FZ on CD

By Art Lange

Down Beat, April 1988

It's hard to believe that Frank Zappa, guitarist, composer, bandleader, social critic, studio engineer, marketing strategist, filmmaker, defender of democracy, and inventor of the term " hot and bulbous," among other things, has been hanging around the fringe of the musical world for over 20 years now. But it's true; I've got the proof right in front of me – the first 12 CDs in the projected Complete Works Of Frank Zappa to be issued by Rykodisc, an adventurous CD-only company.

I say that Zappas been on the fringe because he's always been an outcast; he's never had a hit single or (to my knowledge) a gold LP, if any of his music gets played on the radio it's only his most innocuous pop confections, and his attitude has been, over the years, one of, shall we say, dislike, for the record company execs and industry business types who often decide what music we hear – or don't hear. But make no mistake – Zappa's one shrewd hombre, and for years he's milked his "outcast" status and created a cult niche for himself, one which has evolved and grown so that today he stands as a "serious" composer and musical/social commentator. He appears frequently on tv talk shows (and he was rumored to replace Joan Rivers as host of her nationally syndicated Late Show. The mind boggles.).

It all began in 1965, with Freak Out! (Ryko RCD 40062, 60:34 minutes), a real shocker on its release. The Mothers of Invention (Zappas band at the time) were the weirdest-looking band in rock, and the songs – blatant pitches for nonconformism, anti-censorship ditties, parodies of pop love laments, and a couple of long acid-noise jams full of pounding drums, tape manipulations, psychedelic Mideastern drones, and drug-induced hallucinatory raps (probably imaginary – Zappa's always had a strong anti-drug stance) were simply ahead of their time. Which is probably why, for the most part, they sound so good today. Musically, Zappas borrowing of easily recognizable elements from r&b, doo-wop, teenybopper pop, L.A. barrio rock, and contemporary classical styles fits comfortably into today's neo-trad mood of rediscovering roots music for fun and profit, and the grungy, sloppy, garage band sound of the Mothers (reproduced well-enough on CD) was totally calculated, actually masking sophisticated arrangements and excellent musicianship (augmented by some of L.A.'s top studio cats).

Absolutely Free (not yet reissued) followed Freak Out!, but it was the third album which helped cement Zappas reputation. We're Only In It For The Money (combined with Lumpy Gravy on one CD, Ryko RCD 40024,70:54), with its killer Sgt. Pepper parody cover, took Zappas satire into the realm of sarcasm, as the lyrics registered disgust at cops, politicians, hippies, parents – virtually every layer of late-'60s society. Was it crude? Certainly. Vicious? Maybe. Effective? Well, in retrospect, it varies. But there's no doubt that We're Only In It For The Money is a period piece today, suffocating under the weight of '60s cultural references and icons. Musically it's much less interesting than Freak Out!, though here are the seeds (via song segues, interludes, interjected dialog, and the use of the studio as instrument) of many later, more successful sonic pieces.

Rykodisc has generously paired We're Only In It For The Money with Lumpy Gravy, probably Zappa's most ambitious and least commercial LP – a 32-minute montage (in Zappa's words, "a curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a Ballet but probably didn't make it.") recorded by a small orchestra of L.A.'s finest. The quick cutting layered snippets of Zappa's musical world (echoes of Varèse, Stravinsky, r&b, surf music, muzak, and jazz), with more (parody?) dialogs of drug-induced paranoia, and plenty of pig noises. Actually, there's more than curiosity value here – if you're looking for the structural model for John Zorn's collage pieces like Spillane and The Big Gundown, this is it.

Ruben And The Jets (Ryko RCD 10063, 41:28) is another conceptual album, but completely without pretension (save perhaps the almost unnoticeable reworking of the opening bassoon phrase from Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring into a doo-wop chorus) – a slice of Zappa's high school nostalgia, a paean to East L.A. '50s r&b-flavored rock. Zappa obviously loves this music, while he so deftly parodies it, though in 1988 it's a one-trick pony.

By 1969 Zappa's interest in jazz began to manifest itself to greater degree; live concerts by this time featured plenty of hot soloing, and fans wanted to hear Zappa stretch out on guitar. Hot Rats (Ryko ROD 10066, 47:16) was the initial result, showcasing the proficient jazzrock chops of Zappa, saxist Ian Underwood, and violinist Sugar Cane Harris. With the exception of one riveting vocal by Capt. Beefheart, this is a strictly instrumental outing that sustains listening today because of the quality of the solos and the distinctive nature of the compositions/arrangements. I have one nit to pick, however. While digitally remixing the music for CD, Zappa added a few minutes of music to the original and rebalanced a few instruments, to no great gain or loss except for the three-minute Little Umbrellas. Originally a slow, moody Mid-eastern melody exquisitely textured and orchestrated, this piece lost a great deal of its exotic charm in the remix, where Zappa brought up a number of inconsequential secondary parts out of the mix (piano comping here, a recorder part there) and obscured or buried evocative textures under too much busyness. I'm holding on to my LP for when I want to hear this cut.

Uncle Meat (Ryko RCD 10064/65, 57:23/63:26) dates from about the same time as Hot Rats, though the two-LP set contains a fascinating – and equally frustrating – potpourri of studio jams, carefully orchestrated interludes, random gab, written dialog, noise, improvisation, idiocy, banter, and excerpts from live concerts, sliced, spliced, chopped, channeled, reupholstered, and polished (in the CD mix) to a sheer,. The three saxes in the band instigate a lot of jazzy soloing (especially on the sidelong King Kong), but much of the material is interrupted by Zappa's typical fragmented sense of montage. Added to the program for CD consumption is some 45 minutes of soundtrack (dialog only, no music) from the film Uncle Meat. These interviews, rehearsals, scripted passages, and asides were edited documentary-style (CD venté?) with the effect of us eavesdropping on the making of the film. Textual motifs reoccur throughout in musical variational fashion, but only the hardcore Zappaphile will listen to this more than once.

Despite its sloppiness and periodic inanity there's much of bizarre interest on Uncle Meat. Unfortunately, Zappa cleaned up his act on 1972's The Grand Wazoo (Ryko RCD 10026, 37:11). Apparently aimed at the fusion crowd, Wazoo's clean, crisp sound delivers some rather bland instrumental arrangements and jazzy solos of marginal heat (none of the sizzle of Hot Rats here). George Duke energizes one cut, but most of the music is too ordered, too controlled, too (unthinkable for Zappa!) mellow. Hopefully Rykodisc will repackage Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, two uneven but infinitely more exciting LPs from the period between Hot Rats and Grand Wazoo.

Jump to 1979, and Joe's Garage Acts I, II, & III (Ryko RCD 10060/61, 58:36/56:52), an ambitious musical (songs carrying the unified dramatic thread) decrying censorship in a futuristic society that tries to outlaw music. It's well crafted in terms of dramatic variety and scene setting (though given its, shall we say, risqué subject matter, it's doubtful to replace the next Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza on Broadway), the production is first-rate, Ike Willis has an expressive voice, and there're long guitar solos symbolizing the protagonist's sense of mental escape from his fascistic environment. There's also the usual digs at organized religion, record industry execs, music critics, and lotsa lewd language. Not for the kiddies.

Public clamour for more guitar apparently forced Zappa to release the multi-disc Shut Up 'N Play Your Guitar (Ryko RCD 10028/9, 53:23/54:13), longish instrumental excerpts from live concerts (sound quality is top-notch). Zappa is an extremely fine guitarist (for a revealing look at this aspect of Zappa, see the interview in db, Feb. '83) capable of anything – bluesy, modal, melodic, patterned, hot, cool, complex, convoluted, grotty, ad infinitum. With strong support from his circa '79-80 band (MVP honors go to drummer Vinnie Colaiuta), this is worth discovery by fusion fans, guitar fans, and Zappa fans; others are advised to marvel in small doses.

The most recent development in Zappas multi-faceted musical career has been the emergence of his "serious" classical compositions. One senses that, given the fragmented orchestral interludes on so many of Zappas rock LPs, this is the direction he's always wanted to go in. The three compositions on Zappa/The London Symphony Orchestra (Ryko RCD 10022, 62:16) reveal how Zappas writing has grown much more assured over the years; themes are given real development, and sectionalized episodes hang together and flow naturally. Zappa has mastered the syntax of contemporary classical music, and you can hear traces of Varèse, Bernstein, Copland, Ives, Stravinsky, and many more, but with a distinctive twist that is Zappas contribution to the genre. There's a perhaps not surprising sense of ominousness to the music – danger and wariness fuel his drama – plus more than a few characteristic satiric touches deflating classical pretensions. Highly recommended for the adventurous listener. (Note: this CD represents the biggest programmatic change from the LP: two shorter pieces, Pedro's Dowrey and Envelopes, are dropped in favor of the long Bogus Pomp.)