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Monday, July 14, 2008


Recent activity on Mathdude's blog brought up the topic of Frank Zappa's 'Zoot Allures' LP. 'Zoot Allures' was one of the first Frank records that I heard. My brother Rod had it, as well as a number of others, and in my teenage years I developed an affinity for Frank based on that exposure. I'm sure what drew me to Zappa was his potty mouth, but it was the guitar tones on 'Zoot Allures', specifically on 'Wonderful Wino', that cemented the deal.

I remember I had a cassette tape of 'Zoot Allures' and some miscellaneous other Zappa tracks that I played a lot in 1980/81. I think one particular instance wherein I was playing that tape on my little boom box on the school bus was the point at which Tony Alva decided that maybe I wasn't an annoying little idiot.

I know for certain that in the summer of 1981, when Milkyum and I were councilors at West Point Youth Camp, I had brought along some Zappa, and before long my ten year-olds were walking around camp singing 'Bobby Brown Goes Down', a tale of accidental transgender and sado-masochism.

"Women's liberation came creeping all across the nation
I tell you people I was not ready, when I fucked this dyke by the name of Freddie
She made a little speech then, she tried to make me say when
She had my balls in a vice, but she left the dick
I guess its still hooked on, but now it shoots too quick"

I was told not to apply again the next year.

Personally I think Frank was a genius, and I find his music endlessly entertaining, but I've encountered a lot of opposition to Zappa over the years. People either love him, hate him, or have not been exposed to his work. Most of my attempts at turning folks on to Frank have not been very successful. Maybe that's because I'd always be hushing them so they didn't miss the next really funny lyric. That's very annoying, I know, but with Frank it's just so hard not to do.

Of those acquaintances who do like Zappa, many of them are stoic Mother of Invention fans, the first phase starting in the late 60's that featured a set line-up of musicians, the Mothers of Invention, and a decidedly vaudevillian approach centered around the live show, and a fair amount of improv within the context of Frank's compositions. I dig the Mothers, but I'm more fond of the post Mothers 70's stuff.

Jackson's Best of Zappa List:

1) Zoot Allures (1976)

The whole album is great. 'The Torture Never Stops', 'Ms. Pinky', 'Wonderful Wino', 'Disco Boy', and 'Wind Up Working In a Gas Station' find Frank in top form and display a wide range of musical styles. The instrumentals: 'Black Napkins', 'Friendly Little Finger', and 'Zoot Allures' showcase his simply amazing guitar skills.

Many years after my introduction to this fantastic record I read in an interview with Frank that he cobbled the LP together from various out-takes and leftovers from previous records over the course of two days in order to supply Warner Bros with the final record of his contract with them.

I think that explains why I like the record so much, it's vary basic, mostly guitars, bass, and drums, and lacking in the xylophone and other extraneous instrumentation common to the Zappa canon.

2) Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

A double album, 'Sheik Yerbouti' is a lot to digest, and it can be overwhelming. Admittedly, I rarely ever listen to the whole thing in one sitting. The first side, however, is absolutely astounding. Beginning with Frank's severe mockage of Peter Frampton's turd of a follow-up to 'Frampton Comes Alive', 'I'm In You', 'I Have Been In You' establishes itself as a nicely crafted R&B number, and after suckering us in, he slowly pulls the curtain aside until you realize that he's very plainly discussing sexual penetration.

"I have been in you, baby, you have been in me
Aw little girl, there ain't no time to wash yer stinky hand
Go head and roll over, I'm going in you again"

Then he hits us with 'Flakes', with a special guest appearance by Bob Dylan (not really Bob), as he discusses his dissatisfaction with the job performance of various 'skilled laborers'. 'Flakes' also features a superb performance by guitarist Adrian Belew.

'Broken Hearts Are For Assholes' follows, and next to 'Bobby Brown' was a major factor in my not getting asked back to West Point Youth Camp'. The 'ram it up your poop shoot' bit is very catchy, and irresistible to ten year-olds.

The album also features the aforementioned 'Bobby Brown', the potentially very offensive 'Jewish Princess', and the single (single?) 'Baby Snakes' amid crazy instrumentals and other wacky Zappa compositions culminating in the sublime 'Yo Mama', which exhibits some mind-blowing Zappa lead guitar work.

3) Apostrophe (1974)

The Zappa record most often given spin time by my brother, 'Apostrophe' was most likely my first taste. Certainly 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It' was an early favorite of mine. 'Apostrophe' finds Frank waxing allegorical, and much of the record takes the form of morality tales, twisted morality tales. 'Yellow Snow' pits a fur trapper against an Eskimo in a scatological battle over the fate of Nanook's (the Eskimo) favorite baby seal. 'St. Alfonso's Pancake Breakfast' details the delinquent behavior of a young parishioner gone amok of a Sunday morning. 'Cosmic Debris' finds the narrator forced to teach a lesson to a shady snake oil type street vendor, and 'Stinkfoot' provides a valuable lesson to those of us "who might wear tennis shoes or an occasional python boot".

It's 'Uncle Remus', however, that provides Frank's most stinging social criticism, and it might be the best example of what might be described as his better nature. A formidable Gospel evoking piano drives the track as Frank tackles racism, in particular Anglo Saxon prejudices toward African Americans. Initially, Frank takes the dangerous tack of what at first seems to be serious mockage of African Americans with his mention of afros and doo-rags, but we see, as the song concludes who's actually being mocked.

"I'll take a drive to Beverly Hills, just before dawn
An' knock the little jockeys off the rich people's lawns
An' before they get up, I'll be gone, I'll be gone
Before they get up I'll be knocking the jockeys off the lawn"

4) The Man From Utopia (1983)

This mostly overlooked LP has been a favorite of mine since I bought it when it came out. Zappa's then protege Steve Vai is prominently featured on the record, as Frank's interest in playing guitar waned in the eighties.

'The Dangerous Kitchen', 'The Radio Is Broken', and 'Jazz Discharge Party Hats' are the highlights, but the whole record is strong, and is probably the last truly great Zappa effort as far as his work within the Rock idiom goes..

5) Over-Nite Sensation (1973)

Sex is the main issue here, 'Camarillo Brillo', 'Dinah-Moe Hum', and 'Dirty Love' explore Frank's favorite topic. 'Montana' finds the narrator musing on the prospect of moving to Montana to raise a crop of dental floss.

6) Joe's Garage, Act 1 (1979)

The title track is one of the best things Frank ever did. Anyone who ever put together a band can relate.

"It wasn't very large
There was just enough room to cram the drums in the corner over by the dodge
It was a fifty-four with a mashed up door
And a cheesy little amp, with a sign on the front said Fender Champ
And a second hand guitar
It was a Stratocaster with a whammy bar"

'Catholic Girls' provides balance against 'Jewish Princess', and 'Crew Slut' and 'Why Does It Hurt When I Pee' deliver the crude sex based humor that is so prevalent in Zappa's music.

7) You Are What You Is (1981)

Another double album, and again, it's a bit overwhelming, but Side Three is very rewarding culminating with the exceptional 'The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing'.

"You say your life's a bum deal, and your up against the wall...
Well, people, you ain't even got no deal at all
'Cause what they do in Washington
They just takes care of NUMBER ONE
You ain't even NUMBER TWO"

There's much, much more Zappa, I've just scratched the surface, but these are my faves. Many of you don't care, and others will have a different list, and that's just dandy.

Jackson--I commend your nod to Zappa. Might I suggest readers also check out "One Size Fits All" (1973). This was Frank's first album after falling off the stage in Sweden and breaking his leg. Amazing band (George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, etc.). Truly a desert island classic.
Have been listening to Zoot for a few days now and it is still as amazing a record as it was 20 years ago.

I can't argue with too much that you've written, but my biggest beef with Zappa's stuff (and it's just my preference here) is that his tracks are often not really songs, but bazzar performance art pieces/commentary with musical accompaniment. Interesting in their own right, but not something I'd drop on the turntable and sit down with a glass of wine, or even lots of beer for that matter. I used to listen to the Mothers Live Filmore record a good deal, but while always solid musicianship and witty, just kinda boring after reaching a level of familiarity (as one mutual friend would say, "The jokey stuff just wears itself out like any comedy record played repeatedly").

Hence why I like Zoot so much. (BTW, Wikipedia counters the "thrown together" story I've also understood to be the case throughout the years). It's got all of his misenthropic and pointed pen, but also great guitar sounds, catchy riffs, mindblowing drumming, and awesome production.

You'll have to tell me more about getting the boot from WP Youth Camp. That story rivals my playing Ted Nugent's 'Double Live Gonzo' tracks, filthy between song banter and all, for our eighth grade music class.

As you've said a million times before, it all starts with good songs. Frank fucked with what a "song" is in the avant garde sense and had strong opinions about everything. Strange how that's exactly how many listeners feel about his body of work.
I didn't find anything on the wikipedia page for 'Zoot...' that refutes the 'thrown together' story, in fact it seems that in the process of assembly he went through a number of different versions before settling on what got released. Frank always had tracks in various states of readiness at hand. It comes from his 'conceptual continuity' ethos. Basically, everything he ever did is one long sequence. A track recorded in 75 might not show up on a record until 79, and everywhere you find circular references, the 'sears poncho', Frenchie the Poodle, etc. A rhythm track for one song recorded at a live date would end up as the backing track for a completely different tune three records later.

You hit the nail on the head with your asessment of his appeal, or lack thereof.

Indeed, as a producer and as an artist, I'm always concerned with the song itself, everything else is window dressing, but Frank's work has to be given a different set of criteria. Sure, he could knock off a great song, like 'Joe's Garage', but he wasn't about to limit himself to that structure, there was more to music than three minutes of catchy hook and melody.

Frank's first love was not Rock and Roll, but Modern Classical like Stockhausen and the Musique Concrete of Edgard Varese.

His ambition and his sensibilities forced him into the world of Rock, but he could never leave the avant guard behind completely.

Like you, I enjoy his more structured 'song' oriented stuff, as evidenced by the records I chose to discuss, but I respect his less accessible material, if not only for the production value, but for the considerable amount of sack displayed in remaining true to himself.

Like Neil Young, Prince, and very few other artists, Frank never made a record for anybody other than Frank.
The mix tape you had would have been the perfect album
Definately gets mad props from me for staying true to himself before anything else.

The Wiki entry claims that, while the Zoot record went to Warner's from DiscKreet over the lawsuit, it still seems to have had a long conceptual life. It doesn't however say why the track list was cut down from a double album to just a sigle LP. Perhaps that was the result fo the rush to release.

Damn it man, you're not listening, EVERYTHING had a long conceptual life, it's all one thing...ahh forget it....
200 motels, best movie i barely remember
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