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Frank Zappa (and The Mothers Of Invention)

Reviewed on this page:
Freak Out! - Absolutely Free - Lumpy Gravy - We're Only In It For The Money - Ruben And The Jets - The Ark - Boston 1968 - Uncle Meat - Hot Rats - Burnt Weeny Sandwich - Weasels Ripped My Flesh - Chunga's Revenge - Freaks & Motherfu*#@%! - Fillmore East June 1971 - Waka/Jawaka - The Grand Wazoo - Overnite Sensation - Apostrophe' - Sheik Yerbouti - Joe's Garage - Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar - You Are What You Is - Baby Snakes - The London Symphony Orchestra - Does Humor Belong In Music? - Broadway The Hard Way - The Yellow Shark - The Lost Episodes

Anyone who hasn't actually listened to Frank's better albums is bound to be confused by his reputation. He's been accurately labelled a "genius" and has a huge cult following, but what is one to make of his obsession with making a spectacle of himself, his endless recorded output, and his eclectic, revolving-door backing bands? The answer is to just forget about it and dig in to the records. Unfortunately, Zappa was so outrageous and experimental that it's far too easy to pick up one of his records and then find that you can't sit through even a single listen. So we've provided a review page despite the fact that we don't have anything close to a comprehensive Zappa collection (a mere 24 records!). If you want a full set of lyrics and that kind of thing, the Web is rife with fantastic Zappa sites like St. Alphonzo's Pancake and The Black Page. (JA)

Much of the confusion arises because Zappa had at least six distinct musical personalities or facets: the Psychedelic Satirist, the Serious Avant-Garde Composer, the Fusion Bandleader, the Potty-Mouthed Reactionary, the History-Minded Obsessive and the Just Plain Rock And Roller. One personality usually dominates any given record, and the typical listener will love one or more facets, hate at least one, and be indifferent to the rest. Both of us prefer the Psychedelic Satirist (best heard on the Sixties Mothers records) over the others, can't stand the Potty-Mouthed Reactionary (as on Sheik Yerbouti), are grateful for the History-Minded Obsessive (the dominant force in the period before Zappa's December 1993 death from prostate cancer), and respect but don't necessarily dig the Serious Avant-Garde Composer. Alroy seems to like the Fusion Bandleader more, and Wilson the Just Plain Rock And Roller, but basically our attitudes are similar, and your mileage may vary considerably. (DBW)

Some comments on this page were contributed by Alex Levine (ATL).

Freak Out! (1966)
- Carefully crafted, and brilliant. Zappa mostly sticks to catchy, cleverly written rockers backed by an effectively arranged orchestra ("Hungry Freaks, Daddy"; "Wowie Zowie"; "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here"), with frequent nods to old-time doo-wop ("How Could I Be Such a Fool"; "Any Way the Wind Blows"). The music ends with a devastating, six-minute urban blues that is graced by some of the harshest protest lyrics of the 60s ("Trouble Every Day"). In 1966 no one was ready for full-blown, abstracted, experimental sound collage - but Frank indulges himself anyway and tacks 20+ minutes of aural insanity onto the end of the record. Incredibly, I find myself listening to it all the way through every time (I'm not sure what this says about whom). (JA)
- The album opens with several terrific songs ("Who Are The Brain Police?" is as brilliantly bizarre today as it was the day it was recorded), sags in the middle with a bunch of monotonous pseudo-love songs, and recovers somewhat with the anti-establishment freakout "Help I'm A Rock" (you may find yourself muttering the title over and over again as you go about your daily life - it happened to me) and the even more outlandish "Return of the Son of Monster Magnet." (DBW)

Absolutely Free (1967)
- A major step forward, at least conceptually: he drops the lame love song parodies in favor of tongue-in-cheek conceptual suites (mostly about loving vegetables). Also, replacing the endless collages is the extraordinary multipart "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," featuring Zappa's first foray into full orchestration. "Plastic People" is another breathless attack on the Establishment, though overall this is less politically focused than either Freak Out or We're Only. There are significant drawbacks: the Mothers still had a lot to learn about playing their instruments (Frank included), and often his tunes are perilously close to the doo-wop and surf clichés he's parodying ("The Duke Of Prunes"). And the lounge sendup that closes the disc ("America Drinks & Goes Home") doesn't quite work. Still, a critical step in Frank's development and good not-so-clean fun. (DBW)
- A breakthrough not just for Zappa but for pop music in general, with Frank staking out his claim as the master of psychedelic, orchestrated parody rock, and delivering hysterical lyrics, clever repeating themes, avant garde melody and rhythm ("America Drinks"), parodies of slightly dated hits like "Louie Louie," "Baby Love" and "Help Me Rhonda," and elaborate cut-and-paste arrangements ("Plastic People") that oddly mirror Brian Wilson's. The Mothers' rhythm section is primitive - they sound like a wedding band on the blues-based "Big Leg Emma" - and the record is marred by a chaotic Bay Area-style hippy jam ("Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin"). But a trio of classics grace side 1 ("Plastic People"; "Duke Of Prunes"; "Call Any Vegetable"), and side 2 has a similarly strong stretch ("Status Back Baby"; "Uncle Bernie's Farm"; "Son Of Suzy Creamcheese"; the Lolita-themed "Brown Shoes Don't Make It") - it's enough to place the disc second only to We're Only in Zappa's catalogue. Oh, and "America Drinks & Goes Home" is goddamned funny. Produced by Tom Wilson. (JA)

Lumpy Gravy (1967)
Disposable collection of conversations by Frank's uninteresting pals, and chunks of noise. Either it's avant garde and way too advanced for my puny brain, or Frank was playing a practical joke on the record-buying public. Take your pick. Anyway, the only marginably listenable thing on here is right at the end, an instrumental version of "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" from We're Only In It. (DBW)
Haven't heard this. I've seen a review written at the time saying it was a hugely disappointing follow-up to We're Only In It, but assorted discographies say it was released two months before that record, with a completely different band (including a full-blown orchestra). (JA)

We're Only In It For The Money (1968)
- Zappa's masterpiece. He's figured out how to mix aural collages with catchy rock send-ups and lunatic humor, and the formula works all the way. The lyrics are a relentless protest - both of the materialistic, morally bankrupt establishment ("Mom and Dad"; "Bow Tie Daddy"), and of the equally slavish hordes of would-be hippies that flooded the American scene by 1968 ("Who Needs the Peace Corps"; "Flower Punk"). Some of the material is a pure gross-out ("Let's Make the Water Turn Black"), some of it's pure, unadulterated good songwriting ("Concentration Moon"; "Mother People"), and all of it's brilliant. Even the liner notes are so far ahead of the curve that they make your head spin. (JA)
- One more point: there are two versions of this available on CD; the original version, and a remixed version from the 80s which includes some rerecorded bass and drums. The original is a must to study the release in its original context, but as a piece of work the remixed version is probably better. Not because of the rerecorded tracks, but because it's uncensored (a few parts of the 1968 release were recorded backwards and are incomprehensible there) and because remixing brings many of the orchestral passages farther forward, making it easier to hear them. (DBW)

Cruising With Ruben and the Jets (1968)
All CD versions of Ruben are marred by re-recorded bass and drum tracks that Frank imposed while re-mixing the record in the 80s. Although the drum parts are utterly generic, some of the new bass lines are funky - almost slithery, actually. The remaining, original tracks map out a bizarre project: Zappa re-recorded a few of his Freak Out 50's ballads and wrote a pile of new ones, ending up with one long, demented tribute to doo-wop. The lyrics take banal, insincere balladry to a hysterical extreme, and when Zappa decides to rock out, the band gallops along irresistably. This is a unique record in every sense of the term, and not for the uninitiated. (JA)

Ahead Of Their Time (rec. 1968, rel. 1993)
An official live Mothers recording taken from a single show. The track selection has a lot of standards like "Holiday In Berlin," "King Kong," and a good chunk of We're Only In It. The sound quality could only be better than the official Rhino bootleg series. (JA)

The Ark - Boston 1968 (rec. 1968, rel. 1991)
Another poorly-packaged Foo-Eee Records release, with a minimal track listing and muddy stereo sound (like the others in the series, it's a legal release of an old bootleg that preserves the original track listing and cover art). The Mothers are in top form here, keeping things interesting through much of the 23-minute avant garde jazz medley of "Uncle Meat" and "King Kong" (it does eventually dissolve into unlistenable chaos). Frank rambles through some characteristically funny song introductions, and three of his more accessible late 60s compositions are featured: "Big Leg Emma," "Status Back Baby," and "Valarie" (a high point on Burnt Weeny Sandwich). There's also a good take on his hard rock joke tune "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" (released two years later), and the weakest number still features some creative noise making ("Some Ballet Music"). Despite this, it's a pretty thin selection, and only a diehard would care to listen to the entire "Uncle Meat/King Kong" jam. (JA)

Uncle Meat (1969)
A mostly instrumental double album. There's a lot of the boring spoken dialogue that made Lumpy Gravy unlistenable; the CD rerelease includes an extra half hour of this crap. Much of the music is real good, although most of the Mothers weren't too sharp on their instruments (Ian Underwood, star of "Ian Underwood Whips It Out," and FZ himself excepted). Yet another doowop sendup ("Electric Aunt Jemima") cooks. And there are several versions of the best tunes ("King Kong" has seven versions, and the title track has at least two) to choose from. (DBW)

Hot Rats (1969)
Hardly any lyrics here, but when the music's this good, who cares? Some of his best known tunes ("Peaches and Regalia") and instrumental backing comes from West Coast luminaries like Max Bennett and John Guerin (who both played with Joni Mitchell as part of the L.A. Express), as well as Zappa stalwarts like Ian Underwood and Captain Beefheart, who contributes characteristically bizarre vocals to "Willie The Pimp." The only weak track is the overlong "Son Of Mr. Green Genes," a remake of a song from Uncle Meat. (DBW)

Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1969)
Although this is framed by a pair of charming and characteristically wigged-out doo-wop numbers with Frank on lead vocal ("WPLJ"; "Valarie"), most of it is actually innovative, modernized classical music. The compositions are solid if, of course, slightly abstract - the best is the clever, two-part "Holiday In Berlin," unfortunately lacking its devastating lyrics. And the Mothers are showcased quite well, with Frank dealing out some wicked wah-wah guitar (title track). A long, multi-part studio/live cut ("The Little House I Used To Live In") features a funky wah-wah'ed fiddle solo and some typically Zappa-esque put-downs of the audience at the very end ("sit down and be quiet... everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, don't kid yourself"). I put this disc on whenever I'm in the mood to experience Frank's compositional genius without his usual comedy/sound effect/political protest window-dressing. (JA)

Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)
Again mostly instrumental and mostly live, but this time around Zappa takes on free jazz, with a big horn section blowing ("The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque"), group vocal improvisation ("Didja Get Any Onya") and furious percussion. Though FZ gets credit for trying to introduce these techniques to a rock audience, the pieces themselves are nowhere near as innovative, accomplished or interesting as works by pioneers like Dolphy, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Partly this is because the Mothers don't have the chops for it (the drummers and bass in particular) - he jettisoned the band immediately after this release. And Zappa's smug self-consciously arty attitude doesn't help: at one point he comes on stage to brag that the musicians are playing in three different time signatures. To console his core audience, he throws in a few satisfying rockers, including the well-known "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama," and the fascinating "The Orange County Lumber Truck," before ending with a blast of feedback noise (title track). As always there are flashes of compositional brilliance ("Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula") and this is valuable for the fan who wants to trace his evolving musical conception, but there's not much here for the casual user. (DBW)

Chunga's Revenge (1970)
Skip this if you're looking for Zappa's unique blend of 60s psychedelia. Instead, much of the record points the way to his more familiar, if heavy-handed approach he took to parody in the 70s ("Tell Me You Love Me"; "Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink"). Zappa had just dumped the Mothers, except instrumental jack-of-all-trades Ian Underwood, and formed a new band; in addition to George Duke (keyboards), Jeff Simmons (bass), and Aynsley Dunbar (drums), Flo and Eddie sing through most of the record - they continued to work with Zappa for about two years - and Bennett/Guerin show up on a couple of tracks. This suddenly gives Zappa a loud, more-or-less straightforward, modernized jazz/rock sound, but some motifs from Burnt Weeny are retained (wah-wah pedals on everything, crazy violin solos, etc.). The experimental edge is pushed with a percussion-imitating vocal jam (end of "The Nancy & Mary Music"), a completely atonal, distorted sax solo (title track), and an aimless multi-track percussion piece ("The Clap"). Recordings coincided with Zappa's work on the outrageous-but-dull feature film 2000 Motels. (JA)

Freaks & Motherfu*#@%! (rec. 1970, rel. 1991)
One of Frank's "official" bootlegs on the Rhino subsidiary Foo-Eee Records, complete with absolutely abysmal sound quality - so bad you might think your stereo is busted. The good news is the performances; this is the kick-butt Chunga's Revenge band. Surprisingly, all of the material is from earlier records, including a brief "Concentration Moon," a one-minute take on "Happy Together (Flo and Eddie's hit with the Turtles), a catchy "Call Any Vegetable," and a full version of "Holiday In Berlin," complete with amazingly funny Nazi parody lyrics. Some of the material is abstract, inaccurately performed, repeated on Fillmore East ("The Mud Shark"), or just too poorly recorded to show you what the hell Zappa was up to, but it's remarkably entertaining anyway. (JA)

The Mothers/Fillmore East-June 1971 (1971)
This live disc was his second record (after We're Only) to hit the Top 40, but it's almost unlistenable. It's a concept album, all right: dirty jokes about groupies who are supposedly after Flo and Eddie, but want to hear their big hit ("Happy Together") first. Along the way, there's a little music sloppily performed by Underwood, Dunbar, Jim Pons (bass), Bob Harris (keys) and Don Preston (more keys), and there are satisfying moments (loud riffs on ""Bwana Dik" and "Willie The Pimp"; a tolerable version of "Peaches En Regalia"), but don't expect anything real good. (DBW)
Frank's first full-length live record, misattributed to the Mothers - the original band was long gone. Does include a full version of "Happy Together," unlike Freaks & Motherfu*#@%!. (JA)

200 Motels (1971)
The soundtrack to a film both of us have seen and been intensely bored by, despite guest appearances by such luminaries as Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, plus the usual Flo and Eddie antics. Good luck finding the album in any form, as United Artists allowed it to go out of print years ago. But you can always rent the video... (JA)

Just Another Band From L.A. (1972)
Just another live record with the Flo and Eddie lineup - their last collaboration with Zappa on record. Half the running time is eaten up by "Billy The Mountain." (JA)

Waka/Jawaka (1972)
Zappa's first and arguably most accessible attempt at a true-blue jazz fusion record features two long, pleasant instrumentals and two short vocal numbers. Despite some marathon jamming that's often dull, "Big Swifty" is punctuated by some punchy horn charts. The title track's similar but even hornier, and Don Preston contributes a burbling, far-out Mini-Moog solo. But the vocal tunes are weak. "Your Mouth" does have some Zappa-esque filligree, but it's a pretty standard biggish-band arrangement of a blues, notable only because of Frank's fevered, wah-wah'ed, Chicago-style noodling. And "It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal" sports a flowing Sneaky Pete Kleinow pedal steel solo and does the usual thing with sudden tempo and tune shifts, but it's mostly just plain disconnected. The record is glued together by Sal Marquez' jazz trumpet work, which doesn't make any concessions at all to rock sensibilities (Marquez also sings and plays chimes [!]). And it is a good demonstration of Zappa's ability to function in an instrumental jazz context. But otherwise there's too much wasted air space here. The core band is Tony Duran (slide guitar), Erroneous (bass), and Aynsley Dunbar (drums), with George Duke (keyboards) and others like multi-instrumentalist Mike Altschul on horns, vocals, etc. After this and Grand Wazoo, Zappa pretty much abandoned the ultra-long song format. (JA)

The Grand Wazoo (1972)
A mock concept album, like the later Apostrophe', this time with almost no words; the performances are decent but uninspired. There's none of the innovative chord changes and song structure of Frank's best work, and the title track will have you begging for mercy by the end of its 13 minute running time. George Duke, who made his name as a P-Funk imitator before hitting his stride as Anita Baker's producer, overplays to an alarming degree. There's one decent fusion groove, "Eat That Question," and scraps of interesting music elsewhere, but they're few and far between. (DBW)
This looks like the last album with Aynsley Dunbar as the regular drummer, although he guested later. (JA)

Overnite Sensation (1973)
Some excellent songs here ("I Am The Slime" is an early attack on television; "Montana" - with uncredited vocals from Tina Turner and the Ikettes - switches gears several times but is consistently entertaining) as FZ finally finds musicians and vocalists who can do justice to the bizarre virtuosity of his imagination. Ricky Lancelotti contributes a ranting, Beefheart-like vocal on "50/50." Even the by-the-book (for Frank) rockers are effective ("Dirty Love," "Zomby Woof," "Camarillo Brillo"). (DBW)
DBW is right, here, but who could forget those lyrics? This album features such gems as "Movin' to Montana soon/ Gonna be a dental floss tycoon" ("Montana"), not to mention others best left unquoted in mixed internet company. Possibly his best lyric effort. (ATL)

Apostrophe' (1974)
- If the concept of yellow snow strikes you as screamingly funny, go snap this record up. Otherwise... The album's a parody of concept albums, but concept albums had already reached the level of self- parody years before, and it's just pointless. The mock storyline, something about an Eskimo, is too stupid to be offensive. Too many tracks feature Frank reciting, stream of consciousness style, over a dull vamp ("Nanook Rubs It," "Cosmik Debris"). But the real bad news is on the longer tracks, which repeat the same banal licks for minute after minute ("Stinkfoot," the title track). A couple of times Zappa wheels out his trademark tempo changes and abrupt stops and starts ("Father O'Blivion"), but the same technique is heard to far better effect on earlier works like We're Only In It For The Money. (DBW)
I take exception to DBW's evaluation of this work of art. FZ here parodies the trend toward album lyric continuity prevalent since Sgt. Pepper's, and he does it well. Anyone who can segue from "Yellow Snow" into "St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" clearly has his finger on the pulse of popular culture. (ATL)
- And hey, the band is good too. It includes George Duke (keyboards); Aynsley Dunbar (drums); John Guerin (drums); Ian Underwood (sax), making his last appearance with Frank; Jean-Luc Ponty (violin); and a dozen others. They groove along quite pleasantly as Frank mumbles about dog piss and foot fungus, rarely rambling and occasionally really taking off ("Father O'Blivion"). Not to mention some great guitar work courtesy of FZ himself (the acid rock title track, featuring guests Jack Bruce [bass] and Jim Gordon [drums], both in fine form). This was Zappa's biggest hit and his only gold record; in my view it's deserved, with some of the songs ranking among Frank's best ("Cosmik Debris"). (JA)

Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
Another successful live album. (DBW)
This looks to have been the first post-Ian Underwood record, and the last hurrah for Don Preston (synth) and Jeff Simmons (guitar). For the next several years Zappa handled most of the guitar parts by himself. (JA)

One Size Fits All (1975)
By now Zappa was comfortable with his rock star status and unafraid to release a pretty straightforward collection of honest-to-goodness songs. There's only one instrumental, and it's both good and short ("Sofa No. 1"). The longish pieces are carefully arranged, and there's plenty of musical variety - blues, funk, jazz, rock, parody, sweetened with dollops of Frank's tasty wah-wah playing. The swinging, Apostrophe'-style funk-jazz hybrid "Po-Jama People" is downright danceable; the P-Funk-like "Andy" is stuffed with riffs. It's far from light entertainment, though; several pieces are so long and complex they're hard to follow ("Inca Roads"). And much of it seems rote, like the Frank-rocker "Can't Afford No Shoes." The band is Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock (flute and sax), Ruth Underwood (vibes), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), with a couple of guests like Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who adds two impressive R & B vocals. Special thanks to Pete Mason for providing the disc. (JA)

Bongo Fury (1975)
A collaboration with Captain Beefheart, recorded live in Texas. It features Zappa regulars like George Duke and Tom Fowler. (JA)

Zoot Allures (1976)
Captain Beefheart makes a guest appearance on harmonica. I believe that Terry Bozzio joined the band at this point. (JA)

Läther (rec. 1977, rel. 1996)
A four record set that was rejected by the record company, which then released most of the tracks anyway split onto four separate albums: Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites -- quite against FZ's will. To get revenge, he played the entire album over the radio, ensuring that bootleggers would have access to his original master, but it was never given a full release until Rykodisc got around to it in 1996. Zappa was trying to showcase his versatility with this set, so it's more all over the map stylistically than is usual for him, and the list of musicians is endless. (DBW)

Zappa In New York (1978)
A live show from 1976, with the Brecker Brothers buried in the large horn section. (JA)

Studio Tan (1978)
Only four tracks here, and only one of them ("Lemme Take You To The Beach") is a short one. (JA)

Sleep Dirt (1979)
Ruth Underwood, George Duke, Terry Bozzio, and Chad Wackerman are among the players. This was the last record Frank cut without the aid of backing guitarists. (JA)

Baby Snakes (rec. 1978, rel. 1983)
A live 1978 concert in NYC with the Sheik Yerbouti band, including Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, and Peter Wolf. The track list compiles several of Zappa's most obnoxiously offensive tunes, including "Titties 'N Beer," "Dinah Moe Humm" and "Punky's Whips," which is Part XLVIII in a series of insecure Zappa attacks on gay and/or androgynous men. Musically it's rather boring, with most of the tunes exactly the same as their studio versions -- "Dinah Moe" is sped up significantly, but to no avail. Only the instrumental "The Black Page #2" is really entertaining; one unfunny running gag is the bass player sneaking "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" into song after song. In desperation, Zappa rips off an old Funkadelic riff at the end of the album, and gets in a few good licks, but there's precious little that's enjoyable here. (DBW)

Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
A double LP collected on one CD. By now FZ had given up on communicating any serious message, and was focusing on offending as many people as possible with Andrew Dice Clay-style humor. Sometimes he doesn't even bother composing real tunes, as on the dull parodies "I Have Been In You" and "Bobby Brown Goes Down." More often he switches gears many times within each track; this works well on the disco sendup "Dancin' Fool" but more often is just distracting you from the fact that the individual sections are trivial ("Wild Love," "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes"). There are a few live instrumentals included, none of them as enjoyable as the performances on Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar. There are a few standout rockers here, including "I'm So Cute" (with the only remotely interesting lyrics on the album), "Baby Snakes" and "Jones Crusher," and even the most idiotic songs have brilliant moments. But overall it's so mean-spirited and pointless it's downright depressing. The band includes Adrian Belew on practically inaudible rhythm guitar; he also adds a Bob Dylan imitation on "Flakes." Drummer Terry Bozzio throws in a few imitation-punk vocals of his own. (DBW)

Orchestral Favorites (1979)
Terry Bozzio appears on this one. Half the record is a version of "Bogus Pomp." (JA)

Joe's Garage (1979)
A three-record rock opera with a story Frank himself described as "stupid," and his infantile approach to sexuality detracts from the music. Not to say there aren't any terrific songs: "Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt" starts out as a hilarious disco parody, then disintegrates; "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" transcends its subject matter with an irresistable crunching riff; "Packard Goose" is a fierce attack on music critics that rocks till it hurts; "Joe's Garage" is the story of every band that never made it to the top. His best lyrics here are so good it makes you wonder why he often settles for so much less. The voice-overs between every track really get on your nerves after a while, but there are also a lot of pleasures: wonderful jazz-inflected lead vocals courtesy of Ike Willis and some terrific guitar solos. However, the worst material - and there's a lot of it - is abysmal: "Crew Slut" and "Catholic Girls" rely on vulgarity to obscure a lack of musical ideas; "Sy Borg" and "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up" are endless faux Quiet Storm numbers; and the mock dance track "A Little Green Rosetta" is far less amusing than the mindless disco he seeks to parody. Other musicians include future Jeff Beck drummer Terry Bozzio, and his wife, future Missing Persons lead singer and Prince protegé Dale Bozzio. (DBW)

Tinseltown Rebellion (1981)
Guitarist Steve Vai replaced Adrian Belew at about this point, and continued to appear regularly into the mid-80s. (JA)
Recorded live, with a few older compositions, but it's mostly new material. Review coming soon. (DBW)

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)
As the title says, Zappa showcases his amazing guitar interpretations on a three-record set of instrumentals, mostly recorded live. The quality of the material varies, but a whole lot of it is excellent, and it covers an amazing range of styles - hard rock ("Heavy Duty Judy") to pseudo-reggae ("Treacherous Cretins") to funk ("Ship Ahoy" - yes, Virginia, Frank can be funky), even low-key acoustic ("Stucco Homes"). Three separate variations on the title track are all high points. Sidemen include future guitar heros Steve Vai and former Joni Mitchell associate Vinnie Colaiuta. Jean-Luc Ponty shows up to play a baritone violin duet with FZ on bouzouki ("Canard du Jour"), but for me it's the least enlightening cut on the record. Five stars for guitar players: it's a 400 level course. (DBW)

You Are What You Is (1981)
This time out FZ decided to make a solid hard rock record, and he proves that he could've blown Led Zeppelin off the map if he'd wanted to: killer riffs abound ("Teenage Wind," "Society Pages," "Suicide Chump") and there's plenty of fine lead guitar work, from Frank himself ("Sinister Footwear") and Vai (title track). Lyrically it seems to be a collection of scraps from failed concept albums - sides two and four are suites - but it still works, thanks to some clever attacks on modern society ("I'm A Beautiful Guy," "Charlie's Enormous Mouth") and religion ("The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing"); though there's still a lot of silliness ("Conehead") he lays off women and gay men for once (except on the appalling "Jumbo Go Away"), so it's much more palatable to PC types like your humble servant. (DBW)
David Logeman is on drums; Moon Unit, Ahmet, and Jimmy Carl Black all deliver guest vocals; Motorhead Sherwood also makes an unusual guest appearance. (JA)

Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch (1982)
Frank's daughter and future eMpTyV VJ Moon Zappa sang on the hit "Valley Girl." I have this - look for a review soon. (DBW)
The aptly named Chad Wackerman was Zappa's regular drummer from this point on. Multiple bass players this time: Scott Thunes, Arthur Barrow, Patrick O'Hearn. (JA)

The Man From Utopia (1983)
With the permanent appearance of Scott Thunes (bass), this marks the stabilization of Frank's full 80s lineup, also including Steve Vai, Ike Willis, and Chad Wackerman. (JA)

The London Symphony Orchestra (1983)
My knowledge of classical music doesn't extend past the 19th century, and I've never heard a note by Frank's idol Edgar Varèse, so I can't pretend to compare this to contemporary classical music. Rock listeners may have a tough time dealing with it, but give it a chance: the opening "Sad Jane" is rumbling and creepy and doesn't grab me, but on the three-part "Mo 'N Herb's Vacation" the players are brilliant (no surprise there), the music keeps moving and developing -- he never takes the easy way out -- and it's often arresting. The CD contains the 24-minute bonus track "Bogus Pomp," which flirts amusingly with pop and R&B idioms. There's also a 2 CD set that has lots more stuff, but I don't have it. (DBW)
The double CD set includes London Symphony Orchestra Vol. 2, which was released in 1987. (JA)

The Perfect Stranger (1984)
A classical record with the Ensemble InterContemporain, and the first appearance of the stupid little dog. (JA)

Them Or Us (1984)
There's a version of "Whippin' Post" here. Return of the stupid little dog. (JA)

Thing-Fish (1984)
Some 70s compatriots like the Bozzios make guest appearances. (JA)
A 3-LP set on 2 CD's, this was originally intended to be a Broadway show but ended up as a Hustler spread. Draw your own conclusions. (DBW)

Francesco Zappa (1984)
Apparently a solo experiment with classical music, and with stupid little dogs. And Frank Zappa's real name really is Frank. (JA)
Strange but true: the music here is by obscure 18th century composer Francesco Zappa. (Apart from Thelonious Monk covering William H. Monk's hymn "Abide With Me," does anyone have other examples of the "misleading composer surname" phenomenon?) (DBW)

FZ Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985)
An amazing four backup guitarists here - Steve Vai, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Ike Willis, and Ray White. The title (and surely much of the content) refers to Frank's ongoing war against state-sponsored artistic censorship in the U.S. (JA)

Does Humor Belong In Music? (1986)
Frank wanted this document of the 1984 tour to be more than just another live record, so he omitted almost all the crowd noise, made composite versions of each song from two or three performances, and ran all the tracks together. It's an interesting approach, but the abrupt transitions are jarring and the material is mostly humdrum. Old chestnuts like "WPLJ" and "Trouble Every Day" are revved up to the point of being self-parodies, and some of the more recent material like "Tinsel-Town Rebellion" is just plain weak. The band is solid, but Chad Wackerman wastes time with a flaky drum/electronic percussion solo on the endless "Let's Move To Cleveland," which also has a long, generic jazz piano solo by guest Alan Zavod. The version here of "Whippin' Post" is interesting only because of a facile, but completely faceless guitar solo by Dweezil Zappa that makes Frank's warp-speed atonal noodling seem brilliantly insightful by comparison. And just to offend everyone, there's a cover of the Clovers' pointlessly profane "Cocksucker's Ball." Some of the parody and political satire here do work ("Penguin In Bondage"), but I'm not sure anyone but the most devoted Zappa fan would want to make buying this record a high priority. The band also includes Willis, White, Thunes, and keyboard player Bobby Martin, but not Vai. (JA)

Jazz From Hell (1986)
All instrumentals, largely programmed on a Synclavier; Zappa won a Grammy for this one. (DBW)
Have this one. The Synclavier stuff is OK, but the instrument has a screechy, clinical sound, with built-in electronic percussion that's hardly any different than Wackerman's intentionally spastic electronic drumming - which you get to hear on the live cut "St. Etienne," the only track featuring anyone other than Zappa (his full road band is in the mix). Unfortunately, "St. Etienne" is just another extended dollop of Zappa's guitar soloing, and Zappa wasn't writing hummable sing-along melodies at this point - he seems hell-bent (ahem) at making sure you have no idea where any given burst of notes is going to end up. So the record is pretty solid as avant garde 80s electronic rock goes, but only intermittently ear-grabbing. (JA)

London Symphony Orchestra Vol. 2 (1987)

Guitar (1988)
A collection of guitar solos that runs over two hours; some of them are graced with politicized titles like "Orrin Hatch On Skis." (JA)

You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore (1988 - 1992)
A series of six live records culled from the vaults. (JA)

Broadway The Hard Way (1988)
One of three live records from the aborted 1988 tour; this compiles most of the new material presented on the tour, along with a couple of older tracks like "Dickie's Such An Asshole" and "Outside Now." Lyrically, he's back to hilarious political satire, mostly focusing on Republican misadventures ("When The Lie's So Big") and TV evangelists ("What Kind Of Girl?") but also taking on Jesse Jackson (the country-western "Rhymin' Man") and even Michael Jackson ("Why Don't You Like Me?"). The band is brilliant: his regular 80s lineup plus a full horn section, and they shift gears effortlessly among a dozen musical styles (from the rap number "Promiscuous" to the jazz chestnut "Stolen Moments"), stopping on dimes, and throwing in dozens of brief quotes from well-known songs. Zappa himself hardly plays any guitar, except in the middle of "Hot-Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel," keeping the focus on the backing band. A hugely enjoyable album, if all the politics doesn't turn you off... the only weakness is a couple of tracks where he got so worked up about his message that he forgot to write any good music (the nine-minute "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk"). (DBW)

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (1991)
If I'm not mistaken, this is a live double record from the 1988 tour, or thereabouts. A lot of the titles are repeated from Does Humour, and of those that aren't, several are standards ("Mr. Green Genes"; "Zoot Allures") and many are bizarre cover versions ("Stairway To Heaven"; "Theme From 'Bonanza'"; "Bolero"; both "Purple Haze" and "Sunshine Of Your Love"). (JA)

Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)
Another live album based on the 1988 tour. The band is the standard 80s lineup - Ike Willis, Bobby Martin, etc. - and the 25 tracks include a few 60s faves like "The Orange County Lumber Truck" and "Harry, You're A Beast." (JA)

Playground Psychotics (1992)
This looks to be a weird two-hour long tidbit - 57 tracks, including numerous dialogue snippets, that feature the early 70s Flo and Eddie band. Possibly a failed project that Frank decided to release for the fans' sake. (JA)

The Yellow Shark (1993)
The last project Zappa saw released in his lifetime, this is a live recording of modern classical music performed by the orchestra Ensemble Modern. It starts off with a couple of rearranged oldies ("Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle Meat"), but nearly all the material is new, and the pieces are much shorter than the extended works on London Symphony Orchestra - no track is over eight minutes, and several are under two. This allows for a lot of side dishes - bouncy piano features ("Ruth Is Sleeping"), spoken word ("Food Gathering In Post-Industrial America, 1992") - complementing the main course of manic orchestrated insanity ("Outrage At Valdez," "Times Beach II"). However, the compositions rarely rise above the self-consciously experimental, and taken all together, the seemingly random flurries of notes and sounds don't add up to much (the closing "Get Whitey"/"G-Spot Tornado" suite excepted). Also, the spoken pieces seem forced: "Welcome To The United States," a dramatic reading of a US immigration form punctuated with sound effects, sounds better in theory than in practice. A must-have if you buy the image of Zappa as a frustrated classical composer forced to rock and roll by commercial pressures, and a marginal purchase for the rest of us. (DBW)

Civilization, Phaze III (1994)
Zappa's big-deal posthumous record, apparently including a lot of brief dialogue snippets a la Lumpy Gravy. (JA)

The Lost Episodes (1996)
With Zappa close to death, he assembled a rarities album of 30 out-takes, dialogue snippets, and alternate versions, most of them with relatively short running times (the original, 1970 recording of "Sharleena" ends the collection on a glorious 12-minute high). It's not only solid, but a fascinating cruise through the man's career - all the way from the late 1950's and early 60s, which get a lot of attention. There's sedate lounge jazz, surf music, obscene dialogue, doo-wop, several Captain Beefheart collaborations, a characteristically bizarre, Varese-inspired orchestral piece, a 1961 instrumental take on "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," and a full-fledged 1963 version of "Any Way The Wind Blows." Zappa's other focus is the early 70s, and although that material is mostly impressive ("Wonderful Wino"), it's not nearly as surprising. There's almost nothing substantial from the late 70s other than an amusing version of "I Don't Want To Get Drafted," and even more criminally, the mid- and late-60s get represented by an instrumental, some dialogue involving an irate police officer, a couple of Beefheart outtakes, and a cough drop commercial (!). I think you could fairly accuse the man of revisionism, but fans won't care, and as a listening experience the disc is panoramic, unpredictable, and often impressive. (JA)

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