Frank Zappa Listening Party, Week Three

Frank Zappa has always been one of my favorite artists, and I’ve been on a real Zappa listening spree lately. Many people think of Zappa as some sort of weird offensive freak, which he is, but he is also a serious and prolific composer. With 75 albums, including many doubles and some triples, his catalog can be broken down in several ways, but for this post I consider the “classical” work and the “rock and roll” work. There’s also an “early period” which I don’t listen to much, and doesn’t resonate with me in long sequences. Here is an official discography (pdf). iTunes has 56 of the 75 Zappa albums. (But the following inline links go to Amazon for CD purchases.) The official Zappa website is really “fun” but ultimately very lame – hard to navigate, and omits critical information such as what year the material originated.
The “serious” work:
* The Yellow Shark, performed by Ensemble Modern, conducted by Frank Zappa and Peter Rundel. An excellent live performace of some of Frank’s most complex pieces. The Ensemble was very dedicated to the work, and it shows in the music. If you’re dipping your toe in the classical Zappa oeuvre, start here.
* Civilization Phaze III. Frank’s last release of new material, and his masterwork. Highly developed musical themes, performed on the Synclavier, and most unplayable by humans due to the layering and complexity, not to mention the odd tempos and rapid tempo changes. This double CD is a beautiful, lush, operatic, and cinematic work, but not for easy listening in the background. Prime track: N-Lite, an 18 minute stunner.
* “Oh No! … just another Frank Zappa Memorial Barbecue!” by Le Bocal. This is a French big band stretching the work in a radically new direction. It’s very upbeat, with horns, scorching guitar, and an operatic interpretation of The Idiot Bastard Son which is LOL funny. This is a very exciting development in the elaboration of Frank’s canon.
* The Zappa Album, by Ensemble Ambrosius. Along with the Le Bocal above, a favorite of my recent listening. This is something of a Finish music school joke, superbly executed: Playing 20th century electronic music on 17th century baroque-era acoustic instruments. The styles are surprisingly well-suited, and Zappa’s longtime arranger and Synclavier transcriber Ali N. Askin weighs in with liner notes expressing his bemused astonishment: “Would the music still have that uniqueness of being entertaining and heavy at the same time?” His answer: Yes!.
* Ensemble Modern plays Frank Zappa: Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasiions. This work was originally envisioned as part of The Yellow Shark, but Franks’s cancer prevented further participation. The dedicated Ensemble Modern turns in a serious disc.
* Strictly Genteel. A “greatest hits” of Frank’s classical work. It has many of the major themes. If you generally like and listen to modern art music (i.e. “classical” music) this is a good entry point to “Zappa The Composer”.
The “rock ‘n roll” work is perhaps best represented by the ill-fated 1988 tour, which yielded three excellent albums, Make A Jazz Noise Here, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, and Broadway The Hard Way. Each is a fantastic, played-live-no-overdub tour de force of complex, driving, ensemble playing. All this stuff is excellent for iPodding at the gym. Stunt guitarist Mike Kneally has written a tour diary of his experiences, and it’s riotously funny reading. Even funnier, really, is his story of auditioning for Zappa’s band, which starts about halfway down his long-form bio page.
* Jazz Noise includes some great political commentary on the then-current Jimmy Swaggart prostitution scandal, some moderne musique concrete in Star Wars Won’t Work, some heavy-metal stomping in Stevie’s Spanking, and a gorgeous rendition of Strictly Genteel.
* Best Band is worth it just to hear this group take on Purple Haze, Sunshine of Your Love, and Stairway to Heaven. Also noteworthy is a reggae version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.
* Broadway is the most overt political and opinionated, destroying Jesse Jackson, Republican lies, and religious fanatics, among others. Includes a nice cameo by Sting, singing Murder by Numbers.
* The definitive collection of live material is distributed across six double-discs, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, vol 1-6. It’s hard to recommend one over the others; if you’re buying these you’re sort of in the club and will likely own them all. I suppose starting with vol 1 and vol 2 is as good as any entry point. They’re all excellent.
* Finally, the 1980 studio album, You Are What You Is provides a pretty solid overview of why people find Frank’s lyrics offensive. Herein he offends most every segment of society including gays, women, Deadheads, dumb people, pro-military cheerleaders, nightclub goers, new age mystics, country music, truckers, drug addicts, televangelists, and suicide attempts. And a few others along the way. It’s outrageously, sophomorically, Truthfully funny, and essentially Frank is using this style to promote the idea that we are what we is – don’t get hung up about it. The thing is, he is emphasizing and punctuating his piercing commentary with subtle and dramatic musical reinforcement. When they drop into Harder Than Your Husband they play a perfect rendition of a country music song, but the lyrics savage the genre.
If you’d like a visual example of Zappa’s live shows, check out the 60 minute Does Humor Belong In Music DVD, recorded August 26, 1984 at The Pier in New York City. (The soundtrack is also excellent, with a different song selection than the DVD.) The stage antics and personalities of the musicians really drive home how much fun they had playing this incredibly difficult musical material. Truly a talented ensemble led by a very gifted composer, whatever the style or genre.
I met Frank in October 1983 at the Audio Engineering Society convention at the NYC Hilton. He was near the elevators with his bodyguard (Frank was shorter than me [even!] and always had a bodyguard) and I approached to ask about recording The London Symphony Orchestra sessions. He had used only PZM microphones, very new at the time, and it was a radical technique. Frank decided not to get on the elevator, and lit another cigarette while we talked. He thought the technical aspects of the recording were excellent, but he was disappointed with the union musicians on the project. They didn’t put their heart into it (later this would come to be known as “putting the eyebrows on”). They took too many breaks, and didn’t rehearse until they arrived the first day. His music is way too difficult for that style of work. You have to be committed. He asked about why I was at the show – I had invented a psychoacoustic sound processor and was looking for sales or manufacturing partners – and he said, “Good luck; these motherf’kers never listen to new ideas. You’ll fight tooth and nail every step of the way, only to give up in frustration. But it’s worth trying. Don’t let the bastards get you down.” (Frank was right.) Around now the next elevator opened up, he said, “Nice talking to you,” and got on. Just as the doors were closing he realized he still had a lit cigarette and stuck his arm out to me to take it from him, “Thanks.” I took Frank’s cigarette, the doors closed, and up he went. I looked at the lit Winston, and a woman next to me said, “You’ll cherish it forever,” and smiled. I laughed, crushed it in the ashtray, and went to look for my ride to Madison Square Garden. The next six hours deserve their own post someday – it was an extended series of synchronistic events and a Very Good Time (first St. Stephen in 4 years).
YellowShark.jpgIn writing this post I remembered a day in December 1993. I was at the Dartmouth Bookstore, browsing the CD section, just rummaging around, when I came across the new Zappa release, The Yellow Shark. I took one look at the cover and thought, “Right, Frank’s really sick, I forgot, he has cancer, and it’s been a while, this is probably his last release.” The cover was so sad, I stared at it for a long time thinking about Frank. The show in Hanover when I was in high school. The show during my first semester at college. Listening to Shut Up And Play Your Guitar late, late, late into the night with my housemate. The cigarette and the elevator. The photo was so honest – he was worn down, tired, yet still working. It was about 4:20 in the afternoon. I bought the record, and listened to it when I got home. The next day, I found out Frank had died, the day before, in California at about 1:30 PM, just around the time I tuned into that wavelength. (A similar thing happened when Garcia died.) The Yellow Shark wasn’t his last release – Civilization Phase III was complete but not yet in distribution – but it was a culmination of his ambition to have real musicians play real instruments so he could hear his work live. I miss Frank, and I’m glad that younger musicians are still interested in performing and interpreting his catalog of entertaining yet heavy music.