fredag 12. april 2013

A beginner's guide to Frank Zappa

So... I haven't blogged in forever. Haven't written on Blogspot/Blogger in even longer. But it's time. I made this blog 3 years ago, but never published anything on it. Had a few half written pieces, but they all sucked.

 So... I figured it'd be nice to have somewhere to ramble about whatever. So, here we are... I'm a huge Zappa fan. I grew up on him. My dad would play his music all the time. In time I became a fan myself. Of course, growing up with his music helped a lot. I got used to all the weirdness that makes it tough to get into his music for most people. But I think that a lot of people I know would enjoy some, if not all, of his music. He's unique.

 Okay, so what I'm planning to do is to first present you with a few albums that would be nice starting points if you want to explore Frank's music. I'm an album kinda guy. I like music best when presented as albums. And I feel like the coherence and the continuity of an album can bring something more to a piece of music, by way of continuity and getting the whole picture. And this especially goes for Zappa. After this, I will present sort of a playlist of songs that I'd reccommend for someone wanting to get into Zappa... my personal favs, I suppose. Though, if you want the ones most people know, the ones that transcended his fanbase, the sex and controversy and humour ones, they're mostly not here. Check the albums Does humour belong in music or Have I offended anyone? or the songs Camarillo Brillo, Don't eat the yellow snow, Disco boy, Dancing fool, Bobby Brown goes down, Dinah-Moe Humm and Valley girl. 

This guide will mostly be about the stuff I musically enjoy and reccommend, though lyrics of course play a part. But Zappa and lyrics is such  a big story. Zappa himself said most of them didn't matter, which is just not true. Kelly Fisher-Lowe argues in his book The Words and music of Frank Zappa (highly reccommended) that Frank was one of the great American satirists of the late 20th century. I tend to agree with this. But to really appreciate his satirical project one has to listen to all his music and study the lyrics. And I think this, and studying his life, which is also interesting, is easier to do once his music have made you interested. Anywho, here we go.

Zappa albums I reccommend for beginners

Freak Out (1966)

 Freak out is a good place to start because it's the first Zappa album. So it kinda makes sense to start here. Musically, the albums draws on 50s doo-wop and R&B as well as 60s rock, but, like most of Zappa's music, the album perverts those styles, both lyrically and musically with chord changes and complexities very unlike what you'd usually find in those genres. You won't go long without noticing. The opening lyrics "Mr. America walk on by, your schools that do not teach" and the use of kazoo on the opening track should give it away. Lyrically the album begins Zappa's long going satire of love lyrics and attacks on the midle class. It also has a stellar blues rock track and some musique concrete that would inspire artist such as the Beatles and Neill Young.

We're only in it for the money (1968)

This album is by many seen as the highpoint of what Zappa did with the original Mothers of Invention and I have a hard time arguing against that. It's easily in my top 5 Zappa albums. The album sleeve parodies Sgt Pepper by the Beatles and in many ways, so does the sound on the album, it's thin in the same way much of the Beatles' albums were. Lyrically, this album is brilliant. It takes shots at the fake hippies who joined the fad for the wrong reasons, their parents who reject the hippies without trying to understand their kids and authority figures, who try to beat down the hippies. It is the perfect post-script to the Summer of Love, effectively killing off the hippy era, by pointing out how fake it had become. Musically, Zappa gives us an album full of some of his greatest melodies. You have great 60s rock songs, some odder musique concrete material (more realized and refined than what we got on Freak Out) and some great melodic work. It's full of music and lyrics that will stick in your head and for fans of 60s music, it is probably a perfect entry point to Zappa's world.

Uncle Meat (1969)

Uncle Meat is probably not a simple starting point for people who are new to Zappa. The last album released while the original Mothers were still together (though, recordings by them would be released on two more albums later) is as brilliant as it is weird, and I probably consider it one of my top 5 Zappa albums. It's a double album of "Most of the music from the Mother's movie of the same name which we haven't got enough money to finish yet" as the liner notes stated (the movie, which is not very good, was finally released in the 80s). It contains rock songs, guitar solos, a bitchin sax workout and a lot of percussion, clockenspiels, xylophones, marimbas and other ideophones. Some of it is accessible, other parts are more towards musique concrete and modern classical music performed by a (warped) rock group, complete with tapes being manipulated. In the bottom of it all are some beautiful melodies and great rock music though (as well as King Kong, a fantastic jazz-rock workout that takes up the second LP). It's likely Zappa's most difficult and complex rock album, but also one that will grow on you and one of his greatest.

Hot Rats (1969)

Zappa's first real solo album and his first album after the Mothers split up takes his music in a completely different direction. Released right after Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (the albums credited with inventing jazz fusion) this album is often thrown into the mix of albums credited with inventing that genre. Hot Rats however mainly leans towards the rock side of fusion while Miles Davis' leant towards the jazz side. Hot Rats had 5 instrumentals and one song (we'll get to it later on) with vocals in the first 2 minutes (out of 9). It has a couple of very strictly structured, brilliantly melodic instrumentals and four songs that are pure fusion workouts, complete with brilliant soloing by Zappa, saxophonist Ian Underwood and violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris. The album is definitely something to start with for those of you that like fusion and instrumental solos.

200 Motels (1971)

This is the only album of this list from the era of Flo and Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman from The Turtles (of Happy Together fame)). It is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, an extremely odd movie that has been hailed both as genius and the worst movie ever (while somewhat enjoyable, I tend to agree with the latter). Including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Ringo Starr and Keith Moon are both in the movie) it's a mix of modern (classical) music and rock. It has a few great rock songs, some beautiful orchestral pieces, some odd orchestral pieces, some odd dialogue/story pieces and a great fake country song. Lyrically it deals with a story of a band going nuts from touring and the craziness around them, including groupies. It's an odd double album, for sure and not the easiest one, but it pays off with some very beautiful and compelling music and a finale for the ages.

Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

I was tempted to include every album from the 73-75 era of Zappa (as well as the two jazz albums before it), but I decided to refrain and just pick three, all of which are in my top 5 Zappa albums. Roxy and Elsewhere was recorded live at the Roxy in LA (and elsewhere...) for the Mothers' 10 year anniversary (though only keyboardist Don Preston of the original mothers attended). The Mothers of this record might be the tightest band Zappa ever had, and included some brilliant musicians and singers. This album really has it all, fast, tight rock songs, calmer rock songs, Zappa's only (maybe?) truly sentimental and honest song, a taste of the band's live antics and audience participation and a couple of truly amazing instrumentals. The band on this record is so tight. Everything is performed perfectly and tightly with a ton of groove and some amazing solos and improvisation. There are some great melodies here, stuff you can rock out to and a lot of things for those of you that appreciate great musicianship. One for the progressive rock fans.

One Size Fits All (1974)

Hot on the heels of Roxy and Elsewhere comes this album, essentially a studio album, but with parts lifted from live recordings. It contains some of Zappa's greatest work and might just be my favourite of all his albums. Starting off with the epic Inca Roads (more and that later), it goes through several types of rock and progressive rock songs, as well as beautiful instrumental and some great workouts to show the incredibly tight band and their musical chops. It's a fairly easy album to "get" and contains some amazing melodies and solos. It might also be one of Zappa's most polished and nicely produced albums and is a fan favourite to this day.

Bongo Fury (1975)

Released under the name Zappa/Beefheart/Mothers this was the last album where Zappa used the Mothers name. Captain Beefheart plays a large role on this album (he also sang the vocals on Hot Rats and played harmonica on One Size) with some great vocals, harmonica, soprano sax and madness. It's mostly a live album (recorded in "Austin, Texas, wherever you are") with a couple of studio songs. Lyrically it's all over the place and musically it includes everything from guitar workouts, to dirty blues to some more straight rock and even country, as well as some Beefheart beat poetry set to music. Where One Size might have been Zappa's best produce album, this is all raw and unpolished. Zappa fans and Beefheart fans tend to dislike this album, while the ones, like me, who love both tend to consider it their mutual zenith (though, it can be argued that Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, produced by Zappa should take that spot). It's an oddball, like most of Frank's work, but a great one, full of great tunes, lyrics and solos.

I was also tempted to include Joe's Garage (1979) because it is a fan favourite, but while it is good (and a pretty funny concept album), it is not my favourite, as well as You can't do that on stage anymore vol 2 (1988) which showcases the Roxy/One Size band at its best live in Helsinki over two CDs. For the ones interested in his orchestral music Orchestal Favourites (1979) and The Yellow Shark (1993) are great places to start. You might also have noticed that this only goes up until 1975, while Zappa made studio albums until 1984, toured and released live albums until 1984 and released synclavier music and other stuff until his death in 1993 (and on posthumous album) as well as his family having released a ton of archive albums of live material and other nuggets. I just tend to prefer Zappa up until about mid 1979. Some of the later live stuff is great, and there are good songs and good music on the studio albums too, but I feel like he lost a slight bit of his oddness and essence and that the music, at times, took a back seat to lyrics (don't get me wrong, there are GREAT stuff, just not as great). So I chose the albums that matter the most to me.


Here I'll reccommend a playlist of some of my favourite songs. I won't pick every song I love, because there are way too many, but a list of my favourites, essentials and songs you should listen to to get introduced to Zappa. If you prefer a playlist to starting with one of the albums I reccomended, you can pick and choose here, but I'd reccommend downloading the whole list. You might be surprised at what you like, Zappa's music tends to pull people into the genres they least expect. And all of these songs are brilliant and span Zappa's entire career (keeping to the part he was alive for). The songs are presented chronologically.

1. Hungry Freaks, Daddy (Freak Out) - The first song from the first album. It's a great rock song, the riff is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, but it's soon perverted with some odd tonalities and instruments (like the kazoo). Some great lyrics about the American dream.
2. Who are the brain police? (Freak Out) - A dark, odd masterpiece with a guitar line reminiscent of the intro to Iron Man. A true oddball, but a great one.
3. Trouble Every Day (Freak Out) - A brilliant blues rock song dealing with the Watts Riot, the media's coverage of it and the society that lead to it. One of the all time greats.
4. Brown Shoes Don't Make it (Absolutely Free) - A long, epic song that reminds me of a variety show. It tells the story of the boring, plastic middle class...but ends up in a perverted, disgusting sort of thing (critisism of the things the boring plastic lives brings you to fantasize about (?)). It's however a brilliant piece of rock music.
5. Who needs the peace corps? (We're only in it for the money) - Cute, nice little 60s pop song that annihilates the fake hippies.
6. Harry, you're a beast (We're only in it) - This song has some great melodies and lyrics that make great points about the ideas and morals of sexuality at the time, if one cares to actually look into what he really means.
7. Let's Make the Water Turn Black (We're only in it) - One of Zappa's all time great melodies. Absolutely stunning. And some odd funny lyrics about some people he once knew.
8. Take your clothes off when you dance (We're only in it) - About freedom and fakeness. Another stunning and catchy melody.
9. Uncle Meat: Main Theme (Uncle Meat) - A really neat instrumental mostly based on keyboards, percussion and glockenspiels/ideophones. Some great melodies
10. Dog Breath in the year of the plague (Uncle meat) - A rocker full of great melodies. See also: Dog breath variations - an ideophone-based instrumental version on the same album and the rock version from Just Another Band From LA
11. Ian Underwood Whips It Out (Uncle Meat) - This track tells the story of how Ian Underwood joined the Mothers before giving us an amazing, ugly, beautiful alto saxophone workout done by Underwood, live on stage in Copenhagen.
12. King Kong I-VI (Uncle Meat) - King Kong itself is a great jazz melody/idea and is followed by several solos and james by more or less every member of the band. If you have to choose just 2, go with King Kong Itself and King Kong VI.
13. Peaches En Regalia (Hot Rats) - The most perfect piece of music Zappa, or anyone, ever wrote (the best? maybe, but definitely the most perfect). A short, snappy, brilliant instrumental, full of great melodies, which all resolve themselves nicely.
14. Willie the pimp (Hot Rats) - Lyrically it deals with a story two fans told Zappa about a pimp in a hotel lobby. Musically it features some great vocals by Captain Beefheart and some amazing solos. 
15. My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama (Weasels Ripped my Flesh (Google the cover art! Rzzzz!)) - Just a brilliant (and funny) 60s rock songs with some groove, great melodies and tasty solos
16. Oh No (Weasels...) - One of Zappa's greatest melodies and a scathing attack on The Beatles' All you need is love. Reccommended HIGHLY.
17. Tell me you love me (Chunga's revenge) - Another attack on the typical American love song (Frank made a ton of those) and a great rock song
18. Happy Together (Filmore East 1971) (can't find the actual track on youtube, but this is close, but not as good) - Hear Zappa's band, including the singers of The Turtles, pull of this song better than The Turtles ever did. Related: The last 3 songs on John Lennon's brilliant Sometime in New York is taken from the end of this concert, when he and Yoko joined the band for a few songs.
19. Lonesome Cowboy Burt (200 Motels) - Original Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black sings a brilliant faux country song that deals with a lot of Zappa's favourite lyrical subjects. Both funny and brilliant.
20. Magic Fingers (200 motels) - Just a brilliant rocker
21. Strictly Genteel (200 motels) - One of two songs to appear twice on this playlist. It's the big finale, with orchestra, vocals and some rock at the end. The lyrics are hilarious, but the music is grandiose, beautiful and fantastic. Must be heard.
22. Call Any Vegetable (Just another band from LA) - This is orginially a song/suite of songs from Absolutely Free, but on this album with Flo and Eddie it is realized to perfection. A great rock song with a good solo and some funny stuff.
23. Big Swifty (Waka/Jawaka) - Brilliant jazzy instrumental workout. Invokes DMB at times.
24. Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus (The Grand Wazoo) - Big band jazz with some fusion it it. Grandiose and brilliant.
25. Eat that question (The Grand Wazoo) - The pearl of Zappa's brilliant big band jazz album. Features an amazing riff, an exquisite keyboard solo by George Duke and Zappa letting loose on guitar. Then listen to it again and focus on Ainsley Dunbar playing the drums. Brilliant, interesting, and amazing, while never intruding on the music itself.
26. I'm the Slime (Over-Nite Sensation) - From one of Zappa's most commercially popular albums (and almost included on the above list). This song has some great jazz riffing, a chorus where Tina Turner and the Ikettes kick serious butt and a great solo. Another great version (with some work by Don Pardo) on Zappa in New York
27. Zomby Woof (Over-Nite...) - Great riffs, some great vocals by both Rickey Lancelotti and Tina Turner and one of my favourite Zappa solos. The solos is odd, out of key at times, but brilliant. Deals with monster movie imaginery
28. Montana (Over-Nite...) - Good song and the most hilarious song ever written about getting pygmy pony and moving to Montana to raise a crop of dental floss.
29. The Yellow Snow Suite (Apostrophe ('))  ( link is a live version, click indvidual songs for studio)- Consists of Don't eat the yellow snow, Nanook Rubs it, St. Alphonso's pancake breakfast and Father OblivionThis suite encompasses several music styles and tells a tale that can't really be summarized here. Among Zappa's most inventive work and has some fantastic ideophone work by longtime band member Ruth Underwood.
30. Apostrophe (Apostrophe (') - A rocking jam with just Zappa, Jack Bruce and a drummer. Contains some of Bruce's most intense bass work and some great soloing by Zappa, as well as a stunning riff.
31. Uncle Remus (Apostrophe (')) - To book-end Tina and the Ikette's 2 album stint at backing vocals, Zappa brings this beautiful song complete with great vocals, a stunning solo and some provocative lyrics (that make sense if you care to actually analyze them).
32. Village of the Sun (Roxy &Elsewhere) - Beautiful and truly sentimental without any hint of irony. A song about a place Zappa used to live, with amazing vocals by Napoleon Murphy Brock
33 Echidna's arf of you (Roxy...) - (32 and 33 in same link) Jazz-rock instrumentals don't get tighter than this.
34. Son of Orange county (Roxy...) - Building off of Orange County Lumber Truck (and Oh no) from Weasels... this song has a great guitar solo and builds up perfectly through my favourite transition ever to...
35. More Trouble Every day (Roxy...) (Same link for 34 and 35- A re-imagining of Trouble Every Day that rocks, grooves and fits more into the jazzy progressive rock of this band. Absolutely stunning.
36. Inca Roads (One Size Fits All) - The masterpiece. Lyrically this is sorta uninteresting, dealing with aliens and road stories and incas. But musically this is a 9-minute tour de force of amazing vocals by George Duke, brilliant melodies, Ruth Underwood's most stunning marimba lines and the best guitar solo ever committed to tape (taken from the aforementioned Helsinki concert). Perfect from start to finish.
37. Sofa #1 (One Size...) - Just a beautiful, melodical, short instrumental. Steve Vai's cover of this won a grammy. Later on the album there is Sofa #2 where the piece is treated to some hilarious, nonsensical German vocals.
38. Florentine Pogen (One Size) - Dealing with a road story, this is a heavy, rockin, but melodic journey and showcase for Napoleon Murphy Brock's vocals.
39. Andy (One Size) (live version in link, download the studio one) - The name! THE NAME! I wish I was named after this. Nah, seriously though... Groovy, tight, rocking and incredibly complex. And without forgetting to add some great melodies.
40. Debra Kadabra (Bongo Fury) (link is not the right version) - Say she's a witch! Dirty, bluesy and hard with Beefheart singing.
41. Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat Top (Bongo Fury) - And particularly about the point it made! Beefheart with some great beat poetry. Zappa's band backing him. Turns into an odd blues thingy that makes me smile.
42. Advance Romance (Bongo Fury) - An excellent bluesy song with some fantastic lyrics, Beefheart killing it on harmonica and Denny Walley (slide guitar) and Zappa battling it out in the solos.
43. Muffin Man (Bongo Fury) - Aside from the hilarious intro speech and live band presentation/stage outro at the end, this is a song with a riff that's as heavy as the mother of fuck and one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded live. Stunning.
44. Black Napkins (Zoot Allures) - Taken from a live recording, this is a stunning guitar melody and guitar solo that will go down as one of the more beautiful and breathtaking pieces of music in rock history.
45. The Torture Never Stops (Zoot Allures) - Long, groovy and dark. One of Zappa's most popular songs. Complete with horror movie dungeon lyrics, fake moans of agony (by Frank's wife Gail and a friend) and a very nice solo.
46. The Black Page #2 (Zappa in New York) - This whole album is fantastic (for the more commercial stuff, check the hilarious Titties and Beer and Punky's Whips), but this is a highlight. The Black Page was originally an incredibly complex drum piece for Terry Bozzio, which appears earlier on the album. Here, Zappa has set tones to it, to make it a full band instrumental with some amazing melodies, rythms and music.
47. RDNZL (Studio Tan) - One of Frank's most classic instrumentals and jamming workouts.
48. Regyptian Strut (Sleep dirt) - A very regal, woodwind-heavy, slow, groovy and beautiful instrumental.
49. Tryin' to grow a chin (Sheik Yerbouti) - This albums might be most famous for Bobby Brown goes down, but this very funny tale of growing up and feeling inadequate, complete with some punk rock music and Terry Bozzio vocals is the high point of the album
50. Strictly Genteel (Orchestral Favorites) - While lacking the edge of the 200 motels version, this has more perfection and grandeur
51. Bogus Pomp (Orchestral Favorites) - No piece is a better summarization of Zappa's orchestral work than this one.
52. Joe's Garage (Joe's Garage) - Introduces this concept album. Nice rock tune with a catchy melody
53. Why does it hurt when I pee? (Joe's Garage) - While heavy, this is more funny than it is a good parody of metal. Fun song though.
54. Watermelon in easter hay (Joe's Garage) - Joe (from the story of the album)'s last imaginary guitar solo is breathtaking. It's 9 minutes of the most moving guitar music you will ever hear. This song has helped me face my emotions at times when doing so was nearly impossible. A lock to be played at my funeral (which hopefully won't happen for another 70 years or so). Absolutely beautiful. Words cannot fully describe this.
55. Valley Girl (Ship Arriving too Late to Save a Drowning Witch) - I swore I'd avoid the commercial favourites like this, but this one will have you in fits laughing, has a great groove and will stick in your head forever.
56. Drowning Witch (Ship...) - To make up for Valley Girl, a complex song full of great musical interplay and solos.
57. G-spot tornado (Jazz From Hell) - This Grammy Winning album got a Tipper Sticker because of this song's title. It's a synclavier song and the highlight of the album. While the synclavier has a dead sound, the melody and rythm is pretty amazing.
58. Pound for a brown (The Yellow Shark) - This orchestral version of a song from Uncle Meat is a showcase of how brilliantly a lot of Frank's music can translate between settings and bands.

This was long. But I promise it's worth it, all 58 songs. If you're strictly top 40, this is not for you, but with some musical adventurousness Zappa will open some exciting doors and reveal an amazing body of music for you. And I swear, while chosing these 58 songs, it was harder to decide what to leave out than what to leave in. Happy listening!