Freak Out! 10 Frank Zappa Albums You Ought To Own (And What To Pick Up Next If You Like Them) :: Part 2 of 2

Words: Anthony Hansen


Last week, the Texture Guide to Frank Zappa took us from Freak Out! to Apostrophe (‘) in one fell swoop. In part 2, we traverse the rocky territory of the 1970s to ’90s.

6. Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

What I failed to mention in the previous article is that Zappa spent the better part of the mid-70s working with the most musically dexterous incarnation of his backing band yet (a loose group of musicians that generally included George Duke on keyboards, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Tom Fowler on bass and his brother Bruce on trombone). This is particularly important to keep in mind, because on Roxy & Elsewhere he really puts them to the test, tossing out some of his most mind-meltingly complicated compositions ever.

What keeps this from being just an empty display of muso wanking, however, is the fact that in addition to playing these songs perfectly, the band makes them swing, infusing them with a spontaneity and vitality that makes it sound like they could do this sort of thing in their sleep. The scary thing is, they probably could. The scarier thing is, they did it live.

HERE, START WITH THIS: “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”

What to get next: One Size Fits All retains much of the same lineup and, for those with more delicate sensibilities, is one of the few Zappa albums without any gross-out humor or perverse sexual references in the lyrics. That the songs are all top-notch doesn’t hurt, either.

7. Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

From this point on, every Zappa album with vocals followed the exact same formula: loud rock music with questionable lyrical content and a few muso-baiting instrumentals thrown in for good measure. One could argue that 1976’s Zoot Allures set the template, but it’s Sheik Yerbouti that takes it to its furthest extreme: it’s filthier, fiercer, funnier, and guaranteed to offend absolutely everybody.

It’s also got some of Zappa’s best and most singable melodies, even if they’re in the service of lines like “Don’t fool yourself girl / it’s going right up yer poop chute”. Musically, this is as straightforward as Zappa ever got, but the supernaturally energetic backing band assures that there’s never a dull moment. Incidentally, this is the album that introduced the world to art-rock guitar god Adrian Belew and gigantic drum set enthusiast Terry Bozzio (who spends a good portion of the album screaming his lungs out).

HERE, START WITH THIS: “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”

What to get next: Joe’s Garage, because if you can stomach songs like “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Jewish Princess”, chances are you’re ready for a rock opera with 10 minutes of robot-fucking.

8. You Are What You Is (1981)

Turning the perverse humor down a notch, Zappa returned to barbed social satire on You Are What You Is, this time targeting youthful indolence, yuppie self-absorption, and organized religion with a ferociousness that borders on blood-thirsty. Zappa clearly entered the ’80s more frustrated and pessimistic than ever, and it seems the mean-spiritedness that marked his late-’70s novelty-rock albums had now finally found some worthy targets.

Still, in spite of the sour aftertaste, this is easily one of Zappa’s best lyrical offerings, and the extra effort he seemed to have put in the words gives the hyper-caffeinated, ADD-addled music a focus that differentiates it from the “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks” quality that mars even some of his better efforts. And of course, this being a Zappa album, a lot of it is funny as hell.

HERE, START WITH THIS: “You Are What You Is”

What to get next: Zappa followed YAWYI with Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, a comparatively lightweight effort that benefits from being one of the most immediately likable, casual-sounding albums in Zappa’s discography. Six songs, no filler, and a slight New Wave aftertaste (yes, it’s the one with “Valley Girl” on it).

9. Broadway The Hard Way/The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life/Make A Jazz Noise Here (all from 1988)

After spending the bulk of the ’80s in a depressingly self-indulgent creative rut, Zappa released a trio of live albums featuring some of the best music of his career. Though his 1988 touring band didn’t last too long due to internal politics (i.e., infighting), they were hailed by many fans as one of the most talented he’d ever assembled.

Of the three albums, Broadway The Hard Way focuses most on political satire, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life is concentrated more towards crowd-pleasing fan favorites (and some exceptionally weird covers), and the mostly-instrumental Make A Jazz Noise Here focuses on just how well this band could play the complicated stuff. Though Best Band is the easiest place to start, the medley of early Mothers material on Make A Jazz Noise Here has to be heard to be believed. Oh, and did I mention this lineup featured a full five-piece horn section?

HERE, START WITH THIS: “Stolen Moments”

What To Get Next: If you get all three of these albums and still want more, you might as well go the whole hog and delve into the exhausting six-volume You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, a comprehensive collection of rare live cuts that spans Zappa’s entire career.

10. Civilization Phaze III (1994):

DON’T GET THIS FIRST. This is the FZ master class, the final exam, a monolith of musically uncompromising darkness that stands in stark contrast to everything else the man ever did. Composed almost entirely on Synclavier during the last years of Zappa’s life, Civilization Phaze III is an “opera-pantomime” that seems to allegorically describe where he thought society was headed. It isn’t pretty.

The nightmarish dystopia described in the libretto is perfectly articulated by the music, a creepy, discordant, borderline-incomprehensible polyrhythmic collision of otherworldly, computer-manipulated instrumental tones. Though it sounds like pure chaos on the surface, the truth is that Zappa had never been so firmly in control of his own musical vision, even as his body was succumbing to the later stages of prostate cancer. Not all of it works, but it’s hard to fault what essentially amounts to Frank Zappa’s musical last will and testament.

HERE, START WITH THIS:“Dio Fa”

What To Get Next: Next? You’ll be lucky if you even find this one. Nevertheless, The Yellow Shark, Zappa’s second-to-last album, features his orchestral compositions being played by the Ensemble Modern, one of the few groups of musicians who took Zappa’s orchestral music seriously enough to do it justice.

Freak Out! 10 Frank Zappa Albums You Ought To Own (And What To Pick Up Next If You Like Them) :: Part 1 of 2

Words: Anthony Hansen

The man, the legend.

There are few discographies as intimidating as Frank Zappa’s. The man released something like 63 albums in his lifetime and approved at least six more for release shortly before his death (a couple of which still remain in the vaults). Add to that the fact that Zappa didn’t fall into any kind of stylistic rut for more than few years at a time (at most), and you get a man whose work is exceptionally hard to pin down. And yet, for however many different musical phases he went through, his work is almost always immediately recognizable.

Contrary to what many people believe, Zappa’s influences are obvious – it’s just that very few people thought to combine doo-wop vocal harmonies and blues-inspired guitarwork with the compositional techniques of Edgar Varèse (and, to a lesser extent, Igor Stravinsky). This doesn’t even account for the deeply cynical world view that informed his lyrics, his affection for various strains of jazz, and his brief but regrettable dalliance with reggae in the ’80s.

Simply put, this was a man crazy enough to make a career out of breaking as many rules as he could, but only because he was smart enough to have learned all the rules in the first place. Without further ado, here it is: 10 Frank Zappa Albums You Ought To Own (And What To Pick Up Next If You Like Them).

1. Freak Out! (1966)

Though it was always clear who was running the show, Zappa began his career as part of the Mothers Of Invention, a calculatedly outrageous group of musical trouble-makers who subverted/perverted whatever cultural norms they could get their grubby little mitts on. Though a certain amount of attitude wasn’t uncommon in rock music at the time, The Mothers may have been the first group to turn that kind of attitude against the music itself, effectively making them the first truly post-modern rock band.

On this album you’ll find scathing political diatribes (“Trouble Every Day”), flippant anti-love songs (“Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder”), catchy pop songs ruined by deliberately stupid lyrics (“Wowie Zowie”) and the most hellish take on barbershop quartet harmonies ever conceived (“It Can’t Happen Here”). How revolutionary was it? Put it this way: when The Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney referred to it as “our Freak Out!”

HERE, START WITH THIS:
"Hungry Freaks Daddy"

What to get next: We’re Only In It For The Money, which condenses all the best aspects of Freak Out! into an airtight tight 39 minutes – and gets in a few famously nasty jabs at the hippie subculture The Mothers unwittingly helped create.

2. Hot Rats (1969)

The one Zappa album even most non-Zappa fans can enjoy. Musically, this is his most serious, straightforward, and pleasingly melodic foray into jazz music, showing a focus and sophistication that wasn’t always evident in The Mothers’ brand of scabrous satire.

For this album he wisely jettisoned his former backing band (save for multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood) in favor of a rotating cast of jazz and blues luminaries that included Shuggie Otis, Sugar Cane Harris, Jean-Luc Ponty and his childhood friend Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart (on the album’s one vocal cut, “Willie The Pimp”). Still, Zappa more than holds his own in such esteemed company, and the result is an album that stands as a landmark in both jazz and rock.

HERE, START WITH THIS: "Peaches en Regalia"

What to get next: Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, Zappa’s return to fusion after a questionable foray into vaudevillian comedy rock.

3. Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1969)

Of course, there’s something to be said for pure musical anarchy, and no Zappa album is as proudly abrasive, undisciplined and all-over-the-place as Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the original Mothers’ swan song. Compiled from various live improvs and studio outtakes (much like its predecessor, the far more subdued Burnt Weeny Sandwich), this is the album where Zappa’s affection for free-jazz luminaries like Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk really shines through.

Along the way, we also get a couple of absolutely smoking blues numbers (“Directly From My Heart To You”, “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama”), a bona fide We’re Only In It For The Money outtake (“Oh No”), and the title track, an impenetrable wall of noise that sums up the irreverent, confrontational tone of the album perfectly. All that and what may be Zappa’s best-ever album cover, to boot.

HERE, START WITH THIS: "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue"

What to get next: The aforementioned Burnt Weeny Sandwich provides a glimpse at the Mothers’ more “serious” side and features some of the most exquisite compositions in the Zappa catalogue. If that sounds like a more appealing prospect than the jarring, discordant mess of Weasels, you may want save the flesh-razing for another day and grab yerself a tasty Sandwich.

4. Chunga’s Revenge (1970)

The closest Zappa ever came to a “normal” hard rock album, and it’s a monster. What’s worth noting right off the bat is that it’s not just “normal” in its musical straightforwardness (a good portion of these songs are essentially just blues jams), but structurally as well. Where all Zappa’s albums up to this point had some kind overarching/underlying concept or theme trying their songs together, Chunga’s Revenge sounds more like a quick snapshot of whatever was running through Frank’s mind (or setlist) at the time.

So you get a Hot Rats outtake here (“Twenty Small Cigars”), an all-over-the-place live improv there (“The Nancy And Mary Music”) a fake drum solo thrown in for no apparent reason (“The Clap”), and a wonderful R&B number to top it all off (“Sharleena”).

This album also marks the first appearance of Flo and Eddie, two former Turtles who would act as Zappa’s main singers/sleazy comedic foils for the following two years. The next couple of albums would show what a pain in the ass they could be when given free rein over the music, but it’s hard to imagine any other singers pulling off a song like “Tell Me You Love Me” with such dick-swinging conviction.

HERE, START WITH THIS: "The Clap"

What to get next: Most critics would steer you away from this era of Zappa entirely, but I have an inexplicable soft spot for Just Another Band From L.A. I’m in the minority, though, so caveat empor.

5. Apostrophe (‘) (1974)

Having gotten a couple of fine instrumental albums out of his system, Zappa returned to more conventional pop songwriting, though “conventional” is always a relative term in the Zappa universe. Not only was he still cramming in as many complicated musical twists as he could, he was also incorporating his more recent jazz-fusion influences, as well as some very pronounced funk-rock elements.

The first album to display this change in style was Over-Nite Sensation, but Apostrophe is (arguably) even better. Yes, the dog wee-wee jokes are stupid, but the music is so full of intriguing twists and turns, lightning-speed instrumental interplay and rock-solid melodies that Frank could have been singing from a phone book and this would still be one of his better albums.

Luckily, some of the wordplay is among his most clever (even when the subject matter is eye-rollingly inane) and he even makes room for a kick-ass jam with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce on the title track. Speaking of which, the dirtiest joke on the album is the title – what do YOU think an apostrophe between two brackets is supposed to look like?

HERE, START WITH THIS:“Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”

What to get next: The aforementioned Over-Nite Sensation contains some of Zappa’s best songs, not to mention his filthiest. Apostrophe may have the edge here, but to get one and not the other would be like speed-reading through one of the most vital chapters in Zappa’s musical development.

Next: 1974-1994…