Zappa – “Zoot Allures” (1976)

July 10, 2009 at 2:12 am (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This rock-oriented work, credited to just “Zappa,” came out in 1976. Chris Federico examines the album in his e-book “Zappology” (from, I believe, 2002)…


Just before Halloween, 1976, Frank navigated around legal disputes with his former manager Herb Cohen to release this album, which appeared on the regular Warner Bros. label while Frank’s own DiscReet imprint was hung up in the court hassles. Only slightly over a year after wrapping up an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall in London over the 200 Motels concert that had been vetoed back in 1971, Frank sued Herb for embezzling money with his attorney brother Martin. (The orchestral-piece title “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” refers to the spending of Frank’s money on their own amusements.) Shortly after the suit was filed in the summer of ‘76, work began on Night of the Iron Sausage at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. It was to be a double album, presumably containing some of the 1974-’76 material that would eventually be heard on the four records resulting from the fragmentation of the Läther boxed set. Frank eventually decided that Night should be a single album called Zoot Allures. When it was finished, the Record Plant wouldn’t let him have the master tape unless Warner Bros. idemnified the studio against any lawsuit Herb might decide to file as a byproduct of his battles with Frank. Warner consented to this, but only if Frank idemnified them as well. He threw his hands up and had the album mastered from the half-speed safety copy he’d fortunately brought home.

The album title plays on the French exclamation zut alors! (akin to “goddammit!”). This is a continuation of the trick in the name The Grand Wazoo, which re-spelled the French word for “bird,” oiseau (“Grand Wazoo” = “Big Bird”). Zoot Allures also depicts the first two letters of “Zappa” as the title’s initials. A similar prank will be pulled on the cover of Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (see that section for more).

Posing on the front cover like a “normal” rock group — in congruence with the album’s mostly simplex music (for Zappa) — are bassist Patrick O’Hearn, drummer Terry Bozzio, Frank and keyboardist Eddie Jobson. Patrick and Eddie are props; they don’t play on the album. They’re probably in the picture because it was taken around the time Frank was getting his late ‘76 touring band together. To fortify the theme of the contrived sexual presentation of oneself (more on this later), Frank’s pants are incredibly tight; on the back cover, he’s the only one who’s really changed his pose, bending outward at both knees to relieve the pressure. “Later That Night” from the Ruben album is called to mind: “There’s no room to breathe in here!” In “Stuff Up the Cracks” later on that LP, the song’s heartbroken character threatened to asphyxiate himself. Gas and the strange ideals attached to relationships both figure heavily in Zoot Allures’ lyrics. The cover’s pants-bulges can be considered “zoot allures” themselves. Zoot suits were fashionable with black jazz musicians and their fans in the 1940s. A decade later, the free physical expressions and “primal rhythms” of black entertainers were alluring to sexually repressed, white teenagers. As Frank wrote in his 1968 essay “The New Rock,” “From the very beginning, the real reason Mr. & Mrs. Clean White America objected to [early rock and roll] was the fact that it was performed by black people. There was always a danger that one night — maybe in the middle of summer, in a little pink party dress — Janey or Suzy might be overwhelmed by the lewd, pulsating jungle rhythms and do something to make their [sic] parents ashamed.” This fits Zoot Allures’ concept of stifled sexuality escaping in unexpected ways. “Wonderful Wino” even mentions a zoot suit. Terry’s wearing an Angels shirt, advertising the baseball team; it’s perhaps just a funny coincidence that the effeminate Punky Meadows, from the rock group Angel, will be jeered in “Punky’s Whips” during the upcoming tour, observing both confused sexuality and bondage accoutrements. The Japanese text on the cover combines word bits to roughly form “Frank Zappa,” although names in Japan aren’t really written by joining phonetics together in such a straightforward manner; they’re of a more pictorial nature. The writing is Hanko in style, a form used for personal signatures.

Frank, no stranger to promiscuity and its psychologically liberating effects, saw similarities between the media’s product-selling portrayals of ideal sexuality and the propaganda of fascist regimes. While making this album, he certainly couldn’t have been unaware of the implications on it, considering the frequency with which he’d previously compared, for instance, American politicians to Nazis. Two obvious examples are heard in “Plastic People” on Absolutely Free and “The Idiot Bastard Son” on Money; the concentration camp in 200 Motels also comes to mind. In interviews, Frank spoke quite often about the Western World’s unhealthy sexual views; for instance, he was astounded that consumer demand existed for a blow-job machine that looked like a child’s head (“Ms. Pinky”).

“Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station” opens with the line, “This here song might offend you some.” Along with such lyrics as “Don’t you be Tarot-fied/It’s just a lotta nothin’, so what can it mean?” from “A Token of My Extreme” (Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III), it could just as well serve as a characteristically self-effacing but sarcastic introduction for the new listener to Zappa’s music in general. “If it does, it’s because you’re dumb” is the second line, an accusation devoid of his usual, double-edged “character singing.” People in his own background were offended by direct language: “That’s the way it is where I come from/If you’ve been there too, lemme see your thumb [give me an affirmative thumbs-up].” The thumb reference also refers to auto mechanics, who have “greasy thumbs” and often work at gas stations. Recording engineer Davey Moire eventually takes over the lead vocals, occasionally harmonizing with himself. His high voice goes well with the energetic music, conveying the image of a child singing to another about their futures. The lyrics reprise the jabs at Nixon’s recession in “Can’t Afford No Shoes” from One Size Fits All, proclaiming that a college graduate won’t necessarily get a good job. But Davey’s sardonic, growling line “Pumpin’ the gas every night” is a reminder of the Californian concentration camps that Frank mentioned in the Money libretto notes.

Although the composer doesn’t compare his own experiences with those of Jewish World War II prisoners, he seeks to warn about what might transpire if the typical American doesn’t become conscious of the ways in which he’s manipulated, and resist them; the dangers of repeating history are illustrated, demonstrating that things might well come to their logical, tyrannical conclusions. Television, magazines, etc. berate their targets to the point of torture, as men fear their own lack of image fulfillment (“The Torture Never Stops”) and seek unnatural sexual outlets (“Ms. Pinky”). They develop mind-games to get women into bed (“Find Her Finer”), get drunk in order to bury their disappointments (“Wonderful Wino”), and participate in ludicrous, marketed social trends (“Disco Boy”).

With “Be a moron and keep your position,” Davey sings Frank’s sardonically stated encouragement to refuse to be a moron who contemplates no alternative to the prescribed way of life (recalling “Be a jerk/Go to work” from “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” on Absolutely Free). The listener’s told that he “oughta know now, all your education/won’t help ya no-how.” As Davey repeats the title refrain, we hear Frank’s closer, louder vocal. His deep voice is mixed in front of everything else: “Manny de Camper vants to buy some vite [wants to buy some white].” One initially thinks of white gas (propane, which portable lamps and stoves run on), but he actually wants some white fish (a Jewish delicacy): Frank’s line is followed by Davey’s falsetto exclamation, “fish!” (at the same time the backing vocals fall on the word “gas,” from the repeated song title). This is a bit ominous in the context of the German accent, when one remembers that Davey has just gotten through snarling sadistically about the prospect of “pumpin’ the gas every night.”

”Black Napkins” was recorded live in Osaka, Japan on 2/3/76 (which perhaps explains the Japanese stuff on the album cover). The wah-wah pedal’s eventually used in tandem with Frank’s uncanny neck-picking to make the guitar sound like an overheated science-fiction movie computer; the sound will return (as bubbles?) in “Ship Ahoy” on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More. In Ljubliana, Yugoslavia on 11/11/75, Frank introduced an early version of “Black Napkins” to the audience by announcing, “This is an instrumental song. It’s a tender, slow, moving, ‘ballad’ sort of song that carries with it the implied message that the complete woman must also have an asshole.” In the context of the album, the “perfect woman” for whom men are trained to search isn’t real, and they’ll be let down by natural humanity, with all its so-called imperfections. This anticipates “You never go doody/That’s what you think” in the album’s closing song, “Disco Boy”; in spite of seemingly connecting with these ideas by describing toilet paper, the song’s title wasn’t concocted until later in the month, after that spoken introduction. Frank and his band had Thanksgiving dinner in 1975 at a venue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that served hardly edible food, clinching the comical atrocity by providing black napkins (unwittingly making the guys think of death by food poisoning).

The lyrics in “The Torture Never Stops” were originally intended as jokes about Captain Beefheart’s narcissistic mannerisms and lack of consistent sanitary habits. When the song was first performed in the spring of 1975 at Claremont College during the Bongo Fury tour, it was called “Why Doesn’t Somebody Get Him a Pepsi?”. By the time Frank recorded this Zoot Allures vocal, the words had grown to represent much more, in terms of some undefined evil entity, whom one can consider a politician, a music journalist (cf. “The ‘Torchum’ Never Stops” on 1984’s Thing-Fish) or the embodiment of the string-pullers who don’t get on the news, the industrial figures behind this psychosexual concentration camp. The reek that even makes the stones choke is another reference to poisonous air, not to mention Jewish dietary customs (raw pork). “Guns and the likes of every tool of pain” are included among outlets of displaced sexuality, bringing to mind Frank’s past lyrics about phallic extensions, as well as his future “sociological investigation” of New York’s bondage-abundant Mudd Club.

Besides a “tiny light from a window hole” (making one wonder if “City of Tiny Lites,” a song on Sheik Yerbouti about Los Angeles, might not name the city as a center of the oppression), the atmosphere never gets a break, not a single shaft of sunlight; nor does the Night of the Iron Sausage let up, the era in which America’s denizens are battered by misleadings that snuff their self-esteem and direct their sexual energies toward machines (cf. Joe’s Garage). The “backing vocals” before each verse (and during the guitar solo) are orgasmic, partially pained female moans and squeals. The male listener is asked why these cries sexually frustrate him more than they should; they’re a natural aspect of humanity, after all. We can assume that the screams of the girls — it’s Gail Zappa and a friend; the first grunt is the friend’s — are included to reveal to the listener how uptight his culture’s made him (or her, for that matter): “Why does this torture you? Isn’t it an attractive sound?”. Additional cries from the same “evening’s work” (Frank’s words) in his bedroom will resurface in “Rat Tomago” (“tomago” is “egg” in Japanese) on Sheik Yerbouti. The song will come after “Jones Crusher,” and will be followed by “Bobby Brown”: songs about damaged genitals. On the Baby Snakes soundtrack, “Jones Crusher” will immediately precede “Disco Boy.” (Then again, maybe the revisited shrieks in “Rat Tomago” will just be the cries of a girl who discovers that she’s been eating a rat omelette.)

In 1977, Frank will tell Guitar Player’s Steve Rosen that the “thing that sounds like a slide guitar on ‘The Torture Never Stops’ is actually a fretless… It’s different than a regular guitar. You don’t push the strings to bend them; you move them back and forth like violin-type vibrato, which is a funny movement to get used to. But you can play barre chords on it. It’s fun.”

Frank sings an elongated verse at the end, wondering if the victims are “zeroes someone painted.” This recalls Nanook’s frozen cultural wasteland — each of the first few lines of “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” ended with the “O” sound — and the round, frozen beef pie next to which Billy the Mountain’s (nature’s) enemy was born. Frank sums up his eclectic music, conceptual continuity, lyrical exposing of buried truth, and Dadaistic, break-all-fabricated-artistic-boundaries crossing of genres and media: “Everything that’s ever been/That’s what’s the deal we’re dealin’ in.”

One of the girls shrieks as her death blow is dealt by her being cloned in artificial form — her own packaged “perfect” image — as “Ms. Pinky” stomps in. Frank parodies Van Morrison’s “Gloria” by spelling out “P-i-n-k-y”; then “K-Y” (Jelly; a lubricating agent) is snuck in. This is a song about, according to Frank’s words to Barry Miles in 1976, “a lonely-person device. We have this fan in Finland called Eric… [His favorite porn magazine] had ads for lonely-person devices. It was even worse than I had imagined. Not only is it a head; it’s the size of a child’s head. The throat is sponge rubber, and it’s got a vibrator in it with a battery pack and a two-speed motor. Sticking out of its neck is a nozzle with a squeeze-bulb that makes the throat contract.” (The doll really was priced at $69.95, according to Frank in other interviews.) So the original Sides 1 and 2 both end with masturbation — the “Disco Boy” goes home alone, engaging in “disco love” with himself — book-ending the record with results of frustration. This album’s a Weeny Sandwich of its own.

Donnie Vliet, who’s credited with blowing the harmonica in “Ms. Pinky” and “Find Her Finer,” is of course Captain Beefheart. “Find Her Finer” opens the album’s second half with remarks about how idiocy has become the accepted social norm. The prospective gas attendant at the beginning of the first half is sarcastically being encouraged by Frank to fulfill the “dumb” stereotype laid on him. The occasional vocal (“So you might as well,” etc.) comes from Ruben Ladron de Guevara of the actual Ruben & the Jets, formed a few years after that Mothers album came out, and whose LP For Real was produced by Frank. The line “The universe is nowhere to start” vocalizes the difference between the cover concepts of last year’s One Size Fits All (the idea having been that the universe can hold everyone comfortably) and Zoot Allures (with its restrictive media images and satirical pandering to consumers). The listener’s sardonically encouraged to “rap [talk] like a mummy ‘till you finally unwind her” (“rap” = “wrap,” in the sense of a mummy’s wrapping, which can be unwound). “See who designed her” correlates the human woman with the manufactured rubber head in the last song. “Ground mummy” was the name of a nineteenth-century spice, adding a further pun. After Frank admits that he’s probably offended some listeners (similar to how he opened Side 1), more wordplay’s heard in “wiser fool,” a funny oxymoron.

Xenochronicity (called “experimental re-synchronization” in the Sheik Yerbouti liner notes) makes its debut in “Friendly Little Finger”: The guitar solo has been recorded in a different time, place and musical context than the other instrumental parts. The brass at the end is playing the traditional gospel song “Bringing in the Sheaves,” recalling the Salvation Army’s attempts at helping alcoholics quit. This duly leads into “Wonderful Wino,” co-written with Jeff Simmons in 1970. The macho line “Boy, she looked over at me, and she raised her thumb” revisits the opening song’s lyrics, while “I stink like a hog” recalls the repulsive meal in “The Torture Never Stops.” (Black napkins, indeed.) The showy dancing expression “Watch me, now!” (taken from the Dave Clark Five’s ’60s hit “Do You Love Me”) is humorously used, as it will be in “Bobby Brown” (and before “Baby Snakes” during the 1978 European tour). What’s funny is that the actual lyric has nothing to do with dancing in any of these cases. “Eat the label” will also be sung in “Baby, Take Your Teeth Out,” a song about a gummed blow job on 1984’s Them or Us. (Ms. Pinky’s services undoubtedly feel like gum jobs.) “Eat the label” could also be a sly Zappa expression about his music; any attempt to brand it is swallowed up. The wino pisses on the front lawn of a woman whose hair is up in curlers; the black character in Apostrophe (‘)’s “Uncle Remus” smashed the racist lawn ornaments displayed by white Beverly Hills residents. A different studio version of “Wonderful Wino,” recorded in 1973 and featuring Ricky Lancelotti’s hyperactive vocals, contained the same line about the lawn as this rendition; but the even earlier live rendition from shows with Flo & Eddie had gone, “A roller-headed lady caught me weedling [or wheedling: begging] on her lawn.” The wino could’ve been urinating or loitering.

Originally released by Jeff Simmons on his 1970 solo album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up on Zappa’s Straight Records, the song was temporarily retitled “Wino Man” when it was performed by the Mothers a year later. The title song from Simmons’ album will also be redone by Frank for Joe’s Garage, Act I. Although prominently depicting a world in which music has been made illegal, that story will concern a character whose life is wrecked in nearly every imaginable way, due to society’s rampant warping of sexuality.

The live instrumental “Zoot Allures,” rumored to have been recorded at the same Japanese concert as “Black Napkins” (although the songs feature different bass players, if one goes by the back-cover credits — assuming that a new part hasn’t been overdubbed for the album), incorporates a striking harp part, played by Lu Ann Neil. The original ending will be heard as “Duck Duck Goose” on Läther and “Ship Ahoy” on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More. A November 1981 performance of “Zoot Allures” will be resynchronized over separately recorded music to render the solo section of “Truck Driver Divorce” on Them or Us.

In 1977, Frank will tell New Music Express that “’Disco Boy’ came about because we were in Denmark and we went to a place there called the Disc Club, and it was really poot. It was so make-believe sophisticated that it was embarrassing. The place was decorated like a playboy-type living room would sort of be like: low-boy chairs and snackettes on the table. And everybody drinks and dances to these robot-beat records…” The masturbation reference at the end of the song casts a curious light on the line “Find her blinder” in this half’s opener; blindness has been superstition’s reprimand for self-stimulation for ages. “Disco Boy” is circular, i.e. repetitious like the average pop song. The fur trapper in “Nanook Rubs It” was blinded by the urine-soaked snow that was rubbed into his eyes with a “vigorous circular motion” (female masturbation). Just before the solo, “The Torture Never Stops” contains the echoing “Well…well…” of “Nanook Rubs It”; the girls’ moans then return. Those who watch the movie Baby Snakes, which occasionally features an inflatable doll with a Ms. Pinky-type head, will discover Frank singing most of “Disco Boy” to a young girl named Angel, tying into the Zoot Allures front cover and, of course, “Punky’s Whips” (not to mention Angel the cross-dresser cited in “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes”).  

Chris Federico

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