Frank Zappa the mad king! Building an impossible world of castles and malls and strip clubs. No such thing as too many notes, nor jokes too gross. Aim for the sky! And the gutter!
Ben Watson in The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play identified Zappa as a dada modernist. Which is apt for his sense of the absurd and his ego. Modernism puts the Artist at the center of the conversation, like a footprint to be studied for its intentions. What was Bigfoot trying to say? Zappa was also a satirist with perfect comic timing, though often too amused with his own in-jokes. What is his music all about? Impenetrable layers of complexity and silly self-references, abstract collages of noise and guitar jams, unorthodox time signatures and scattered melodies. And underneath it all – dirty jokes. Just like Mozart.
Freak Out! (1966)
Freak Out has lots of rock & R&B parodies packed with jokes or subversive ideas. Maybe FZ was hoping to imprint his vision on teenage America. It didn’t work. This album was too weird even for heads and hippies. “Who Are The The Brain Police?” seems intended to exacerbate a bad trip. It’s pretty funny if you picture it performed by a traveling educational group meant to scare stoners straight. Side Three is my favorite: “Trouble Every Day” raps about riots and race and media coverage while “Help! I’m A Rock” riffs on ideological inertia.
Absolutely Free (1967)
“Call Any Vegetable” is not a vegan anthem, more like a mockery of hippie/straight world relations. It works either way – vegetable as acid burnout or Nixon voter. “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” is not about shoes, more like the perversions of dirty old men who make our laws. When I was little I used to love “Uncle Bernie’s Farm” which mocks Christmas capitalism and war toys. Absolutely Free takes a few listens to make sense of its cut-up production. It’s a bumper car ride, ridiculing ugly American ideas at every turn.
We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)
I used to play this one so much as a kid that I still know it by heart. All the singalong melodies and random cut ins and freaky voices and lyrics like “the father’s a nazi in congress today.” So it’s still relevant. An anti-hippie theme emerges here, a rebellion against flimsy idealism. Note that Zappa has referred to LSD as a chemical weapon, and so was not impressed by the “freedoms” evinced by the hippie movement. The same conclusion Hunter S. Thompson arrived at a few years later, when he tried to organize the Freak Power political party. The cover art dunks on the Beatles, the liner notes reference Kafka. This is the best children’s album ever made.
Uncle Meat (1969)
Sets down some seminal Zappa music (“The Dog Breath Variations,” “A Pound For A Brown,” “King Kong”) as opposed to rock parody stuff. Spread out with weirdness, noise excursions and ambient absurdities. Challenging and absurd and self-indulgent – a true modernist rock album. Does the noodly guitar solo “Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution” have to be six minutes? Why not three? Because it’s Uncle Meat, that’s why. Now eat your green beans.
Hot Rats (1969)
Leaving (mostly) the goofy vocals behind, this is just badass jazz rock. No fucking around, just high level jamming with top players and a pristine sound. “Peaches En Regalia” perfects FZ’s orchestral rock while “The Gumbo Variations” lets Don “Sugarcane” Harris rip on the electric violin. Even if you don’t like jazz, you can dig Hot Rats. Although: it is still jazz rock. And in Zappa terms, a little more conventional.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970)
Burnt Weeny Sandwich is sequenced as a sandwich, with two doo-wop songs surrounding some burned out goodness. A wonderful album, highlighting his orchestral ambitions with raggedy charm. Zappa was a master of collage, presenting avant garde material in listenable forms. “Holiday In Berlin” is a centerpiece, with its weird Shining ballroom music vibe. I love the live bit from “The Little House I Used To Live In” when he shouts back at hecklers yelling at some cops: “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t kid yourself.”
Weasels Ate My Flesh (1970)
A masterpiece of sorts. Splicing together fragments and songs and freaked out compositions, Weasels Ate My Flesh is a challenge that will reward brave listeners. Two moments of genius sequencing: the opening noise piece “Didja Get Any Onya” sputtering out into the viola (lee) blues “Directly From My Heart To You,” and later the hippie baiting lounge pop of “Oh No” into a crest of “The Orange County Lumber Truck.” Those moments are the hooks. You’ll have to wade through some seriously weird stuff, so erratic and unfamiliar that it might seem like an endurance test. After a few listens you’ll start to get this album as a whole if not all of its parts. And it becomes enlightening, a unique vision of what rock music can be.
Chunga’s Revenge (1970)
Basically just rough takes, breaking in a new band which will include Flo & Eddie from the Turtles. The songs either aren’t ready or not much to begin with. Chunga’s Revenge reminds me of some posthumous compilation, scraping the outtake barrel. A harbinger of the next era – abrasive blues rock with lots of unfunny jokes warbled out by the Turtles guys.
Filmore East – June 1971 (1971)
The new Mothers are officially debuted, with better musicians but way less charming and not funny at all. Flo & Eddie act as operatic fools on these “joke” songs. “The Mud Shark” riffs tediously on an infamous groupie incident. I was not impressed when I read that story in a Led Zeppelin biography when I was twelve but these guys seem to think it’s hilarious. Maybe this stuff was fun to see live in 1971. Doesn’t add up to much on this album.
Just Another Band From LA (1972)
More Flo & Eddie material. “Billy The Mountain” is an epic 25-minute novelty song with tons of musical themes that must have required considerable practice to get right. It’s still a chore to listen to. When Zappa’s self-indulgent absurdity doesn’t hit, it can be so very ponderous. A modernist trap, when straying too far from classic forms smacks of elitism, a disregard for “common” audiences. And yet this stuff is full of lowbrow humor and stupid references. Like if Beckett wrote an episode of Family Guy.
Essential. Jazz rock at its most Zappa-y. I love how the musical themes float in and out of the jam sections in “Big Swifty.” “It Might Just Be A One-Shot Deal” has slurred downer’d vocals and a sweet guest slide solo, with oblique lyrics about living in the moment. “Your Mouth” is off-kilter blues pop, presaging his mid-70s era. I prefer this over the high energy flexing of Hot Rats, as this material has more trademark weirdness.
The Grand Wazoo (1972)
Cover art of a fierce orchestra battle by Cal Schnekel. This is more jazzy stuff. FZ was convalescing this year after an onstage accident, so he served as band leader more than central performer. A few posthumous albums came from this era, the best of which (Imaginary Diseases) is like the third in this year’s trilogy.
Overnight Sensation (1973)
Another reboot. Having jettisoned Flo & Eddie and cleaned up the sound, FZ made a bid for FM radio. And it sort of worked, with “Montana” as a slowed (and dumbed) down hit. Some of this material is pretty mid. Like this was a good album for the “Frank Zappa” section in a 70s record store but doesn’t stand up to his best material.
Way way better. Another rock album, stuffed with lots of Conceptual Continuity Zappa-ness. That was his term for his universe, how the work as a whole was supposed to make sense. Think of it like a higher level in the Zappa cult – take the E-meter, buy more stuff etc. The “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” suite is scatalogically absurd, with hints of animal rights and a gross religious breakfast joke. I love that he later hired orchestras to perform sheet music with that title. “Stink-Foot” properly introduces all that Conceptual Continuity stuff with lyrics about a little dog and smelly feet. What is it really about? “The crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe” = take ownership of your own freedom, whether in art or career or whatever, and express the hell out of it. A near perfect Zappa album, easy to dig for new fans.
Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
My favorite Frank Zappa band. Highlighted by the one and only Ruth Underwood on xylophones. This whole band could rip, with a weird charisma right in tune with the music. You can just tell that these musicians are gassed to be playing with Zappa, and vice versa. “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” is built on an impeccably performed stop-start arrangement of wild fills. “Cheepnis” equates cheap B-movie special effects with American cultural standards. “Son Of Orange County” reworks the Weasels songs for a roasting of Richard Nixon, into a slower poignant version of “Trouble Every Day.” I love this era. Another show was released on Volume 2 from the You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore series. Plus there’s the Roxy movie and associated soundtrack album, and the insanely good Halloween ’73 release. Even the rehearsals are cool.
One Size Fits All (1975)
A fully realized prog rock-y classic. This is a great place to start for new fans, full of hooks and riffs with rock radio polish. The band is cooking, the disciplined arrangements sputtering out and snapping right back with inimitable Zappa style. “Inca Roads” is flighty space prog with lyrics about UFOs and a gorgeous extended guitar solo. “Florentine Pogen” is built on coiling riffs stuck together like engine parts, matching the automotive puns in the lyrics. Plus some good Conceptual Continuity with the return of the Sofa jam and more talking dogs. This album is the closest you’ll get to a Zappa spiritual statement.
Zoot Allures (1976)
Dark and insular. I used to have this on tape, and the more I understood it, the more it freaked me out. “Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station” introduces some creepy fascist insinuations to its warning against conformity. “The Torture Never Stops” is dungeon S&M that sounds eerily on point, like an actual snuff film. Plus some dumb sex songs, and a few icy instrumentals. Not a dud, but not recommended.
Lather (released 1996)
Released posthumously in 1996, this proposed 4-LP 1977 album is my all time favorite Zappa project. There was a war with Warner Brothers over how to release this material, resulting in Zappa bootlegging it over the radio and the ensuing court battles. This is the peak of everything fun and challenging about his music. Orchestral movements and guitar freakouts and grocery store Muzak and big progressive rock epics. Even on Side One I hear a narrative: the glitzy opener (“Re-gyptian Strut”) into ambient orchestration (“Naval Aviation In Art”) then the scent of his old rock band (“A Little Green Rosetta”) whom he breaks in with the “Whole Lotta Love” riff (“Duck Duck Goose”) cut with the engineers’ laughter then some proper Zappa jamming (“Down In De Dew”) into the first actual rock song (“For The Young Sophisticate”). What is that all about? His process. That’s modernism as I understand it, taking an unorthodox route for some truths about the artist. Elsewhere: “Pedro’s Dowry” sounds like seven-plus minutes of errant sounds and odd musical phrases, until you see it as the soundtrack for a weird cartoon, ending with a doorbell and surprise party whistles. “RDNZL” is a proper showcase for Ruth Underwood on the xy’s – Ruth Doesn’t Need Zappa’s Lyrics. “Punky’s Whips” is a better realization of the goofy stage act stuff, and “The Illinois Enema Bandit” is an utterly perverse blues rock epic. If you want to jump right in to the deep end, there’s no better place than Lather.
Sheik Yerbouti (1978)
In the eternal war between stupid and clever, stupid wins out. Part of it may have stemmed from the lawsuit, a demarcation line that turned his witty condescension into bitter insularity. Somewhere Zappa decided his audience wanted stereotypes and sex jokes. But do they have to be so dumb? And delivered with sneering half-assed contempt? And aren’t jokes supposed to be funny? That said: Sheik Yerbouti is still a good album. It’s sequenced like a mixtape of songs smashed into each other, with the glossy sound of 70s smut. “Flakes” bags on the cruddy American workforce with a Bob Dylan impression, “City Of Tiny Lites” is killer jazz prog with an anti-drug message. Still, Sheik is the captain of a ship setting sail, a permanent departure from the Zappa music that I love.
Joe’s Garage Acts I, II, & III (1979)
Reminds me of Zoot Allures: the more you get it, the more you’ll be repulsed. The narrative about a rock band quickly veers off into the usual scatology. Is this stuff funny? Not really. “Keep It Greasy” is about record executives. Get it? “Crew Slut” is advice for aspiring rock groupies. Laugh it up everybody. And yes that’s FZ in blackface on the cover for no reason at all. His guitar soloing was peaking here, c.f. “On The Bus” or “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” I like how “A Token Of My Extreme” puns on Scientology (“don’t you be tarot-fied”) and “Packard Goose” turns a gripe with rock critics into a weird breakdown featuring the Zappa Prayer. Cut it down by half and Joe’s Garage I.5 is a great album.
Tinseltown Rebellion (1981)
Here’s where Frank Zappa’s music disappears up its own ass. That’s harsh – but FZ was no delicate flower in the rhetoric department. So let’s call it like it is. Maybe “Easy Meat” is a satire of dumb sexist riff rock. Maybe? Nothing insightful about it though. And when you get song after song like that, the joke is on Zappa himself. Because it’s kind of pathetic, repeatedly “dunking” on women who just weren’t up to par. You could say he roasted everyone, he did. And I don’t think Zappa was a misogynist, though some of his comments on “women’s lib” were a little suspect. He just got too caught up in his own satire, amusing himself at others’ expense.
You Are What You Is (1981)
Good news: this is most song-centric work in years. Bad news: a lot of them are really dumb. It’s still Zappa, so the music is busy and bursting with energy and ideas. It sounds fun but the driving force is contempt. Youth, groupies, religion, suicide – everything is grist for sneering jokes. It’s the late period George Carlin effect, cranky proselytizing with some good insights but to what end? Ah, everything sucks, thank you for that. “Heavenly Bank Account” is a highlight – a gospel parody which FZ loved to stop for his announcement: “Tax the churches! Tax the businesses owned by the churches!” It’s a clever song because the attack is not on just religion but hypocrisy. Without that sort of grounding, a sharp satirical mind gets dull.
Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982)
Rudderless. Here’s a problem: by this point I don’t think Frank Zappa was inspired by much music other than his. In his interviews he’d note a few progressive guitar players and his usual composer heroes. He’d boxed himself into a corner, cranking out complex compositions performed to a tee by talented pros. “Valley Girl” saved this album from obscurity with daughter Moon’s teenage lingo. But the rest of this stuff is grody. Not for me.
Them Or Us (1984)
I can sort of dig this one in an 80s Zappa way, with a much lower bar. You can hear him running out of gas, with a few obnoxious doo wop parodies, a retread of “Sharleena” from 1970, and an Allman Brothers cover. We’re long past the point of a Zappa album making sense in any cohesive way. “Sinister Footwear II” is a cool instrumental from a proposed Zappa ballet (!), while “Truck Driver Divorce” is a clever juxtaposition of country clichés with an extended freaked out Zappa jam. Which puts the album title in context. Them or us?
What the fuck? Basically this project was supposed to be the anti-Hamilton – a Broadway play of black stereotypes that shocks white audiences. I mean, okay. But “shocking” satirical humor loses its value when the artist revels in the shocking part more than the actual point. Okay you shocked us, you said bad words and used racial stereotypes – now what? This one just flat out doesn’t work. It’s not offensive so much as unlistenably tedious.
Broadway The Hard Way (1988)
The final album of new rock songs, recorded on tour with the glitzy 1988 band. They were pros no doubt, but sometimes sounded like late night TV house band. Like if the David Letterman band recorded a bunch of “wacky” parodies. The songs cover late-80s stuff like stockbrokers and televangelists and Jesse Jackson and AIDS panic. Newspaper headlines just don’t make for music that ages well. Plus, the CD is way too bloated with seventeen tracks. Some of it is a fun listen, and there’s a good single album on here. At least current events are better fodder than the groupie bashing songs that tanked the late 70s/early 80s era.
Civilization Phase III (1994)
For his final avant garde masterpiece, Zappa perfects his experiments with a sampler/sequencer called the Synclavier. Civilization Phase III mixes speech excerpts from as far back as the late 60s with ambient pieces of eerie moods and subtle musical passages. It reminds me of Aphex Twin, and if it wasn’t an influence on ambient electronica that’s only because nobody bought this album. Regardless FZ was right in tune with the next wave of avant garde music. I still haven’t figured out what it means, and sometimes this music creeps me out like the masked ritual scene in Eyes Wide Shut. There’s a hint in one of the last spoken excerpts: “Does it matter whether we understand it? I think our strength comes from our uncertainty. If we understood it we’d be bored of it and then we couldn’t gather any strength from it.”