cover is actually quite entertaining, by the way.

However, this is probably the only concept album in the world that's almost purely instrumental - the only lyrics are encountered at the very beginning of 'For Calvin' (of course, you could also count in some scat singing in 'Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus', but it has no actual words that I'm aware of). This means that if by any unfortunate chance you lose the album sleeve, you'll soon forget about the 'parody' element and be left with a deadly dull album, full to the brink with rambling, unstructured jazz jams. If you're a Zappa freak and only waiting for a decent excuse to flame me, I'll give you none: apart from the epithet 'deadly dull', which it really is to me, I really don't know what to say about the record - I feel baffled myself, just like I felt baffled when listening to Ruben & The Jets. Fact is, there is some really treasurable (probably) jazz music on here, but I'm not a great fan of jazz and I can't even pronounce any judgements here - all I can say is that the music mostly sounds, well, competent. The album is normally dominated by keyboard player George Duke, but that doesn't mean the sound is entirely piano-based - horns and guitars are all over the record, and, in fact, some of the guitar-work is quite first-rate and not very jazz-based. In fact, the second side is pretty much all listenable - it stands with the intentionally hilarious 'Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus', whose pompous speeches are 'encoded' with a tuba solo, proceeds to entertain you with 'Eat That Question', a harder, funkier type of groove with some furious solos, and finally calms down the 'battle' with the soothing 'Blessed Relief'.

The first side, though, is a mess: 'For Calvin', despite having the only lyrics on the album, turns out to be just a bunch of incoherent, almost atonal noises produced by all the instruments available at once (and believe me, there's quite a lot of 'em), reminding me of the worst King Crimson excesses; and I'm certainly not a big supporter of the title track, a jazz-funk composition that runs through a zillion different sections and disjointed musical phrases. Oh, say what ye will and say what ye won't, but it's simply boring - professional, but boring. (That's exactly why I dislike classical jazz so very much - flashy and pointless). I guess Frank just wanted to play some more jazz jams and the idea of presenting this in the form of a mock concept album was an afterthought.

Oh, come to think of it, it ain't jazz at all. I'd bet you anything this is what 'em clever people call 'fusion' - the most miserable genre of all epochs. A genre that takes some valid elements of jazz and some valid elements of rock and proceeds to make an invalid hybrid out of them. Then again, maybe Master Zappa just wanted to demonstrate us the unlimited possibilities of genre combining. Even so, give me some mid-Seventies Jeff Beck over this stuff any time of day or night - at least, he can play his guitar like nobody can. But man, are these 'la-la-la's in 'Cletus' cool! Frank almost sounds stoned, which he never was, of course, but always pretended to be - at least, metaphorically. End.



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Zappa's first 'normal' album - depending on what one means by 'normal', of course - and a great start.

Best song: I'M THE SLIME

Track listing: 1) Camarillo Brillo; 2) I'm The Slime; 3) Dirty Love; 4) 50/50; 5) Zomby Woof; 6) Dinah-Moe-Hum; 7) Montana.

Yeah, this is the first more or less 'conventional' record produced by Zappa (if you don't count Ruben & The Jets, of course), in that it just consists of seven 'normal' rock songs, well, at least they're 'normal' by Frank's own standarts. They're also all brilliant - most of them have something interesting to offer, and some just kick you in the you-know-where with all the great sneering might of Mr Zappa that hasn't diminished an inch since WOIIFTM. Not to mention the excellent instrumental backup - his then-current band was quite skilled, and Frank himself adds punchy wah-wah leads to many selections that show he could have easily become a well-known blues or heavy metal guitar legend - if he'd wanted to.

What he really wanted, then, was... ah, wait. I guess there's one thing that should be said about most of Frank's records from now on: they weren't innovative, yeah, at all. Frank's revolutionary instincts were all spent in his Mothers of Invention days, and he probably decided he'd already pushed rock music to its ultimate limits. Well, he was probably right: what else can a poor boy do, after all, except to sing in a rock'n'roll band, now that the revolution is over? I don't blame Frank for sticking to his legend status and cashing in on it for the next twenty years... wait again, 'cashing in' is not the proper expression here - you'd think he was making millions with his records, which is hardly possible considering his relations with the mainstream. 'Building on it' might be better, but then you'd get the impression that he was having some serious developments going on which he wasn't... never mind, you find that definition yourself. What I really wanted to say was that these post-Mothers records are still extremely enjoyable, just not as groundbreaking. On the other hand, if you can't stand sloppy noise, you'll probably enjoy them more than his really avantgarde Sixties output.

All right, back to the record. Well, it starts out pretty normal, with the brilliant Mexican-style send-up 'Camarillo Brillo' where Frank seems to be parodying Rod Stewart and his tales of meetings with women. Or, well, maybe Rod Stewart has nothing to do with it (actually, the rhythm seems more like Bruce Springsteen to me), but the song is hilarious, and it also features a pretty, memorable melody and a crunchy little bark on the word 'dwarf'. I like it when people bark out the word 'dwarf', though I probably won't be able to explain you why. On 'I Am The Slime', Frank bugs you with one of the most vicious TV-bashing set of lyrics you ever heard, sung in a deep, scary voice that's perfectly normal for slime oozing out of your TV set. Funny, it reminds me a little of contemporary Ray Davies songs, especially the ones on Preservation and Soap Opera. You figure the reason out for yourselves. 'Dirty Love' has an upbeat, catchy jazzy melody that will get you involved any minute once you manage not to mention the lyrics that seem to be about having sex with a poodle (I'm not too sure, but looks very much like it). And another definite highlight, the raving, frantic '50/50' closes the first side with over-the-top, throat-destructive vocals from Ricky Lancelotti, apparently, Frank just couldn't reach that furious level where your voice sounds more mad wolf than human. Anyway, these vocals just perfectly fit the song, an ideal Anthem of the Middle Class Idiot who knows he 'ain't cute' and whose 'voice is ka-poot'. Eh? And the keyboards and guitar solos that turn the song into a jam halfway through are quite a treat, too.

Unfortunately, the second side lets the album down a little. I finally got used to 'Zombie Woof', Frank's first in a row of sickening parodies on gothic horrors (ain't it ironic that Frank was writing such songs and producing Alice Cooper records at the same time?); however, 'Dinah-Moe-Hum' features atrocious lyrics, all about Frank having sex with a girl and her sister, that I simply can't stand and have ditched the album a whole point for it. Well, not only this: you might reasonably object that Frank's smutty lyrics have to be taken as they are, with a grain of salt and all that. The problem is that they're not compensated with a great melody - the song starts out fine, with a chuggin' little bass riff and some catchy pop harmonies, but then it gets to the lengthy middle section describing the details of the process of copulation(s) where everything but the riff disappears and you just have to endure Frank's Freudist parables set to a monotous 'chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug...' I hate that. And I'm also not a great fan of 'Montana', Frank's 'travelogue' about going there to settle down and go into dental floss. ??? . How really funny! The melody is kinda iffy, though, and repetitive as hell - but anyway, even a heavy chunk of Lumpy Gravy will look like Beethoven after 'Dinah-Moe-Hum'. Skip that song and you'll get yourself a terrific rock/jazz/blues album. And don't you think that the record's charm lies exclusively in the lyrics - Frank could really pen some captivating melodies as well. Not to mention that this and especially the following record were among his hugest commercial successes - even if 'huge commercial success' for Zappa is not quite the same as 'huge commercial success' for the Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson. Not that he ever complained...



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

A jazzy-messy rock-opera about the yellow snow. Hilarious but not very solid musically.

Best song: STINK FOOT

Track listing: 1) Don't Eat The Yellow Snow; 2) Nanook Rubs It; 3) St Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast; 4) Father O'Blivion; 5) Cosmik Debris; 6) Excentrifugal Forz; 7) Apostrophe; 8) Uncle Remus; 9) Stink Foot.

Right, so there was this Eskimo called Nanook whose mother always warned him not to eat the yellow snow, but one day he witnessed a strictly commercial fur trapper beat up his favourite baby seal with a lead filled snow shoe, so he picked up some yellow snow and rubbed it into the fur trapper's eyes whereupon the latter went blind, and then he got angry and did likewise to Nanook, and then suddenly he remembered an old legend that said if Nanook rubbed your eyes with yellow snow, you should cross the tundra in search of the parish of St Alfonzo where Father O'Blivion bakes his incredible pancakes and...

...wait a minute, no! I'm not delirious. Actually, this is the main storyline of this rock opera, the first in a series of mock-concept albums - a genre most beloved by Frank in the Seventies. And if you're wondering what comes next, let me tell you that this is only the most trivial and unerstandable part of the story. Further subject matters include the Mystery Man jivin' with that Cosmik Debris, the state of the chin of the Pup Tentacle, an illusionary Uncle Remus, the horrible disease of Stink Foot and reappearances of the Grand Wazoo and the poodle from Overnite Sensation. ???????

Now don't you worry, there's just a little cosmic humour! The problem is that the humor on Sensation was somewhat more funny and accessible - this one's a bit irritating and certainly way too esoteric. If this is really a parody on rock operas, it's not a very good one, and it doesn't have anything to do with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, either (that one came out several months later, even though the storyline is just as nonsensic as in Apostrophe'). The lyrics are totally absurd, and not too amusing at that - there's nothing like the 'call any vegetable' vibe on the album. There are moments, now and then, but this is not really satire, and there are too few interesting wordgames for me to feel really excited.

More serious is the problem that, being heavily preoccupied with the storyline, Frank did not really bother to set it to a decent 'soundtrack' - this is the flaw that he shared with real rock opera writers. Whereas Overnite Sensation demonstrated that Zappa could easily be transformed into an original and entertaining rock composer, not too many of the tunes here can be qualified as real 'songs' - much too often, they're just the background for his narrations of the storyline ('Nanook Rubs It', 'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow', etc.) Nevertheless, they still sound good, of course, because Frank's band was highly skilled and used to the eccentricity of its leader: George Duke still holds down the keyboardist position and handles it splendidly, and Ian Underwood contributes magnificent saxophone work. Frank himself is in top form with some more splendid guitar solos, particularly on the instrumental title track and the closing bluesy 'Stink Foot'. But no amount of instrumental skill can save the 'songs' from being little more than passable, dull background music.

You really know you're in trouble when such a song as 'Stink Foot', with its attractive gruff metallic vocals, blues rhythm and stinging wah-wah solos turns out to be the best on the album - it's good, but it's rather predictable: we've already seen this Zappa-treatment of blues on many previous tracks, starting with 'Trouble Every Day' eight years ago (where it was faster and more exciting, by the way). The big difference here is that weird guitar tone, of course, never again reproduced by Frank; to me, it sounds like steel guitar let through a wah-wah pedal - am I wrong? Several other tracks (and there's not too many of them - the album doesn't really exceed half an hour) also approach brilliancy: thus, 'Father O'Blivion' is built upon a tight, lightning-speed riff that sends your head whirlin', and the soulful rocker 'Uncle Remus' is a classic as well. Even so, 'Remus' is just very short, and 'Father O'Blivion' degenerates into a psychedelic mess after just about a minute of this tasty riff.

People also seem to love 'Cosmik Debris', and I also appreciate its jazzy groove - an excellent and highly accessible composition with the catchiest melody on the record. But 'Stink Foot' is very similar in mood and melody, and it doesn't have the annoying female backup voices, but has some of these cool wah-wah solos, so I just think 'Debris' pales in comparison. And the title track is a major point of controversy: some might see it as a fantastic showcase for Frank and his guitar playing, while some might regard it as boring and show-off-ey. It's probably okay, but we certainly had better guitar from Frank ('Stink Foot', for example!)

Essentially, the album is just pointless - a very mediocre parody, some average songwriting and brilliant performing don't make up for a classic in my book. I still upgrade my former rating of six to a seven because repeated listenings manage to solidify the melodies of all the actual "songs" in my mind, but I doubt it will ever go any further; I do also agree with Ben below that it might have worked better if it were longer - like a predecessor to some real classics like Joe's Garage; the short grooves on here might seem economic, but they just don't make that much of an impression. Funny how Frank could easily alternate minor masterpieces like Overnite Sensation with so-so works like this toss-off? It looks like it was written and recorded in a week's time, maybe in two days - who knows? Of course, this was also his biggest commercial success, but I guess that goes without saying. People are jerks. Of course, that also means that Frank would have no problem in becoming a major pop star if he ever wanted to: which says a lot in favour of his talent.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Frank with his tightest band ever, playing music of such astonishing complexity (live!) that even those who HATE complex music... well, you get me.


Track listing: 1) Penguin In Bondage; 2) Pygmy Twylyte; 3) Dummy Up; 4) Village Of The Sun; 5) Echidna's Arf (Of You); 6) Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?; 7) Cheepnis; 8) Son Of Orange County; 9) More Trouble Every Day; 10) Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen's Church).

Aaahhh... now that's what I call a live album. Now I'll refrain from calling this record 'Frank's greatest live album', as so many fans do, simply because in Frank's case it's very difficult to draw an exact line between a studio and a live album; not to mention all the innumerable You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series none of which I have yet heard. But this listening experience is really something. The material is practically all new, and technically this makes Roxy just another in a set of glorious mid-Seventies records initiated with Overnite Sensation, but the 'live feel' renders it far more poignant and hard-hitting than, say, One Size Fits All. And the band really shines on that one, particularly Frank himself (who churns out some of the greatest guitar solos o' my whole worthless life), George Duke on keyboards and Bruce Fowler on trombone. There are also two drummers (Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson, the dude who later played with Genesis on tour), and Ruth Underwood adds some extra percussion spice on the vibrophone (is that how it's called?)

Recorded live at... at... well, at Roxy and elsewhere, I presume, the album is supposed to feature the Mothers as a tight, compact band playing music that's definitely experimental, but never too spaced out not to be enjoyable. Essentially, it's just Frank's vintage cocktail of jazz, blues, Latin rhythms, and whatever he intended to throw into the current melting pot. And nothing on here, except for 'More Trouble Every Day' and maybe, to a certain extent, 'Village Of The Sun', is too accessible or memorable - but that's not the point of the record. The point of the record is to create a Live Experience that would at the same time manage to create some real rock'n'roll excitement, on one hand, and be as complex as possible, on the other.

How is that possible? To answer that question, one must listen to the flabbergastingly great funky symphony of 'Echidna's Arf (Of You)' and 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?'. You may trust me - I'm not the biggest fan of Frank's instrumental compositions, but this, man, wow... it's really something. First of all, the 'symphony' is fast enough and has a great drive to it, so it doesn't drag or anything - it's a total gas to have the volume turned out and completely freak out to this wild, untamed music. But it's only the beginning: the main thing is that this might just as well be the most complex piece of music I've ever heard in my life. The four minutes of 'Echidna's Arf' manage to incorporate, like, about a couple dozen different melodies, time signatures, riffs and original ideas. And the funniest thing is, with all these incessant changes, the tune never sounds as a mess. Everything flows in and out so smoothly you'd think these guys were born with a knowledge of how to switch from 4/4 to 5/7 and, I don't know, 13/15 within a couple of seconds. The calls-and-answers between the brass, the vibrophone, the guitar and the keyboards are so immaculate it's almost as if all of this stuff was played by one person. In a twinkle of an eye, not a single mistake, not a single missing note; it's positively frightening. 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing' might still be just a little bit extended (I could do without the drum battle, but then again, maybe I couldn't? Wouldn't that just spoil the whole flu-en-cy?), but essentially it's just more of the same. And Frank isn't forgotten, either; after all the players have dutifully showed themselves off (including the vibrophone hero Ruth Underwood, who is drawn special attention to by Frank's personal appraisal), he steps in with a solid wah-wah solo before bringing the number down with a bang.

In these circumstances, most of the other songs sound inferior to this instrumental masterpiece, but most of them are still great. This is where Frank introduces the sleazy 'Penguin In Bondage', a gritty funk workout with, well, not quite politically correct lyrics, highlighted by a fast, grizzly solo (BTW, his preferred instrument here is the wah-wah, and that makes me glad even further, as I love the wah-wah with an uncanny dearness). 'Village Of The Sun' is the least tongue-in-cheek number on here, a nice Latino shuffle (is that a permissible combination?) telling of the ecological problems in Palmdale where they raise turkeys and the fumes from the furnaces 'take the paint off your car and wreck your windshield too'. The melody is still rather twisted, but at least it's more singalong than, say, 'Cheepnis' - an engaging and cleverly constructed tune ridiculing monster movies, where Frank takes the aspect of the relation between the technical side of the filming process and the produced effect and builds a funny parody around it ("...I said: Can y'all see now? The little strings on the Giant Spider? The Zipper From The Black Lagoon? The vents by the tanks where the bubbles go up? And the flaps on the side of the moon...") The funny thing is that 'Cheepnis' is represented as a giant poodle, thus bringing back the 'poodle bites, etc.' thematics of Overnite Sensation once again; talk about continuity.

Meanwhile, 'Son Of Orange County' recreates the earlier Mothers' vibe, with a more relaxed, homely and peaceful feel than the rest of the album, and 'More Trouble Every Day' recreates the earlier Freak Out! tune as a slow, threatening blues tune, the best thing about which are the drummers' jaw-dropping rolls in between the verses and the chorus and Frank's lengthy stinging solo. It's also fun to see the band illustrating all the activities that Frank is singing about, especially hear them nearly throttle themselves at the mention of cops 'chokin' in the heat'.

So why not a 10? One reason - 'Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen's Church)'. At sixteen minutes, it just sits there and clutters up the record without too much sense. Okay, so the first few minutes of it are great, as Frank tells us all about how they are going to play a 'perverted Tango' and how they're not going to do it too fast so as to get everything right on tape. There's a terrific moment, too, as Frank points at the ringing cowbell and cries out - 'The cowbell as a symbol of unbridled passion, ladies and gentlemen!' That one makes me laugh my pants down. As well as 'jazz is not dead, it just smells funny' (what a deep thought, by the way). And Bruce Fowler has a decent trombone solo. What I really can't stand is the 'audience participation' section, where Frank invites some people onstage and asks them to dance along to George Duke's scat singing ('that's a pedestrian beat, you don't dance to that beat, you dance to what George sings...'). Maybe that would look cool on video, but on CD it just sounds stupid, and I even pity the poor volunteers who allowed Frank to make complete asses out of them. And when the guys depart and get replaced by a professional stripper (I suppose that's her sticking out on the album cover), it's not even funny, just vulgar. And all of this takes such a Damn Long Time! Nah. Thanks. Thanks at least, Frank, for giving us a fine slice of cheerful honky-tonk blues and more of your unmatched wah-wah soloing at the end of the track - the only reason that sometimes makes me endure the song in its entirety.

Well, I'm not a big fan of 'Dummy Up' either; they're not really playing on that one, just acting funny. Apart from these two, though, I fully understand fans who swear by this album. And don't miss out Frank's conversations with the audience - the introductions to 'Penguin In Bondage', 'Cheepnis' and 'Be-Bop Tango' are almost worth the price of admission alone.

Actually, after the dissolution of this lineup Frank was never able to find anything better. The 1988 tour band was probably somewhat more professional (in the 'slick' sense of the word), more large and diverse, but it could never play stuff like 'Echidna's Arf', because for tunes like that it's not the professionalism that matters, it's the 'feel-your-brother' vibe. Is rock'n'roll dead today? Hmm. Could you, today, put together a band such as Zappa's Roxy lineup and play something like that?

Ah, well, don't get me started.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

More in the vein of 'Sensation', but a little more messy and a little less funny.


Track listing: 1) Inca Roads; 2) Can't Afford No Shoes; 3) Sofa No. 1; 4) Po-Jama People; 5) Florentine Pogen; 6) Evelyn, A Modified Dog; 7) San Ber'dino; 8) Andy; 9) Sofa No. 2.

At least this time around Frank was not too keen on writing another rock opera. You could argue that it's one more mock-concept album, this time based around the idea of a 'sofa', but the concept is actually limited to the album cover and just two tracks, so I won't be supporting that idea. More exactly, this is just another in a series of entertaining surrealistic, half-parodic albums with a big-band, half-jazzy sound. George Duke seems to have a somewhat more assured position on the album: he often gets a chance to 'shine' on some synth solos (the quotation marks are not used ironically, I just don't find Duke to be a particularly exciting keyboard player, but he does his job well), and even gets to sing lead vocals on 'Inca Roads'. But usually, it's Frank who gets all the gold, as always: some of his guitarwork here shows that he just kept improving and improving on his instrument. Golly, do you think he really found time to exercise his guitar playing while pumping out all these endless records?

Like, you guessed, it's a big step up from Apostrophe': the silly narrative pervertions are gone, and instead we get to hear some real songs again. Not that they are all very enjoyable! I said it's more in the vein of Sensation, but even Sensation can sound like a mainstream pop album in comparison with this. This is, in fact, my main complaint about the album: there's a wee bit more instrumental noodling and a wee bit less captivating melodies than is needed for a perfect record. For instance, I just can't stand the eight-minute 'Inca Roads' that opens the album, a free-form improvisation with pseudo-Andian lyrical themes; this is a treat for Zappa freaks exclusively. I do have respect for George Duke and his finger-flashing synth leads and it's all very serious and stuff, but where the dang hell is the emotional resonance. I can't just groove like this, without a direction, for eight minutes plus. And some of the other tracks are just silly throwaways, like the one-minute mock-classical rant 'Evelyn, A Modified Dog': the lyrics are hilarious, but why not set them to something more interesting than a bunch of classical piano chords? And 'Andy' strikes me as uninspired, too. Apparently it's structured as a parody on modern pop music, with disco and funk rhythms interchanging with each other, but it's not that easy to get if you don't study the lyrics sheet.

But why should we talk of bad stuff when there's enough tasty treats on this album to rave upon? Have you heard 'Po-Jama People'? Now I frankly don't know shit about Zappa, but the song's lyrics strike me as one of his most vicious, brilliant attacks on the middle class. In brief, he takes the concept of a 'pyjama' and turns it into a symbol of people's moral and aesthetic degradation. (This makes me wonder if Frank used to sleep naked or in his underwear, but I guess that's intimate). The lyrics are clever fun, and the hard-rockin', bouncy melody totally fits the song's scary, dark mood ('po-jama people' are deemed to be dangerous, you know). Even better, midway through Frank lets go with such a mighty guitar solo that he almost makes all of this stuff convincing. And what about these marvelous 'hoey hoey hoey'? A definite highlight on the album.

And there are more classy rockers here, too: 'Can't Afford No Shoes' starts out with a chuggin', smokin' distorted-guitar intro, and though it somewhat calms down later on, it's still a treat; and 'San Ber'dino', a song that should be distinguished as having the most 'clearly stated' melodic structure on the album and is thus somewhat un-Zappa-esque (exclusively from the point of view of the song's relative simplicity - the melody itself is pure Zappa, of course), rocks to the point of bleeding, especially during the closing bluesy "jam". Kinda makes you forget about Frank the doo-wop lover, doesn't it? He felt as much at home with doo-wop as with hard rock, the bastard. Likewise, 'Florentine Pogen' is Frank at his humoristic best - a strange, almost genreless incantation, a bit jazzy, a bit gospelish, but essentially undescribable. You just need to hear it.

Don't forget, too, that while the 'mock-concept' lines are not very significant, they're by no means dismissable. 'Sofa No. 2', that closes the album, will make you choke with laughter if you know German: it culminates in Frank adopting a deadly serious operatic tone and pronoucing 'Ich bin hier und du bist mein Sofa' ('I'm here and you're my sofa'). The instrumental version of the song ('Sofa No. 1') is rather pointless, though; at least, if I were Frank I'd probably swap the two versions, because it's easier to appreciate the instrumental after you've heard the German singing.

In all, the album's a little harder to digest than Overnite Sensation, but if you can't get enough of that one, feel free to proceed here: there's plenty of fun to be found. Fun plus impressive musicianship certainly equals "good album"; in fact, to a certain extent One Size Fits All might be regarded as the last piece of the 1973-75 trilogy, all wrapped around the concept of "satirical perfectionism", and the whole trilogy with a few song exceptions can be easily recommended to those who love their Zappa accessible, funny, musically impressive and serious all at once. After all, 'one size fits all', doesn't it? The next albums would already show Frank moving away to more 'gross' material and paying too much attention to ridiculing the "tempora" and the "mores" in favour of true 'artsy' musicianship; this doesn't mean I don't feel any respect for the ensuing period (on the contrary, I personally enjoy it somewhat more, as I've never been an intimate fan of Zappa's "serious" musical style, with a few exceptions), but if you're an 'intelligent' music fan, chances are you'll rate One Size Fits All far higher than, say, Zoot Allures or - God forbid! - Sheik Yerbouti. Move on now.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Echoes and shades of Roxy everywhere - except for Beefheart spoiling some fun with his shitty voice.

Best song: MUFFIN MAN

Track listing: 1) Debra Kadabra; 2) Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy; 3) Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top; 4) Poofter's Froth Wyoming; 5) 200 Years Old; 6) Cucamonga; 7) Advance Romance; 8) Man With The Woman Head; 9) Muffin Man.

A good chance - not quite, but nearly wasted. Everybody knows I love Zappa doing blues-rock: he's kinda the ideal blues-rock performer out of all the possible types, with great soloing skills, a voice just suited for singing trippy, groovy bloozy stuff, and lyrics that are as far away from your usual 'woke up in the morning my baby was gone' stuff as possible. It takes time to get used to his 'variations' on the basic blues themes, but well, it's just a question of time and good will, as I always say. This live record could be a fantastic showcase for Frank, and for the most part, it is - see about that later. But being the weird, unpredictable guy as he was, Frank just couldn't resist the temptation to screw it as best he could. So, in order to do that, he invited his old pal Don Van Vliet, better known around these parts as Captain Beefheart, to guest on the performances, and a solid part of this album is dominated by the trusty Cap'n as a result.

Now I must confess that this was my first acquaintance with Captain Beefheart - way before I have grown to appreciate some of his best efforts, and since then I have come to realize that this particular period (1974-75) featured him in a rather... err... pitiful state (see my Unconditionally Guaranteed review on this site, which is in fact quite apologetic of the record). But however bad or good his solo work in this period was, judging by his work here, I can only get the impression of a boozed out old fart who can sure play a mean harp at times but spends most of it reciting surrealistic, drugged out and in the long run totally uninspiring and not funny poetry with a voice that is at best squeaky and at the worst vomit-inducing. In fact, I don't really see why songs like 'Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top' or 'Man With The Woman Head' should be considered 'art' as opposed to, say, 'John John Let's Hope For Peace' from the Yoko part of Lennon's Peace In Toronto. It's all the same old shit, if you axe me, and enjoying it is nothing short of masochism; even Trout Mask Replica is like Mozart compared to this. I hate these lyrics (did he ever consider collaborating with Jon Anderson? They used to be better, though), I hate this voice (I'm just not amused), and really, Frank had an odd taste in friends. Alice Cooper? Don Van Vliet? Maybe he should have contented himself with Vaclav Havel...

It's all the more pitiful, as most of the Beefheartless or nearly Beefheartless tunes on the album are excellent. In fact, even the few showcases of Beefheart actually 'singing', not 'grunting' his way through the slime in his throat on garbage like 'Debra Kadabra', are fun. For instance, the comic tune 'Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead', announced by Frank as 'some sort of cowboy song' dedicated to the upcoming two hundredth anniversary of the USA (and to my birthday, for that matter! hey, did any of you actually know I was born July 4th 1976?), anyway, this tune is certainly quite groovy. And quite biting, too - with a hard-hitting anti-commercial message. And when Beefheart plays harp, he does it with verve indeed - why he didn't stick to just that is way beyond me. Then again, maybe I'm just such a limited person.

Anyway, I'm not a huge fan of pseudo-'mellow' stuff like 'Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy' (a shuffly ballad along the lines of 'Camarillo Brillo', only with far less interesting humor AND melody) or 'Cucamonga', though they're still pretty neat and become pleasant on repeated listens. But I sure do get my kicks out of all the bluesy stuff they gots to get on here. Like, '200 Years Old' starts with an eerie spoken Zappa introduction, and then becomes even more gloomy as Beefheart steps in with his 'She's 200 years old/So mean she couldn't grow no lips...' (All about Mother America, no doubt?) And the band playing on this one are excellent, too, especially Terry Bozzio on drums (though the liner notes say that Chester Thompson plays drums on '200 Years Old'). If you're not a purist and love your blues served with an edge, you've come to the right place, I say! Have you ever heard 'Muffin Man'? That distorted, frightening riff with Frank intoning in his deepest voice, 'Girl you thought he was a man but he was a muffin?', plus throwing in some blistering leads? Man, it's catchy as hell, brilliant as heaven!

I'll even go as far as to say that I do enjoy the eleven-minute 'wankfest' on 'Advance Romance'. The dissonant, intentionally clumsy melody on that one might be a hard bone to chew, but in the long run it's worth it: if you ever complained about the unoriginality and formulaicness of blues rockers, here's one proof for you how far that genre really can go in some genial hands. I admit it is a bit overlong, but you know, it's really no big problem for me to tolerate a professional blues jam - not to mention that it isn't really a blues jam, it's Frank and his band getting weird within the limits of decency. So yeah, I'm all up and for this record, and my appreciation for it only grows with time. It is, indeed, like a minor brother to Roxy & Elsewhere - less diverse and hot, and with a bit more filler, but basically continuing the same excellent groove. Now if it were only deprived of Beefheart's ramblings (or, as Frank himself announces it, 'Captain Beefheart on vocals and soprano sax and madness'), a nine would not be out of question - as it is, nope. A low eight, but a good-spirited one.



Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

One of Frank's best parody albums of the Seventies - melodic and giggly at the same time.


Track listing: 1) Wind Up; 2) Workin' In A Gas Station; 3) Black Napkins; 4) The Torture Never Stops; 5) Ms Pinky; 6) Find Her Finer; 7) Friendly Little Finger; 8) Wonderful Wino; 9) Zoot Allures; 10) Disco Boy.

Gee, I like this album. It's even more 'normal' than One Size Fits All, to be sure, but by this time Frank had certainly metamorphosed into a more 'conventional' songwriter who was more interested in mocking others than in 'pushing music boundaries forward'. But, Frank-ly (heh heh) speaking, I don't care, and especially since I consider that music boundaries have been pushed to their utmost limit somewhere around 1972-73, I'm all up and consenting: let Frank ridicule everybody and everything if he does it so well as on this album. The big advantage here is that it's enjoyable on at least several levels. First of all, you can just forget the lyrics and the gimmicks and enjoy the music, which this time around includes several amazing riff-fests, a couple of danceable tunes, and a short section of a blues-lovers paradise. But if you're more of a diehard Zappa freak and love the man for his atmosphere and, well, 'curiosities', you'll find plenty as well - turns out that Frank could work in several directions when needed (as if Overnite Sensation left a doubt).

To be entirely honest, the three tracks that illustrate Frank's more and more sophisticated guitar playing do not really thrill me - your basic blues jams with extremely professional six-string workouts, some faster ('Black Napkins'), some slower with devilishly 'daring' use of feedback (title track). Except proving Frank's major stature as a blues guitarist, they do little or nothing, and probably shouldn't. That's no overwhelming problem, though: they're not incredibly long, and they're energetic enough not to bore you to sleep, so you won't miss the first frightening seconds of 'The Torture Never Stops' or the first rumbling riff of 'Wonderful Wino'.

Now the actual songs are an entirely different matter. No, the melodies aren't particularly engaging - most of these numbers are built on a similar brand of hard rock riffing ('Disco Boy' and 'Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station' are almost one song in that respect), and, this might seem blasphemous, they are simplistic - even compared to the more 'mainstreamish', but still twisted melodies on Sensation. You can actually sing along to them, you know? But nevertheless, they're all fun - due to the successful combination of lyrics, humor, weird singing and general drive. 'Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station' starts the record on a great note, with the telling lyrics 'This song might offend you some/If it does it's because you're dumb' (a phrase that could be successfully used as a motto for all of Zappa's career) and a retro-ish fast melody, with those wonderful falsetto vocals by Davey Moire. It's fast, hilarious to the point of bursting, and has enough changes in tempo to nearly (but not quite) overthrow my idea of this album as 'simplistic' - what else do you need? 'Ms Pinky' is a song that sets a similar mood musically, but not lyrically - well, it seems to be devoted to Frank's relations with an inflatable doll. Personally, I don't find these lyrics offensive at all; I find them amusing and clever, and I'm not a pervert and I'm not even an exhibitionist (GO FIGURE!!) 'Find Her Finer' is quite catchy, a sinister little number about the proper way to treat young ladies; however, 'Wonderful Wino' is a somewhat duller, less edgy rocker that's also saved by the lyrics (the part where Frank 'lost control of my body functions/On a roller-headed lady's front lawn' moves me in a particular way, thank God I never experienced that kind of thing myself! Oh well, I'd bet you anything Frank was kidding, too). Same goes for 'Disco Boy' that picks up a bit steam, too, but is basically a rehash of 'Wind Up...' with better lyrics and, hell, a mini-concept of its own. Where the previous two or three songs work as a funny parody on hard rock, this one's a knock-off of disco and, more importantly, disco fans: the matter of 'disco boys' and their obsession with their looks is given a harsh but, let's face it, completely deserved treatment by Frank. Along the way, the Disco Boy checks his hair in the toilet, dances with the Disco Girl, finds out she's leaving with his best friend, and leaves with the small consolation that he's 'still got hands/To help you do that jerkin' that'll blot out the Disco Sorrow'. Poor lad.

My favourite song on here, though, has nothing to do with hard rock or blues rock or ridiculing disco attitudes. The ten-minute long 'The Torture Never Stops' is what I'm talking about: an incredible, unbelievably effective parody on shock rock and gothic horrors. Here, Frank has concocted a creepy little melody that plods along almost unnoticeably with an ominous guitar bleep now and then, accompanied by freaky lyrics about 'flies all green 'n' buzzing' and all the traditional attributes of medieval dungeon terror (and S&M, of course), such as knives, slime, ooze, spikes, guns, sinister midgets and giant fire puffers. Add to this his 'I'm The Slime'-ey goofy, sinister, gruesome intonations, and, of course, the unforgettable female shrieks and moans all the way (orgasm through torture, eh?), some of them provided by none other than his current wife in person, and you've got yourself an amazingly entertaining and bizarre performance. It serves as a double goal, of course: to both outrage the critics and censors and ridicule the whole shock rock business. It rules!

The big question, of course, is: why the hell did Frank feel the need to present Alice Cooper to the public when he had so effectively mocked his whole schtick on this album? Oh well. He wasn't producing Alice Cooper at that moment no more, I suspect. Oh! And if you were wondering, I forgot to remind you that the album title has nothing to do with zoot suits: it's actually an 'alternative' way to spell the French expression 'zut alors!' which is a rough (and, in fact, highly 'literary' - I've never heard a Frenchman use it) equivalent for 'dammit!'. Also, the cover features ex-Roxy Music member Eddie Jobson who never played a note on this record. Instead, it was Captain Beefheart who played some harmonica on a couple of tracks, but did pretty little else (thank God - we didn't need another Bongo Fury). And there's also Frank's name spelled in Japanese characters on the back cover - I don't know why he used hieroglyphs, though, because foreign names are only written in kanji. And if you try to read this stuff as Chinese symbols, you'll never realize that this means 'Frank Zappa'. Again, what we deal with is a barbaric violation of cultural traditions, a thing quite typical of Fuluanku Zasu (that's how the Chinese characters will be read!) Hah! Hah I say!


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