Son of FZ on CD

By Bill Milkowski

Down Beat, May 1990

The following 17 CDs on Rykodisc, spanning 21 years, reveal a few things about Frank Zappa: His guitar playing has improved dramatically since the ’60s while his social commentary has become more pointed and preachy in recent years (see Apr. ’88’s first roundup of FZ material); and, the musical standards of his ’80s bands have risen far above those of their ’60s counterparts. It’s not likely that the disheveled crew from the original Mothers of Invention could cut the “difficult music” suites or intricate segues that appear on more recent works. So, in effect, the new and improved FZ is a more irascible, condescending polemicist with more chops, genius or no genius.

On Absolutely Free (RCD 10093; 40:63 minutes: ★★★), Frank’s second album with The Mothers, recorded in late ’66 and released in May ’67, he flaunts the influences of ’50s rock, r&b, and Edgar Varèse (sometimes in the same piece). His guitar playing throughout is primitive but full of raunchy abandon, emulating guitar hero Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who would become a Zappa collaborator 10 years later. A musical highpoint here is the ambitious 7½-minute suite, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” which seamlessly blends a Varèse-like use of dissonance and complex rhythmic constructions with Beach Boys motifs. And to further establish his renegade stance to the industry, Zappa slaps this warning on the back cover: “You must buy this album now. Top 40 will never ever play it!” A credo he holds to this day.

1972’s Waka/Jawaka (RCD 10094; 36:12: ★★★½) can be considered Zappa’s jazz album, following in the wake of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson. The lengthy excursion of “Big Swifty” sounds like a jazz version of a Grateful Dead jam, with trumpeter Sal Marquez evoking images of Miles on muted trumpet and George Duke stretching out on an electric piano solo. The 11-minute title cut, however, is stiff and lame by comparison, just slightly hipper than The Tonight Show Band playing “Eye Of The Tiger.” This rigid chart is distinguished, nonetheless, by keyboardist Don Preston’s quirky Mini Moog solo and the interactive drum work of Aynsley Dunbar. For some contrast to these two “serious music” suites, Zappa throws in two comedic vocal numbers, a bluesy romp called “Your Mouth” and a buoyant country rock number, “It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal,” featuring Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s crying pedal steel guitar. Some challenging music here with bits of humor, and no proselytizing.

Rykodisc combines Zappa’s two most commercial albums, 1973’s Overnight Sensation and 1974’s Apostrophe’, onto one CD (RCD 40025; 56:33: ★★★½) These tightly-crafted, clever tunes reached out to a new audience of high schoolers and college age kids hungry for sarcasm and absurdity. “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “Stink Foot” tickled their collective funnybone while “Cosmic Debris” and “Apostrophe”’ (featuring an extended fuzzbass showcase by Jack Bruce) wet their appetite for basic blues-based rock. Some social commentary about the mindnumbing effects of television on “I’m The Slime” and some food for thought on “Uncle Remus,” but in general the lyrics are less menacing, the music less adventurous.

The live, double-CD set, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2 (RCD 10083/84; 2 CDs, 2 hrs. 2:52: ★★★★), captures the great Zappa band of George Duke, Tom Fowler, Chester Thompson, Ruth Underwood, and the insane Napolean Murphy Brock in festive spirits with chops honed to a sheen for a September 22, 1974 concert in Helsinki, Finland. This is the same band that recorded the fine, funny Roxy And Elsewhere in December of ’73. Some of the material here is repeated from that album, but after a year on the road together they really got the tunes under their fingers. The stage banter between Duke, Brock, and FZ is hilarious (check out “Room Service”). Great soloing by Zappa on “Inca Roads” and the previously unreleased “Approximate.” There’s mondo-wah grunge with two-handed tapping frills and wicked blues inflections. Zappa flaunts his compositional prowess on lengthy instrumental suites like “RDNZL,” and the 24-minute extravaganza, “Dupree’s Paradise.” This versatile band could cut the serious stuff yet throw down some real funk, blow in a jazz vein (check Duke’s solo on “RDNZL”) and partake in the absurd humor.

Less than a year later, Zappa reunited with his pixilated colleague Captain Beefheart for a world tour. Bongo Fury (RCD 10097; 41:07: ★★★½) documents their two nights at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. The same basic band of Duke, Fowler, Underwood, Brock, and Thompson is augmented by slide guitarist Denny Walley, who works in well with Beefheart’s Howlin’ Wolf tendencies on “Advance Romance” and “200 Years Old.” Two Beefheart recitations with free-music accompaniment, “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” and “Man With The Woman Head,“ recall the beat antics of Lord Buckley while the kinetic “Debra Kadabra” sounds like a jam with Savoy Brown, Decoding Society, and Popeye’s Poopdeck Pappy. Adventurous, inspired, slightly insane.

Around the same time, Zappa released the fine studio album, One Size Fits All (RCD 10095; 43:00: ★★★½) which featured the same 74 touring band augmented by the funky vocals of Johnny “Guitar” Watson on two cuts – the Deltabluesy putdown of West Coast trailer-park life, “San Ber’dino,” and on the blues section of “Andy,” a tune whose intro sounds like “Son Of Peaches En Regalia.” Some nifty FZ soloing on “Po-Jama People” and some real burning by Duke on “Inca Roads,” the album’s highlight. This album is a tight, great-sounding producer’s triumph by Frank.

The 1984 album, Them Or Us (RCD 40027; 71:05: ★★★), rocks harder than jazzier FZ offerings like Waka/Jawaka yet also reflects Frank’s ongoing fondness for ’50s rock and doo-wop (heard on a faithful rendition of the 1956 tune, “The Closer You Are” and a reggae-fied remake of “Sharleena,” a tune featured on his 1971 album, Chunga’s Revenge). “Guitar” Watson makes a humorous appearance on “In France,” a tune about personal hygiene abroad, and gunslinger Steve Vai is turned loose on the heavy-metal jam, “Stevie’s Spanking,” which also features a high-tech speed solo by Frank’s son Dweezil. An added treat here is a straight-faced cover of “Whipping Post” with Bobby Martin doing his finest Gregg Allman impression. And on two difficult music suites, “Marquesoris Chicken” and the ballet piece, “Sinister Footwear,” Vai plays impossible lines while FZ solos with abandon on top.

Zappa’s 1984 opus, Thing-Fish (RCD 10020/21; 2 CDs, 1 hr. 31:08: ★★), is a misguided attempt at musical theatre. Rambling, pretentious, offensive, and boring, it’s a one-joke concept using Ike Willis in the role of the Thing-Fish (an aberrant take on the Kingfish character from Amos ’N’ Andy). Bitter and mocking, in addition to being musically limp, it waxes vitriolic on such topics as feminism, homosexuality, the video-religion industry, and the inherent blandness of overeducated white folks.

FZ’s 1985 effort, Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (RCD 10023; 43:52: ★★★), is a blatant attack on Tipper Gore, Sen. Fritz Hollings, and all those members of the PMRC who would try to censor rock music. An uneven offering, it documents Frank’s first use of the Synclavier as a means of piecing together digital sound bites into mind-boggling collages. The Synclavier pieces here, “One Man, One Vote” and “Little Beige Sambo,” are nervous-sounding exercises that come off as sophisticated versions of the digitized music emanating from video games. “Porn Wars” is Frank’s crowning achievement. A forboding Synclavier-constructed collage that might be subtitled, “Attack On My First Amendment Rights,” it effectively blends in spoken-word testimony from the Senate Committee hearings on pornography and obscenity in rock & roll. A frightening pastiche of speeded-up voices and eerie horror music motifs. And on the lighter side, there’s the brilliant parody of the jinglemusic scene, “Yo Cats,” with Ike Willis doing his smarmy Sammy Davis, Jr. lounge jazz bit.

Jazz From Hell (RCD 10030; 34:44: ★★★½) is roughly a half hour of serious listening with no snide asides, clever putdowns, or toilet humor With the Synclavier doing his bidding, instead of imperfect humans, Frank spins odd, whirling, impossible lines on “The Beltway Bandits” and the title cut. “Damp Ankles” is a dark soundscape reminiscent of FZ’s works for symphony and “Massaggio Galore” is a pastiche of jackhammer rhythms and sampled mayhem that may grate on the nerves. The fascinating rubato abstractions on “While You Were Art II” represent perhaps the best example of the Synclavier’s potential for music-making. And for a bit of contrast to the perfection of the machine, FZ tosses in “St. Etienne,” a sixminute guitar solo with band.

For those Frank fanatics who can’t get enough of his signature guitar stylings, there is Frank Zappa: Guitar (RCD 10079/80; 2 CDs, 2 hrs. 12:20: ★★★½). a live, double-CD set of his solos from 1979 to 1984. FZ contends that the solo as a means of spontaneous composition is a dying art. He’s one of the few renegades who is keeping that concept alive with flaunting blues chops, whammy-bar wailing, sick tones, two-handed techniques, fluid legato statements, Middle Eastern scales, and plenty of nasty, grungy extrapolations. The guitar equivalent of Dean Benedetti’s Bird tapes – just the solos. For fanatics only

You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 (RCD 10081/82; 2 CDs, 2 hrs. 17:39: ★★★) is a live, double-CD compilation of tunes from as far back as 1969 on up to ’84. You get a taste of several different Zappa aggregations, plus you get to sample the loose bantering and comedic asides that are a key part of every Zappa concert. A ’69 performance by the original Mothers on “Sweet Leilani” sounds like a Sun Ra take on that Hawaiian pop tune. A marathon version of “Yellow Snow” features a cameo appearance by a drunken Brit in the audience who spouts angry poetry when FZ hands him the mic. On one number, FZ recites the respective diseases of the band members and during a brief silent spot on “Heavenly Bank Account,” his diatribe about evangelists lining their pockets with money, he yells out, “Tax the churches!” You really can’t do this sort of stuff on stage anymore. Frank’s adeptness in the studio is revealed here by the amazingly smooth segues and tight transitions from cut to cut, in some instances leaping from ’69 to ’84 without breaking stride.

Frank’s most recent musical document, from 1988’s Broadway The Hard Way tour (RCC 40096; 71:13: ★★★½), features a high-powered horn band and incorporates digital sampling technology but suffers from an overabundance of proselytizing. His targets are also very specific – Rev. Jesse Jackson (“Rhymin’ Man”), former Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop (“Promiscuous”), Michael Jackson (“Why Don’t You Like Me?”), Richard Nixon (“Dickie’s Such An Asshole”), Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker (“Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk”), Ronald Reagan (“When The Lie’s So Big”). Too much ranting here, not enough rave-ups. There are a couple of musical treats, however, including a faithful reading of Nelson Riddle’s theme from The Untouchables and a cool version of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” which cleverly segues into The Police’s “Murder By Numbers” (just to snow where they ripped it off from ... touché!) with a guest-vocal appearance by Sting himself.

Narcissistic genius, cantankerous social commentator, industry renegade, and parttime guitar hero, ol’ FZ has certainly made his mark on 20th century pop music. And he can defiantly say, “I did it my way.”