Thursday, September 13, 2018

You say you've never been able to get into Frank Zappa...

I'm 52 and an admitted music freak. Genre-wise, I am all over the map. I pretty much love it all except for top 40 and current hip hop, and I don't know much about classical or opera but I don't dislike it. I am also highly selective when it comes to twang, but there is a lot that I love.... As for rock, jam band, jazz, blues, prog, and metal music genres, I do have a fair amount of useless data hard-wired to my brain and the propensity to geek out; same thing applies to the music of Frank Zappa, which I consider a genre in itself.

I've been a Frank Zappa fan since my older Brother Scott kicked me down a copy of Apostrophe (') 41 years ago, in 1977, when I was 11 years old. I have studied his massive catalog of music semi-extensively, and I managed to catch 1 live show, Bismarck Theatre in Chicago, November 23rd 1984 <= the setlist, for those keeping score. Sadly, Frank Zappa died from Prostate Cancer in '93, at the age of 52.

At the time of his death, there were 62 legitimate Frank Zappa albums, live or studio, plus 4 compilations. Since his death there have been another 49 posthumous live or studio released albums, plus 11 more compilations, for a grand total of 111 live or studio Frank Zappa albums plus another 15 compilation albums, plus a plethora of unauthorized live bootleg albums. Frank Zappa's music pretty much covered the gamut; doo-wop, rock, fusion, funk, reggae, metal, classical, avant garde/straight up weirdness, even a synclavier era. Also, a lot of the album covers have awesome artwork, and in some cases the cover artwork is even better than the music itself. Were a Zappa Newbie to listen to the "wrong" album first, he/she could be horrified and forever doomed to not be able to get into Frank's music... Which is what prompted me to write this essay. Every so often I will post some Frank Zappa YouTubeage on Facebook, and inevitably a music-head Friend of mine will comment that they don't know much about Zappa and have never been able to get into his music...

My favorite period(s) of Zappa is mostly from around 1973 to '88, a lot of electric guitar based rock and fusion-ish music with incredible bands. I am not as heavily into the earlier stuff, much of it with a higher weirdness factor,  or his synclavier and classical music albums, where he had more of a conductor role. I prefer the more frenetic guitar driven albums.

Below are my top 15 "accessible" Frank Zappa albums, not ranked, but in chronological order instead; with some descriptive comments. Keep in mind this list is 100% subjective, and one man's trash is another man's treasure... But, if you know me personally, you probably have a pretty good idea of what floats my boat, and you may find this list useful.

* Hot Rats

Released in '69, 5 of the 6 songs are instrumentals. The album opener, Peaches En Regalia, is considered a modern jazz fusion standard and is arguably Frank Zappa's best-known instrumental song; and is also covered semi-regularly by phish, one of my current favorite live bands. 

* Over-nite Sensation

Released in '73, my favorite FZ album - Ripping solos all over it; main soloists being Zappa, George Duke, and Jean-Luc Ponty. Classic FZ lyrics; very amusing, sexual, offensive, sometimes hilarious, always on point. This album contains 2 of Frank's best known songs: Montana, and Dinah Moe Hum. A bit of trivia - Tina Turner and the Ikettes were uncredited back up singers on I'm the Slime and Dirty Love and all of side 2.

* Apostrophe (')

Released in '74, Zappa's most commercially successful album. and as mentioned previously, the one I popped my Zappa cherry with, when my brother gave it to my 11 year old self. At that time, I was just discovering music, beyond mostly disco 45's... So, my Bro gave me his used copy of Apostrophe which at the time was fairly new (released in '74), and I was immediately sucked in and completely enamored. This dude, who incidentally my brother slightly resembled at that time, was singing about dogs PEEING in the snow and people EATING it and fighting with dog-doo snowcones, and smelly feet in python-skin boots!?!? What subjects could an 11 year old boy appreciate more than those?  Not to mention the wah wah pedal infused guitar licks, and the xylophone in rock music context. My young impressionable mind was blown! There is a Rykodisc cd available with complete copies, of both Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe ('), on a single disc.

* Roxy and Elsewhere

A double live album recorded 12/8-10/1973 and released a few months later, in '74. A dvd/blu ray video was released in 2015, and a 7 cd box set documenting the 4 full sets from the 2nd and 3rd nights of the run was released in 2018.

* One Size Fits All

Released in '75, contains FZ's prog tour-de-force, Inca Roads, and another of my favorite Zappa songs; Po-Jama People.

* Bongo Fury

Released in '75, mostly live. This makes my list because of the Muffin Man, although I do enjoy the whole album.

* Zoot Allures

Released in '76, hits include The Torture Never Stops (masterpiece!), and also Disco Boy.

* Zappa in New York

A double album recorded 12/26-29/76 @ Palladium, NYC; but not released until '78. Titties & Beer!

* Joe's Garage Act I

Released in '79, a concept album that satirizes American society, the government, censorship, sex, and religion. I do like Acts II & III also, but I think Act I is supreme.

* Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar

A 3 album (2 cd) live set consisting of instrumentals and improvised solos all spliced together, recorded between 1972 and 1980, and released in '81.

* You Are What You Is

A double album released in '81. Steve Vai is credited for "strat abuse."

* Them Or Us

A double album released in '84. Steve Vai is credited for "stunt guitar" and "impossible guitar parts." 15 year old Dweezil plays solos on Sharleena and Stevie's Spanking; he was a student of Eddie Van Halen at the time, can you tell?  This album closes with a live Whipping Post cover that briefly veers into reggae territory. 

* Does Humor Belong in Music?

A live cd documenting a run of shows from October to December of 1984. I am biased because my one live Frank Zappa sighting took place during these 3 months (the 2nd track, Tinseltown rebellion, was from that show), but there is plenty of Frank shred on this cd. Another Whipping Post, same as Them or Us noted above, with a 15 year old Dweezil taking a solo.

* Guitar

A double cd follow-up to Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, with guitar solos recorded between 1979 and 1984; released in '88.

* Trance-Fusion

Same concept as Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, and Guitar; recorded between 1974 and 1988, and released in '06.

1 comment:

  1. I first heard FZ on the Freak Out album when I was 12 or so. A friends older brother had it. I didn't get into it at the time though. When I was 15 I was visiting family in Austin, Tx. with my brother & a friend. Somehow we found out Zappa was playing the Armadillo World Headquarters this particular night & since I kinda knew who he was we thought we'd check him out. We had nothing else to do. I remember it was festival seating & everybody was smoking dope. This happened to be my first concert to attend & I've been a fan ever since. This was like 1974 & also my favorite band lineup he ever had. I was also at one of the shows when Bongo Fury was recorded. Got to see him about 7 times.