“The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart” (1997)

June 18, 2019 at 3:35 pm (Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Music)

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Frank Zappa (1940-1993)

January 11, 2014 at 8:06 am (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

A month late on this one but it was 20 years ago last month (Dec. 4th) that the great Frank Zappa passed on from this mortal coil. This obituary is from Stereophile magazine, February 1994. Unfortunately, I don’t know who the author is. It might be Richard Lehnert (that would be my best guess) but I’m not positive. My apologies to the author.
Frank Zappa… never to be forgotten.

Frank Zappa was a unique figure in the worlds of American popular music, international contemporary music, pop culture, politics, civil libertarianism, and, toward the end of his life, international politics and business as well. When he died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52, he was mourned not only by musicians and fans, but by such luminaries as NPR’s Daniel Schorr and the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who remembered him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground during the 1970s and ’80s.”

I first heard Zappa’s music in the fall of 1967, just after the Summer of Love, the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the birth of the media hippie. A budding 17-year-old hippie myself, I was shocked and delighted by his just-released album We’re Only in It for the Money, probably his most pointed essay in cultural criticism. That was a clearly polarized time — the unexamined truisms from both sides of the generational fence were spouted with a single-minded sincerity and a naivete that seem almost touching today. Zappa’s voice, on the other hand, was one of clarifying irony and sarcasm, the voice of an experienced, mature adult who took no one’s word for anything.

Money‘s album cover was a black satire of the cover of Sgt. Pepper itself — something that verged on sacrilege at that time of LSD-drenched Beatleolatry. But We’re Only in It for the Money was not only a critique of the vague fatuities of the hippie subculture; it also roasted an establishment that found itself terrified by that subculture and attempted to suppress it by increasingly violent means. The cycle climaxed three years later at Kent State University in shootings eerily foretold by Zappa on this very record.

We were weary even then of the dire pronouncements of our parents and authority figures about the dark side of the strange and contradictory melange of leftist politics, free love, communal living, psychedelics, alternative healing techniques, political theater, Native American lore, exotic diets, and the various occult and spiritual disciplines in which many of us dabbled and which a few of us even studied. Zappa was just as critical, but his was criticism from the inside, from “one of us.” When I first heard him shout “Flower power sucks!” — this was in 1967, remember — my spine stiffened in shock and recognition. The whole gestalt — everything that went with the phrase “flower power” — had never been questioned by anyone my teenaged psyche trusted or respected, and certainly by no one with hair as long as Zappa’s. His derisive shout made me question everything I had refused to question, and permanently derailed my hitherto blithe and paisley train of thought.

Zappa’s call to question authority — no matter how hip — was a constant of his work from the very beginning. He played both political ends against a cultural middle he held in withering contempt, and vice versa. Beginning in 1965 by pillorying (on Freak Out!) greaser and doo-wop music (both of which he loved), along with warning us to “Watch the Nazis run your town,” asking the rhetorical question “Who are the Brain Police?,” and singing the first rock song I know of to attack the media (“Trouble Every Day,” about the Watts Riots), his list of targets eventually grew to include psychedelic music, disco, punk, white blues, Democrats, Republicans, the Christian Right, the extremes of both gays and homophobes, and most important, anything and anyone anywhere who threatened free speech and the Bill of Rights. During his last two tours he set up voter-registration booths in the lobbies and managed to encourage tens of thousands of concert-goers to register. (At least one group of community powers-that-were prohibited him from doing so, grumbling that “we already have enough voters.”) He was about to make a serious bid for the presidency when his long-misdiagnosed cancer finally caught up with him.

Ever a gadfly to the establishment and to his own constituency — the young, the hip, the disaffected — Zappa knew that there’s no one so conservative or conformist as a teenager, regardless of that teenager’s dress or political beliefs. One of the strangest and most revealing moments on any Zappa album comes at the end of the live section of “Little House I Used to Live In” on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa announces to the crowd that “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t you forget it.” What sounds like every single person in the room then bursts into delirious applause.

Why? Zappa had just accused every one of them of being programmed robots marching in a lockstep media army of long hair, drug abuse (contrary to popular belief, Zappa himself never took drugs other than caffeine and nicotine), and a borrowed hip argot. But no one, evidently, was offended. Perhaps all the acclaim was embarrassment, the shock of recognition immediately recycled into laughter at oneself.

I don’t think so. Having been part of other such moments at other Zappa concerts, I think he included these few seconds on his record to make a far more disturbing point: That in a culture in which free speech is taken for granted as a birthright instead of being valued as a precious privilege earned, it loses that value. Anything that anyone might say or write becomes just another glittering fragment in a vast and hypnotizing kaleidoscope of entertainment. With increasing bitterness as the years went on, Zappa made a point of referring to everything he did as “just entertainment” — a way of ensuring that he never took himself too seriously, but also an indicator of his cynicism. I can’t think of any other American rock musician of whose work the word “entertainment” is less descriptive.

But Zappa would’ve been little more than another shrill voice in the vast wasteland had all this exhortation not been supported by a uniquely powerful musical voice. Zappa scavenged the pop music of America and the avant-garde of Europe to create a music of non-sequitur, a shotgun cubist marriage of doo-wop, serialism, fusion, crudely effective Brechtian agit-prop, Varesian electronics, and good ol’ rock’n’roll. He reveled in the jarring juxtaposition, the transition without segue, the 90-degree curve. He shared with Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern an abhorrence of sentiment and a commitment to what he called “statistical density”: ie, a maximum amount of aesthetic information in a minimum amount of time.

Zappa’s orchestral and chamber music could thus sound most chaotic to the majority of his rock fans when it was actually at its most rigorously disciplined. But then, at its best, his rock music could sound similarly incomprehensible to the ear attuned only to the sounds of the conservatory and the recital hall. Zappa was virtually unique in creating not only some of the most rhythmically thorny orchestral scores ever written — as such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano, and Peter Rundel have attested — but also some of the most challenging rock music ever composed and performed. In fact, among serious rock instrumentalists it became the ultimate badge of honor to have played in one of Zappa’s bands. Like Miles Davis, Zappa had an uncanny ability to demand from a player that player’s best — and get it every time.

As if fighting against time — he was — Zappa released recordings at a furious pace in his last few years: over 30 CDs’ worth of previously unreleased material, much of it his best work. His last album, The Yellow Shark, a collection of works for chamber orchestra recorded in concert by the Ensemble Modern and released just weeks before his death, is probably the best thing he ever did — JA and I would’ve picked it for this issue’s “Recording of the Month” whether or not Zappa had died.

The loss of Frank Zappa is a true one. There is no one even remotely close to being able to take his place, whether as an unlikely collection of talents and insights, or as a uniquely intelligent American voice worthy of attention and trust. It saddens me that I will now never see his name on the national ballot. I cast my vote here.


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Frank Zappa Interview (1988)

July 7, 2012 at 9:31 am (Frank Zappa, Life & Politics, Music)

Frank Zappa on CBS Night Watch, Feb. 10, 1988, talking about censorship and the state of the GOP, a lot of which still resonates, more than ever, to this day.

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The Mothers of Invention – “Son of Mr. Green Genes” (Live – 1968)

February 4, 2012 at 9:58 am (Frank Zappa, Music)

Taken from The Olympia in Paris, Oct. 26, 1968…

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Frank Zappa – “Edgard Varèse: The Idol of My Youth” (1971)

October 20, 2010 at 7:41 am (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from the June 1971 issue of Stereo Review, Zappa’s recounting of first discovering the music of this brilliant composer…

I have been asked to write about Edgard Varèse. I am in no way qualified to. I can’t even pronounce his name right. The only reason I have agreed to is because I love his music very much, and if by some chance this article can influence more people to hear his works, it will have been worthwhile.

I was about thirteen when I read an article in Look about Sam Goody’s Record Store in New York. My memory is not too clear on the details, Read the rest of this entry »

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Frank Zappa – “Electronic Projections” (1977)

December 5, 2009 at 6:42 pm (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This excerpt (written by Frank Zappa) is taken from a larger story by Arnold Jay Smith and Bob Henschen in Down Beat magazine, Jan. 13, 1977…

I like electronic music, I think it will be around for a long time. I think that the instruments are going to have to be designed so that they’re easier to operate in live performance situations.

On Zoot Allures, most of the electronic events that are taking place are things that were done with studio electronics. There are some synthesizer things that I played on the album, but they’re real simple-minded.

Electronics, for instance the string synthesizer, is the best thing that could happen to pop music because when you consider the attitude of normal string players, even jazz string players, it’s so disgusting doing business with them that it’s great that somebody has finally invented a box (the string synthesizer) that will help you do away with them and their aura. If you can get a better sound by using real musicians I would prefer to do it. But unfortunately the attitude of those kind of musicians toward the work that they do is so moribund, it just adds a cloud…. People are more worried about their pensions than the notes that they’re playing, and I hate to do business with them. Working with many so-called “studio musicians,” all they care about is their pensions, going to their union meetings, and maintaining their position in a musical community that has nothing to do with music, but more to do with, you know, really horrible middle-class, middle-of-the-road lifestyle. It’s depressing for me, in most instances, to deal with them, because they do not have my musical interests at heart, and I doubt if they have anybody’s musical
interests at heart when they come in to do those sessions. All you gotta do is stand in the hallway during one of their little union breaks and listen to their conversation, then you know where it’s at. And it’s the same thing in symphony orchestras. So thank God somebody put together a box that’ll sound like a string section, because in a hockey rink who can tell the difference?

As for where music will be in ten or fifteen years, all the jazz musicians will forget how to improvise and really get good at playing disco music. Each one of them will have three cars and a house in the country.

Frank Zappa

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The Mothers of Invention – “Anyway the Wind Blows” (Demo – 1965)

October 31, 2009 at 9:22 am (Frank Zappa, Music)

Taken from a recent compilation of early demos & unreleased ephemera, comes this 1965 version of “Anyway the Wind Blows” featuring future Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine. (Ignore the credits given on youtube for this song).

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Frank Zappa – “Lumpy Gravy” (1967)

September 25, 2009 at 1:09 am (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Another chapter from the online book Zappology: Zappa Observations, Minutiae and Conceptual Continuity Connections, written by Chris Federico (circa 2002 – but recently updated). Here is the link if anyone wants to check out more from him http://chrisfederico.angelfire.com/


After contacting symphonic session musicians through trombonist Kenneth Shroyer, who’d played on Absolutely Free, Frank formed the one-off Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, made up of the musicians and characters as they appeared piecemeal on the album, rather than in any simultaneously orchestral and vocal performances. The Chorus was actually a speaking cast, its members’ dialogue taking the place of sung lyrics. They were recorded conversing with their heads stuck inside a Steinway grand piano during several sessions at Apostolic Studios in New York City. The chats were improvised, but they followed Frank’s general thematic guidelines. He amassed eight or nine hours of conversation from which to select; further snippets were heard in a few spots on following albums, but the piano characters returned with prominence on Civilization, Phaze III (1994), which clarified and continued the plot (all the way to the end of the world) from where it had left off on Lumpy Gravy, using old characters from that album and new, freshly recorded “piano people.”

The album features three Mothers; Bunk Gardner plays woodwinds and brass, while the others — Roy Estrada and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, the latter often using the voice of his alter-ego, Larry Fanoga (“Almost Chinese, huh!” and “Drums are too noisy when you got no corners to hide in”) — are listed as members of the Chorus. Other enclosed-perspective piano inhabitants are played by studio staff members, Louie the Turkey from the Garrick Theater audience, and Spider Barbour of Chrysalis, another group recording at Apostolic at the time.

Completed in 1967, this two-sided piece featured the earliest commercial appearance of Frank’s orchestral music. Some of the material was even recorded with a fifty-piece Los Angeles orchestra. The album was commissioned by Nik Venet of Capitol Records, who’d formerly signed the Beach Boys. It had been assumed that Frank was contractually free to compose and conduct, since MGM had only signed him as a musician and vocalist along with the rest of the Mothers. The latter company disagreed, threatened to sue, and finally bought the master tapes. It was just as well; Capitol’s engineers had messed up the countless edits, requiring Frank to reconstruct the album. He and engineer Gary Kellgren labored over this unexpected task at Mayfair Studios in New York City. All in all, the release of the album was delayed for over a year.

The album’s title, originally taken from a television commercial for Aloma Linda Gravy Quick, describes Zappa’s upsetting of the “smooth” textures of popular orchestral music. His congealing of dyed-in-the-wool classical forms is achieved through utter compositional freedom, as well as intrusions of hard reality: the “lumps” of the imperfect real world, much more interesting than the dull familiarities of antiquated musical forms. The lumps are the “meat of the matter,” and also happen to be the tastiest part of the gravy. Frank is opting for meat rather than vegetation: substance, not to mention the variety (and humor) of reality, rather than derivative musical uniformity. Upcoming titles will update this idea (Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich most drastically, but also, a bit less directly, Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh).

The front-cover photo, backdropped in gravy brown, features Frank in a non-hip, comfortable outfit, staring proudly up at the spectator from his laboratory like a worker after a long day. He’s wearing a shirt occasionally aired onstage that advertises Pipco, a Santa Barbara, California pipe company that has made shirts to sponsor little-league teams (although Frank won’t learn of the shirt’s origins until long after 1967). The clothing-store dummy inside the gatefold hearkens back to the plastic people on Absolutely Free.

The opening theme will return in “Bwana Dik,” a song about a guy’s fixation on penis size, on Fillmore East, June 1971. Sneaking the theme of an album that partially deals with male hang-ups into a song about genitals is characteristically crafty. The subject is also alluded to beyond Motorhead’s monologue on Lumpy Gravy, when a cigar is brought up during Roy and Louie’s dialogue.

The slow, lovely introduction to the instrumental version of “Oh, No” is a revisited 1962 theme that Frank wrote for the World’s Greatest Sinner soundtrack. The snatch of surf guitar that’s heard after Spider says “A bit o’ nostalgia for the old folks!” comes from the 1963 song “Hurricane,” which Frank produced for Conrad and the Hurricane Strings at his Studio Z.

In light of Motorhead’s car-engine reference “Bored out, 90 over,” All-Night John’s later statement, “Round things are boring,” suggests that the word “boring” can be heard as the less apparent verb, rather than the obvious adjective. Elements on the album — the drum, the merry-go-‘round and the vicious circle — are round things; so is the record itself. These things are perhaps now “boring” into the society Frank wishes to infiltrate and change with his music (this optimism will diminish in time). In his 1968 essay “The New Rock,” Frank will write, “It’s something of a paradox that companies which manufacture and distribute this art form (strictly for profit) might one day be changed or controlled by young people who were motivated to action by the products these companies sell.” The ants (round things, in their own ways) on the back cover of 1975’s One Size Fits All are boring into the crumbling cityscape. “Round things are boring” also appears as one of many messages bordering the circular star map on that back cover; the confinement of such a limitless place that “fits all” as the universe (or music) to a convenient, measureable shape just to accommodate our filtered minds is boring in the dull sense. (See the section on Apostrophe (‘) for more on boring, round stuff.)

The second half’s opening vocal, which sounds like an attempt by a drunk guy to sing along with the mainstream music that’s been darting in and out — something like “ba-BOMP-BODDY!” — will, with the release of The Lost Episodes (1996), be revealed as a fragment of “Ronnie Sings?”, a recording of Frank’s boyhood friend Ronnie Williams (who introduced him to Paul Buff of Pal Studios, which eventually became Studio Z) making rough-throated scat sounds to Frank’s guitar accompaniment in an Ontario living room in 1961 or ‘62. Ronnie’s booger-saving, fart-lighting and accidental urine-creature-making activities will figure among the subjects of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” on the Money album; that song will also cut momentarily to the voice. It figures into the Lumpy Gravy plot as a “little pig with wings” (even though it sounds more like a goat with emphysema).

The pig will fly around inside the piano again on Civilization, Phaze III. In 1974, Frank will record a long, comical piece called “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” concerning a pig who sits in his office and comes up with trends to sell to the gullible consumers of the world. When talking about the pigs not being able to question any part of their system, lest their livelihoods be threatened (the perspective-clouding “smoke” must remain), Spider mentions “that thing on their neck,” a precursor to the tie markings on Greggery.

“Merry-Go-‘Round” was a song by Wild Man Fischer, a discovery of Zappa’s who would eventually record the tune for an album on Frank’s Straight label. A funny-farm alumnus, Fischer wrote simplistic, nursery rhyme-type tunes. Spider’s statement about robotic servitude, presumably to either work or fashion — “The thing is to put a motor in yourself” — refers back to Motorhead’s automobile tales earlier on the album, as well as “Merry-Go-‘Round.”

Louie’s excited recount of ponies trying to kill him ends up as a joke, when he talks about picking up sticks to throw at his assailants, and Roy interrupts with “Pick-Up Sticks?”. Mentioning the childhood game refers back to the groping for innocence in “Merry-Go-‘Round,” as well as Motorhead’s earlier line about getting “another pickup.” (Even this could be double-edged, considering the nature of his recollections; girls are “picked up.”)

Roy’s “Amen” is included as a reference to the name of the studio, Apostolic. The stanza that ends with “Just one more time” features Captain Beefheart’s vocals from Studio Z, circa 1963.

Chris Federico

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Steve Weitzman – “Zappa and the Captain Cook” (1975)

July 31, 2009 at 12:40 pm (Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975 – this was the period where Zappa and Beefheart kissed and made up and went on tour together. You can still sense a bit of patronising and condescension though between the two, if you read between the lines…  

Captain Beefheart, rock’s sometime genius, had just finished a show with Frank Zappa, with whom he’s touring after the end of their longtime feud. Slumped backstage at the Capitol Theatre, he scratched his shaggy head and slowly related the latest bizarre turn in his odd life.

“I said some silly things,” Beefheart noted, “because I’m a spoiled brat and I don’t understand business to the degree that Frank does. I probably felt neglected. I’ll admit it… and I told him so. I said, ‘I’m sorry Frank and I don’t mean that for an excuse.’ We shook hands and that was that.”

Zappa and Beefheart’s relationship goes back 20 years, to when they attended junior high school together in Lancaster, California. “I was there when he picked up his first guitar,” Beefheart recalled. “It was a funny little brown thing with hardly any strings, but it sure sounded good to me.” The two tried unsuccessfully in 1964 to form a group called the Soots, and then went their separate ways – Zappa to form the Mothers, Beefheart to search for his Magic Band.

The problems began in 1969 when Beefheart did Trout Mask Replica for Zappa’s Straight Records. “I did Lick My Decals Off, Baby right after Trout Mask. The group wanted to be commercial and since they were so nice about doing those two I thought I owed them a moral obligation and I stayed. But I should have gotten rid of them then.”

Beefheart added that his last two albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeants were “horrible and vulgar,” and that he’d “headed for the redwoods to paint and write” as soon as he’d fulfilled his obligation to Mercury.

But other stories have Beefheart accusing Zappa of poor production on Trout Mask and interfering with its creativity. In 1972, Beefheart told the New Musical Express: “Zappa is an oaf. All he wanted to do was make me into a horrible freak . . . Zappa made me look out of the question, and the kids out there on the streets started to take dope because they thought that was the only way they could possibly get into my music. It was disgusting and totally degrading that Zappa should do this to me.”

Evidently, Beefheart had second thoughts in the woods, and he called Zappa to praise Apostrophe and “just to say hello.”

“He apologised for all the garbagio and asked for a job,” Zappa said. “The Captain repented. He had been real confused.”

Beefheart auditioned just before Halloween, Zappa continued. “He flunked. See, he had a problem with rhythm, and we were very rhythm oriented. Things have to happen on the beat. I had him come up on the bandstand at our rehearsal hall and try to sing ‘Willie the Pimp’ and he couldn’t get through it. I figured if he couldn’t get through that, I didn’t stand much of a chance in teaching him the other stuff.”

Zappa and Beefheart tried again this spring. “Although he still has trouble remembering words and making things happen on the beat,” Zappa said, “he’s better. Just before the tour, I tried him again and he squeaked by.”

Beefheart’s major contribution to the present Zappa show involves growling the lead vocals on “Poofter’s Froth, Wyoming” (which Zappa wrote for him), “Orange Claw Hammer” (from Trout Mask) and “Willie the Pimp,” the show stopper. Remembering the lyrics had apparently been a problem for Beefheart – he keeps them written down on a stand located at his feet onstage. Zappa is interested in getting Beefheart “to relax to the point where he can improvise words. He can do really funny stuff when he’s sitting around in a room. But he hasn’t really gotten comfortable enough yet.”

At this point, Zappa plans to remix and reissue Trout Mask, which Beefheart still describes as “my favourite.” Beefheart said he’s “had an extreme amount of fun on this tour. They move awfully fast. I’ve never travelled this fast. With the Magic Band – turtles all the way down. “Frank is probably the most creative person on this planet. He writes things for instruments that haven’t even been invented.” Beefheart paused for a moment and then resumed. “He’s another Harry Partch,” he said, referring to the avant-garde composer, “only he hasn’t dried up yet. Get it?”



Steve Weitzman

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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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