Okay, you know the guy. Certainly, you have heard the name, even if you think that you have not heard his music. Frank Zappa has become synonymous with bizarre, unlistenable music, and possibly even obscene-laden lyrical content. He testified before Congress against censorship in the arts (particularly music), and you can say that Rap and Hip Hop exists because of his efforts.
He has had a few hits that many people would recognize, but mostly, his prolific body of work has gone unnoticed by all but a few music aficionados. In his lifetime, Zappa released 64 albums between 1966-1993; some rock-and-roll, some jazz, some classical, and some otherworldly. There is no real concrete way to describe Zappa’s music, nor can one explain his seemingly tireless work ethic. Zappa did not simply write music; he composed it, writing out score sheets for each instrument. And he did this while releasing 2 or 3 albums each year and touring constantly. In 1979 alone, he released a staggering 5 albums, and two of those were double LPs. Amazing.
He expected the best from the best musicians that he could find. His auditions were notoriously brutal, and Zappa has even said that he, himself, could not pass one of his auditions.
All of this means that he was never really in the mainstream. Even his “hits” were outliers that were musical miracles. Yet, he had a solid following of fans that continue to praise his musicality to this day.
I first discovered Zappa in my early teens, sometime in the early 1980s. I’m sure that the first song of his that I heard was “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”, and I remember seeing videos for “Valley Girl” and “You Are What You Is.” If I heard anything else, I was not aware.
Fast-forward to 1986, and my newest friends Jerry and Kevin turned me on to a whole new world. I remember one drunk or stoned night that Jerry was especially passionate about me hearing the album, “Lumpy Gravy.” I was not engaged, but we moved on to other things I did not get, like “Billy the Mountain” and “Willie the Pimp.”
Eventually, I got it. Jerry had played the non-politically correct and horribly offensive and vulgar, “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes”, and it all clicked. I was 18 years old, and the vulgarity spoke to me. I wanted to hear more. I started with his more commercially known albums first, and then dove into the weird stuff.
To this day, I am a fairly hardcore fan. I listen to large chunks of his discography at a time at least once a year, and I was revving up to delve into his catalog again when the idea hit me to do a Top-5 list for the blog. It is “F” day on the A to Z Challenge, after all.
So, here it is: My personal top 5 Frank Zappa albums.
Released in October, 1969, Hot Rats was Zappa’s first album after dissolving the original Mothers of Invention. The only remaining “Mother”, Ian Underwood, performed the majority of the tracks on the album, including multiple tracks of keyboards, clarinets, saxophones, and flutes.
One of my all-time favorite Zappa songs is “Peaches en Regalia.” It is such a masterful composition, and at 3:38, is a fine example of Zappa controlling his urge to create a longer piece of music. He fits a variety of themes into this short piece, and it does not feel lacking or rushed. In fact, I think it is perfect!
Also, this album features Captain Beefheart (one of Zappa’s old high school friends, and maniac savant) singing on the great blues jam, “Willie the Pimp. “Son of Mr. Green Genes” and “The Camel Variations” are classic examples of Zappa’s compositional stylings of this early era.
Recorded mostly live with some studio overdubs, Sheik Yerbouti is possibly one of his more obscene albums, but it has a lot of great songs on it. Released in March of 1979, Sheik Yerbouti was two-LP set of a variety of different themes and styles. Side one of the LP (it was a double album) is one of my favorite sides of all-time. The opening “I Have Been in You” is classic Zappa humor and double-entendre. The following “Flakes” has a brilliant section with a Bob Dylan impersonation. And then we get the aforementioned, “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes.” Zappa is pushing the envelope for what will be tolerated by the record companies, and by society. I am not sure if Zappa was homophobic, insensitive, or ironic, but the same theme pops up again on Side two with “Bobby Brown.” Remember, this was 1979, and not everyone was enlightened yet. Call me a dick, but I think it’s funny!
Other honorable mentions for this album go to “Baby Snakes”, “Dancin’ Fool”, and the lengthy “Yo Mama.”
Okay, I’m totally cheating here. Back in the early 1990s, the label Rykodisc released many Zappa CDs with two albums on them. Overnight Sensation and Apostrophe were released as one CD, and I will forever associate the two as one whole album.
Overnite Sensation was released in October of 1973, and marked the beginning of Zappa’s “commercial” phase, if you want to call it that. I call it “commercial”, because Zappa wrote some of his most accessible music during this period. Instead of complex and dense compositions, or subversive nattering, Zappa was writing songs that a larger group of people actually liked. “Camarillo Brillo” starts the album off, and it is an instant crowd-pleaser with a catchy hook. The album also contains the Zappa classic, “Dinah-Moe Humm”, which is a raunchy porno-funk fest featuring Tina Turner as Dinah-Moe, herself. This album also contains crowd pleasers, such as “I am the Slime”, “Dirty Love”, and “Montana.”
Apostrophe was released a mere 5 months later in March of 1974. Most people would recognize the “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite instantly, but this album also contains the classics, “Cosmik Debris” and “Stinkfoot.” All of the above mentioned songs were played somewhat regularly in concert throughout his career.
It would be so easy for me to list Bongo Fury as my all-time favorite Zappa album, if it weren’t for the final entry. I love this album so much. Before I got the CD, I had a tape of it that I wore down to nothing. It was unlistenable by the time I got the CD, and I have every second–every note— of this album memorized! When Liam was about two years old, he had “Debra Kadabra” memorized, much to his mother’s chagrin!
So, why do I love this album so much? Well, like the next entry, the band lineup that Zappa had at this time was phenomenal. Not only did he have Captain Beefheart on “vocals, harmonica, saxophone, and madness”, this album also featured George Duke on keyboards, Chester Thompson on drums (studio tracks only), and Terry Bozzio on drums (live tracks), among others. It also contains some of my favorite songs.
Released in October, 1975, and officially released as a Zappa/Beefheart/Mothers album, the live tracks come from recordings off of the One Size Fits All tour in the Spring of 1975. Bongo Fury opens with the aforementioned “Debra Kadabra”, featuring Beefheart on vocals, and then moves straight into “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy.” The former being an odd bit of poetry and jazzy improv, and the latter being one of Zappa’s classic bawdy songs. You can also find the brilliant “Advanced Romance”, featuring the perfect opening line, “No more credit at the liquor store.” Finally, the album closes out with the hilarious classic, “Muffin Man.” You just need to hear it.
Finally, my favorite of all-time is One Size Fits All. Released in June of 1975, One Size Fits All continues the streak of commercially acceptable music that Zappa wrote between 1973-1976. This trend would end with Zoot Allures in 1976, and Zappa would go back to his “serious” composing for the next couple years.
This album is the best-of-the-best of Zappa’s albums. It contains my other favorite song, “Inca Roads”, which is probably his most complex jazz fusion tune. Other classics from this album include, “Po-Jama People”, “Sofa” (#1 & #2), “Florentine Pogen”, and “San Ber’dino.” OSFA is a glut of Zappa riches, and I recommend it to even the most casual Zappa listeners and newbies everywhere.
So, there you have it. Those are my top-5. Do you love Zappa? What albums would you have listed that I skipped? My friend Jerry says I should have included Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only in it For the Money”, but he can make his own list.
So hop to it! Give these albums a listen, and tell me what you think. If you have been afraid to try Zappa, you may be surprised with these albums.
One final note: Gail Zappa, if you are reading this, I apologize in advance for using Frank’s music in a post without checking with the estate first. I assure you, I am profiting in no way from this post. Please do not sue me!