An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?

During the course of the next year the whole of Frank Zappa’s catalogue’s getting reissued. Louder Than War writer George Wharmby has taken on the onerous task of reviewing them all for us – no easy task considering there’s over 50 all told. Here’s the first 12.

Ok, first things first. There aren’t any special features, bonus bits, postcards, signed photos or ”Ëœsniff-o-rama’ scratch and sniff covers in these re-issues. It’s just Zappa’s albums; the way Zappa wanted them to be.

To understand Frank Zappa, don’t think of him as a composer or musician. Think of him as a prism that American culture shines through and gets distorted, twisted and changed by.

So why have I taken on the task of listening to the first 12 (maybe more) of Frank Zappa / Mothers of Invention releases? Well, Zappa was my first musical hero; he was more punk than the Pistols, more avant-garde than Lennon and Yoko and he really stood for something behind the sarcasm and wit. Plus he had an amazing Goatee / moustache Combo.

Plus you got to love the line; “I can take about an hour on the tower of power, as long as I get a golden shower.”

Anyway, I’m going into this listening session as a Zappa fan, but one that really hasn’t listened to much of his music in about 5 years. Let the Zappa Marathon Begin!

1) Freak out! -1966 (from the 1987 Digital Master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?Ok. So MGM / Verve thought they’d signed a white blues band when they signed The Mothers. After an argument over the name, in which they were nearly forced to call themselves The Mothers Auxillary, the record label and band settled for The Mothers of Invention.

They were given a near endless amount of money to create the record, so what happens? Well the producer, Tom Wilson, has decided to drop acid for the session and they allegedly dragged every freak in town to play with $17,000’s worth of percussion instruments for the track ”Ëœthe return of the son of monster Magnet”. This is Zappa trying to get some hits.

Straight from the get go we have a mish-mash of styles here, Psych with ”ËœHungry Freaks Daddy,’ Doo Wop ”“”ËœGo Cry on someone else’s shoulder,’ rock and roll ”ËœTrouble every Day and a hint at the Zappa to come with ”ËœThe Return of the son of Monster Magnet.’

Trouble every day is a stand out track with its seething attack on sensational journalism and social injustice during the Watts Riot.

The influence of this album is quite interesting as it’s said that this is the album that got The Beatles to record Sgt. Peppers.

Songs to download:
Motherly Love
Trouble every day
The Return of the son of Monster Magnet

2) Absolutely free -1967 (From the original analogue master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?The main theme of this record is social commentary split into two sides (tracks 1-7 and 10-15) the first being the life of a vegetable and the second being of an average American. Tracks 8 Big leg emma and 9 why don’t you do me right were singles that were added in the CD version many many years later.

Why don’t you do me right is a great 60’s rock and roll song, catchy riff and is quite refreshing change to the usual madness on this album. You can really tell why they chose this as a single. Also as a side note you guys should check out punk band Alternative TV version of ”ËœWhy don’t you do me right. ”Ëœ

We also see the return of the line ”Ëœ’Suzy Creamcheese what’s got into ya?” this time as a complete song ”ËœSon of Suzy Creamcheese,’

Brown shoes don’t make it is particularly hilarious, a hint of Zappa’s sexual comedy to come with a line sung in George Melly style ”Ëœsmother my daughter in chocolate syrup and do the nasty on the white house lawn’?

I think out of the first three Mothers albums, this is definitely the best.

Songs to download:
Why don’t you do me right
Brown shoes don’t make it
The Duke Regains His Chops

3) Lumpy Gravy -1968 ( from the 1993 digital master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?Right, this is the first Zappa album in the list of 12 that I’ve never heard before. It was recorded the same time as Were only in it for the money (WOIIFTM) and is the second part in his ”Ëœno commercial potential’ trilogy WOIIFTM being the first. It is Zappa’s first solo album and his first album that is fully dedicated to Musique concrete ”“a way of structuring songs where the compositions are not restricted to normal rules.

While this is a very entertaining record that’s split into phase 1 and 2, I find it quite bewildering. It seems to have musical pieces centered around a conversation and the bits of audio blend into each other like your constantly switching radio stations. While the music is beautiful, I feel this album is for the die-hard Zappa fans only.

Songs to download:
I guess you should download the whole album as it comes in two 15-minute chunks.

4) Were only in it for the money -1968 (from the 1993 digital master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?Voted 297th greatest album by Rolling Stone magazine this album is Zappa turning from attacking the right wing and ”Ëœnormal’ culture and putting his satirical eye on the counter culture. Its subject may seem pretty dated now, as the hippy movement is long gone, but there are still idiots around, faux hippy posers who profess to be vegetarian but eat fish.

But in the context of the time it was made, this was released at the height of the hippydom, it takes some guts to turn on the people who are probably buying your records.

The influences are varied in this album who needs the Peace Corps?’ ”ËœAbsolutely Free’ mocks the hippie movement, to ”ËœWhat’s your Ugliest Part of your Body?’ being a reference to a 1960’s advert for Feed deodorant.

A comment should also be made over the cover of the album, it is a cover a parody of ”ËœSGT. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club band,’ is a reflection on Zappa’s view that the Beatles were part of corporatisation of youth culture and were ”ËœOnly in it for the money.’

Technically it’s superb, the studio trickery in this album is genius. It’s like a scrapbook of anger.

I think the line ”ËœFlower power sucks’ from ”ËœAbsolutely Free’ sums the album up pretty well.

Songs to download:
What’s the ugliest part of your body?
Lets Make the Water Turn Black

5) Crusin’ with Ruben and the Jets -1968 (1987 Digital Master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?The final in the ”Ëœ’no commercial potential” trilogy. This is a pretty straightforward album, a nostalgic look at Doo-Wop/Rock and Roll.

As every schoolboy knows Zappa grew up loving doo wop rock and roll bands like The Robins (who recorded an early version of ”ËœRiot in cell block #9′, Franks first record) and the coasters.

This record has Ray Collins takes lead vocals on this record and it’s pretty enjoyable, but they have decided to reissue the master that has the re-recorded bass and drums on it. This is the same as the Ryko version, the electronically modified double bass sound.

The songs themselves are great; Cheap thrills is a fun, fast song about sex. We get three Freak out! tracks reimagined, a version of ”ËœHow could I be such a fool’ Sung in falsetto, ”ËœAnyway the wind blows’ slowed down into a sitting on the dock of the bay style track and finally ”ËœI’m not satisfied’. Jelly Roll Gum Drop stands out for it’s a great hook, the title and chorus comes form the fact a jelly roll gum drop was a hairstyle popular among rockers in the mid 50’s.

This album actually spawned a band, when a fan asked Zappa if he could use the name after a concert. Zappa ended up producing the bands debut album and even writing a song. These leads to Tommy Chong claim his band will be “bigger than Ruben and the Jets” In Cheech and Chong’s movie up in smoke.

I suggest if you want the original tracks as they were originally, without the re-recorded drums and bass, get Greasy Love Songs cd from the Zappa family trust. If you can put up with ”Ëœpunchy’ sounding drums and bass, get this reissue.

Songs to download:
Cheap Thrills:
Jelly Roll Gum Drop
Later that night

6) Uncle Meat – 1969 (1993 Digital master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?This album is pretty weird, even for Zappa. It’s the unofficial fourth part the no commercial potential trilogy. We are treated to a two-vinyl/cd/mp3 folder album that is a soundtrack for a science fiction movie that never was”¦then in 1987 the film was made. But forget it was made for a second.

It’s pretty much a free jazz/orchestral album with a couple of spoken word pieces in which we see the re-mergence of Suzy Creamcheese who’s moved back to her mothers after ”Ëœfucking up’ pretty much everywhere during the track of “The voice of cheese.” A mangled version Louie Louie played on the Royal Albert hall organ. ”ËœThe Air’ seems to referred to the time Zappa was asked to make a pornographic audio recording for a party and it turned out it was a police bust. The final side ends with more free jazz under the guise of the epic King Kong.

This album’s lack of stability makes it exciting; you just don’t know what is coming next.

Also we should note that this version does include the 1987 bonus disc with 37 minutes of movies experts and new track Tengo Na Minchia Tanta (I’ve got a big bunch of dick).

Even though I really enjoyed listening to the 30 odd minute bits of audio from the film this is another one best saved for the die-hard Zappa fan.

Songs to Download:
N/A

7) Hot Rats ”“ 1969 (Original Analogue Master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?Franks decided to disband The Mothers of Invention, so now he records a second solo album. Gone is a lot of the madness and music concrete of the earlier recording and now we see a focus on instrumental compositions.

To kick things off the opening track is the classic Peaches en regalia, a jazz instrumental that really is mesmerising. it’s been reinvented and reimagined by Zappa through the rest of his career, but for me this could just be his greatest creation.

The next track is the only non-instrumental cut on the album and what a song. Were treated to Captain Beefheart playing the title character in Willie the Pimp. Zappa’s extended guitar solo is a particularly good.

An instrumental re-imagining of Mr. Green Genes from Uncle Meat is next in Son of Mr Green Genes and both the fantastic horn section and an extended guitar solo that reminds me of a fly trying to dodge being squashed”¦if you know what I mean”¦. or a sword fight.

Little Umbrellas starts off like a funeral march, but then turns into a sort of 60’s spy or suspense movie theme tune. It’s tight and very jazzy, some fantastic piano work from The Mother’s Ian Underwood. It also reminds me a bit of the Mad Men theme tune for some reason.

Wailing saxophone, with a pretty funky backbeat The Gumbo Variations sounds like a smoky Jazz nightclub, wired on coke and cheap booze. It finishes with a Jethro Tull (but better) flute part. 12 minutes well spent.

It must be a camel really has elements of Jazz-fusion and hints at funky house, way way way before it’s time. The album ends with a soft fade out rather than the usual Zappa cacophony of noise.

I would recommend this album to pretty much everyone; it’s a fantastic piece of art and the mix on this album is superb.

Songs to download:
Peaches en regalia
Willie the pimp
The gumbo variations

8) Burnt weenie sandwich -1970 (Original analogue masters)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?The first of two Mothers of Invention albums released after the band had split up, called Phase one of Burnt Weenie Sandwich.

It is bookended by two of Doo Wop covers, the first being the Four Deuces ”ËœW-P-L-J’ and the second Jackie and the Starlites ”ËœValerie.’

Igor’s boogie is some hero worship for Igor Stravinsky from Zappa. Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown is quite beautiful and was re-used as the main theme for the film 100 Motels.

While it does have it’s good points, the virtuoso piano solo from Ian Underwood on The Little House I used to Live In, I do find this album a-bit of a lame duck, no real direction and really like a bonus disc to Uncle Meat.

Songs to Download:
W-P-L-J
Valerie
The Little House I used to live in

9) Weasels Ripped my Flesh – 1970 (Original Analog Master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?Phase two of Burnt Weeny Sandwich – This is a live compilation album and In my humble opinion a lot better than Phase one.

Maybe I like it more because I’ve always enjoyed Zappa’s live albums; you get a greater sense of energy. Didja Get Any Onya is superb, thrashing drums and a crazy saxophone solo. You can see where the Violent Femmes got their jazz freestyle break idea from Black girls.

The cover of Little Richard’s ”ËœDirectly from my heart to you’ has a mean violin solo from Don ”Ëœsugarcane’ Harris that would destroy any blues guitarist. There are rumours that this track was meant to be on Hot Rats.

My guitar wants to kill your Mama is a classic, another one that pops up in lots of other Zappa records. The title track ”ËœWeasles Ripped my Flesh’ is noise rock that would make Lou Reed cry.

I’d suggest maybe getting this record after the 4th or 5th Zappa purchase, it’s got some accessible music on it but also contains some of the more bizarre compositions.

Songs to Download:
Directly from my heart to you
My guitar wants to kill your mama

10) Chunga’s Revenge -1970 (Original Analog Master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?This album is shows Zappa in a transitional period, a shift from the Jazz-fusion and Political commentary to comedic stories of sexual encounters and groupies with The Turtles Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan).

Even though the album is important, it’s just not as good as his other albums. “Road Ladies” A novelty blues about being lonely on the road that hints at the fun that is to be had at the Fillmore east album, Twenty small cigarettes is a lounge style jazz track, a disjointed Egyptian style instrumental ”ËœTransylvanian boogie” reminds me of 90’s grunge, at the start but kind of looses itself towards the end. Also worth a mention is “Tell me you love me” a pretty cool 60’s rock and roll pop song. “The Clap” is a terribly childish track involving ”Ëœclapping percussion’ ”“ yes we get the joke.

In the first listen I feel I judge this harshly, but after a few pints I feel like it’s a really enjoyable album. I admit this isn’t a ”Ëœneed to get’ album and really it isn’t the best Flo and Eddie era album.

Songs to Download:
Ummm”¦Tell me you love me

11) Fillmore east ”“ June 1971 (Original Analog Master)

A fantastic live album that features Flo and Eddie from The Turtles and features a couple tracks from Hot Rats played live.

It’s a sort of concept album about sex-obsessed groupies including the infamous Mud shark incident. I won’t spoil the story but It involves a certain band, a groupie and a Mud shark. Do you like my new car? Involves a groupie that won’t ”Ëœgive it up’ without hearing the hit”¦with a bullet into which the band play The Turtles hit ”Ëœ Happy Together.’ And haemorrhoids being steamrolled and groupies bowing down to the ”ËœLatex Solar Beef.’

This album has got to be listened to, even if you hate Zappa’s music. It is hilarious. But it is a product of its time. As a guitarist in a female fronted band (The Systematics), the treatment of women does scream sexism. But I think it’s fair to say that the men are also grotesque caricatures.

Also after Happy together, it does feel like the record should have ended and Lonesome electric turkey, peaches en regalia and tears began to fall feel like the bonus tracks.

Songs to Download:
Bwana Dik
Do you like my new car?
Happy Together
Latex Solar Beef

12) Another band from L.A. – 1972 (Original Analog Master)

An Epic Review of Frank Zappa’s first 12 albums OR Universal, what’s got into ya?The final live album to feature Flo and Eddie, whose live album relation with Zappa stopped after a ”Ëœfan’ pushed Zappa off stage at a gig at The Rainbow Theater, London and caused zappa to cancel the rest of the tour.
Frank, in The Real Frank Zappa Book, “I had fallen fifteen feet down into a concrete-floored orchestra pit, my head was over on my shoulder and my neck was bent like it was broken. I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed.”

This is also the final of the first 12 albums I’m reviewing. Originally taking up the first side of the record, Billy the mountain is a 24-minute song of an operatic structure about the adventures of a mountain and his wife Ethyl, a tree. This is a surrealistic radio play with the warning that “a mountain is something you don’t want to fuck with.”

An upbeat, elongated, live version of Call Any Vegetable from the album Absolutely Free starts the second side and it’s a fantastic version.

Eddie, are you kidding is a song about how Eddie learns to love double knitted pants”¦I think.

Magdalena is a comedic song about abuse. This time following a Canadian father trying to molest/seduce his daughter, written by Eddie (Howard Kaylan). I don’t think you could get away with writing songs like this these days and while it doesn’t condone abuse, it doesn’t condemn it either.

But as Zappa says the lyrics in this period the lyrical content of his albums were “there for entertainment purposes only ”“ not to be taken internally.”

The final track is a live version of Uncle Meat’s Dog Breath and man is it better than the original version.

Songs to Download:
Call Any Vegetable
Magdalena
Dog Breath

Well that it! The first 10 hours of Zappa’s recording career ”“ Not including the 100 Motels sound track that hasn’t been included.

These reissues sound fantastic; if you’re a Zappa fan you have to get them. I beg you to put on a good pair of headphones, turn your device up and just lie in bed listening to them.

Some people will genuinely hate this music, I have seen people get angry and turn off the record player at parties when I dared put on Willie the Pimp.

It also should be stated that twelve albums in and he still hasn’t had a hit! But you’ve got to give it to him he is persistent and eclectic. And we’ve still got 44 more records to listen to…

Go on, have a listen to a couple of these records; they could change the way you think about music. You can pick up these re-issues in your local record shop or on Itunes now.

All words George Wharmby. More features by George on Louder Than War can be found here.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Looks like a bit of a hotch potch re issue, the Original Mono lumpy gravy that is on the lumpy money box is fantastic shame they didnt put it on the CD. Oh and its 200 motels not 100!

  2. Cheers for the heads up on the mistakes. I hope they do some deal with Warner/MGM to get a real release of 200 motels, both on CD and DVD.

    I’ve got the Ryko disc CD version of 200 Motels and it sounds great, but I’d love to get my hands on an official DVD. Hopefully it’ll get reissued together with the making of and additional commentary with the Zappas and Flo/Eddie…but I can only dream at this point.

  3. In a true FZ spirit, one would never “download” a song or two. U need to take the full serving. Get the CD, skip the MP3 crap if you want the full artistic intention.

  4. Well, for me ‘Freak Out!’ , ‘Absolutely Free’ , ‘Uncle Meat’ and ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh’ are some of the greatest albums ever released in the history of Rn’R and ‘modern’ music. I love him with The Mothers especially. And oh, I think ‘Burnt Weeny Sanswich’ it’s fucking great…yes, maybe not as the stellar masterpieces I mentioned before, but holy cow anyways, not an album you find out everyday in life!

  5. “The Gumbo Variations sounds like a smoky Jazz nightclub, wired on coke and cheap booze. It finishes with a Jethro Tull (but better) flute part”.

    Flute?? It’s violin and guitar!!

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