The secret word is Manga and Zappa is a labour of love that will probably never end for me.
The music of Frank Vincent Zappa is something that I carry with me during waking moments and in sleep, which can be a bit of a luxurious pain in the arse sometimes. Especially when you are trying to review a new artist and you find yourself looking up the perfect performance of “Muffin Man” online. But that is the joy and pain of being a fan of Frank Zappa.
My first experience of the music of Frank Zappa was from a mix tape my friend made back in the summer of 1996.
Now when I say mix tape, I need to add the tiniest piece of extra information. Me and one of my oldest friends used to do mega-mixes, when you take sections of a song and add them to other tracks to create your own new tune.
However, this being the 90’s and coming from deepest, darkest North Tyneside, it was not a professional DJ job. It was literal a small part of a song, then an unmixed cut to another section of a different song. It was not a pretty thing, but we were just silly young thing, messing about with various songs.
Now my friend made a mix which was exclusively from a John Peel Show, one of the songs on the mix was the wonderfully offensive “Jewish Princess”. Being of a young age, we found this hilarious, but my friend had not made a note of who the song was performed by. For years I searched for this song (pre-internet days), but I was unable to discover who had made this gem amongst the beige tones of the pop charts.
Fast forward to ten or so years ago………
Whist recovering from a night out, I was chilling at the pad of another old pal and he was looking for something to put on. We had hankering for anything in particular, so he decided to put on one of his old favourite records. He went to his CD collection and he picked out a record that was about to change my life, he picked out Sheik Yerbouti. The album was enjoyable and the beers were flowing nicely, but I can still remember my reaction when “Jewish Princess” started……
That is the fucking song I have been searching for!!!!!
For the rest of that evening (and the next two days whilst visiting my pal), all we did was listen to Frank Zappa. From that moment on, I had a new musical master and ever since then I have been looking for new Zappa albums, bootlegs, and listening to as much as one human can possibly digest in one lifetime. This is a thankless task in many ways as the man taped everything he ever recorded with the volume of bootlegs out there and everything else. I know that I will never hear everything and I am fine with that, but I do want to listen to as much as possible.
So, what is the point of this article about Frank Zappa?
Well, I wanted to do a small article about my favourite Zappa records, but this could turn into an ever-growing piece with no end. With that in mind, I have come to the decision to focus on the seven most important albums in my life, but not in any order. These are not necessarily the best works of Frank Zappa or The Mothers of Invention, but they are the albums that have either changed my view on the man, or they are just beautiful records that I cannot put to the side.
So, sit back and enjoy my guide to Carter’s Essential Zappa Top Seven Records.
01 – Broadway the Hardway
The best band you never seen, the final tour which ended in bad blood and was the final time that Zappa went on the road (no, that fucking hologram is not Zappa, but that is a discussion for another time). Recorded at various shows on the Broadway the Hardway tour, we find the Frank Zappa band in one of the finest incarnations that was ever conceived. Heavily political (even by Zappa’s own standard), featuring a cameo by Sting on the Police song “Murder by Numbers”.
Musically, everyone was on top of their game on this record, it is one of my favourite live records ever. For me, it has the definitive versions of “Outside Now” and “Any Kind of Pain”, both of which I would gladly have played at my own funeral. However, after reading the book about this tour, Zappa The Hardway, the album has a bittersweet feeling now. You cannot escape the fact this was a band in conflict and Frank was in decline, but this is one of those moments where something glorious comes out of conflict.
Top track – “Outside Now”
02 – Cruising with Ruben & the Jets
One of the biggest crimes Frank ever committed is the re-release of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets in the 80’s with new recordings on the drums and bass. I will rarely say anything bad about my Lord and Saviour, St. Zappa of the Wozzers, but that mix is one of the moments which shows he was human after all.
The fourth album with The Mothers of Invention was release in December 1968, this doo-wop album was released as an homage to the 1950’s vocal style which Frank Zappa loved as he was growing up. It is a collection of silly love songs which was created around the same time as We’re Only in It for The Money, Uncle Meat, and Lumpy Gravy.
It is a throwaway record to a certain extent, one which is sugary sweet and sparkling with a bizarre innocence when you compare it to the other records. It also contains four songs which were previously recorded on different album. But the doo-wop style of the original recordings still sounds classic to this day. The re-worked version though, that is still dog shite.
Top track – “I’m Not Satisfied”
03 – Läther
The album which broke up Zappa and Warner Brother’s was originally released as four separate albums and finally released as it was originally intended in 1996. Whilst Zappa in New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites are fine standalone albums, they make more sense when you hear them in the correct order, in the way that they were supposed to be released.
Coming in at a mighty two hours, thirty-six minutes, and fifty-three seconds, it is a tour de force for any Zappa fan and one which I have come to adore over the years. The further you delve into Läther, the better your understanding of the man and his work grows. When I was originally completing my review for this on my other blog, it took me two weeks of non-stop listening. It was such a joy, but if you asked my wife you might get a different answer….
Top track – “RDNZL”
04 – The Yellow Shark
There is a sense of sadness around The Yellow Shark, but it has nothing to do with the music. The last album to be released whilst The Grand Wazoo was still alive, it was recorded with the Ensemble Modern over two shows in Berlin and Vienna.
Referred to by Tom Waits as one of his favourite albums, it is the union of Zappa’s genius and an orchestra who were able to form a special union in the twilight of Frank’s time on this planet. It is a harsh piece of art, you must appreciate aggressive music, music that challenges and does not let the audience get comfortable. It is one of my favourite albums by Frank Zappa as well, which also has the definitive version of “G-Spot Tornado” as well.
Top track – “G-Spot Tornado”
05 – You Are What You Is
An album that was released from an aborted session for a triple LP that was to be called Warts and All, as well as the aborted Crush All Boxes with various songs being brought together in one double LP when it was originally released in 1981 and a single CD upon its release.
Frank regularly changed his mind when it came to his studio work and this is one of the times when everything came together perfectly. It is a beautiful union between his hard-rock and his social commentary. When I first purchased it, I was warned it was not the easiest of records to get into. However, I found it to be such a fantastic record, definitely an album I recommend as one of the best of his 80’s output.
Top track – “Doreen”
06 – Sheik Yerbouti
Released in 1979, this sarcastic piece of genius is still as offensive and beautiful as it would have been at the time. This is the biggest selling album of Frank Zappa, nothing else comes close and it is not hard to see why. Every song is laced with offensive barbs to get stuck in your mind, nobody is safe and it takes no prisoners.
It was his first release after his split from Warner Brothers, so I guess he wanted to stick his fingers up to the world and see what happens. If you are easily offended, then you might want to stay away from this one. In fact, you might want to stay away from ALL his work, but you will be missing the point.
Top track – “Broken Hearts Are for Arseholes”
07 – Civilization Phaze III
Civilization Phaze III was the first posthumous release and was the first brand new material to be released by Zappa since the 1986 album, Jazz from Hell (another record that fucked with my mind). The album is the third part of a conceptual continuity that started in 1968 with We’re Only in It for the Money and the second part being a re-edited version of the 1967 album Lumpy Gravy.
The main story of Civilization Phaze III involves a group of people living inside a piano, who are having to confront the harsh reality outside the safe comfort of their surroundings. Even for Zappa, it is difficult for the average listener. The music is sparse and the incidental pieces are strange, the concepts of reality and fantasy are deconstructed, rebuilt and then kicked down once more. Approach with the greatest of caution, you will need it.
Also, do not approach if you are medically unbalanced, it does not help.
Top track – “Put A Motor in Yourself”
Each of these Zappa albums have given me joy, confusion, pain, pleasure, thrills, hunger, shivers, happiness and overall – satisfaction.
Even when I am lost in a sea of sound that would claim a weaker mortal, I can always find my way with any Frank Zappa record. I know I will never get to hear his music performed by the man live (fuck the hologram, that is not the same), but I can accept that. I have seen his son Dweezil Zappa live and it was a brilliant show, one of the best I have ever seen.
If you have any thoughts about Zappa, please share them below – also I have attached a Spotify playlist I created for this piece. It is not the best of (I can never be bothered with that sort of thing), but it helped me when I was creating this article. I am actually struggling for an ending, so I will just leave it with……