Zappa (12): Jeff Pike’s Top 10 (+9)

Alas, a little something about the music. Or maybe a lot of something, who knows? Jeff Pike, who has occasionally written about Zappa on his excellent Can’t Explain blog, provides a Top 10 (+9) Zappa-themed list, along with a few additional thoughts on the man. I’ll follow-up Jeff’s list in a later post with my own Top 10+, and we’ll see where it goes from there. (If anyone reading this would also like to submit a list — any size, shape, form, or theme, so long as it has something to do with Frank Zappa — let me know, I’d be happy to print others; you can always use the comments box too, of course.)

And now, without further adieu, here’s Jeff… (I’ll provide YouTube links where possible.)

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Disclaimers, context, etc., partly based on your recent posts (which I just got to this past weekend): I think I might come to this with a circumscribed view, maybe more so than you want, confined to the first dozen or so albums, 1966-1970 (listed below). I so disliked Fillmore East – June 1971 and 200 Motels (album and movie) that I lost most of my interest from that point on. I was introduced to Zappa originally by a friend whose older brother in college was a fan. I never saw him perform, though I saw a Captain Beefheart show in 1971 (he is a separate matter for my purposes, along with GTO’s, Wild Man Fischer, Jean-Luc Ponty, etc.). I came in at about Weasels Ripped My Flesh and with the help of my friend got quickly caught up. The infatuation was intense and maybe even formative (the humor mostly, within a likeable enough Groucho Marx frame, with generous doses of Three Stooges). But it did not last much longer than a year. I have had occasion more than once since to come back to many of the albums and songs and I usually like them as much or even more than before.

My basic view of Frank Zappa is that he was 1) a reasonably good comic and a funny satirist of morals (which is different and better than just a satirist of morals), 2) an interesting, sometimes amazing composer and studio savant, 3) a terrific guitar player, and 4) a decent human being, by all signs a good parent too, though obviously warped/deranged by anger, or something. I think he was sharpest and most vital, in terms of his music, during the ’60s, but am certainly open to hearing a case otherwise. It was ultimately the infantile humor, one of the few constants across his career, that did me in with him. I’m sure there’s a ton of great stuff post-1971 but I would almost have to be led to it. Most of my forays have been unsatisfying. For me, his political activism in the ’80s until his death was more interesting than his music.

The list: I know it’s a motley list, with two full solo albums, kinda sorta a third album, one series of three songs, and a 36-second song, among other things. Hot Rats is there because I think it’s such a sparkling showcase of him at his best as guitar player and composer both — and no farting. Lumpy Gravy is there because it has no constituent parts, it’s just this blobby single thing, for all that it is a pastiche of pieces (like, for comparison, Third Reich ‘n’ Roll). I think We’re Only in it for the Money is nearly as blobby, but has the convenience (especially in CD releases) of separate tracks, with titles, which you might as well call songs. At the same time, “Flower Punk” is reasonably representative of the whole. “The Little House I Used to Live In” is his studio stitchwork style at its best, jamming division. “Transylvania Boogie” is his pure guitar playing, with emphasis on his specialty with the wah-wah. And then I just love how sweet and gorgeous “The Air” is, would have liked more of that from him. “Sleeping in a Jar” is precision short songwriting, though maybe more properly a fragment. Also-rans follow.

1. Hot Rats (1969)
2. “Plastic People” (1967)
3. “Oh No / The Orange County Lumber Truck / Weasels Ripped My Flesh” (1970)
4. “Flower Punk” / We’re Only in it for the Money (1968)
5. “Who Are the Brain Police?” (1966)
6. “The Little House I Used to Live In” (1970)
7. “Transylvania Boogie” (1970)
8. “The Air” (1969)
9. Lumpy Gravy (1967)
10. “Sleeping in a Jar” (1969)

11. “Stuff up the Cracks” (1968)
12. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” (1966)
13. “King Kong I-VI” (1969)
14. “Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague” (1969)
15. “The Nancy & Mary Music” (1970)
16. “You Didn’t Try to Call Me” (1966)
17. “Directly From My Heart to You” (1970)
18. “Aybe Sea” (1970)
19. “Help, I’m a Rock” (1966)

Chronological. Here are the limitations of my basic Frank Zappa universe. I also knew at least two of the anthologies, though not the one you wrote about, which sounds a lot like the ones I knew. Also, honestly, I don’t really know very well anymore the last two albums listed.

Freak Out! (Mothers of Invention, 1966)
Absolutely Free (Mothers of Invention, 1967)
Lumpy Gravy (Frank Zappa, 1967)
We’re Only in it for the Money (Mothers of Invention, 1968)
Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (Mothers of Invention, 1968)
Uncle Meat (Mothers of Invention, 1969)
Hot Rats (Frank Zappa, 1969)
Burnt Weeny Sandwich (Mothers of Invention, 1970)
Weasels Ripped My Flesh (Mothers of Invention, 1970)
Chunga’s Revenge (Frank Zappa, 1970)
Fillmore East – June 1971 (1971)
200 Motels (1971)

3 thoughts on “Zappa (12): Jeff Pike’s Top 10 (+9)

  1. I have to agree about ” Filmore East” easily my least favourite FZ album and I’m looking forward to getting the myriad charms of “200 Motels” ( only had the album for 30years!) but don’t let these albums stop you from discovering the astonishing music of middle & late period FZ.

  2. Jeff hits the nail on the head. I was lost from the same albums on, but just as intense with the Hot Rats/Burnt Weeny Sandwich long (and intelligent) jams. Because of living with my older brother, I monitored later FZ albums and occasionally was gratified (“Inca Roads,” Waka/Jawaka, some of The Grand Wazoo) but I stayed away from purchases. When I broke down and bought “FZ-approved mix” CDs of the beloved earlier work, it broke my heart how Zappa had rendered these unlistenable with odd changes. Hot Rats and Cruising With Reuben and the Jets were the biggest disappointment. Writing this, Zappa just came on my iTunes (38,000 plus tunes random) with “It Can’t Happen Here.”! Ha ha! Freak-out.

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