Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘Z’.
“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” This gem of wisdom from the mouth of Fank Zappa is typical of the man’s scabrous world view.
Hard to take and extreme his comment may be, but it does contain a measure of thought-provoking truth.
Prior to entering the rock business in 1964 with his group vehicle The Mothers Of Invention, US guitarist/producer/composer/satirist/film-maker Zappa had already married and divorced, performed a concerto for bicycle on TV, scored soundtrack music for films, owned a recording studio, served a prison sentence for making sex tapes (he was framed), submitted a rock opera to a TV station (it was declined), been employed as an advertising jingle writer, and recorded some amazing ahead-of-its-time heavy metal music in partnership with four-and-a-half octave voiced Captain Beefheart.
Freak Out (1966) was the first-ever concept album. We’re Only In It For The Money (1967) and Uncle Meat (1968) still stand as two of the most brilliant and important albums in rock history – the first for its illuminatory social comment, the second for its extraordinary montage of modern classical, jazz and rock influences.
Zappa also made inroads in the field of rock concert theatrics. He discovered Alice Cooper, who went on to virtually copy Zappa’s stage shows of some five years earlier.
In the 1970s, Zappa’s humour became increasingly smutty, and his recorded output erratic, if prolific.
Joe’s Garage Act 1 – in America released on Zappa’s own label – represents his first real studio album of fresh material since 1975, when he ran into contractual problems with Warners. Even the first album on his new label earlier this year, Sheik Yerbouti, contained material he had been performing live three years previously.
Zappa’s 33rd disc (not counting the 50-odd bootlegs available) is an opera which supposes the Government has banned music – “a prime cause of unwanted mass behaviour” – realised in the form of a cautionary tale narrated by the Central Scrutiniser (a law enforcement agent) about a rock group and all the horrible consequences they suffer as a result of MUSIC.
Joe’s Garage contains little of the musical complexity and quirky invention of earlier albums, and only one of Zappa’s patented scorching tonal guitar solos (‘Toad-O Line’), but the music is ingeniously assembled to complement the narrative, and for that reason, this is the most unified Zappa LP in many a year.
Zappa’s odd mixture of styles of music may be bewildering to the casual listener, but it can also be immensely exhilarating. To borrow a phrase, it’s both emotionally satisfying and a lot of fun. 9/10
As most of us know (or should) by now, Zappa’s a weird one. A Zappa review is strangely redundant, as each of his flawed meisterworks contains at least something of absolute brilliance in with the miscalculations and irregularities.
You see, Zappa’s been around long enough to allow himself a little indulgence. He does what he wishes in 1980, and the faithful always find something with every release to thrill and delight. But this Zappa is a complex beast, and is liable to its share of bad reviews.
(Qualification: a musician’s musician. A critic’s musician, but even fans have to be objective, and Zappa albums rarely win all the way. Secondly, winning friends ain’t what Zappa’s all about. Thirdly, it’s a hard comedown when your hero doesn’t – or appears not to have – come up with the goods).
Alright, I’ll come clean. Zappa’s my hero, the only ‘old wave’ musician whose releases I still look forward to with baited breath. And yes, initial impressions of Joe’s Garage Acts 2 & 3 suggested that once and for all, Zappa had fluffed.
It is something of a disappointment, but after repeated listening, only so far as very little happens story-wise on from Act 1. It is somewhat indulgent and at times spread pretty thin, but Zappa has always been one to steer away from conciseness. If you like Zappa, you like Zappa irrespective).
As you may remember, in the first instalment Joe formed a rock’n’roll band and got into a lot of trouble as a result of girls and music. Or so said the Central Scrutiniser. Here, he learns how to ‘plook’ machines, inadvertantly kills one of them and spends most of the rest of the record playing ‘imaginary guitar solos’ in prison, until he gets out and finds happiness in a muffin research factory.
The greasy voice of Ike Willis (Joe) dominates proceedings on most of the more interchangeable numbers. ‘Dong Work For Yuda’ is the nicest song, being an almost straight doowop jingle, but the best tracks are the imaginary guitar solos – pieces like ‘Outside Now’ (guitar noises that “would irritate an executive type of guy), ‘He Used To Cut The Grass’ (sumptuous lines which sound great on headphones – resurrected for the psychedelic revival!) and ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ (lovely high-pitched, lyrical playing).
Despite its faults, Joe’s Garage Acts 2 & 3 is another work of merit and relative interest from an undeniable musical giant (regardless of his persona in any other direction). But if you’re not already into Zappa, start on an earlier release, not the second half of a concept album.
Footnote: Two big gripes. 1) CBS have not included the accompanying lyric/story book on domestic release. As much of the ‘story’ actually occurs on instrumental sections of the album, the booklet is an important part of the ‘product’. Just remember CBS, ‘product’ is also ‘art’. 2) An even bigger grouch is that the local pressing is grossly inferior to the overseas version. I’d like to know why: do we get overseas master tapes on local releases? Import the album and help the balance of payments. 7/10
Unfortunately, as a result of the opinionated drivel meted out by offended narrow-minded critics, Frank Zappa’s merits have escaped the attention of many otherwise open-minded music fans for too long. Music that’s not able to be categorised, which consists of more than one concept, has proved too difficult for most lazy writers to grasp and expound upon.
It is my total conviction that Zappa is still one of the most underrated geniuses in modern music. Somewhere along the way the point seems to have been missed: that he is a composer/guitarist, not just a rock musician or singer/songwriter or zany wit or sick mind (although he may well be all those things too).
His music usually requires concentration for its technical composition alone. And that’s forgetting its topping of excellent musicianship (especially Zappa’s own bitter-sweet guitar tones), absurdist lyrics and multi-media presentation. Many just can’t take the guy seriously. Oh, a funny man can’t be serious at the same time. Well, you’re wrong. And when you accuse the guy of being sexist or sick, take another listen: most lyrics either take the piss or are narrated by a character, not necessarily Zappa himself.
Basically, what we have here is Zappa’s first live album proper. Now, he’s released many live albums before (in fact, a substantial portion of his LPs are recorded live with many overdubs) but this is the first one with a decent chunk of previously released tracks. So in a sense it’s his first ‘greatest non-hits’ live album, where his previous live records have been mostly new material.
The ones we have heard before are ‘Love Of My Life’ (originally on the first Mothers LP Freak Out! from 1966, and it’s a wet rock’n’roll pastiche with crazy falsetto); ‘Ain’t Got No Heart’ (from the same album, a song that shows Zappa at his least sentimental and dispelling all notions of true love crap); ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ (from Chunga’s Revenge in 1970, a cock-rock takeoff); ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’ (a classic from 1967 album Absolutely Free, which is a still-relevant slice of Americana); ‘Peaches III’ (in other words a variation on ‘Peaches En Regalia’, which is to be found on 1969 album Hot Rats, an instrumental with fluid guitar work).
‘Fine Girl’ is the one studio cut. No naughty words in the hope of radio play, it’s funk-based and boasts sexist lyrics. So too does ‘Easy Meat’, one with an intentionally pompous mock horn section (actually keyboards) totally at odds (purposefully) with the lyrics. This features an extended guitar solo.
‘For The Young Sophisticate’ is again funk-pop, typically zany with unusual chord changes. ‘Now You See It Now You Don’t is the vehicle for an elegant, stately, lemon-squeezed guitar solo. ‘The Blue Light’ showcases Zappa’s lyrical gifts. The title tune has gripes with fashion punk and fake rebellion used to sell records. You can’t blame Zappa for being bitter about American ‘new wave’, as he’s always been truly rebellious, but intelligently so and always with a level head and almost always a sense of humour.
Give this man a chance. He’s a real artist working within a mostly shallow, fashion-conscious medium. 7/10
April 1982/In Touch
I’m lost for words. It’s all been said before. How can I get you to take a chance on this record? You see, despite what appears to be current opinion viz Zappa, I’m convinced he’s one of the musical geniuses of our times. What’s more, You Are What You Is will be one of the most consistently brilliant albums released in 1982.
You Are What You Is is a double album chock-full of songs and lyrics (guitar solos and dialogue are at an absolute minimum) that stand up to individual dissection, have something to say but remain very funny.
The core of the critic’s problem when faced with Zappa’s work is their inability to process the polarities of his work – you can’t be funny and have something serious to say, surely? You can’t write neat pop melodies and be a brilliant instrumentalist and arranger too, surely? Zappa’s managed to pull his directions together and produce an album with a unity usually absent. The arrangements on You Are What You Is are complex but unbusy. The biggest surprise is the high standard of vocals which, given the wordy nature of the album, have a substantial part in the plot.
You Are What You Is has more to say about society than any of his work since the groundbreaking, innovative We’re Only In It For The Money in 1967. Through laughing at the situations depicted, Zappa actually makes valid comment – after all, there’s no point in getting depressed about the shitty state of the world. Zappa covers similar ground to the Dead Kennedys on their recent In God We Trust EP, but this time you can understand the words, and it’s not just preaching to the converted. He swipes at God-fearing suckers (‘The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing’), the Church, the Moral Majority, millionaire ministers, the so-called Christian fascist right, which includes Reagan’s government (‘Heavenly Bank Account’). Why, he even attacks God! (‘Dumb All Over’).
Just give it a fair listen, okay? 8/10
Have you ever seen a Frank Zappa record reviewed in Creem magazine? Let’s face it, the man is neither the face of today or anyone’s yesterday’s rock’n’roll.
He’s consistently used the superficial stylings of rock to maintain a wide following and he is (after all) a product of the sick culture which begat the damned genre in the first place. But what I’m getting at, I guess, is that Zappa should be judged not in rock terms but in purely musical ones: composition and performance.
The scope of Zappa’s manoeuvrings is so large and the output so immense that it’s difficult to get a bearing on the latest chapter in overall terms. Having spent the first paragraph denying it, I have to admit that Them Or Us is close to conventional rock. The title is taken from a book he has written, though the record is not conceptual. It is, surprise, a double.
The usual story (untrue) is that Zappa had exhausted his creative potential by the end of the ‘60s. Musically, it is true that he has done little since, save polish and refine, but as recently as the chronically neglected You Are What You Is, he had something to say within a song context. Over the last few albums, however, the ideas have been rather thin on the ground. His effort was going into ballet music. Them Or Us marks a return to form, value for money, variety (some catchy songs, some excellent extended guitar work) but… if someone was to be initiated with this album they’d wonder what all the fuss was about.
The most disconcerting aspect is that Zappa has seemingly lost interest in the geetar, as he lets whizzkid Steve Vai whip it out all over the place here. Also, his reliance on an irritating pseudo horn substitute from his two keyboardists is, I think, lazy.
The worst songs are the two remakes: the moronic ‘Stevie’s Spanking’ and ‘Sharleena’ (a nice song but pointless) which features young Dweezil Zappa on guitar. Another of his sons, Ahmet, co-wrote a cute little number called ‘Frogs With Dirty Little Lips.’ (Just thought you’d like to know). The cover versions are a pleasing doo-wop thing called ‘The Closer You Are’ and Gregg Allman’s (!!!) ‘Whipping Post’. Elsewhere, the songs are fainly bizarre ditties or extended soloing with silly but inoffensive lyrics to prop them up. The best thing about the album is the rock version of the ballet segment, ‘Sinister Footwear’, which truly has its moments.
Them Or Us is the most pleasant, innocuous, overtly melodic Zappa record to date. It also reflects a lack of interest in the form that he is utilising. Once upon a time, he actually put his ideas within these styles. Nowadays, he makes rock records to make money (and enjoy himself) to finance his orchestral projects. All’s well, but for us fans (all two of us) it makes Them Or Us less than compelling, just cozy. 6/10
Uncle Frank’s work is being unfairly ignored by today’s impressionable ranks of rock crit cadets. Why review a record by a self-sufficient 45-year-old Californian who’s never been, and never will be, more than a stitch in the side of rock and roll’s social fabric? My hip friends, with their rock and roll sensibilities sticking out in all the right places, consider my interest in Zappa a mild perversion. Frank Zappa is one of the world’s greatest living composers, but being a multi-dimensional talent, neither contemporary observers nor historians can find a category and a place for his contributions. Taken on its own terms, MTMOP is scrappy, but heard in context with the other 20 years of vinyl outpourings it gains in cogency. To save this “capsule” turning into a full-blown review I’ll resist the temptation to go into track detail, except to say that there are two major things happening on this LP. One is Zappa’s increasing use of a new toy, the Synclavier, which reigns supreme on two cuts. The other concerns the album’s centrepiece, ‘Porn Wars’, a frightening 12-minute collage of senators’ speeches recorded during the recent hearings on the proposed censorship of rock lyrics. Aside from it social/political implications, musically it’s the darkest, most forboding creation since 1967’s terrifying ‘Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny.’ 7/10
‘The Chrome-Plated Megaphone Of Destiny’ spread its horror over the final minutes of one of the 1960s’ most sustained works of brilliance. The album was called We’re Only In It For The Money, it was by Frank Zappa’s group The Mothers Of Invention, and the piece itself was a terrifying montage of sounds. Beginning with shards of orchestral dissonance, it threw itself into cruelly dispassionate laughing fits and ominous subsonic vibrations fading into blackness at the end. Liner notes to the 1967 song spoke of “concentration camps built in the Second World War for potentially dangerous Oriental citizens allegedly being readied for the incarceration of various non-conformist elements.”
Wrote Zappa: “You might allow yourself (regardless of the length of your hair or how you feel about greedy wars and paid assassins) to imagine YOU ARE A GUEST AT CAMP REAGAN.” Capital letters Zappa’s, not mine.
In 1985, a group of women known as “the Mothers Of Congress” began complaining about the lyrical content of rock records, which resulted in a Senate hearing on the subject at which Zappa was a guest speaker.
What seemed the raison d’etre of Zappa’s new album was the track ‘Porn Wars’, which took up most of the second side. One presumed that the title Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention alluded to those congress mums, and ‘Porn Wars’ was the only song about the escapade. ‘Porn Wars’ was one of those rare occasions where Zappa’s sense of moral duty provoked him to make a truly frightening music, ala ‘Megaphone…’ It consisted of treated and tape-looped edits from the hearings, which effectively threw some of the senators’ garbled and contradictory statements into an environment which exposed them for what they were.
Unfortunately, the best track on the album won’t be heard in New Zealand, as we get the ‘European version’ of the album, which deletes that song in favour of three shorter new ones. “The original version of this album contained political material which would not have been interesting to listeners outside of the US.” A great pity, because the issue of censorship is one well worth further discussion in light of the current arguments over television, video and film censorship.
Without ‘Porn Wars’, the album is a rather bitsy collection of mostly short instrumental pieces. Side 1 retreads several Zappa preoccupations both lyrical and musical, with the highlight being the stylistic caricature of ‘What’s New In Baltimore?’ – both ludicrous and satisfying.
Most of Side 2 is realised by Zappa on the Synclavier, a kind of programmable orchestra and emulator in one. The results are a little on the squeaky-clean side, which suggests he hasn’t quite got to grips with the possibilities an instrument like that provides. Head and three giraffe necks above the rest os ‘H.R.2911’, a modified extract from ‘Porn Wars’. The rest is fiddly, and resists attempts to plug into the emotional centre. Pity. But then, Uncle Frank’s records do tend to grow on you. [Note: CDs of this album eventually included all the material including ‘Porn Wars’]. 6/10
Heavy hokum Texas boogie revamped with synthetic percussion and ‘80s production. Since their days in the shadow of Lynyrd Skynyrd and other momentary icons of the South’s gonna-rise-agin’ movement, they have strengthened their position by adding a touch of humour in the lyrics and presentation; those ridiculous beards making the trio a veritable video favourite. To me, they still sound like a particularly dangerous combination of The Eagles and Motorhead’s spare parts. I never needed endless boogie in the ‘70s and I sure don’t need it now, however it may be dressed. 5/10