“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a path I had to take,” Michel tells the object of his desire at the end of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. He’s seen his best friend Jacques steal her away (although, being French, he doesn’t seem that bothered); he’s taken her to his mother’s funeral; fled to Rome to avoid the authorities, and from there to England (he won’t be doing that post-Brexit) where he plies his trade, blowing his pickpocketed gains on other women and drink. But the pull of the Motherland is strong, and Michel returns to France, only to find that Jeanne has a child by Jacques, who has abandoned her. Michel is finally caught at the race-track by a plainclothes policeman and sent down. Only in prison can he finally tell Jeanne how he really feels.
What a path I had to take to get here as well, but finally, more than two years after I started Every Album I Own (excepting live albums and compilations, otherwise we’d be here for another two years) I’ve reached the end of the road, and there are only 26 albums left, all bar one of them Zappa albums, such is the depth of my feeling for Zappa. Do I love Frank Zappa as much as I love Hawkwind? The answer is no, but I do have twice as many albums by him. Mind you, I inherited most of them from my cousin (hi Marc!).
I recently saw a Zappa covers band called The Muffin Men – an allusion to one of the songs (Muffin Man) on the Zappa/Beefheart collaboration Bongo Fury, from 1976, which is one of my favourite Zappa albums, if not one of my favourite albums of all time – but then again, quite a lot of Zappa albums would fall into that category. Anyway, the Muffin Men played to a tiny audience of thirty or so people in a fantasticly grotty and dark old pub in Camden called the Fiddler’s Elbow, and they were brilliant, cherry picking the best of Zappa’s catalogue but sticking, sensibly, to his golden mid-70s period, spanning the albums Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy and Elsewhere, One Size Fits All and the aforementioned Bongo Fury.
During this purple patch the “Mothers” (i.e. Zappa’s backing band) included the likes of Chester Thompson on drums, George Duke on keyboards, Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals, and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Overnite Sensation was the first Zappa album I heard – really, the first album I became aware of as a long-playing record (before that, songs were just songs, or singles, to me) and it remains one of my favourites, up there with Bongo Fury and One Size Fits All. Yes, there are quite a few songs about sex, but why not? At least it’s consensual sex, Zappa not yet having plumbed the depths (pardon the pun) of Illinois Enema Bandit, and the dirty songs (Camarillo Brillo, Dinah Moe Humm, the self-explanatory Dirty Love) are outnumbered by social comment (I Am The Slime) and the sheer lyrical weirdness of Montana, possibly the best song Tina Turner ever sang backing vocals on.
People bang on about Zappa’s sexual obsessions, but really the vast majority of his songs form one vast, private mythology, referencing LA hangouts, small-town California and the in-jokes (not exclusively, or even primarily, sexual) which only he, the other Mothers and diehard fans would get. But hey, we dig the dental floss and the dog references. I mean, the guy has a thing about dogs, right? Poodles, huskies, modified dogs, you name it….
I’d suggest any Zappa neophyte start with this period, and/or the period immediately after (Zoot Allures, Zappa in New York, Sheik Yerbouti) which features a new set of kick-ass musicians (Terry Bozzio, Eddie Jobson, Adrian Belew etc) every bit as good as their predecessors. That was part of Zappa’s genius – like Bowie, he periodically refreshed his band, and they were always top-class musicians, top class singers. Sheik Yerbouti is a nominally “live” album, but it’s often hard to distinguish between “live” and studio-based Zappa, as he recorded so much new material in concert and then overdubbed like hell, as on Sheik Yerbouti, which is one of his most accessible and thus successful albums. Joe’s Garage is pretty good too, although not so good that I ever bothered to buy a copy. It’s a law of diminishing returns after that, with You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late. It’s far better, IMHO, to go back to the start and try the early Mothers stuff – Freak Out, We’re Only In It For the Money, Absolutely Free, Uncle Meat, Lumpy Gravy, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which have a continuity of personnel, and a generally good balance of song craft and experimentation, although Lumpy Gravy should be approached with care. It’s also here, in the early stuff, that Zappa earned his reputation for cynicism, sarcasm and an all-round sense of superiority, which can grate at first (TBH, the grating never really goes away). Post Hot Rats, Frank feels more forgiving and the voice has become mellower, warmer. Perhaps it was fatherhood. Plus, he began bringing in great singers like George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ike Willis and Ray White to take the strain and add some soul to proceedings.
However, there’s a transitional period between late 60s and mid-70s Zappa which is pretty hit and miss – you don’t really want to subject yourself to Chunga’s Revenge or 200 Motels unless you are a hardcore Zappa freak, and they’re not records even I play that much. Just Another Band From LA, on the other hand, which also comes around this time (early 70s) has Flo and Eddie (aka the Turtles) “singing” on it, and boasts four of the best Zappa songs ever on the first side. As Zappa says on Call Any Vegetable, it is “fucking great to be alive, and if you DON’T think it is fucking great to be alive, you should leave now” (or stop reading this blog).
That just leaves (in my collection at least) the purely instrumental, proto-classical side of Frank started by Hot Rats – stuff like Waka Jawaka, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favourites, and Studio Tan, much of which is pretty good if you get off on the whole fifteen-minute, no- vocal, here-comes-another-synclavier-solo bit, and don’t mind the same musical motifs being endlessly repeated, rather like the references to dogs and Californian suburbia, only without lyrics. Me, I’ll take the songs any day. But if you’ve read this far, feel free to disagree, and tell me what your favourite Zappa album is in the comments box below. Surreal answers welcome!
Z is also for:
Zerfas (I probably only bought this because I thought the Zappa records would get lonely otherwise. There I go, anthropomorphising my records again. And Zerfas by Zerfas is actually a really good, private-press, stoner concept album oddly reminiscent of the good bits from 666 by Aphrodite’s Child, squeezed onto one single album)
Anthony Zerbe (great 1970s character actor with amazing, menacing eyebrows, appeared in Cool Hand Luke, The Omega Man, Papillon, The Parallax View, and (most importantly) Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park. Look out for the forthcoming blog in Archaeology Corner!)