A brilliant lampoon of psychedelic pop, We’re Only In It For The Money creates a collage of strange conversations, social criticism, and pop music far too catchy to carry such a heavy message. Best to take a big gulp of air before it starts, because the album’s sensory overload won’t present an opportunity until it’s all over. Frank the cranky genius skewers everything from flower power to conservative America: no one is spared, including The Mothers. That many of the songs work as self-standing pieces is amazing: “Absolutely Free,” “Flower Punk,” “Mother People,” “Bow Tie Daddy” and “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black” have all been separated from this egg without ill effect. It’s all part of a larger theme however, punctuated by internal musings, lapses into dementia, and reprises of earlier material. Some of the pieces are instrumental experiments in noise (“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”) that make Todd Rundgren’s studio noodling seem tame by comparison. It’s brazen stuff, all of it, but the standoffish arrangements belie a musical sophistication few were prepared for in 1968. That the album charted as well as it did still amazes me, though the novelty factor must have been huge. In a sense the closest parallel might be the albums of Firesign Theatre, which share the same rambling social commentary and spelunkering into the deepest recesses of strangeness. As a direct response to contemporary music, We’re Only In It For The Money isn’t for everyone. Who cares if The Mothers flip the finger to Jimi Hendrix and the Haight-Ashbury scene, you may wonder. But it’s more than that; this is an open challenge to musicians, an opportunity to push music kicking and screaming out of its comfort zone. Extreme? Of course. But Zappa did nothing by halves, and the world is a whole lot better for it.
When the croci in my mind are blooming, then Frank Zappa’s whimsical and colorful genius must be in full flower. I see you in the back of the class, looking out the window while all this wondrous music plays on. Well, wake up! Thirty years on, your grandchildren may quiz you on Frank Zappa and Where were you when it all happened. Do you want to be the doddering old fool who pulls out a picture of the sofa bathed in the blue light of the television and point saying “There?” No you don’t. You want to tune into Hot Rats. The wonderful thing is, there’s still time. Oh, the good seats on the ground floor are already taken, but there’s plenty left in the mezzanine, as good a place as any to witness the miracle of “Peaches En Regalia” or “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” where the composer turns our concept of classical music on its head and gives it a much-needed spanking. Or, if that doesn’t push your button, than surely the sweaty and buck nakedly brilliant blues rock of “Willie The Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations” must. I’ve spent some two-cent words and a coupla ten-dollar ones trying to sell folks on Frank Zappa’s music, but Hot Rats sells itself. If no other work from Zappa should survive (and somewhere in a conservative cabal sick with the smell of cigars, the possibility is probably being discussed right now), Hot Rats alone would keep the flame alive through the ages. The composition, the arrangements, the musicianship, the sheer entertainment of it all is initially too much to comprehend, but in time it sinks in, and gestates, and first it’s a little blue crocus, and then a white one, and a pink one, and before you know it you’re trading bootlegs with some guy in Holland who says you have to hear this killer version of “Valarie” with an alternate ending (or something like that). Stepping back from myself a bit, I’m sure that jazz/classical hybrids like “Little Umbrellas” could trace themselves back to Duke Ellington or some other modern composer without a trail of bread crumbs, but I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff, so for me Zappa’s the gateway to this new musical world. And, honestly, your grandchildren will probably be asking you stuff like “Ew, how could you have had a crush on Eminem (or Britney Spears)?,” so I wouldn’t worry too much about the Zappa shakedown from future generations. But if they do ask you about Zappa, start putting money away in a trust fund so they can go to Yale and eventually become president. I’d like to hear “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” played at least once at an inaugural ball in my lifetime, and I don’t see any other way to do it.
A mishmash of musical grotesqueries, or yet another example of Zappa’s calculated dementia as art? I’m not asking you to decide, since Burnt Weeny Sandwich is probably both. It starts off innocently enough with the Cruising-compatible “WPLJ” and closes with another disarming doo-wop send-up in “Valarie,” but it’s what’s in the middle of Burnt Weeny Sandwich that merits attention. Quasi-orchestral lounge music, searing guitar solos, classical jazz, dissonance, deliberate destruction of music’s smooth facade. This is “serious” music filtered through Zappa’s unique sense of humor, iconoclasm on a surprisingly intimate scale. Selections like “Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown” and “Little House I Used To Live In” belong with most of Hot Rats in the hall of great instrumental moments. But where Rats was focused more on jazz/rock fusion, Weeny fuses together the wildly divergent aspects of Frank’s muse into a complex stew (Weasels would repeat this experiment). Underneath the chaotic haze, great ideas are afoot. “Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and the brief “Ivor’s Boogie, Phase One” are carefully contrived to combine ugliness and art, the band sounding on the verge of careening off the printed score into noisy oblivion, riveting the listener like a high-speed car chase where we wait breathlessly for the inevitable crash. Not being familiar with Lumpy Gravy or Uncle Meat, the Mothers’ most avant-garde outings to date, I can’t tell you where Burnt Weeny begins and they end. However, according to Zappa’s project/object theory, this clearly belongs to the same object as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and perhaps to Hot Rats as well, forming at least a contiguous trio of orchestral/jazz/rock efforts that put Zappa’s compositional genius to the test. The Flo & Eddie follies effectively ended this chapter, only to have it resurrected by (in part) 200 Motels, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. From these two trios come some of Zappa’s most brilliant and ambitious music, with Burnt Weeny in the top half of that group, and thus one of Zappa’s essential recordings.
Kronomyth 6.0: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This is basically Frank Zappa making an orchestral jazz/rock record on Dick Bock’s dime, with wonderful results. Bock had signed French violin sensation Jean-Luc Ponty to his World Pacific Jazz label but, frankly, didn’t know what to do with him. Frank did. He assembled various Mothers and talented others into an ad hoc, all-star band and gave them some of his most daunting compositions to reinterpret in a jazz fusion and small orchestra setting. The album’s centerpiece is the nearly 20-minute “Music For Electric Violin And Low-Budget Orchestra,” on which Zappa makes his most compelling case yet for consideration as a serious modern classical composer. In fact, King Kong is the first album where Zappa casts himself primarily in the role of composer; he steps into the fray only once, for the lone Ponty original, “How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That.” Ponty, for his part, finally gets some great material to work with, not to mention some great studio musicians including Ernie Watts, John Guerin, Wilton Felder and Vince DeRosa. King Kong also marks the first collaboration between Frank Zappa and George Duke, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in the Mothers. In every way, this is a quantum leap in Ponty recordings; nothing he recorded before this was as revolutionary or mind-expanding. Ponty’s violin also brings a more melodic touch to the material; “Idiot Bastard Son” has never sounded so charming, and the version of “Twenty Small Cigars” recorded here is simply gorgeous (Zappa would revisit this on Chunga’s Revenge). King Kong is a work of musical genius, a high point in the early catalog of Ponty and Zappa. Honestly, there was little in Ponty’s previous work to suggest a convergence of styles between the jazz violin prodigy and the brooding composer, but there’s no denying that the pairing is magic. Dick Bock deserves a lot of credit for bringing the two musicians together and putting artistic ideals over commercial interests; this album is as much a part of his legacy as Zappa’s or Ponty’s.
Kronomyth 9.0: WEASELS SEIZE HELL BY THE SHORT HAIRS. A collection of live and studio recordings from the “difficult” years of 1967, 1968 and 1969 that didn’t make it onto the proper albums Lumpy Gravy, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich et al. Frank Zappa makes a meal out of these leftovers; in fact, it’s easy to approach this as the next new Mothers record, since it’s very similar in construction and quality to Burnt Weeny Sandwich. You’ll encounter tantalizing melodies in complex classical/jazz arrangements, avant-garde experiments (e.g., “music” scored for laughter, howls and nose), smart send-ups of contemporary popular music and relatively normal blues/rock songs delivered with fire and precision. In other words, more or less the same fare as Weeny, with the caveat that nothing on Weasels is quite as clever as “Holiday In Berlin” or “Little House I Used To Live In.” In another universe, these might have ended up as outtakes added to the late-century parade of Zappa/Mothers remasters. One can envision “Oh No” as a perfect addendum to We’re Only In It For The Money, if one is inclined to envision such minute details of an alternate future at all (one would think not), or “Didja Get Any Onya” as a detour during Weeny’s “Holiday In Berlin.” Over the long and langorous years, snippets of Weasels have popped up in my mental radio as much as the other Mothers recordings, and I find myself on strange occasions silently mouthing “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” or reconstituting one of its cacophonous passages from dried memory. Weasels does feature a good amount of calculated noise (albeit meticulously scored), which can feel like having your brain poked with a stick for forty minutes if you’re not inclined toward the avant-garde.
Kronomyth 10.0: THE YAWN AND THE RESTLESS. Chunga’s Revenge finds Frank Zappa at a kind of existential crossroads. He had just re-tooled the band, adding Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), George Duke (displaying a heretofore hidden talent for the trombone) and Jeff Simmons. It was a crack outfit with the theatrically minded Flo and Eddie giving Zappa’s dark humor an added dimension that often felt like musical theatre (“Would You Go All The Way?,” “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink”). From here on, you got one of several Zappa personalities: the funny, the fiery fretwork or the philharmaniacal monsters. Chunga’s Revenge has a little from columns A, B and C. There is the sense, however, that Zappa was becoming more of a rock and roll centrist, at least relative to earlier creations like Weasels and Weeny. “Transylvania Boogie” and “Road Ladies” are, at their core, blues-rock mutations, while “Sharleena” and “Tell Me You Love Me” are rock songs that could actually be played on the radio. It’s not to say that Zappa had sold out on Chunga’s Revenge (the album, for example, didn’t chart particularly well). It’s simply that you didn’t need a musical degree or a passing familiarity with Igor Stravinsky to appreciate it. Throughout the 70s, most of the Zappa/Mothers albums would sound more or less like Chunga’s Revenge. Zappa released some fantastic albums during this period (The Grand Wazoo, Overnite Sensation), but the decade was largely an audible retreat from the longer compositional works of Lumpy Gravy and King Kong in favor of slightly more commercial fare. Maybe that’s exactly what you were waiting for, maybe not. I would tell you that the intimate reworking of “Twenty Small Cigars” is my favorite thing on here, but that would be a lie, it’s really “Rudy,” and therein lies the philosophical crisis that every Zappa fan would face from now on: Were we smarter than everyone else or just smartasses?
That’s right, you heard right, the secret word for tonight is “Mud Shark.” But for this bawdy tale from the not-so-briny shoals of Seattle, Washington alone, this is required listening. Of course, instrumental fans who hunger for something more filling from Fillmore will find it in tracks like “Lonesome Electric Turkey” and the evergreen “Peaches En Regalia.” This live record (one of the last from the Fillmore East if memory serves) is one of my favorites from the Flo & Eddie experiment, showcasing their unique stage presence on the dialogue-driven “Do You Like My New Car?” and cascading into a delirious version of The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Unlike some of Zappa’s live releases, Fillmore East retains the atmosphere of a live show from beginning to end, with a minimum of post-doctoring and a maximum of spontaneous energy (or as spontaneous as a band playing a tortuous track like “Little House I Used To Live In” can get). Among the other Zappa/Mothers albums out there, Fillmore East reminds me most of the 200 Motels soundtrack, where a similar mix of complicated instrumentals and transcendently strange songs co-existed happily (although I understand that Uncle Meat tasted about the same too). As an oral history of rock stars and the groupies who love them, Fillmore East puts Professors Flo & Eddie at the podium, overshadowing the rest of the band much of the time. Ordinarily, their monkeyshines steal the spotlight from the erstwhile top banana (Frank) and his phenomenal fretwork. But Fillmore East finds a better balance than Just Another Band From L.A., for example, alternating between the profane and the musically profound in a way that satisfies both camps.
The last of the great instrumental burlesques, at least until Orchestral Favorites surfaced in 1979. The Grand Wazoo was recorded during Frank Zappa’s recovery from injuries sustained following an on-stage assault (so much for soothing the savage breast), thus entering into the top of two rather select musical subgroups: the recovery recordings (besting both Eno’s Discreet Music and Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, to name a few) and program music dealing with the clash of different musical cultures (progeny of the classic cartoon that includes Patrick Moraz’ eponymous effort and The Residents’ Tune of Two Cities). Drawing musical dialogue from the classical and rock cousins of the jazz family, The Mothers make the sort of music that’ll just curl the toes of anyone who enjoyed the mock-classical adventures of Waka/Jawaka, Weasels and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa has proved adept at writing program music (200 Motels, Joe’s Garage, Thing-Fish), though The Grand Wazoo differs in its instrumental approach; only the opening “For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)” features vocals, and it’s not empty praise to point out this might be the most perfect amalgam of vocal and instrumental music in all of Zappadom. The natural and seemingly effortless melange of instruments inhabits a unique world where rock, jazz and orchestral sounds meet in the middle of a saucepan and dance to the hot whims of the master composer in convalescence. Yet Zappa is careful to make sure that each of the songs retains a distinct flavor, from the seamy tones of “The Grand Wazoo” to the comic “Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus” to the epic riff that underpins “Eat That Question” (one I’d put on a pedestal with the closing theme to Gentle Giant’s “Three Friends”). Anyway, I could go on for pages—I’m that enthusiastic about this album. If I had to pick a favorite from Frank Zappa, it’d be down to this and Hot Rats.
Somehow, Frank Zappa found a way on Over-Nite Sensation to package his oddball humor and complex arrangements into a commercially palatable package. It was the first Zappa album to go gold, and contained songs (like “Montana”) that could actually be played on FM radio without frightening away listeners. For this reason, AMG rightly refers to this as a “watershed album.” It marked a clear and conscious departure from the complex, often orchestral jazz rock of earlier efforts like Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo, succinctly summing up the traits that made Zappa so special: the brilliant guitar leads, luminous contributions from fellow artists (Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Ruth Underwood), and the perverse sense of humor. Because folks who might not ordinarily buy this album did, some were shocked to hear lyrics about bestiality (“Dirty Love”), orgasms (“Dinah Moe Humm”), and a Mexican witch who just happens to be breeding a dwarf (“Camarillo Brillo”). However, longtime listeners were used to this sort of thing; after all, is anything on here less tasteful than “Magdalena” or “The Mud Shark?” If the material is a little off color, Frank delivers it in a good-humored growl more mischievous than menacing. What’s most impressive about Over-Nite Sensation is that so much music finds its way into these six-minute tunes without bursting the confines of the standard lyric rock song. The band’s ability to start a track like “Zomby Woof” in a relatively straightforward manner, veer off into extracurricular melodies and solos, and then bounce back to find the original structure still intact is amazing. Some might argue that Underwood, Duke and Ponty are given limited roles in these arrangements, but all the better to hear Frank’s guitar burn up the place on “Dirty Love” and “I’m The Slime.” Over-Nite Sensation is probably the most accessible entry point for adventurous rock fans to approach the work of Frank Zappa. The guitarist himself was obviously pleased with his newfound ability to write in a more concise format, and continued in this idiom for the remainder of the decade, relegating his experimental side to his unreleased leviathan, Lather (which escaped in drips and drabs over the ‘70s and ‘80s).
Kronoymth 18.0: SEX & DRUGS & ROXY & ROLL. If you enjoyed Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe, that’s good; it means you’re not dead. It also means you’re going to enjoy Roxy & Elsewhere a whole lot. But isn’t this a live record, you ask, and don’t all live records secretly sort of suck it? Well, yeah, the ones that don’t have strippers, bubble machines, trombone solos, jaw-dropping xylophone monologues and molten lava guitar licks probably do. Fortunately, Roxy & Elsewhere has all that plus immaculate sound (the credits confess to overdubbing) and two elpees of great, new songs such as “Village of the Sun,” “Cheepnis” and “Son of Orange County.” Where most live albums tend to paraphrase a specific period of time, Zappa live albums are the exclamation points to those periods: Fillmore East, Zappa In New York, Tinsel Town Rebellion. Roxy captures what’s best about the Over-Nite Sensation->One Size Fits All period of Zappa without regurgitating it and includes some of his best songs over a long and amazing career. Released as a double album, Roxy plays up the live format by beginning each side with a preamble from Frank plus the usual audience engagement. From there, you’ve got your tasteful sexual innuendo (“Penguin In Bondage”), social criticism (“More Trouble Every Day”), a Firesign Theatre full of strange voices and at least two bands’ worth of brilliant soloing. Although the classical jazz phase was awesome (Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Hot Rats), the 1972-1975 albums managed to best wed Frank’s sense of humor, jazz-inspired genius and rock guitar chops, and in many ways they represent the quintessential Frank Zappa sound. If you were hoping for live versions of “Zomby Woof” or “Montana,” too bad; you’ll need to fast-forward to the Stage series to get your fix. Roxy is rather one of those live albums you shouldn’t try to live without because, truly, your world is probably at least one radioactive poodle song shy of perfection.
A cleverly staged car wreck between Zappa and Captain Beefheart that, despite the creative velocity of the pair at the time, wasn’t the big bang some had hoped for. The disappointment of Bongo Fury might be that both artists weren’t looking to do something new together, but simply do what they do together. There are songs that represent an even union of sorts, where Beefheart takes the lead and Zappa’s band lays down the groundwork: the twisted “Debra Kadabra,” the sort-of-a-cowboy-song “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” and “200 Years Old” (the last two forming a kind of a bicentennial medley). These may be a little grittier and bluesier than Zappa’s usual work, but fans should eventually warm up to them. Beefheart also presents his greasy, look-what-I-found-under-the-refrigerator poetry on a pair of tracks: “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” (which introduces the “bongo fury” theme) and “Man With The Woman Head.” Frank even answers in kind with his own story, “Muffin Man,” that starts like a carbon copy of “Evelyn, A Modified Dog” before launching into a brilliant guitar solo. Zappa fans will take solace in the tracks that sound most like his usual work from this period: “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” (cut from the same cloth as “Camarillo Brillo”) and “Advance Romance.” However, those fans would do better to pick up Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All… well, you get the point. For the best blending of Beefheart and Zappa, seek ye Hot Rats. Two heads are better than one in the world of bongos, but in the live/studio world of Bongo Fury maybe not so much.