Zappa (13): Scott’s 19

[my response to Jeff Pike]

Great list, Jeff. I like, and in some cases love, most of what I know from it (“Aybe Sea” — nice one!), and look forward to listening to a few I either haven’t heard, or just don’t know yet by name. My Zappa intake right now is an oversized iTunes playlist which I often listen to in shuffle mode; I’m not always diligent about noting what it is I’m hearing, especially if it’s something I’ve fallen asleep to on the couch.

A few brief comments before I get to my list.

1) It’s interesting that you cite Fillmore East as your cutoff point. Ben Watson, in Frank Zappa’s Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play notes that the Flo & Eddie period was when a large subset of early Zappa fans dropped off the map (something borne out by a couple recent commenters here as well). Watson proceeds to make a strong (though hardly uncritical) case for much of that material, touting the documentary-like ethos behind it, but I don’t have the stomach for it myself. It’s probably (possibly) less about how gross it is for me than about how unfunny the routines are — but more than either, I just can’t get into the sound of these guys yukking and yakking it up on stage for several uninterrupted minutes. Whatever was driving Zappa’s musical aesthetic during this phase, safe to say it just doesn’t jibe with my own.

2) I’m curious if you had so dissociated yourself from Zappa’s music by then that you skipped over Apostrophe and Overnight Sensation? Those were pretty big albums in their day (my brother owned, and often played, the latter), and I’ve definitely come around to the better parts of each (though I’ve always loved “I’m the Slime,” one of a handful of Zappa-for-non-Zappaphile cuts in his catalog).

3) Similarly, I’m interested in hearing more about your 200 Motels experience — that is, should you care to relive that allegedly scarring episode. Haven’t seen or heard it myself. The only Zappa movie moment I can reference (Zappa and a horse, I seem to recall) is his droll appearance in Head, a humorous walk-on in an otherwise tedious excursion.

4) Yeah, I’m a fan of Zappa’s guitar playing, too. I even kind of dig the insane indulgence (exceedingly generous indulgence for some fans) of his Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar series, though not enough to list anything below (“Inna Gadda Stravinsky” is a cool song title, though). Don’t know how FZ ranks among guitar god aficionados on the scale of musicological-virtuosity yada-yada, but to my ears, what he achieves tone-wise — or maybe I mean effects-box-wise? — is often stunning (see #10 and #13 below).

So, my list. Just for consistencies sake, I’ll match your 19, though I could’ve gone 15, could’ve gone 25. This is less my all-time faves than the cream of my current Zappa playlist — the stuff I return to and/or think about most often. I’ll list them alphabetically because I wouldn’t know how to order them otherwise, but just for the record, either “Brain Police” or “Flower Punk” would be my actual #1, at least tonight.

1. “America Drinks and Goes Home” (1967) (Nifty YouTube accompaniment.)
2. “Any Way the Wind Blows” (1966)
3. “Aybe Sea” (1970)
4. “Disco Boy” (1976) – Lest anyone think I’m above such juvenilia, the punchline here (“It’s disco love tonight!”) does make me laugh. Zappa & disco is a tempting sub-theme to delve into at some point. Unfortunately, a critical piece of historical evidence, his late ’70s appearance on Denny Terio’s Dance Fever, has apparently been removed from YouTube.
5. “Flower Punk” (1968)
6. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” (1966)
7. “I Don’t Even Care” (1985) – With Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson on vocals. Two-and-a-half minutes too long, but it’s fairly bracing r&b-garage rock.
8. “I Was in a Drum” (1994) – From the posthumous, mountainous, very hard-to-climb Civilization Phase III. I’ve rarely gotten off on Zappa’s stiff-as-nails Synclavier work (mind you, I’ve probably heard about a fifth of what he’s released) but this is a swell little exercise: Sandy Denny via Varese (not that I’ve gotten off on Varese much, either).
9. “If We’d All Been Living in California…” (1969) – I’m stretching the definition of a “song” here, but given how much spoken word stuff appears across Zappa’s entire recorded output, it’s all fair game (a true “best of Zappa” list would also include TV appearances, books, political statements, that NPR documentary narrated by Beverly D’Angelo in which she can’t stop referring to him as a genius, etc.). A fascinating bit of audio-verité, this: Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know About the Music Business in 1:14. (Listen up, children.)
10. “I’m the Slime” (1973) – Ben Watson: “[Zappa] was reviled for merely satirizing the ‘easy target’ of television, but it is better than that because the record is the slime, not an alternative.”
11. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” (1968)
12. Lumpy Gravy (1967) – Like you, Jeff, I considered separate entries for We’re Only In it for the Money (and Absolutely Free, which I actually prefer), but I first heard those in CD format, well past the age when I had the patience to sit and listen to music with great concentration (left hand stroking chin, etc.). Right from the get-go I latched on to particular songs — the “hits,” so to speak. Lumpy Gravy, even moreso than Money, is designed as a take-it-all-in-at-once sort of thing, and though I certainly like it enough to list it here, I’d still appreciate a spliced-into-separate-tracks version. Don’t get me wrong; what Zappa could do with a razor blade was utterly remarkable (and a huge part of his appeal to me, no doubt).
13. “Muffin Man” (1975) – From Bongo Fury, a collaboration with Captain Beefheart, and apparently — for what it’s worth — Vaclav Havel’s favourite Zappa disc.
14. “Peaches en Regalia” (1969)
15. “Plastic People” (1967)
16. “Soft Cell Conclusion” (1967) – The 1:41 wrap up of Absolutely Free‘s vegetable mini-suite; it has weirdness, smarm, Caledonia Mahogany’s elbows (huh?), slobbering, guttural blues wails, stops and starts now let’s-get-frantic for a bit (“Oh no… the pumpkin is breathing hard!”)… pretentious, devastating stuff.
17. “Trouble Every Day” (1966) – The Watts Riot on TV, Paul Revere & the Raiders’s “Steppin’ Out” blaring from the local Top 40, the cover of Highway 61 strewn across the coffee table.
18. “Valley Girl” (Frank & Moon) (1982) – As with Zappa/disco, much to think about here, but I’ll save it for some other time. Critical song in the Zappa canon, though, and an anomalous one in many respects as well.
19. “Who Are the Brain Police?” (1966)

Some FZ albums I’ve spent a bit of time listening to, but which still feel like foreign objects to me right now (I think I need a break and/or a quiet night alone with The Ramones): Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo (I think it’s the song “For Calvin” which sounded nice?), Zoot Allures (save for “Disco Boy”), Shiek Yerbouti (pretty sure I hate “Dancing Fool,” which I haven’t relistened to), Joe’s Garage Acts I-XXIV, Jazz From Hell — you know, all the old rock-critical faves from yesteryear.

Not sure you’ve anything else to add, Jeff, but if you’re so inclined, the floor’s all yours. Thanks again for your list and thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Zappa (13): Scott’s 19

  1. I probably could have put “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” or “Oh No,” so that’s a good point. My playlist is kind of haphazard and very non-definitive (I should’ve mentioned that I only very recently familiarized myself with a bunch of those early records — Hot Rats, Weasels, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, et al.)

  2. Hey Scott,

    Here’s to answer your questions #2 and #3 above. I may be back as I’m looking forward to listening to some of the picks on your list I’m not familiar with…

    #2) I’m glad you asked about those mid-’70s albums. Yes, I did know them a little, by proxy, also Waka/Jawaka. Interestingly, this exposure was mostly through younger brothers, who I then saw also eventually repulsed by him. This led to a theory I held for a time that Frank Zappa appealed exclusively to 14- to 17-year-olds, who outgrew him. (Isn’t that the Peter Pan story, and/or vampires?) I’ve since realized he has a reasonably faithful lifelong audience. Though I liked parts of what I heard in those later albums, “Yellow Snow” was the death blow. I didn’t want anything to do with him after that, and didn’t listen to him again for more than a decade.

    #3) 200 Motels: Skipped out of school, hitchhiked downtown, and caught a matinee. I don’t think it played any longer than a week in Minneapolis, two at most. As I recall, it was the full-on Flo & Eddie, which was just too hammy and broad for me. Some cognitive dissonance for me in that I have always thought, even then, that the Turtles were an underrated hit machine. The narrative was incoherent and the whole thing was a disappointing bore. I had already owned the album for a few months, a double-LP that didn’t have any more than two or three interesting minutes per side.


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