Zappa's Hot Rats LP

By John Bamford

Hi-Fi News & Record Review, August 2009

'This movie for your eyes was produced and directed by Frank Zappa', heralded a sleeve note inside the gatefold cover of Hot Rats. The year was 1969. Two years had passed since the 'alternative' lifestyle of the hippie counterculture movement had reached public awareness during 1967's 'Summer of Love'.

Meanwhile the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy in '68 meant that memories of the Summer of Love were fading fast. Political commentators and historians now cite 1969 as marking the death of the American dream.

For scholars immersed in the 'conceptual continuity' of the late Frank Zappa's immense body of recorded work that spanned more than 30 years starting with The Mothers of Invention, 1969 marked the end of one Zappa era and the beginning of another.


Many of Zappa's contemporaries such as the Beatles and the Byrds were on the verge of breaking up. But as Kelly Fisher Lowe comments in The Words and Music of Frank Zappa [University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2006], 'While many of the bands that were working the Sunset Strip at the same time as the Mothers of Invention were winding down, Zappa was just getting started.'

Hot Rats was the first 'mainstream' Zappa LP accessible to rock music listeners, whether fans of Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, the Doors or whoever. Heralded by music historians as having been pivotal in the creation of a new music genre soon to be dubbed 'jazz-rock', Hot Rats pushed the boundaries of recording technology too. A visionary pioneer in modern music creation and recording, Zappa produced an electronic symphony of sound for Hot Rats by playing many of the instruments iimself (guitar, bass and percussion) along wfth fellow 'Mother' Ian Underwood. Underwood was an accomplished woodwind player and concert pianist with a Masters in music from Yale and Berkeley universities. This was four whole years before Mike Oldfield recorded Tubular Bells using similar overdubbing techniques.


Rock 'n' roll legend has it that Frank Zappa's west coast band The Mothers of Invention were signed to MGM's Verve record label in the same week that Lou Reed's Velvet Underground were signed on the east coast.

These were wild-west, daredevil days during which the pop/rock music business was exploding exponentially. It was a time of 'anything goes'. Artistic risks could be, and were, taken, as record company moguls began to cream in megabucks thanks to a maturing of popular music culture and an explosion in consumerism – including home entertainment technology: affordable TVs and stereos for the masses! The original Mothers line-up (whose name was appended with 'of Invention' by the record company as it deemed the name 'The Muthers' too risqué) released four albums on MGM's Verve label: Freak Out [1966], Absolutely Free [1967], We're Only In It for the Money [1968] with its pastiche of the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper, and Cruising With Ruben & The Jets [1968]. Also released in 1968 was Frank Zappa's first 'solo album' Lumpy Gravy, recorded during sessions in LA's Capitol Studios and completed in 1967. Lumpy Gravy showcased the earliest commercially released recordings of Zappa's symphonic music with an LA 50-piece orchestra.

Unimpressed that the leader of the Mothers of Invention was recording a solo album when the band was signed to them, MGM/Verve delayed the release of Lumpy Gravy for a year with legal wrangling, eventually purchasing the tapes from Capitol. This would be the first of several legal battles that littered Zappa's career over the years, leading him eventually to become the master of his own work with a personal studio (UMRK – the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen), his own label (Barking Pumpkin Records), a music publishing company (Munchkin Music) and an unprecedented distribution model for a 'rock musician': making records (and subsequently CDs) that were sold via his own mail-order company (Barfko Swill) directly to his fans.

Zappa and the Mothers made great play of their outspokenness and ugliness, becoming perlect counter-cultural icons. Concomitantly the band's surreal mixture of doo-wop pop songs (erroneously interpreted as parodies by most audiences) alongside avant-garde classical segments and comedic in-jokes, all interspersed with jarring 'experimental' electronic noises in the manner of musique concrète, ensured the Mothers' early records were never destined for any radio airplay. Even today, listeners are astonished at the daring creativity of Zappa's first albums with the Mothers, tending also to be shocked by the outrageous (and sometimes 'pornographic') political and social satire that made Britain's TV show That Was The Week That Was seem as lame as episodes of The Flowerpot Men or Terry and June.


Zappa appeared an idiosyncratic, paradoxical iconoclast. On the one hand it seemed he desired to be taken earnestly as a composer of 'serious' original music, yet on the other hand he made his music so inaccessible that casual listeners immediately leapt to the (specious) conclusion that the Mothers were no more than an American equivalent of the UK's comedic Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. OK for a bit of fun and risqué entertainment, but never to be considered 'proper musc'. Almost entirely instrumental, Hot Rats changed all that.

This was Zappa's seventh album (his second billed as a solo artist), now on the Bizarre label that he had formed (together with Straight Records) with his manager. Soon after its release Zappa disbanded the original Mothers line-up. Intricately arranged charts feature Underwood playing the parts of eight or ten musicians: piano, organ, multiple flutes, clarinets and saxophones. Tracks like 'Son of Mr Green Genes' and 'The Gumbo Variations' showcased Zappa's powerful solo guitar performances – unique in the manner in which they built blocks of melodic, structured themes rather than simply 'noodling' – along with the storming riff on 'Willie the Pimp' featuring the only vocal on the album contributed by Zappa's old school chum Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart). Delightful compositions such as 'Little Umbrellas and 'It Must be a Camel' are intricate, modern chamber pieces, the latter containing an electric violin performance by Jean-Luc Ponty.


All this without even mentioning the opening track of Hot Rats, the enduring 'Peaches en Regalia' with its kaleidoscopic rounds of captivating fun-fair-type melodies. Millions of listeners around the world will have heard it without knowing what it's called or who it's by. Even today, if you live in the south-east of England, you may hear segments of it almost daily as a jingle on Danny Baker's afternoon radio show on BBC London 94.9.

Much of Zappa's rock and jazz output and 30 years of touring was undertaken in order to raise the enormous sums of money required to finance the writing of orchestral charts and hiring of orchestras to perform and record his classical works. Every live performance was recorded, in order that albums could subsequently be 'assembled' back in the studio in LA. There remain hundreds of hours of tapes held in a vault belonging to the Zappa Family Trust, with posthumous releases since Frank's untimely death from prostate cancer in 1993 appearing regularly to keep aficionados enlightened and sated. Meanwhile it's only in recent years that Zappa's work has started to become fully appreciated. Contemporary conductors consider him an important 20th Century composer, citing his work as being as important as that of Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow.


Today Frank's son Dweezil, a guitar player who was mentored as a child by guitar genius Steve Vai (Vai was employed by Zappa for many years), heads up a 'tribute band' of virtuoso musicians called Zappa Plays Zappa. They perform all over the world to great acclaim.

On February 8th this year, at the 51st annual Grammy Awards held in LA, Zappa Plays Zappa received a Grammy for 'Best Instrumental Performance' for their note-perfect rendition of Hot Rats's opening masterpiece, 'Peaches en Regalia' – precisely 40 years after the composition's first release. Dweezil and his family were moved to tears. He was just six weeks old when Hot Rats came out. Inside the gatefold sleeve his father had printed the words: 'Dedicated to Dweezil'.


Employing prototype cutting-edge 16-track recording equipment, far more sophisticated than the usual 4- and 8-track facilities of the era, Zappa produced an album of outstanding technical and musical quality for the time. Around the same time that Zappa was recording Hot Rats, moving recording equipment between various LA studios as necessary, the Beatles were working with George Martin at EMI on their Abbey Road album with only 8-tracks at their disposal.

For the first time on a rock album, 16-track recording made it possible to create a stereo drum sound with four of the 16 tracks assigned to the drum kit alone. This allowed unprecedented control over the volume of each component in the drum set during the final mix. Zappa also pioneered the use of tape speed manipulation as a technique for creating unique instrumental timbres and textures.

After completing basic tracks of drums, bass, guitar and piano, etc recorded at 30in per second (ips) on the multitrack recorder, Zappa played additional drum overdubs listening to the basic tracks at half speed (15ips). On the finished recording, played back at normal speed, these overdubs are heard at twice the usual speed and pitch, giving the percussion a surreal, staccato, 'fun fair' quality. Zappa is also credited with 'octave bass': much of what sounds like guitar is bass guitar replayed at double speed.

Zappa was one of the first out of the starting blocks to begin using digital recording systems as soon as they became available. When I interviewed him via transatlantic telephone call in the early 1980s I asked him if he was aware that many audiophiles thought that analogue recording sounded more natural than digital. His comment: 'Well, John, they're welcome to that opinion. But when you've spent as long as I have in recording studios battling against the build-up of tape noise, you'd soon appreciate why I've embraced digital.'