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Frank Zappa Reconsidered: Into the '70s

Outward and downward in solo projects and a revamped Mothers troupe

By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Music

Second of two parts

Read Part 1

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Frank Zappa (©AP)

Frank Zappa and the Mothers saw out the '60s by making their least socially relevant record yet, the mostly instrumental (with in-jokey lyrics on the sung numbers) "Uncle Meat." Zappa would continue the mostly instrumental path with his second solo album and would usher in the '70s by raiding the tape vaults and remaking the Mothers of Invention to more outrageous effect. The second six of 12 Zappa reissues released this summer by Universal Music, which lead an extensive re-release of the guitarist and composer's recorded catalog, continue the evolutionary thread started with his first half-dozen full-lengths.

"Hot Rats" (1969): "A movie for your ears," Zappa calls it in the liner notes, and, man, what opening credits: The impossibly catchy and knotty opener, "Peaches en Regalia," is a proto-prog-rock classic. And the greasy futuristic blues that follows, "Willie the Pimp," sung by Zappa childhood friend and fellow visionary Captain Beefheart, is a long-form knockout. While the rest of this mixed instrumental bag, credited to Zappa solo, is nothing to sneeze at, the musical energy created by the first two numbers is a hard thing to keep up, let alone follow, and the remaining compositions, while nothing to sneeze at, intricate and engaging as they are, can't maintain the same level of excitement and discovery. The cerebral undercurrents of the compositions are made less cold by the novel R&B violin playing of Don "Sugar Cane" Harris, and the very funky Shuggie Otis plays bass on "Peaches." Released about nine months before Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew," it deserves just as much recognition in terms of pushing forward a fusion between rock 'n' roll, jazz and classical music.

"Burnt Weeny Sandwich" (1970): The tensions within the Mothers that are chronicled briefly in the audio snippet "If We'd All Been Living in California" on "Uncle Meat" (in which Jimmy Carl Black, credited on the record for "drums, poverty," waxes eloquent on the band's lack of funds) began, along with Zappa's increasing desire/need for control, a slow implosion of the band almost right from the start. The lack of much in the way of musician credits is a tip-off. And yet, it's an incredibly smooth and enjoyable Mothers record. Opening with the very straightforward doo-wop oddity "WPLJ" (which stands for the apparently very tasty and refreshing drink concoction White Port and lemon juice, as legendary for doo- woppers as Welch's Grape is for hip-hoppers, I surmise), it moves right along into homages to Stravinsky ("Igor's Boogie" is a decided non-boogie, the second part of which pairs a wind ensemble and maybe an ice cream truck for a composition of less than a minute and then segues into some of the most coherent and well-executed classical-compositions-for-electric-instruments things that Zappa had ever pulled off: "Holiday in Berlin, Full Blown," a not unaffectionate vaudeville of German high-Romantic themes; "Aybe Sea," an intricate keyboard-and-acoustic-guitar fantasia realized by virtuoso Ian Underwood and Zappa; and "Little House I Used to Live In," which begins with some superb Satie-by-way-of-Schoenberg piano music, introduces a grand rock band then orchestral theme that gets put through several increasingly amusing variations both in terms of instrumentation and recording effects, and throughout provides not just enjoyable and engaging music but also an object lesson on how to use "rock" instruments in modern classical music. But, of course, nobody paid as much attention to this as they would to the upcoming "outrageous" lyrics, and inattention might have provided Zappa some motivation for writing said lyrics.

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"Weasels Ripped My Flesh" (1970): This is a real olio, and one not ashamed of it: "Material contained herein represents different aspects of our work from 1967-1969," the liner notes open. In strict genre terms, it almost follows "Burnt Weeny Sandwich": After the live workout "Didja Get Any Onya," we go to an R&B cover on the order of "WPLJ," this one the somewhat less obscure "Directly From My Heart to You," originally by Little Richard. Then we get into really unclassifiable collage stuff. The magic here is as much in the sequencing as the music itself, which includes the classic answer song to the Beatles "All You Need Is Love," concisely titled "Oh No" and comprising one of Ray Collins' most inspired lead vocals ever, singing to the theme of "Lumpy Gravy." The title track is two minutes of aggressive, droning noise recorded live, after which Zappa delivers his familiar, and seemingly not at all ironic sendoff, "Thank you for coming to our concert." Passive-aggressive, sincere, or what? The next two albums, both live affairs, would deepen the mystery.

"Chunga's Revenge" (1970): Opening with a relatively straightforward piece of guitar-hero athletics with minimal instrumentation (Ian Underwood on organ, Max Bennett on bass and the criminally underrated Aynsley Dunbar on drums) called "Transylvania Boogie," on which Zappa sometimes sounds like John McLaughlin on Miles Davis' "Jack Johnson," this album maintains as even, and even conventional, a keel as anything Zappa had put his name to. It doesn't even overdo it on the crass lyrics on groupies; in fact, "Road Ladies" is a more honest and even humane effort on the theme than the ever-more-"refined" King Crimson's "Ladies of the Road" from around the same period. The straightforwardness and the preponderance of themes that don't even try to hide their inherent lyricism ("Twenty Small Cigars" is just lovely, really) make this one of the few Zappa records that gives you the choice of fully engaging, or actually relaxing (sort of) with it.

More: Watch Frank Zappa videos

"Fillmore East June 1971" (1971) The original Mothers, who had gone through several permutations, adding and subtracting ace players such as Ian Underwood and future Little Feat founder Lowell George, were done for good as Zappa prepared to hit the road again, and he put together a relatively minimal band for his new iteration, retaining only Underwood and Don Preston from the prior lineups. The rhythm section of bassist Jim Pons and drummer Aynsley Dunbar was superb but very straight-ahead rock- oriented. But the players Zappa structured the whole enterprise around weren't instrumentalists but vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, subsequently redubbed The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie or Flo and Eddie. Zappa had imported them from an honest-to-God Top 40 pop group, the Turtles ("Happy Together," one of their sweeter hits which gets brutalized on this record). Fantastic vocalists with pervy senses of humor and particularly jaded perspectives on rock lifestyles, just like their new employer, they were perfect narrators for musical tales of rock debauchery like "The Mud Shark." This record is audio from a dirty rock vaudeville show in which the music takes a bit of a back seat to antics and filthy jokes and audience feedback. A recent Zappa-label multi-CD set of this band's Carnegie Hall concerts from the same period give a somewhat different picture of the Zappa experience of this period, but this record got to serve as a statement of purpose/declaration of principles at the time, and it ushered in the era of Zappa the post-counterculture comedian, and such a persona arguably compromised his status as a "serious" composer.

"Just Another Band From L.A." (1972) While it's tempting to call this a low point, or a new low point, that's just not fair. The final reissue in this particular batch merely finds Zappa working in a mode that this reviewer doesn't much favor. Call it his "lieder" phase. Taking advantage of versatile vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, he concocted an epic composition called "Billy the Mountain" which is kind of art-song musical theater with a fabulist narrative as only Zappa could construct it. This is a favorite among some latter-day Zappa fans, who I suppose admire its more cartoonish side, but I prefer the earlier underground commix glosses on Stravinsky. Stay tuned ... the story will get weirder, and filthier, with the next batch of stuff.

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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10Comments
Aug 21, 2012 12:41PM
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I SAW HIM ON MOTHERS DAY 1975!!! iT WAS THE BEST CONCERT EVER!!! HE WAS PLAYING  STUFF FROM OVERNITE SENSATION AND APOSTROPHE!!!!

Aug 20, 2012 7:52AM
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He brought me up on stage at Painter's Mill in MD, I forget the year, but the microdots I put in my eyes sure made for a fun night. I recently met a guy with a bootleg of that show, and I had proof for my wife that didn't believe he brought me up on stage for a dance contest. Never duplicated, FZ lives.
Aug 20, 2012 7:41AM
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I saw him in Seattle at the Paramount theater. Flo and Eddy were with him and I loved every minute of the concert. I think.....I had just got out of the hospital ER after tripping over my husbands guitar case and having to get stitches to sew my little toe back on my foot.so I was feeling no pain. BUT, I do remember having a good time and I have always thought Frank Zappa was/is a genius
Aug 20, 2012 7:32AM
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Zappa is one of the very few contemporary composers that will be listened to and studied 200 years from now.

Aug 19, 2012 5:19PM
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Alas, Frank, we thought we knew ye. R. I. P.
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